Foreign Relations & International Law

A Country on Fire: Lebanon’s October Revolution in Context

Elena Hodges
Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 9:43 AM

​For the past month, the country of Lebanon has witnessed the emergence of an unprecedented political movement driven forward by widespread popular protests.

Protesters blocking access to the Ring bridge in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Wikimedia/Nadim Kobeissi, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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For the past month, the country of Lebanon has witnessed the emergence of an unprecedented political movement driven forward by widespread popular protests. The protests began with massive nationwide demonstrations that focused on blocking roads and reclaiming public spaces. As time goes on, demonstrators are shifting tactics, staging sit-ins and protests outside key state institutions as a way to amplify pressure on the political establishment. These protests have activated an unparalleled coalition across sectarian and class lines, calling for sweeping economic and political changes. Whatever comes next will have far-reaching strategic implications for both Lebanon and the region.


Lead-Up to the Protests

Two things served as the proximate triggers for these protests. First, on Oct. 15 more than 100 wildfires broke out, aided by gusting winds and unusually high temperatures. Cyprus, Greece and Jordan each sent firefighting planes; and Ghana pledged trees for reforestation efforts. This support contrasted sharply with the Lebanese state’s lack of emergency preparedness. With all three of the country’s firefighting helicopters grounded because of maintenance issues, the government deployed riot police vehicles to fight the fires. The juxtaposition of emergency aircraft in disrepair and pristine police vehicles infuriated many Lebanese.

The fires tore through an estimated 3,200-3,700 acres in just 48 hours, doubling Lebanon’s yearly average of forest loss. Just as people began to take stock of the damage, on Oct. 17 the Lebanese government announced a new monthly tax on WhatsApp calls, gas and tobacco. Protests erupted that evening in Beirut and across the country. People took to the streets out of sheer frustration with an economic and political system characterized by mismanagement and predation. By day three, the protests had spread to more than 70  cities and villages, with roughly a third of the country—or an estimated 1-2 million people—joining in.

The protests have tapped into public rage over the devastating economic toll of austerity measures, the state’s failure to provide basic services, and an entrenched sectarian political system that is unresponsive to its constituents. Wealth inequality in Lebanon has risen to cartoonish levels. Billionaires hold 30 percent of the country’s wealth, second only to Qatar, while the average annual income of the bottom 90 percent of the population is around $12,700. Unemployment hovers at 25 percent. To make matters worse, the state provides little to nothing in the way of public services. Lebanon’s electricity provision is the fourth worst in the world. Waste and sanitation mismanagement has caused a public health crisis, with spikes in respiratory illnesses and cancer. Tap water across the country is contaminated with heavy metals, plastics and sewage. Those with money turn to private actors for clean water, electricity provision and trash collection, as well as for health care and education. The rest are forced to seek help from their sectarian party leaders or to fend for themselves.

Historical Context

Framing the protests in Lebanon’s political and economic context is vital to understanding what caused them and where the country is headed. The current protests contest the premise of the entire post-civil war political order, a system put in place nearly 30 years ago by the 1989 Ta’if Agreement. Political sectarianism in Lebanon emerged centuries before that, during 400 years of Ottoman rule. Feudal patronage politics characterized the Ottoman approach to governing, devolving administrative authority to select families in exchange for their political loyalty. These dynamics continued into the postwar French Mandate period (1920-1943), with France employing divide-and-rule tactics to prevent any single region or group from accumulating too much power. After independence in 1943, Lebanon maintained informal sectarian power sharing through an unwritten agreement known as the National Pact.

Sectarian tensions contributed to the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, but it was the course of the 15-year conflict that ossified and politicized them. The war displaced nearly a million people, with casualty estimates ranging from 70,000 to 500,000. Rather than addressing the war’s profound impact on Lebanon’s social fabric, the Ta’if Agreement enshrined sectarian divisions. Besides mandating a power-sharing executive, with a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shi’a Muslim speaker of Parliament, it also built proportional sectarian quotas into Parliament. Though this arrangement was intended to be temporary—indeed, the text of the Ta’if Agreement announced that “abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective”—it remains the defining feature of Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s as an Iranian-backed aggregation of Lebanese Shiite militias, defined by opposition to Israel and “Western imperial” interests. Over the course of ongoing conflict with Israel, from resistance to Israeli military occupation of the south of Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 and a full-out war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah has consolidated a broad base of support. This support is concentrated in the south of Lebanon, a Shiite-dominated region characterized by historical economic and political marginalization, as well as in parts of the Beqaa Valley and southern Beirut. Iran continues to prop up Hezbollah through substantial political and military funding, despite tightening American sanctions on both actors.

Political sectarianism has kept the same political elite that presided over the civil war in power. Thirty years later, the names of politicians at the helm of the state have barely changed. The current president and speaker of Parliament both headed militias during the war and assumed political office in 1992, after Lebanon’s first elections since 1972. Saad Hariri, prime minister until his resignation on Oct. 29, inherited the role from his father Rafiq Hariri, another prime minister who was assassinated in 2005. Hezbollah, the single most powerful player in Lebanese politics, has been led by Hassan Nasrallah since 1992.

Lebanon’s economy has been defined by this political context. The country’s postwar reconstruction, presided over by the late Rafiq Hariri, embraced unchecked privatization and real estate speculation. Lebanon now runs a sovereign debt estimated at 144 percent of GDP (compared to 105 percent for the U.S.), it has a 4:1 import-export imbalance, and it lacks any formal economic policy. The state spends most of its revenues on interest payments on its debt and salaries and pensions for its bloated civil-service sector rather than investing in infrastructure, job creation or education. This in turn has forced the public to turn to sectarian political parties for the provision of essential services. Meanwhile, political leaders have consolidated their grip over the economy, profiting handsomely from interest on the debt. Lebanese banks own more than 85 percent of Lebanese debt, and political elites control 43 percent of assets in Lebanon’s commercial banking sector. Just eight families control 29 percent of the sector. Amid ballooning debt and economic growth slowing to a crawl, the government passed an austerity budget over the summer and announced a state of economic emergency in early September. These measures have pushed many Lebanese families past their breaking point.

Recent Reform Efforts

Popular discontent with politicians and state institutions has been a near-constant feature of Lebanese politics over the past 30 years. But recent efforts at galvanizing political reform have failed to take hold. Civil society has been eroded. Elections have repeatedly failed to unseat the political elite, leaving some of the same leaders who presided over the civil war at the helm of the state. Political demonstrations have been largely co-opted by sectarian parties, with party leaders strategically mobilizing their members to come out in force to lend popular legitimacy to their actions. The last time so many people came out to demonstrate was in 2005, after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. These protests, known as the Cedar Revolution, caused Syria to withdraw its troops after 29 years of military occupation, but they failed to bring about any measurable change in the political status quo, instead leaving Syria’s ally Hezbollah to fill the power vacuum.

The “You Stink” garbage protests of 2015 stand as the most recent example of grassroots political mobilization, galvanized by the waste management crisis. Although the movement initially tapped into widespread public resentment with government corruption and mismanagement, it fizzled within a few months. The protests never took hold outside of Beirut, and even in the capital, “You Stink” failed to garner broad support beyond its liberal, secular, relatively affluent base. A lack of clearly articulated strategic objectives and resistance to compromise and coalition building also contributed to the movement’s short half-life.

A new electoral law passed in October 2017 rekindled hopes of substantive political reform. Heralded as a major progressive victory because it incorporated elements of proportional representation for the first time, the electoral law also redrew heavily gerrymandered districts, allotted seats according to sectarian distributions in each district, and established preferential votes according to voters’ subdistricts of origin. Parliamentary elections in May 2018—the first in nine years—served as the first test of the new electoral law. Several civil society-backed parties like Beirut Madinati (Beirut Is My City) and Tahalof Watani (My Nation’s Coalition) ran on secular, progressive platforms, hoping to disrupt the dominance of traditional sectarian alliances.

Instead, just 47 percent of voters turned out, and the results left the country in much the same position as before (despite reports of vote-buying and concerns about the election monitoring). Only one of the independent candidates, prominent Beirut-based journalist Paula Yacoubian, won a seat in Parliament. Meanwhile, Hariri renewed his hold on the prime ministership and Hezbollah consolidated its position as the most powerful political actor.

Why These Protests Are Different

Lebanon’s Oct. 17 protests represent a sea change from past efforts to contest the political system. Unlike “You Stink,” these protests bridge entrenched sectarian and class divides. From the first day of the protests, cities and villages across the country have participated, something that past efforts never managed to achieve. During the 2005 Cedar Revolution, political party leaders called their supporters out to protest; now, people are coming out despite party leaders’ best efforts to dissuade them.

From Beirut to Tyre to Tripoli, protesters have rallied around the chant “All of them means all of them,” refusing to countenance politicians’ and parties’ efforts to evade being implicated themselves. Another chant pays homage to Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria while expanding the scope of protesters’ demands beyond mere regime change: “The people want the downfall of the sectarian system.”

Reclaiming and holding public space has emerged as a central feature in protests nationwide, with two key implications. First, it sends the message that protesters will not be easily waited out or divided, tactics political elites have long employed to weather challenges to their authority. Blocking major highways and roads, staging sit-ins and burning tires all serve as highly visible assertions of protesters’ power to disrupt the state. Other actions, such as forming a human chain that spanned the length of the country and traveling north-to-south via a “revolution bus[,]” emphasize the cross-sect, cross-class popular coalition that is forming. Second, reclaiming public spaces serves a constitutive, constructive role. It affirms a public right to the city and builds demonstrators’ social ties across class, sectarian, geographic and generational boundaries.

In downtown Beirut, for instance, demonstrators have reclaimed Martyrs’ Square. The historic center square was completely leveled during civil war, and subsequently privatized as part of the post-war reconstruction. Protesters have transformed Martyrs’ Square back into a vibrant public space, filling it with tents and keeping people there around the clock. Street food vendors set up shop alongside artists and musicians, and volunteers organized daily cleanup and recycling shifts. Protesters donated their services and skills, from lawyers offering free legal services and know-your-rights trainings and medical professionals providing first aid to protesters injured by security forces to psychologists holding free therapy sessions and volunteers handing out free food and water. Discussion circles in the tents have become a daily fixture, allowing the public to share their perspectives and concerns about the political movement’s future. University professors led teach-ins that merged theory and practice, like a session on the politics of public space held inside the Egg, a prewar Beirut landmark that has been closed off to the public for decades.

Demonstrations in peripheral cities have proved even more consequential than those in Beirut, given sectarian parties’ particularly solid hold over smaller cities and rural areas. In the south of Lebanon, the traditional stronghold of Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal Movement, protesters have risen up in unprecedented defiance of their sectarian leaders. In the southern cities of Tyre and Nabatieh, protesters have marched and led chants against both Hezbollah and Amal in addition to tearing down signs and banners of both parties’ members of Parliament. These extraordinary expressions of dissent would have been unthinkable until recently. To the north, in Sunni-dominated Tripoli, people have chanted their solidarity with protesters in Tyre and Nabatieh; burned Hezbollah flags; and led chants against the political elite from Nasrallah to Najib Mikati, a former prime minister from Tripoli’s most prominent family.

Beyond protesters’ demands and tactics, the leadership of women and students further distinguishes the October Revolution. Women have organized demonstrations across the country, coordinating logistics, leading chants and facilitating discussion circles. Most notably, women developed a front-line strategy, positioning themselves between security forces and other protesters in order to ensure the protests remained peaceful, even in the face of excessive force by riot police and Hezbollah/Amal supporters. Alongside this activism, women participating in the protests are calling attention to how the sectarian political system disproportionately affects women. Each of the 15 personal status laws for Lebanon’s recognized religions discriminates against women in their marriage, custody and divorce rights; and Lebanese women married to foreigners are still unable to pass on their citizenship to their spouses and children.

Students and professors have also played a key role, staging massive school walkouts from Akkar and Tripoli in the north to Nabatieh and Sidon in the south. The American University of Beirut, Lebanon’s top educational institution, has been particularly visible; the university’s president recently penned an op-ed in The Atlantic supporting student demonstrators and expressing concern that the movement might be derailed or co-opted. The energy of tens of thousands of high school and university students has helped the demonstrations keep up momentum as time goes on. Throughout the week of Nov. 4, thousands of students in Beirut continued to protest despite threats of expulsion, rallying outside the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice and the state-owned Lebanese electricity company.

State Responses: Appeasement and Efforts to Discredit

Key politicians initially endeavored to appease protesters. After a self-granted 72-hour grace period, Prime Minister Hariri presented an economic reform package that proposed cutting some politicians’ salaries in half, levying a new tax on bank profits, providing 24-hour electricity and returning money looted from public funds. Protesters met Hariri’s plan with derision, dismissing the idea that the government could be trusted to reform itself given its extensive track record of corruption. After remaining silent throughout the first week of protests, Lebanese President Michel Aoun released a short video on Oct. 24 expressing sympathy for the “people’s pain” but also refusing to step down and complaining that accusing all politicians of corruption was a “great injustice.” Hariri resigned on Oct. 29, admitting that he had reached a dead end; this automatically triggered the collapse of the entire cabinet.

Other political factions sought to discredit the protesters. Hezbollah and Amal in particular have been eager to paint the demonstrations as being orchestrated by foreign interests. In an hour-long speech on Oct. 25, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, played up fears of foreign interference, warning that “[w]e are worried for the country that someone is trying to pull it … toward a civil war.” In a widely shared video, dozens of Lebanese rejected the idea of foreign funding, recording themselves saying “I am Lebanese, and I am funding the revolution.” Nasrallah also urged his supporters not to participate in the protests. Hezbollah members have also blocked the entrances and exits from Dahiyeh, a stronghold for the party in southern Beirut, to prevent residents from joining the protests in downtown Beirut. Although some of Hezbollah’s base have responded by closing ranks, many others have persisted in turning out to protest.

Tensions spiked Nov. 12, after President Aoun told protesters to go home or risk “catastrophe” for Lebanon. He also refused to accept calls for a technocratic government, insisting that any new government be composed of at least half politicians. Protests resumed with force, calling for a secular transitional government composed of technocrats. During these protests, a soldier shot and killed a demonstrator, the first direct casualty in four weeks of demonstrations (two Syrian workers died on Oct. 18 after being trapped in a shop that protesters set on fire). The man who was killed belonged to the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), a Druze political party and political adversary of Aoun. The soldier has been detained and is under investigation, while Walid Jumblatt, the head of PSP, has called for his supporters to stay calm. The event raises fears about the risk of co-opting by sectarian political parties.

Repression and Excessive Force by Security Actors

Lebanese security forces have responded to peaceful protesters with excessive force and unlawful detentions. In Beirut, riot police used tear gas to disperse protesters on the evening of Oct. 18; at least 64 people were hospitalized because of tear gas inhalation. Military police also used batons, rocks and their boots to beat and kick protesters. Internal Security Forces arrested at least 70 people for “acts of vandalism and looting in downtown Beirut.” Human rights lawyer Ghida Frangieh confirmed that detainees had been beaten by security forces at both the point of arrest and en route to the police station; all 70 detainees were later released after confirmation that the protesters’ arrests had been unlawful.

Security forces have used less restraint outside Beirut, in Tripoli to the north and Nabatieh and Tyre to the south. The single most violent episode since the protests began came on Oct. 26 in the Beddawi neighborhood of Tripoli. The army opened live fire against dozens of protesters staging a sit-in. At least two of the protesters suffered gunshot wounds. Amnesty International also documented the excessive use of force in Abdeh and Saida against peaceful protesters who had blocked roads. Lebanese security forces have also failed to protect protesters against violence by supporters of Hezbollah and Amal. Hundreds of party supporters attacked and chased demonstrators in central Beirut, and in the southern city of Nabatieh, Amal-affiliated gunmen injured dozens of protesters.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have joined the Lebanese Center for Human Rights in calling on the government to respect its domestic and international legal commitments. Lebanon’s Law 65 prohibits torture and inhumane treatment in detention, and the Lebanese Constitution (Paragraph B of the Preamble) expresses commitment to the U.N. Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Additionally, Lebanon is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines the right to free assembly and mandates limited and proportional force by law enforcement officials.

International Reactions

Rather than expressing support of Lebanese demonstrators or taking a more cautious wait-and-see approach, major international actors are supporting the Lebanese political establishment. The EU issued a statement expressing confidence that the state would implement Hariri’s proposed economic reforms “swiftly and wisely.” Similarly, International Support Group representatives for the EU, the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the Arab League and the United Nations released a statement endorsing Hariri’s proposal.

The U.S. has sent mixed messages on its stance toward the unfolding developments, first announcing a decision to withhold $105 million in aid to the Lebanese army, then backpedaling, saying the U.S. has not permanently frozen any military aid. Withholding congressionally appropriated military aid would be a strategic mistake on all fronts, strengthening Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran and weakening public faith in the capacity of the Lebanese army. Even if the U.S. ultimately does not freeze the aid, these equivocations undermine U.S. credibility.

The October Revolution’s success is far from guaranteed. The protests could lose momentum and fizzle out, or they could descend into violence that would likely prompt the declaration of a state of emergency and an accompanying crackdown. Their leaderless structure has helped the protests debunk allegations of foreign coordination, but it also hinders the formation of a coherent strategic platform. Suspending already-approved foreign aid to the Lebanese military or to civil society is clearly harmful. Equally risky for the international community, however, would be coming out in strident support of the protest movement, since this could fuel Hezbollah and Amal’s accusations of outside interference. The task Lebanese demonstrators have set themselves—a total overhaul of a political system that exploits rather than represents them—is already hard enough. The international community should be wary of making it any harder.

Elena Hodges is a J.D. candidate at NYU Law School, where she is a scholar with the Root-Tilden-Kern and Institute for International Law and Justice programs. She has previously worked on refugee and migrant labor rights with Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon and migrant workers in Jordan. Elena holds a Political Science B.A. from Yale University.

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