The chant heard in Tunis, Cairo, and Damascus during the popular uprisings of 2010 and 2011 has made it to Lebanon. From Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south, in downtown Beirut and in the squares of Baalbek and Nabatieh, crowds declare: “The people want the fall of the regime.”
The protesters are asserting the full meaning of their words. They don’t just want a single ruler gone, or a single party, or even the fall of the government. They want to rid themselves entirely of the whole regime: every single member of the ruling elite, regardless of their allegiance. “All of them means all of them,” as the protesters have been shouting nationwide.
The protest movement—Lebanon’s largest in 14 years—was sparked in mid-October by austerity measures that were perceived to hurt the most vulnerable members of the population while shielding the ruling elite from economic pain. It quickly grew into a nationwide revolt against the entire political class, which is widely viewed as made up of corrupt, exploitative oligarchs. For the first time, the Lebanese people mobilized not along sectarian lines or following their sectarian leaders but against them, cutting across divisions of class, religion, and geography. The people are now united in their fury against an inept, indifferent, and avaricious oligarchy.
In response to the protests, Prime Minister Saad Hariri tremulously conceded to the protesters, “Your actions have broken all barriers and shaken all parties.” But the government’s proposed economic reform plans were weak and met by more anger on the streets. In a sign of desperation, Lebanon’s entire political class has banded together for the sake of self-preservation and rejected popular demand. The president, prime minister, and even the leader of Hezbollah have united in an unprecedented way.
One critique that has emerged among the highest ranks—notably, from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose political party receives funds from Iran—is that the protest movement is funded by foreign governments and embassies, including the United States, in order to cause chaos. The claim is as old and predictable as it is false. Across the Middle East, leaders have often evoked the specter of the “foreign hand” to try to delegitimize the anger on the streets.
The protesters turned the moment to their advantage. They revealed who is truly behind the protests. In one of the most widely shared videos on social media, scores of Lebanese, from all backgrounds, have recorded themselves saying into the camera, “I am Lebanese, and I’m funding these protests.”
It’s true that since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has been vulnerable to the manipulations of foreign powers. It has been subject to the political and military interventions of the French, the Syrians, the Israelis, the Americans, the Saudis, and the Iranians, whose influence is still very much in evidence. (Ironically, the United States now finds itself on the same side as Hezbollah in wanting to prop up the government—even though just months ago, Washington sanctioned Hezbollah members of parliament, accusing the party of using “its political power to corrupt and exploit Lebanon’s finance and security elements, taking advantage of the country’s systems and values.”) If anything, the current protests in Lebanon are a repudiation of foreign involvement and an attempt to reimagine a new, fiercely independent Lebanese national identity. The people now understand that the largest foreign-funded and -backed entity in Lebanon is the government itself.
Far from backing the protesters’ demands, the international community appears to have rushed to save the current government. The European Union (EU) anxiously issued a statement expressing its confidence that the government will “respond swiftly and wisely” by “implementing much-needed and long-awaited structural and transformative reforms.” Members of the International Support Group—diplomats representing France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the EU, the Arab League, and the United Nations—have said they support Prime Minister Hariri’s “reform objectives” and the decisions endorsed by his cabinet.
The same international community that has withheld pledges of $11 billion in loans for over a year now because it lacks confidence in the government’s ability to implement reforms has suddenly shed its doubts. Hariri’s desperate economic reform package has been derided by independent Lebanese economists as technically unrealistic to achieve—yet somehow appears reasonable to foreign diplomats.
Political leaders who have ruled Lebanon’s institutions for decades have failed to deliver basic services such as adequate health care, water, and electricity. This is why so many have chosen to bravely defy their leaders. As one female protester from the impoverished town in the country’s north said to me, “This is our opportunity for change and we can’t go back to the past, we can’t go back to this daily existence that has trapped us.”
The protest movement may be Lebanon’s one real chance at tackling corruption and enacting good governance—demands made for decades by the foreign powers funding Lebanon. As Lebanese people of all backgrounds and denominations rise up for systemic and structural change, foreign governments must make a choice. Instead of backing an illegitimate and weakened ruling political class, they should step aside and get out of the way of Lebanon’s chance for real political change.