Lebanon: An Arab Spring resurgence

In twilight, a crowd of young and old sit holding flags and cellphones.
Oct. 28, 2019. Protesters in Lebanon occupy the Ring Bridge that divides Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut as a symbol of unity against the government. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
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Lebanon’s have-nots have truly had enough! A million of the country’s seven million people took to the streets five months ago to demand the overthrow of Lebanon’s corrupt government, bankers and ruling religious sects. Most strikingly, they were unified for the first time against rigid party lines.

Their fury waned for a moment, after massive street demonstrations and road blockades forced the prime minister and four cabinet ministers to resign and the government to reverse a few despised taxes. But by mid-January it was clear these changes were merely skin-deep. So, revolt poured out again, this time widened and more unified.

Lebanon’s surging mass movement extends a decade of Arab Spring rebellions against other dictatorships. The task now is to develop the political leadership, know-how and organization necessary to build an effective revolutionary movement.

Sectarian rule evaporating. Lebanon’s current political system is unique. Power is divided between three religious sects. After World War I, victorious France created Lebanon’s borders to ensure a Christian Maronite majority. This gave the Christian bourgeoisie the most political power and linked it to Europe’s capitalist powers. Christians, 40 percent of Lebanon’s population, were assigned the presidency. Shia and Sunni Muslims, each about 27 percent of the citizens, were guaranteed the Speaker of Parliament and Prime Minister positions, respectively. Whatever social services and protections exist are dispensed through the sectarian parties, not by the government.

Lebanon’s system was designed to repress class consciousness. It clothes capitalism with holiness, establishes autonomous religious courts to enforce gender, ethnic and racial discrimination, and stifles working-class revolt. This partnership of capitalism and religion has tormented Lebanon’s most oppressed since independence in 1943.

The regime is now under robust assault. Demonstrators boldly resist murderous police repression, obstruct powerful banks, and demand all politicians be replaced. “All of them means all of them,” they chant unceasingly. They also provide clothing, food, open-air teaching, shelter, and collect rubbish. Prominent on the front lines are women, the hardest pressed in Lebanese society and quickest to recognize the need for class unity. High school and college students protest because they have no future without radical change.

Why now? Modern Lebanon, a small country of less than seven million people, connects trade routes between the Far East, North Africa and the West. Its economy has never recuperated from the carnage, destruction and emigration caused by the 1975–1990 civil war that forced the country to borrow heavily from international banks to pay for recovery. Lebanon now has one of the largest debts in the world. To pay that debt, the International Monetary Fund and other imperialist banks demand slashed social services, tax increases, and privatized public institutions — “neoliberal austerity.” Employed and unemployed workers, homeless people, and refugees come last, if ever.

Financial complicity among politicians, bankers and ruling parties is now widely recognized. As Lebanese lawyer Hussein Al Achi puts it, “Politicians are either shareholders … or occupy seats on the bank boards [receiving] very high remuneration. Banks in Lebanon are the biggest state lender. All the suspicious dealings and corrupt projects are financed by these banks. Everyone sees that.” And everyone increasingly sees that their sectarian parties are immersed in this corruption and power. The especially powerful Hezbollah party, despite its rhetoric backing some movement demands, supports only the religious and capitalist system that rules over all.

Unemployment is 25 percent, youth joblessness 37 percent. Unions are weak and public sector jobs are disappearing. Prices have risen nearly 60 percent, the minimum wage fallen 40 percent. Banks can refuse to allow depositors to withdraw their own money. The country is plagued with continuous water shortages, electricity blackouts and a massive garbage crisis. And now the coronavirus! Meanwhile, Lebanon boasts one of the world’s highest billionaires-to-population ratios.

Lebanon has 470,000 Palestinians who have fled Israel’s brutality. They are now joined by 1.5 million refugees from Syria’s ongoing civil war. Most have no civil rights and suffer gross poverty. Racist abuse of women domestic workers from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines is pervasive. Education for foreign girls and poor and disabled children is rare.

No wonder the Lebanese are fighting mad as they persist in blockades and marches, chanting, “Revolution! Revolution!” and “The people want the overthrow of the government.”

Class unity and radical leadership. Lebanon’s regime systematically extinguished leftist groups and unions after the civil war. Leadership and organization are serious weaknesses in this revolutionary moment. While inclusive organizing has increased tremendously, there has been little time to build socialist and labor organizations. But independent unions, neighborhood committees and professional groups are emerging.

Involvement of the poorest workers is critical to guarantee attention to their needs. So is the task of building a revolutionary party. Study on working-class solidarity and capitalism will help to guide an angry populace eager for political education and revolutionary results.

Today’s Lebanese mutiny is a beacon of hope to the millions who now fight abusive regimes in Sudan, Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and beyond. It deserves international solidarity from every corner of the globe.

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