Lebanon protest movement marks 'harrowing' first year

By: AFP      Published: 05:40 PM, 17 Oct, 2020
Lebanon protest movement marks 'harrowing' first year
In this file photo taken on August 11, 2020, a Lebanese protester hurls rocks at security forces across a burning barrier amid clashes in downtown Beirut, following a huge explosion that devastated large parts of the capital. AFP

Lebanon marked the first anniversary on Saturday of a non-sectarian protest movement that has rocked the political elite but has yet to achieve its goal of sweeping reform.

A whirlwind of hope and despair has gripped the country in the year since protests began, with an economic crisis and a devastating August 4 port explosion pushing Lebanon deeper into decay.

Two governments have resigned since the movement started but the country's barons, many of them warlords from the 1975-90 civil war, remain firmly in power despite international as well as domestic pressure for change.

On Saturday, dozens of people brandishing placards and Lebanese flags gathered in Martyr's Square in the heart of Beirut.

The demonstrators plan to march towards the port -- the site of the devastating explosion, which has been widely blamed on the alleged corruption and incompetence of the hereditary elite.

There they will hold a candlelit vigil near ground zero at 6:07 pm (1507 GMT), the precise time when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded, killing more than 200 people and devastating swathes of the capital.

Activists have installed a metallic monument at the site to mark the anniversary of their October 17 "revolution". "We still don't recognise" our leaders as legitimate, said one prominent protester, who gave her name only as Melissa. "We are still on the street... standing together in the face of a corrupt government," the 42-year-old said.

'Harrowing year'

The immediate trigger for last year's protests was a government move to tax Whatsapp calls, but they swiftly swelled into a nationwide movement demanding an end to the system of confessional power-sharing it says has tarnished pubic life.

The country's deepest economic downturn since the civil war has led to growing unemployment, poverty and hunger, pushing many to look for better opportunities abroad. A spiralling coronavirus outbreak since February prompted a ban on public gatherings but even without protesters on the streets public resentment has grown.

The explosion at Beirut port served as a shocking reminder to many of the rot at the heart of their political system. It prompted protesters to return to the streets in its aftermath but the movement then shifted most of its energy to relief operations to fill in for what it sees as an absent state.

The political class has since failed to form a new government that can meet the demands of the street and international donors who have refused to release desperately needed funds. French President Emmanuel Macron who visited Lebanon twice in the aftermath of the port blast said Lebanon's ruling class had "betrayed" the people by failing to act swiftly and decisively.

The UN special coordinator too expressed frustration with the political class. "The legitimate grievances and needs of the Lebanese have gone unheeded during a harrowing year" Jan Kubis said in a statement.

"All of that has further deepened the lack of trust of Lebanese in their leaders and country."

'Deeply ruined'

President Michel Aoun will hold consultations with the main factions in parliament next week before designating a new prime minister for the third time in less than a year.

Saad Hariri, who bowed out in the face of the first protests last October, is expected to make a comeback in an appointment that activists are likely to reject.  Aoun on Saturday renewed his call for protest leaders to work with the state -- an appeal repeatedly rebuffed by activists.

"My hand is still extended to you for us to work together to achieve the reforms demanded," he said. "Reform is not possible outside the institutions of the state and it's still not too late."

The protest movement has maintained a loose structure that some analysts believe could be an impediment. "The lack of political programmes and leadership have made the process and progress rather daunting and difficult," said Jamil Mouawad, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut.

But academic and former minister Tarek Mitri said that the success of a protest movement "can't be measured by what has been achieved in terms of political change, nor by its ability to generate new political elites, but rather by the promises that it continues to carry, amidst all the pain."

Categories : World, Middle East