The decade-old chant that has resonated across the region roared across central Beirut again this week: “the people want the fall of the regime.”
On Saturday 8 August, the Lebanese capital was beginning to recover from the shock of the massive explosions four days earlier at the port of Beirut. Calls for mass protests – the banners called it “judgement day” – at 6pm had been heeded, and tens of thousands had taken to the streets.
At least 220 people were killed, 6,000 injured, and 300,000 made homeless when 2,570 tons of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in the port erupted on 4 August, tearing through Beirut, shattering windows and doors, and destroying 70,000 homes and entire streets a little after 6pm local time.
The explosion could be felt in Cyprus, 120 miles away.
The protesters on Saturday seized several ministries, government buildings and the country’s banking association before they were cleared by anti-riot police. They hung up nooses and effigies of political leaders, threw rocks at the parliament building and security forces, started fires and chanted angry anti-government slogans.
Footage of the Foreign Ministry’s brief “occupation” by the protesters revealed a fully functioning building with round-the-clock air conditioning when the government provides only a few hours of electricity a day to the rest of the country, which also relies on generators.
A portrait of Lebanese President Michel Aoun found hanging on the ministry’s walls was burnt. “Hang up the nooses,” the protesters chanted.
Witnesses in central Beirut said the evening protest, taking place amid the debris of the explosions, saw skirmishes between the protesters and riot police who used teargas and rubber bullets. The place resembled a war zone.
By the second day of the protests the first resignation of a cabinet minister was announced. On Monday, day three, a series of resignations was declared leading up to the stepping down of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who had initially resisted resigning, at 7 pm.
Several MPs also resigned.
The rebuilding of Beirut after the explosions is expected to cost up to $15 billion in a country already reeling from an economic crisis that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Lebanon is practically bankrupt, with banking system losses exceeding $100 billion.
An online international donors conference arranged by France held on Sunday pledged only $398.7 million in aid, and this was to be delivered “directly to the Lebanese people,” in the words of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The protesters accuse the government of corruption and incompetence, and Macron’s statement was received as a nod to the protest movement’s rejection of any aid transfers to the government.
The resignation of Diab’s cabinet only seven months after its formation is a victory for the protesters, observers say.
Although it had been demanded, the government’s resignation was not met with celebrations, and clashes continued between the protesters and the security forces on Monday night.
The protesters want accountability for the explosion, a new electoral law before early elections and the dismantling of the power structure of the entire political system, which is designed to maintain the status quo and makes efforts for peaceful change futile.
Diab’s is the second government to be brought down by protests in Lebanon in ten months. This week’s demonstrations were a continuation of the 17 October protest movement that was triggered by planned tax rises and the local currency’s devaluation.
The movement quickly evolved into a popular uprising against sectarian rule in Lebanon and persisted for months until it was put on hold by the coronavirus.
“Everyone must go,” the protesters chanted for months in Beirut, in the Sunni heartland of Tripoli in the north of the country, in the southern Shiite strongholds of Tyre and Nabatieh, and in the Christian majority Keserwan district in northern Beirut.
Their motto of “all of them means all of them” is a rejection of Lebanon’s post-civil war (1975-1990) sectarian political order that still governs the country. It is also a statement against leader of the Shia group Hizbullah Hassan Nasrallah.
A chant designed for Nasrallah alone, rhyming in Arabic, delivered the message that “even” he, once a popular icon of Lebanon’s resistance to the Israeli occupation in Lebanon and much of the Arab world, must exit the scene.
The movement, also an extension of the 2015-2016 protests against the failure to clear Beirut of household waste, was against the country’s stagnant economy, high unemployment rates, public-sector corruption, absence of basic public services and laws that protect officials from accountability.
This week’s protests are a new wave of this leaderless but growing civil movement that until now has been limited to central Beirut.
Some observers say that such public pressure might not be enough to bring about real change, however. In the meantime, a Hizbullah-led governing alliance controls the presidency, government and parliament.
Despite a new election law in 2017, the Lebanese political system is based on consociational power-sharing based on sectarian identities that remain the key measure of political representation.
Sectarian quotas are assigned for top government posts, and political parties and movements are directly associated with a specific sect with their members almost entirely belonging to it.
“The opposition can’t push for change through state institutions, can’t topple the government, and can’t dissolve parliament,” wrote Aljazeera English TV Lebanon correspondent Zeina Khodr on Twitter.
“The security establishment is controlled by the parties, and they didn’t shy away from using ‘excessive force’ to disperse the protesters.”
Critics argue that the absence of a leadership for the protest movement will also accelerate its demise. But the activists say forming a leadership could put their lives at risk.
“This is a criminal regime, and we fear that named leaders will be the target of assassinations,” said Halima Kaakour, an activist with the protests. “Figures from the protest movement can always contest elections. But we want guarantees that the elections will not be conducted under the same system,” she added.
The growing trans-sectarian sentiment in the streets was an important barometer for change in Lebanon, said political analyst Rabeha Seif Allam. “It signals the real end to the civil war,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.
There was anger within all of Lebanon’s sects, she said. And with the explosions hitting Christian-majority districts, these too have joined the protest movement. “They have experienced the level of destruction that Lebanon’s largely Shiite south has endured,” she said.
During the 17 October uprising last year, the protesters addressed their demands to Aoun, who today is also under attack with his legitimacy as a representative of Lebanon’s Christians diminished.
“We are seeing a new generation and new political realisations in Lebanon that did not exist before,” Allam concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly