New forms of protest emerge amid Lebanese crisis

In the shadow of the stalled revolution in Lebanon, new forms of protest are emerging to confront the political class.

In the deserted corridors of the souks of downtown Beirut, one night in late June, three young men dressed in any clothes approach. They introduce themselves using only their first names and giggle as they wait for the rest of the group to arrive. One – Ahmed – begins to stretch, explaining that “we may have to run a long time tonight”.

The others dribbled in – two or three at a time – with shining eyes as they tried to figure out if everyone was there for the same purpose. Although most did not know each other, they were all there for the same reason: to make the lives of Lebanese elites hell.

The plan was simple. Protesters had heard that a number of Lebanese parliamentarians and their families, as well as prominent businessmen, were gathered for a lavish birthday party at Seray, an upscale restaurant in downtown Beirut. . Protesters were going to crush dinner, and name and shame the politicians and oligopolies who dined out while the rest of the country suffered.

Protesters would crush dinner, and name and shame politicians and oligopolies who dine out while the rest of the country suffered

The protesters – about 25 in total – split into two groups, a smaller detachment monitoring Seray while the rest waited about five minutes from the restaurant. The reconnaissance group sent the license plate numbers of the cars on arrival to the rest of the group, who compared them to a database to confirm which officials or businessmen were present at the restaurant.

There was a match, the car of Mohammed Cherri – a member of parliament aligned with Hezbollah – pulled up to the restaurant. With that, the demonstrators left.

New forms of civil disobedience

The protest at the end of June is part of a new type of civil disobedience in Lebanon, far from the mass movements observed in the fall of 2019 when millions of people took to the streets and demanded the ousting of the corrupt political class.

Instead, these new protests are often decentralized and highly focused – seeking to achieve smaller concrete goals or to affect specific politicians or businessmen, rather than trying to overthrow the entire system itself – even.

“People started to embrace this new way of protesting because the old one started to fail due to lack of political experience, so people could not maintain this mass protest,” Ahmad said. . The New Arabic. “Especially after not being able to achieve tangible results after two years of thawra [revolution]. “

In one such example, a Lebanese NGO Banin Charity stormed and occupied a bank for five hours to release funds that had been frozen in its account since the onset of the banking crisis in the fall of 2019. Direct action made it possible to achieve what nearly two years of litigation could not. t – the bank manager transferred $ 185,000 in funds to a hospital in Turkey where four beneficiaries of the charity were scheduled to undergo surgeries.

Other cases are more spontaneous. Activists often seek out information to track the whereabouts of politicians and businessmen and confront them directly.

Anti-police slogan “ACAB” is displayed on Lebanese policeman’s riot shield, sprayed by protesters [TNA]

Confrontations take many forms. In some cases, politicians’ excesses are simply documented and widely shared on social media.

The children of Lebanese Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh are pictured while on vacation in Nice, and the Lebanese Environment Minister is confronted as he enjoys dinner. “Just a question, how can you as a minister go to restaurants when people can’t even have fuel to fill their cars?”

There has long been a rift between the haves and have-nots in Lebanon, but the recent economic crisis has turned the rift into a yawning chasm. Spiraling hyperinflation has meant the complete eradication of the middle class, their wages turning overnight into monopoly money and their savings locked in banks.

A night out in one of Beirut’s trendy neighborhoods, Gemayzeh or Badero, can make it seem like the country is still managing to make it through, with bars whose patrons spill into the streets and restaurants that aren’t. only by reservation. However, in the same streets beggars roam and children slip around street corners for a night’s rest.

The worst of these excesses is embodied by the political class, which, although having caused the economic crisis, is not affected by it.

The idea, Ahmad said, “is that we don’t want them to feel safe anywhere in the country.” He explained that as the rest of the country burned down, politicians shouldn’t feel comfortable reveling in the excess money that he believed had been stolen from state coffers. .

The worst of these excesses is embodied by the political class, which, although it is at the origin of the economic crisis, remains unaffected by it.

The elites strike back

In Seray, the demonstration quickly turned to the murderer. The waiters were able to push the protesters out of the restaurant and lower the blinds so patrons could dine in peace. In response, protesters blocked the roads leading to the restaurant so they could see exactly who was attending the birthday party when they left.

One of the first cars to attempt to leave was driven by Jihad al-Arab’s wife and daughter. Jihad al-Arab, a wealthy Lebanese entrepreneur and brother of the former security chief of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, is widely seen as emblematic of the kind of corruption and bribery that paved the way for the current decline of the Lebanon.

Protesters circled the black SUV and slapped their hands on the window as his wife and daughter stared straight ahead, trying to make their way through the crowd. Water bottles were thrown at the windshield and protesters chased after them as they managed to back down and flee the scene.

Within minutes, men on Vespa scooters showed up, the personal safety of customers inside. They tore the protesters apart, knocking them to the ground and shouting, “You want to make a revolution, don’t you? One assaulted the cameraman of The National, Mahmoud Reda, hitting Reda in the face and breaking two bones in her nose.

Another man drew a gun and started shooting in the air, clearing the way for cars to exit the restaurant. Protesters reacted angrily, some smashing car windows and throwing chairs at restaurant servers.

More shots were fired and a protester collapsed on the sidewalk, apparently from the excitement. The army soon arrived and tried to stop the personal security guards. Other personal security guards arrived on scooters and tore their colleagues from the grip of the soldiers, ignoring the military warning shots.

The incident was not unique. Barely two weeks earlier, a woman had been assaulted by Gebran Bassil’s bodyguards in a restaurant after shouting “shame on you! At the former Minister of Foreign Affairs.

When the families of the victims of the Beirut port explosion held a vigil for their loved ones in front of the home of interim interior minister Mohammed Fahmi on Tuesday, police responded by beating protesters. Furious, the demonstrators stormed Fahmi’s home, smashing the windows at the entrance to the building before being dispersed by tear gas.

Still, there are small but significant victories. Just a day after the demonstration in Seray, Jihad al-Arab announced in local media that it would shut down all its businesses in Lebanon.

“Any big change in Lebanon would require the participation of the masses; however, it takes more time. What we do now with these small confrontations is maintain the momentum until we reach the point where it doesn’t. there is nothing more to lose, ”Ahmad said. .

William Christou is the correspondent of New Arab’s Levantine, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher at the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist for Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou

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