Lebanon Protest Economy

A leaderless social movement is key to protest success in Lebanon

Protesters chant slogans as they march at a demonstration organised by students during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon November 12, 2019.
Protesters chant slogans as they march at a demonstration organised by students during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon November 12, 2019. REUTERS / Andres Martinez Casares

A general strike across Lebanon was in full force on Tuesday as a new wave of disruption pushes back against the government which has not yet met the demands of protesters.


Anger continues to fuel Lebanon’s protests that broke on 17 October against the ruling elite, including several ageing military leaders that are all seen by demonstrators to be contributing to the rampant corruption in the country for decades.

In response, the government headed by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri stepped down on 29 October, but remains in a caretaker capacity as no decisions have been made about forming a new adminstration.

That in turn has fueled protesters to keep to the streets, especially as it enters its fourth week with demonstrators calling for a general strike in ‘the week of disobedience’ to denounce a legislative session in parliament that includes a general amnesty law.

The session has since been postponed, but Tuesday morning saw dozens of protesters gather near the Palace of Justice in central Beirut demanding an independent judiciary as they tried to prevent judges and lawyers from going to work.

Leaderless movement

The protests that erupted in October remain leaderless, as has been in the case in protests in Algeria and Iraq recently.

“I think this is a strong point, in my opinion actually,” says Dara Salam, a teaching fellow at SOAS specializing in Middle East politics.

“These protests are kind of led by the people themselves on the streets rather than by any kind of political or religious authority,” adds Salam.

Contesting with a leaderless movement makes it harder to stop, which ultimately makes it more powerful.

“And in a way that’s part of the problem for those who oppose the protest - what they’re dealing with is a mass, genuinely popular movement,” says Michael Young, editor of Diwan, a blog of the Carnegie Middle East Program.

“You cannot intimidate essentially, hundreds of thousands or maybe up to two million people,” he adds.

The added benefit of a leaderless movement is its ability to remain united.

“It’s always the case that when leaders try to appropriate these protesters…they try to put some kind of agenda or some kind of aim that might not necessarily go hand in hand with the protesters’ demands,” says Salam.

While the strength is in the mass numbers that have stuck to coming out and uniting as Lebanese foremost, despite entrenched sectarian and religious differences, the massive movement has been vague in its demands notes Young.

But as has been the case in Algeria and now Iraq, people are pouring onto the streets for the same reason. “People are fed up with the political class…and so even if they don’t have specific demands or messages, [they have] made very clear the message that we’ve had enough of economies that aren’t working, we’ve had enough of corruption,” explains Young.

Economic crisis

Since protests began in mid-October the country has begun to suffer economically as it needs a new government to enact emergency economic measures.

Lebanon hasn’t faced such an economic crisis since its civil war of 1975-90.

In the meantime, worries continue to grow about a slowdown in payments for imports of basic necessities and banks are concerned about capital flight as clients fear the worst and try to withdraw as much money as possible or transfer funds abroad.

In response, Tuesday’s strike was met by a closure of all banks for fear of growing intimidation by customers demanding access to their accounts as was the case last month when protests began, explained one bank union.

“We aim to meet with the Association of Banks in Lebanon today [Tuesday] to decide how we’re going to work together to solve this issue so that bank employees are not harassed,” said George al-Hajj, the president of the Federation of Syndicates of Bank Employees.

He added that ATM machines remain stocked so depositors will not feel “punished” by the strike.

Black market

The economic crisis stems from a slowdown of capital inflows from Lebanese abroad which has led to a decreasing amount of US dollars.

That in turn has fed a black market where the Lebanese pound has dropped below its official pegged rate.

Pressure has thus been mounting on the central bank’s foreign currency reserves.

But the pressure from the people on the street remains consistent even though it is contributing to the dire economic situation as Salam points out.

The situation itself is not sudden, but the make-up of Lebanon, a confessional system of religion and sects had “blocked and divided the street as well” notes Salam.

Since the civil war, the Lebanese have remained caught up in these blockages, rather than work together to demand more from their government.

all that changed when the final straw was dealt to the Lebanese people through a proposed tax on internet calls on services such as Whatsapp; a service which the Lebanese depend on because regular phone calls and texts are too expensive.

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