Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

The Great Debate: Is there a brighter future for Lebanon around the corner?

Aya Iskandarani and Samia Badih discuss the ongoing protests across their country

The Lebanese people have come together to protest against their government. Nabil Mounzer / EPA
The Lebanese people have come together to protest against their government. Nabil Mounzer / EPA

Aya Iskandarani: What’s happening in Lebanon at the moment with the country-wide protests is amazing. I think it will be difficult, but I hope there is a brighter future ahead, because we’ve been waiting for too long for such an opportunity. Lebanese people have finally joined forces, crossed sectarian lines and realised that we all want the same thing: better government services, more jobs, an end to corruption at all levels ...

Samia Badih: What has been achieved over the past week is historic for Lebanon and its people. There’s no turning back. I think the Lebanese citizens, who have endured wars for decades, are well aware of the sacrifices. Revolutions are never easy. But for the Lebanese, especially the youths, they have waited for so long for such a moment. This is our moment. I think change is around the corner.

AI: I can’t help but feel concerned. There have been reports that armed members of some parties, such as Amal and Hezbollah, have attacked protesters in Tyre, one of Amal’s key strongholds, because protesters dared to criticise them. In Beirut, the groups were parading on their motorbikes in an attempt to intimidate protesters before the army clamped down on the bikers. The system will not go down without a fight and my concern is about people staying united when the counter-revolution kicks in.

SB: I think that’s the concern of every Lebanese protester who is taking to the streets and demanding that the system is brought down. The biggest fight is going to be in those areas where Amal and Hezbollah have a stronghold. But what’s important to point out here is that the wall of fear around the majority of Lebanese people has been knocked down. People who were typically supporters of one party or the other are now saying: ‘No, you have fooled us too many times, we have had enough’. And that is the biggest achievement since the start of this revolution. The politicians will play the sectarian card and it won’t go down without a fight.

This is the first time since 2015 that protesters have come out in large numbers. Nabil Mounzer / EPA
This is the first time since 2015 that protesters have come out in large numbers. Nabil Mounzer / EPA

AI: So far people have not given up and that is truly heartening. Sectarian parties have everything to lose and they will cling on to power ruthlessly, threatening protesters and starting conspiracy theories to pit us against each other. They may even attempt to fan the flames of sectarian violence; anything that will make people afraid and willing to rely on them once more. But if protesters make it through all of this united, what happens next? How do we fill the vacuum when the government resigns? This will take time.

SB: People have been angry about government corruption for decades. I don’t think there’s an expectation that we will get to where we want to be quickly. What is great about the protests is they started spontaneously, but that also means they have not been led by one politician or party. And I agree, that is worrisome. However, that has started to change. We have seen members of communities across several cities take action, putting together a document that clearly states the people’s main demands. This also looks at a road map for what is to come later, should the revolution succeed in toppling the government. We have even seen a group of Lebanese artists draft a document. This is happening even when the syndicate, or the union of artists, is not involved in the revolution.

AI: This is amazing! It is crucial that protest leaders and members of civil society organise to find actionable solutions and rally around common ground, not simply a rejection of the system as a whole without any alternative. It is an exciting time when anything seems possible – as long as the movement is not quashed or dies out. That is another problem. In 2015, we saw similar protests throughout the country in response to the rubbish crisis but the government failed to heed their demands, so people got tired and went home.

Protesters have been fed up of corruption and recent government-led austerity measures. Reuters
Protesters have been fed up of corruption and recent government-led austerity measures. Reuters

SB: The reason why people are on the streets today is anger over years of governmental failure, corruption and unmet promises, including the 2015 protests regarding the rubbish crisis. But the people have also grown tired of that. The week prior to the protests, Lebanon witnessed one of the worst wildfires in recent history, a natural disaster that uncovered more stories of corruption within the government. Instead of addressing the people and apologising for not protecting them, the Lebanese Cabinet introduced new taxes. The government has become so detached from the reality of the people. That’s when they went to the streets. It was driven out of that anger and that is why it is different this time. The Lebanese people have realised for the first time that they are all in the same boat – regardless of which party they support. These protests have risen above the divides that have caused so much turmoil in the past.

What is great about the protests is they started spontaneously, but that also means they have not been led by one politician or party

AI: People will need new leaders that truly represent them and this has not happened since pre-war times, in the 1970s. It was so long ago that no one really knows what a representative political landscape would look like any more. Will we have leftists and right-wing parties again? And how will the protest leaders manage to unite everyone until demands are met? There are a lot of variables, but overall I think the push for non-sectarian representation, which was seen as an upper-class demand in the past, has been embraced by everyone, because the system has failed everyone. Let us hope the old guard do not cling on to power by force or exhausting dissent.

SB: I truly hope that will be the difference this time – should the government step down. For years we have been plagued with full governmental representation based on a sectarian divide. The time has come to elect officials based purely on competence and credibility. The slogan “everyone means everyone” tells you that people are ready to take this step. They want to see new faces, hear a new rhetoric – people with a track record that proves they can deliver.

AI: This gives me hope. I believe that change can come but it is going to be an uphill battle. Unity is the protesters’ greatest strength – they must keep it at all costs, even as they take part in Lebanon’s messy political life.

SB: Only time will tell if this is Lebanon’s greatest moment of revolutionary change.

Updated: October 27, 2019 09:50 AM

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