It was a Christmas of protests in Lebanon. The formation of a government was the promised gift, but those elected failed to iron out their differences, forcing people out onto the streets to demonstrate against the many problems crippling the country.
A number of civil society groups have organised protests over the last 10 days, marching in Tripoli and Nabatieh, while the capital, Beirut, drew one of the biggest gatherings.
The protests were focused on an economic crisis, which has led to falling living standards, and has worsened since May due to political instability caused by the inability of political factions to form a government.
Those taking part chanted slogans demanding an end to corruption and better civic facilities, as well as reminding politicians to do what they had been elected to do and run the country.
Scuffles broke out between Lebanese soldiers and those marching in Beirut – with some protesters burning rubbish and throwing rubbish bins in the direction of the soldiers.
Hasan Shaaban, a photographer with the English-language newspaper Daily Star, was one of those attacked by soldiers.
“The soldiers kicked me to the ground, punched me, and hit me anywhere they could,” he said.
— Hasan Shaaban (@hasanshaaban) December 23, 2018
Shaaban said that while he was randomly picked, the soldiers specifically targeted photographers who were documenting attacks on unarmed civilians.
“I saw 10 soldiers hitting and kicking one guy,” he said. “They beat up innocent bystanders who just stepped out of a restaurant to see what was happening.”
That afternoon, the army released a statement emphasising that while they respected “the right of civil protest, freedom of expression, and the right to make demands, demonstrators must not vandalise private and public property.”
Shaaban said that he had covered many protests and seen protesters throw rubbish bins to block the streets.
Each time, he said, riot police intervened to clear up the situation peacefully. This time, he said, the army did not let the riot police handle the situation.
“The Lebanese army intervened themselves. They were aggressive because the protest was independently organised and there were no political parties to back the protesters,” he said.
Instead, the protests were organised on social media by citizens and social activists. The latest took place on December 26.
Some protesters even wore yellow vests – seen in anti-government protests in France recently – but with a cedar tree, Lebanon’s national symbol.
The Lebanese PM-designate Saad Hariri had assured Lebanese citizens that by Christmas or the New Year they would have a government.
“I think the pressure that we have from the economic crisis is pushing more and more (politicians) to form the government,” he said.
But these hopes seem quashed as the wrangling over cabinet positions in Lebanon’s unity government has thwarted all attempts at compromise.
Government needed for economic stability
Lebanon had elections seven months ago after a hiatus of nine years but a political stalemate has ensued ever since.
Mired in debt and a stagnant growth rate, Lebanon needs a government to implement economic reforms all sides agree are needed to encourage foreign investment.
Vicky Khoury of the Sabaa political party, who attended the protest, said that she and her colleagues had been staging sit-ins in front of several government ministries over the last week and demanding those elected take responsibility for tumbling finances in the country.
“They are just busy fighting over their share of power and who gets what,” she said. “Seven months is not a joke. We cannot afford to live without a government.”
The International Monetary Fund estimated Lebanon’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth to be at one percent this year, whereas it needs at least six percent annually to provide jobs to the roughly 30,000 Lebanese citizens joining the labour market each year.
Amy Sheaito, an accountant by profession and a protester, said that joblessness is one of the biggest problems bringing people out to protest.
“Everything is messed up. There are no jobs for young people,” she said. “The protests will go on as long as things do not change.”
Earlier this month the World Bank called for an end to the impasse in Lebanon and for the building of a climate of confidence for donors and investors.
Currently, projects worth millions of dollars are stuck in limbo because the caretaker government in place cannot take major decisions regarding the economy.
While the protesters want a functioning government, they do not think existing MPs can fix the country’s problems.
“They were all warlords, they are all corrupt,” Amy, a protester said. Adding: “Our slogan is, return the stolen money, that’s what they have stolen from the people.”
Khoury, the Sabaa party politician, said that politicians opposed to the current status-quo have demanded a law, under which parliamentarians must declare their assets before and after coming to power.
Like Amy, she too accused the leaders of exploiting their positions to accumulate personal wealth.
The greater struggle for the protesters is replacing the current crop of politicians with civil society candidates or technocrats.
But in the last elections, just one such candidate managed to win and secure a place in the parliament.
Amy said that it may take time but Lebanon will get there. She said, for now, some sort of a government is needed so at least basic governmental tasks can be performed.
“At least the administration will be running when a government is in place, that’s really all that we can expect,” she said.
On Wednesday, a day after Christmas, tens of Lebanese people again marched in central Beirut.
They said that more protests are coming. One of them held a placard which read, “They can take our lives but they can never take our freedom.”