Lebanon’s population tops six million. The protests there against corruption and sectarianism have drawn hundreds of thousands of protestors, according to a New York Times article, and those are the people that felt strongly enough to come out. Broadly put, these protests, now entering their fourth week, are channeling wide support in their country. The story is no different for much of the Lebanese diaspora in Los Angeles.
“The bubble has burst,” said Bassel Naaman, a 28-year-old L.A.-based DJ who grew up in Lebanon and attended a solidarity demonstration held in downtown L.A. last month. Naaman, like many young people hoping for change, has already taken to calling the snowballing protests a “revolution.”
The movement marks the most comprehensive anti-government protests the country, two-thirds the size of Connecticut, has seen since the end of its civil war nearly three decades ago, and targets corruption in the country’s established and sectarian political elite, which has dominated the country since its independence in 1943.
Naaman says the broad participation in the protests across party, religious, and ethnic lines makes it unlike any he can remember. The inclusive nature of the movement is perhaps most striking in the areas that previously would have been considered strongholds for one party. It’s a common observation.
Roy Asmar, a young restaurant server from a Lebanese family of Maronite Christians who attended the Los Angeles solidarity protest last month, said the situation could be comparable to if there was a sudden outburst of opposition from Democratic and Republican voters against their respective party leadership.
This unusual phenomenon of the protests is a source of optimism for Wassim Hage, a 25-year-old plant scientist whose Shia-raised parents moved to the United States before he was born.
Hage says even “die-hard” supporters of normally opposed camps are “willing to include each other,” such as voters for Amal, a conservative Shia party, and the followers of Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader of the Progressive Socialist Party. “This is a root-and-branch denunciation of the corruption and rot in the political establishment,” Hage says.
Hage references a slogan heard in Lebanon as well as the solidarity demonstrations held in cities across the world: “all of them means all of them,” referring to the protests’ opposition to political leaders of all parties, regardless of sect.
Few countries as developed as Lebanon have a government with such low approval ratings. Even before the recent increase in protests, a 2016 Gallup poll in Lebanon found that only 14% of Lebanese there had “confidence in the national government.” Abroad, the Lebanese diaspora in places like Los Angeles appear to feel similarly, and they view the recent protests as something to celebrate.
Thousands were estimated to have attended the October 27 solidarity demonstration in front of the Los Angeles consulate, according to The 961, an English-language Lebanese media site. The event included some celebrity attendees like Massari, a Lebanese-Canadian pop singer.
Even there, thousands of miles from Beirut, Naaman, the DJ, who comes from a family of Druze, says he saw firsthand the cross-confessional nature of the protests. “To see all the people — Christian, Muslim, Druze — united under one flag, it’s a beautiful feeling,” he said.
Lebanon’s political system, established in the wake of its 1943 independence and modified in 1989 following the end of the Lebanese Civil War, proportions government posts on sectarian lines. Leadership positions in the government are set up similarly. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.
“Lebanon has been limping along with a dysfunctional government for some time,” said Laurie Brand, a professor of international relations. She said the dysfunction dates back to the country’s colonial period under the French, but has continued over the decades due to the established, but fragmented, political class.
The unusual set-up has in recent years reached a standstill.
In 2015, the country’s leadership was unable to reach an agreement concerning a waste contractor, and garbage began to pile in the streets of Beirut. Protests broke that summer on the streets of Beirut, and thousands chanted slogans like, “the people want to topple the regime.”
Brand says those same frustrations have only built up in recent years as income inequality continues to grow and social mobility remains sluggish. In 2019, the breaking point that began the protests was a proposed government tax on WhatsApp, a popular mobile messaging service that many had come to use to escape government taxes on traditional cell phone services.
How the effects of these protests will endure be remains to be seen. Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned last week, fulfilling a key demand of the protesters, but some, like Brand, are already suggesting that Hariri could simply return with a new parliamentary coalition.
Brand says protests in the past have been vulnerable to sectarian opposition, thanks in part to typically being organized to begin with along sectarian lines.
“What’s different about the current demonstrations is that they have a cross-confessional and cross-class element to them,” she said. She added that the possibility for lasting change is dependent on this broad support continuing. “If the political elite is able to fracture them along political lines, then it’s back to the same system.”