OPN 191025 Lebanon-1572002851500
Youths wave Lebanese national flags as they gather during a demonstration on the eighth day of protest against tax increases and official corruption in the southern city of Sidon on October 24, 2019. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT Image Credit: AFP

Lebanon’s mass non-partisan protests against the ruling elite — whom protesters accuse of corruption, and whose overthrow they are demanding — could bring the economically embattled country to its knees; but not before breaking the sectarian-based political system.

A proposed tax on internet calls was the trigger that brought years of economic suffering, corrupt capitalist structure that served the interests of sectarian overlords, failing public services and rising cost of living to a climax. One thing is for sure no matter the outcome; the status quo is no longer tenable.

The protests, which took a violent turn in the beginning, soon turned into a colourful democratic parade — unlike what we saw in Sudan or Iraq in recent weeks and months. But the resounding message was the same: The people’s “soft power” trumps the state’s heavy-handed measures anytime. This is the new phenomenon that is the harbinger of things to come.

At the heart of economically driven movements is the utter failure of patriarchal regimes that are disconnected from the socioeconomic realities of their people. Whether it is the rule of one strong man or self-serving cliques — or a combination of both; the social and economic dynamics are changing: Lebanon presents an interesting case study.

The so-called rentier state; dictating a relationship of trickle down benefits, or handouts, to social, religious or ethnic groups in exchange for loyalty, no longer works. Thus the old symbiotic deal is failing. There is no real separation of powers, no parliamentary oversight and limited freedom of expression. It was striking that protests in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon were driven by leaderless and disenfranchised youth away from partisan or sectarian allegiances. With youth, between the ages of 15 and 29, making up more than 32 per cent, or 100 million, of the total Arab population, it is no wonder that they are today the main powerhouse of apolitical movements.

Dividing the loot

The path for change is not easy. In the case of Lebanon and Iraq the ethno-confessional system has reached its limits. It can no longer sustain itself and all it did over the past decades is to create a corrupt political class that, while exhibiting sectarian chauvinism, is willing to work with rivals to remain in power while dividing the loot.

Both in Iraq and Lebanon we have seen young Shiites rebel against religious and political symbols in the heartland — Basra in Iraq’s case and Nabatieh, Sydon and Tyre in Lebanon’s case. In Beirut, protesters called for the overthrow of the entire ruling clique. No one was spared including Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and Amal’s chief Nabih Berri. There is a wide generational gap that many Arab leaders — typical of patriarchal regime — have failed to understand. In a desperate attempt to undercut people’s soft power, the authorities’ first reaction against protests is almost always to use force. That happened in Sudan and Iraq. Failing to achieve that goal, the second option would be to cut off the internet — a move so desperate that it underlines utter failure by governments, or ruling elite — to listen to the people’s message.

The new form of largely peaceful protests that we have seen in Lebanon presents a refined form of economically driven protestations by various social and economic classes that feel deprived, ignored and disenfranchised. While the demands focus on economic hardships — right to employment, public services, pensions health care and such — they cannot be achieved without structural political reforms.

This is the challenge facing countries like Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon today. The need to move towards a civil state has never been so urgent. The end of the rentier state can only pave the way for a new social and political contract. This region must find other alternatives to sectarian based rule, the rule of the generals or the strongman rule.

Lebanon continues to inspire millions. But what has happened in Tunis and Sudan and what could end up happening in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon is by no way an aberration. In fact it is the only way forward for a region that has seen more than a fair share of sectarian wars and military usurpation of power.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political analyst based in Amman.