By Lubna Hamdan
The most shocking aspect of the ongoing nationwide Lebanese protests is that they did not begin sooner
The Lebanese people might have shocked the world with the festive-like atmosphere of their protests against government corruption, economic stagnation, job scarcity and sectarian rule; we saw a guy lounging in an inflatable pool, a crowd of men calming a scared infant with the “baby shark” song, a DJ entertaining hundreds from his balcony, women smoking on the pavements, a belly dancer, shisha pipes and wedding celebrations.
Not all of the protests were peaceful and of a celebratory nature, of course. We still saw the burned tires that blocked roads, the smashed windows and broken glass on the streets and even the looted shops across Beirut.
Among the most shocking factors was the unity that the often divided public showed. Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Maronite Christians, Druze stood united for the first time in the name of basic human rights the government failed to provide: healthcare, electricity, water, food.
But perhaps the most shocking aspect of all when it comes to the Lebanese protests is that they did not begin sooner.
“I’ve been hearing about ‘the situation in Lebanon’ since I was a kid growing up overseas. That goes to show how long this socio-economic dark comedy has been going on for,” Samer Hamadeh says.
“We send those who can afford it far away to be successful in other countries, and the ones that can’t afford to leave inherit a flawed system built on archaic political ideologies gifted to us by extinct colonists,” he adds.
“If we consider the conditions under which the Lebanese people have been living, we can conclude that the protests were not only predictable but ultimately inevitable”
Hamadeh is the founder and managing partner of Aegis Hospitality, and is one of the lucky ones who have become successful outside of Lebanon. He’s based in the UAE where he oversees his F&B outlets and a marketing brand. And if he is as frustrated with living conditions in Lebanon, despite growing up overseas, it is a wonder these protests did not take place sooner.
Because if we consider the conditions under which the Lebanese people have been living, we can conclude that the protests were not only predictable but ultimately inevitable. I talk more about these conditions in our cover story [page 26], but to give you an idea, over a quarter of the country’s 6.3 million population lives below the poverty line, almost half (46 percent) are unemployed, while salaries of government officials rose more than 7.5 percent year-on-year in the past decade, according to the McKinsey 2018 Lebanon Economic Vision report, and 32 percent of annual government spending went to interest payments to local banks owned mostly by individuals with close ties to political officials. This is not to mention Lebanon’s approximately $86bn in public debt and high level of income inequality, with the top 1 percent earning nearly one-quarter of GDP, according to the World Inequality Database.
That’s been the case for decades now, but the signs of an imminent backlash were there in April.
Five months ago, the Asda’a Bcw Arab Youth Survey showed that of the hundreds surveyed in the Levant, 83 percent said the government is not doing enough, 81 percent said it’s difficult to get quality medical care, 28 percent said their biggest source of stress is lack of national safety and security followed by difficult financial situations (23 percent). Another 76 percent said drugs are on the rise, while 70 percent said drugs are easy to get, and a staggering 84 percent said they are concerned with the quality of education in their country. In addition, 79 percent agree the Arab world needs to reform its religious institutions and 66 percent believe religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East. The most interesting number in the survey, however, is the 89 percent that represents the daily rate at which those surveyed in the Levant use WhatsApp, followed by 88 percent for Facebook, with both being the most dominant channels of social media in the region.
Had the Lebanese government paid attention to these numbers, perhaps it wouldn’t have proposed introducing a tax on WhatsApp calls and Facebook, which may not be the reason behind the swelling demonstrations, but played a big role in triggering them nonetheless.
The headline of our cover story is inspired by the U2 song lyrics which go a little something like this: I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside, I wanna reach out and touch the flame, where the streets have no name.
The Lebanese people are not hiding anymore.