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Lebanon is burning and the people are rising

On Saturday, London saw the gathering of over a thousand people outside the Lebanese embassy in solidarity with the protestors in Lebanon. Millions of people all across Lebanon have been protesting for the last week. To an unfamiliar spectator, the current crisis in Lebanon may seem as if it has appeared all of a sudden, but in reality the protests are the result of a long accumulation of public grievances and disdain for the government and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Lebanon’s Parliament is divided by religion sects, one of which the party in power belongs to. Accommodating Lebanon’s large Muslim and Christian populations, half the seats are reserved for Christians under the Constitution, but Parliament is dominated by Muslim sect rivalries. PM Hariri heads The Future Movement, representing Sunni Muslims and therefore affiliated with Saudi Arabia. The other main represented sect is the Shiite coalition of Amal and Hezbollah, backed by Iran, and the Free Patriotic Movement which has been allied to Hezbollah for the last decade. Together, along with The Lebanese Forces, they make up a broader political elite in Lebanon, who head different areas of domestic and foreign policy.

The relationship between the Lebanese governance and the country’s citizens is complicated, but it is one plagued with corruption and division. The opposing views of the various parliamentary parties create a divisive mentality in a religiously diverse nation. Lebanon’s economy has suffered in the face of political deadlock, and their political debt is wildly larger than its Gross Domestic Product. This dire economic situation has manifested itself in almost every aspect of public life.

Lebanon has been in a waste crisis since 2015, as there has been no management of waste dumping around the country and masses of waste being burnt, posing serious health risks to any nearby residents. The government did little to nothing to reduce this waste build up which has led to a disproportionate dumping of waste in poorer areas and literal trash spilling onto the streets. Meanwhile, the country has been ill-prepared to deal with an influx of Syrian refugees, who have received little care and have been forced to live on the waste-infested streets.

The Lebanese currency, often called the Lebanese pound or referred to as the lira, has dramatically decreased in value and this has led to a reliance on the US dollar. As is the case with most currency plunges, working class people have been the most affected, unable to afford food and rent and evident in the high unemployment rates. The most recent figures from the World Bank put the National Poverty Rate at 27.4% (2018).

The youth has been particularly affected; the American University of Beirut stopped accepting tuition fees in Lebanese pounds, meaning lower income students could not afford to pay. The build-up of economic issues and mismanagement of the economy led to PM Hariri declaring a state of economic emergency in early September. Despite his vow to speed up financial reforms, no action has been taken to relieve the economic burden faced by citizens and this has contributed to the need to protest.

Then, on Monday 14 October, Lebanon started to burn. Huge wildfires engulfed large proportions of land all over the country, displacing hundreds from their homes. There were reports of over 125 fires; within 48 hours over 1,500 hectares of forest burned, which is already over the average yearly forest cover loss.

The Lebanese government’s lack of response follows the pattern of incompetence that has been evident in recent years through successive governments. The government claimed it did not have the equipment to tackle the fires and sought help from Cyprus and Jordan. However, after similarly devastating fires in 2007, three firefighting aircrafts were donated to the Lebanese government in 2009 to prevent such an event happening again. These aircrafts were donated entirely through public contributions, not bought by the government itself, and had the capacity to hold 4,000 litres of water. The aircrafts have reportedly been left unused at an airport for the last five years, as the government did not budget for maintenance and spare parts and, therefore, were not used to combat last week’s fires.

Yet in 2013 and 2014, the government had allocated $800,000 per year to the maintenance of these helicopters – so where did this money go?

Incompetence is one factor, but corruption is another. The government does not prioritise the environment, the land that is susceptible to deadly fires or the people who reside there. There has been a clear misuse of funds as the three aircrafts sat idle whilst Lebanon burned. The fires were put out partly by rain, but also by the mobilisation and organisation of the Lebanese people. Volunteer centres were set up to deliver food and water to defence teams who worked tirelessly to deal with the fires when their government let them down. There were even instances of Palestinian refugees leaving their camps to assist with the firefighting effort, despite their calls for socio-economic rights being ignored by the Lebanese state for months.

Civil society organisations have proved an effective way of action for the Lebanese people, which led to the final spark in igniting the biggest protests the country has seen in the last decade. On Wednesday evening after a Cabinet meeting, telecoms minister Mohammed Choucair announced that there would be a tax on the mobile service WhatsApp. Phone contracts in Lebanon are already extortionately high – it is one of the most expensive places in the world for mobile data. Another $6 a month would be added onto a user’s phone bill, roughly a charge of twenty cents a day for WhatsApp phone calls which are used frequently by people on lower incomes who cannot afford the price of phone tariffs.

This is against WhatsApp’s policy, as internet calls through the service are meant to be free, but a tech advocacy company reported that the telecoms companies bought the technology to implement this move.

This takes away one of the only free means of communication, vital for low income workers and Syrian refugees who have found work in Lebanon, for the benefit of the ruling elite who control the state monopoly on the telecoms sector and reap the benefits of taxes and high prices.

This was the final straw for many. The government tried to fall back on sectarian divide as an excuse for their inability to act, but the protestors have not let this separate them and have stood in unity to demand change. Within 24 hours of mass protests breaking out all over the country, PM Hariri spoke on national TV and announced a 72 hour deadline for Parliament to “fix the situation”, and on Sunday it was announced that the main parties had agreed to a reform package, agreeing to scrap new taxes and privatise major companies, including the telecommunications sector.

Other measures include a 50 per cent reduction in the salaries of current and former Presidents, minister and MP’s. as well as multiple measures to deal with the strained electricity sector which is one of the largest burdens on the Lebanese economy. However, protesters are sceptical because of the long history of corruption, and are pushing for a full resignation of the government and the handing over of power to a council of non-political judges until new elections can be held.

Many government ministers have already resigned, and it is now a question of how long Hariri will let this continue before giving in to the brink of a Lebanese revolution.

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