Bag, Flag, Water, Phone

What is going to happen if the Lebanese Revolution fails?

Martyr’s Square October 20, 2019 (Photograph by Elie Nebhan)

News media race around the scene, handing the mic to crowds of people who won’t stand another second of not being heard. Men and women hold the mic and weep into the camera on national television. Some cannot speak because their voices are spent.

On Saturday at midnight, Lebanese television stations abruptly cut away from their live feeds — hours of exhaustive coverage of the uprising in Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre and Jbeil, a disgruntled protest-turned-bonafide revolution.

Between one and two million people have been marching in the streets since Thursday in response to the National Unity government’s announcement that a list of new taxes would be leveraged onto the public. The crowds are growing. They say they won’t stop until the government resigns.

Lebanon’s debt exceeds 151% of its GDP. It is common knowledge that government ministers openly steal from the treasury, spreading wealth to connections, friends and family with impunity.

Lebanese people are patient. They are aware that the government is run by corrupt plutocrats, yet each family, school, hospital and small business has forged ahead through thirty years of rolling blackouts and money disappearing from the treasury.

When political squabbling left the country without a president or a government for nearly thirty months, the people of this tiny Mediterranean country continued to invest time and money into a vision of peaceful existence and growth, ignoring the fractured ground they walked on every day.

In 2015, everyone kept the kids in school and went to work as mountainous piles of fetid, rotting garbage piled up along the city streets. The Naameh landfill was opened after the civil war in 1997, a temporary site which was slated to take in two million tons of waste. By 2014, it became clear that no plans had been made to proactively look out for Lebanon’s ecological health: The landfill was a boiling pit of toxic refuse, fifteen million tons of garbage polluting the air, the ground, and the water.

While the Naameh landfill stood as the perfect metaphor for the Lebanese government, the people still halted the massive “You Stink!” protests of 2015 when parliament issued a temporary solution. A margin of the population called for the resignation of the government. Their demands fell silent.

The so-called “temporary solution” was a failure swept under the rug.

The country has a population smaller than the city of Houston, yet the citizens don’t have a steady stream of electricity. Six million people are still relying on diesel to produce power and heat homes, even though the nation has its own natural gas deposit below the sea.

Political parties here are proxy agents for Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, each country whoring out Lebanon’s fragile makeup to satisfy appetites on the larger stage. Iran has the nation hijacked via Hezbollah, whose militia is stronger than the Lebanese army.

Political institutions developed to bolster democracy are no match for rampant religious conservatism which time and again forces women to endure abuse and marginalization and prevents people from speaking freely and critically about the government.

Public schools haven’t been adequately funded in thirty years, including the Lebanese University. The country has a population smaller than the city of Houston, yet the citizens don’t have a steady stream of electricity. Utility poles stand as if crawling with snakes, snarled with outdated wiring. Including the refugee population, six million people are still relying on diesel to produce power and heat homes, even though the nation has its own natural gas deposit below the sea.

One hundred thousand people seemed like a lot. Within hours, it was more than one million. As of Sunday, there were two million people pouring through cities all across the country — half of the Lebanese population.

Lebanese debt exceeds 151% of its GDP. It is common knowledge that government ministers openly steal from the treasury, spreading wealth to connections, friends, and family with impunity. In the last month, U.S. dollars have dropped in circulation. Fearing a loss in value, and in true form of bank running in 1930’s America, people began to withdraw dollars from all the banks. Commodities, like flour and oil, are traded with dollars, which had been sucked out of circulation by panicked nincompoops. Overnight, we had gas shortages. I went to our corner store, and there was no bread.

And still, kids got on a bus each day and went to school. Everyone went to work. We ate our meals and did homework and watched the news. At night, we still went to pubs, went to dinner. We slept. The news blurted reports everyday of an economy on the verge of collapse. The nation collectively plugged its ears and kept moving through a vacuum of existence closing in fast.

And then, last Thursday, the resilient people of this country got a phone call telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they would be made to pay for the mess. I don’t think the message was finished playing before the streets began to fill with people. The swell of anger climbed up even to our quiet mountain town. One hundred thousand people seemed like a lot. Within hours, it was more than one million. As of Sunday, there were two million people pouring through cities all across the country — half of the Lebanese population.

It’s a pyroclastic flow of a people so fed up they have become one organism undulating into every open crevice of the city, clogging the streets and choking the roads to the parliamentary building.

It must be understood that Lebanon has postured itself for decades as a people of pointed albeit reserved criticism against government policy, a cultural trait forged from people being arrested and jailed for using such vituperative rhetoric, but now, such conservatism is stripped naked in bare-fisted fury.

“Jubran Bassil!” the crowd roars.

“Kissemo! (Fuck his mother!)” rages the chorus.

“Samir Geagea!” a voice bellows through a megaphone.

“NZAL! (Down!)” the response comes.

It’s not a chant, it’s a pyroclastic flow of a people so fed up they have become one organism undulating into every open crevice of the city, clogging the streets and choking the roads to the parliamentary building.

I saw a sign which read, “So many people want to fuck Jubran Bassil’s mother they now need to make an appointment.”

They want parliament to suffocate.

“Saad Hariri!”

“Nzal!”

“Michel Aoun! (the president)”

“NZAL!”

The protests are not sectarian. Not a single flag from any one political party is evident. Everyone carries the Lebanese standard: a horizontal white stripe bearing a cedar tree, framed above and below by identical red bands.

A huge crowd of revelers gathered to listen to a group of men standing on a parked truck, each one delivering a rant of indignation through a microphone. Tens of thousands of people raised a collective middle finger and shouted, “Khod!” (take this!) in chorus. People spun and danced in the street, waving a hundred thousand flags. Circles of people sat on the city curbs brewing coffee, smoking hookah pipes and passing joints.

“No more THIEVES!”

“KHOD!”

Random people distributed free croissants and water. Bakeries all over the nation are producing food for the protesters — free of charge.

News media race around the scene, handing the mic to crowds of people who won’t stand another second of not being heard. Some of them scream in hysterics while others have sober, finger-counted points. Men and women hold the mic and weep into the camera on national television. Some cannot speak because their voices are spent.

The whole scene is like watching a dam burst.

The protests are not sectarian. Christians, Muslims, Druze and athiests are filling the nation’s corridors side by side. Today I saw as many women in halter tops as hijabs, people in wheelchairs, old men walking with canes, children as young as infants. I saw people in suits and others with tattoos and dread-locks. Not a single flag from any one political party is evident. Everyone carries the Lebanese standard: a horizontal white stripe bearing a cedar tree, framed above and below by identical red bands.

While I watched an orgy of joy erupt around the nation, I am tempered by what it all means.

And it was from this, a carnival of spirited outrage, brotherhood and purpose, that television stations cut the switch at midnight, the moment right in between Saturday and Sunday, and displayed a sedate image of Samir Geagea and his ministers sitting side by side at a long table draped in cloth, bearing a single microphone in the middle. The footage was silent except for cameras flashing.

Mr. Geagea, grey and gaunt, leaned into the mic, said a few words I couldn’t understand, and resigned, pulling his ministers out of active duty in government affairs.

While I watched an orgy of joy erupt around the nation, I am tempered by what it all means. What now? Is he going to leave the country? Is he going to be prosecuted?

Will anyone else follow suit?

Up to now, no one else has. If these demonstrations lose steam in the next forty-eight hours, the movement will be doomed. Solidarity protests in Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana and Cyprus will fade as fast as they will be forgotten.

And then what will happen? Will Lebanon be forced into a 15% sales tax? Will the government reimpose the Whatsapp tax, a gasoline tax? After everything that’s been laid out in the last seventy-two hours, is it possible that everyone will just go back to work?

And what then will a newly emboldened, reckless, greedy political class be capable of?

American writer based in Lebanon. Creative nonfiction, short fiction and poetry. Thank you for reading.

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