REG 191110 LEBANON Wael Zorkot1-1573385300704
Wael Zorkot, 24, films a protest in Beirut. Frustration over political and economic conditions in Lebanon has led to increasing unrest. Image Credit: Washington Post

Beirut: Beirut is a city awash with construction sites. Sleek condominium buildings are constantly being erected, towering over a population that increasingly cannot afford the cost of living. Developers have gobbled up the city’s public space and privatised beaches.

But in recent weeks, protesters have begun reclaiming their city, tearing down the metal slats that boarded up the abandoned Grand Theatre, a pre-civil-war relic, and taking over the Egg, an oddly-shaped unfinished cinema, empty for more than 50 years.

On the first two nights of unrest last month, the protesters hid in the abandoned structures from police wielding tear gas and batons. Wael Zorkot, 24, hunkered down with them until a column of security forces flushed them out and forced them down the street. He had been with the protesters from the beginning, airing his frustration over the political and economic conditions in his country.

Zorkot said he works at least four days a week bartending at two bars to pay for his education and living expenses, typically finishing at 4am and catching some sleep before going to class. His father owns three stores in their hometown of Zrarieh in southern Lebanon, selling clothes, toys and motorcycles, but life is still tough. His mother is battling cancer and flies to France every four months for treatment because it is too expensive in Lebanon.

“I have a lot of plans,” he said about the future. “But not here.”

Dozens of young protesters, when asked about their futures, also said they want to emigrate.

The Lebanese economy on average creates no more than 3,000 jobs a year, said Jad Chaaban, an economics professor at the American University of Beirut, but the need is at least 20,000.

“There’s a huge mismatch, because of the bad situation in the country, the lack of economic reforms that stimulate job creation, the fact that the government is very corrupt and only invests in projects that are not geared for job creation,” Chaaban said.

Lebanese college students benefit from a good education system but at graduation cannot find suitable jobs. He said they endure a period known as “waithood” - waiting for visas to emigrate and for things to change - and grow frustrated with the economic situation.

Tight security

After Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri set up a private company, Solidere, to rebuild downtown Beirut. It exemplified the government’s new economic policies, which included the extensive privatisation of public property.

But security was kept so tight around the area, because of its proximity to parliament, and the upscale stores charged such exorbitant prices, that the promised boom never materialised. War gave way to economic malaise.

Lebanon is now one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world in terms of debt to gross domestic product. The Lebanese pound, long-pegged to the dollar, has been under intense pressure as the country grapples with its most severe economic crisis since the civil war.

Imports are paid for in dollars, but a scarcity of available dollars at the official exchange rate has pushed up prices as wheat millers and fuel distributors are forced to pay exorbitant prices for dollars at money-exchange houses. In September, as a result, the country’s wheat stocks fell to a dangerously low level.

In the meantime, tenants who are required to pay their rent in dollars are scrambling to find ATMs that dispense them. Most people are forced instead to get dollars at a steeper exchange rate, more than 15 per cent higher, when they find them at all.

“There are no dollars,” a worker at one exchange house said. “It’s insane. It’s just in the black market now.”

Banks have also started restricting how many Lebanese pounds people can withdraw, said Chaaban.

“For now, people are starting to kind of panic,” he said, “but we’re not in an actual crisis on a big scale yet. We have a small-scale crisis.”

The fear is that if the banking run accelerates, Lebanon might need an international bailout, and that could come at a steep cost.

As soon as Zorkot returned to Beirut after a visit last weekend to his hometown, he made his way back to the protests. He searched people’s faces for the anger that had driven so many to flood the streets to protest economic collapse and corruption.

Frowning, he picked his way through hordes of people posing for photographs, eating corn on the cob, smoking water pipes and dancing. He kept walking until he reached Riad Solh Square.

“We want to dance, we want to sing, and we want to bring down the regime,” someone sang into the microphone.

Another person passed down a long flag overhead, and he and dozens of others reached up and held it like a tent. Red flares lit up the night.

“Workers, students, tomorrow we strike,” a hoarse voice bellowed.

Zorkot smiled at a friend under the large flag. “No college tomorrow, then,” he said.

The next day, Zorkot woke up at 3am in his apartment in Dahieh, a southern suburb of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group with extensive representation in parliament. He took a cab and joined protesters at the Ring Bridge, where they blocked off roads until security forces demanded they leave.

“In Lebanon, for people to hear you, you have to close the streets,” he said.

Protesters have been toppling over trash cans to block the roads.

“You’re thugs, street kids!” a man yelled at them.

“No,” one protester responded calmly, “we’re university kids.”

They say their aim is to shut down businesses and schools until their grievances are addressed. The same surnames have dominated Lebanese politics for decades. When threatened, the elite counters that the alternative would be chaos.

But so far, this warning has not stopped Zorkot and the many disillusioned others. Their protests pushed Prime Minister Saad Hariri last month to introduce a reform package, including halving officials’ salaries, taking steps to fix the dysfunctional electricity sector, setting up an anti-corruption committee - and then, ultimately, to resign.

But people kept protesting, repeating a chant that called on all political leaders to go.

“All of them means all of them,” Zorkot repeated. “Literally.”

'Peaceful revolt'

Despite some skirmishes, the protests have remained mostly nonviolent.

“Now you’re facing a peaceful revolt,” Chaaban said. “If you go down the road two or three more months and you don’t do anything and you face a more acute crisis that will touch upon the exchange rate, then you will have a revolt of hungry people, of people who are not able to survive ‘til the end of the month. And this will be violent, for everybody.”

Zorkot and his roommate listed all the reasons they want to leave Lebanon, including no jobs without “wasta” - Arabic for a mix of nepotism and connections - and no change in the political system in sight.

In the middle of their complaints about the high cost of generators - a necessity in Beirut, where daily electricity cuts last for hours - the room went dark, and the young men laughed.

But one lamp, shaped like the Eiffel Tower, still glowed. It was plugged into an extension cord that a previous tenant had illicitly attached to a neighbour’s generator.

They sat in the near-pitch-black room and their mood grew dark.

“Even if you make the previous leaders leave, then what?” asked Zorkot. “Those who replace them will have to deal with the dirt of their predecessors.”