In a video shot in Lebanon over the weekend, a woman whose car is trapped among a sea of protesters, tells them that her toddler in the car is frightened. The protesters then break into a song and dance of Baby Shark to calm the child. The video is both sweet and uplifting. It’s also surprising, because a Lebanese crowd acting in unison is such a rarity.
Lebanese from all walks of life have taken to the streets to protest corruption, and, as of this writing, the crowds keep getting bigger, louder and more united. The crowds were estimated to be 1.3 million people on Sunday, 20 per cent of the population. What seems to have set off the protests was the government’s announcement of a tax on calls made using WhatsApp and other free online applications, supposedly to raise revenue during a fiscal crisis.
The populace had protested a number of times before. In March 2005, in what became known as the Cedar Revolution, a huge protest erupted against the Syrian troops who, more than 15 years after the official end of the 15-year civil war, still occupied parts of Lebanon. That demonstration was followed by counterprotest by Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian groups.
Although the 2015 protests were the first in quite a while to attract people from all the religious sects of Lebanon, the outcry itself was directed at some of the leaders, not all. In this latest round, however, the demonstrations seem to cut across sectarian and class lines and they are happening all over the country, from Tripoli up north to Tyre way down south, in big cities, suburbs and villages. And all the leaders of Lebanon are being held to account.
No reliable basic public services
The complaint that Lebanon has been mismanaged is nothing new. Corruption and nepotism are the rule. The economy has been so atrocious for so long — the country now has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world — and unemployment rates so high that a wave of young people emigrate every year looking for better opportunities. The Lebanese still don’t have reliable basic public services, including electricity and water. What has changed is the level of mismanagement and the indignities that the citizens have had to endure recently.
The latest protests come on the heels of a series of bad news. This summer, Lebanon’s credit rating was downgraded, which means that the country’s sizeable debt will have to be repaid at a higher rate.
Last week, wildfires ravaged the country. Every forest in every corner seemed to be burning. Firefighters were unable to keep up because their equipment was out of service since the government had not allocated funds for maintenance. Luckily, rains brought many of the fires under control.
And then the WhatsApp tax.
No one can escape blame
It’s not mere happenstance that the populace is unified this time around: As it happens, the government itself is unified for the first time in a while. This government, formed in January after more than a year without one, is supposed to represent all of Lebanon, supposed to include all the parties.
That means that politicians — many of whom are the same warlords that led sectarian militias during the Lebanese civil war — haven’t been able to exploit the sectarian divisions that have kept certain families in power for generations. People had elected the same politicians over and over. The usual strategy of each political party blaming the others is unable to work now. No political party can escape blame this time.
Partying, celebrating weddings on the street
Heeding the calls for change, the government rescinded the WhatsApp tax soon after announcing it, and on Monday, it announced its agreement to a list of demands. But sceptical protesters are refusing to budge. In the meantime, the Lebanese are showing the world how to hold a great demonstration. They are partying, playing table tennis and celebrating weddings out on the street.
Previous protests have had a measured success. The 2005 uprising resulted in the Syrians’ ouster, but much remained the same. Will this latest mass revolt be successful?
Ask any Lebanese and you’ll get a nuanced answer: “Of course, things will change and nothing ever changes.” The opposing ideas of hope and despair seem to be held simultaneously by most Lebanese without much cognitive dissonance. It is how the Lebanese were able to have great nightclub parties inside bunkers during a civil war.
Only in Lebanon would a song like Baby Shark, which is now being played at every crowd gathering, become the anthem of a revolution. The song is both catchy and repetitive, inspiring and interminable. Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo, baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo, ad infinitum.
— New York Times News Service
Rabih Alameddine is an award winning Lebanese-American painter and writer.