Not just another anti-government protest: Here’s why unrest continues in Lebanon

Click to play video: 'Lebanon protests: Younger generation ditches differences to target ‘unjust’ system' Lebanon protests: Younger generation ditches differences to target ‘unjust’ system
WATCH: Younger Lebanese generation ditches differences to target 'unjust' system – Oct 23, 2019

Lebanon is wrestling with its third consecutive week of anti-government protests.

Mass demonstrations have crippled Beirut and other cities since mid-October as citizens call for change in a country embroiled in political corruption and economic trouble.

Anger has brought thousands to the streets, cutting across sectarian lines, as citizens unite over their government’s failure to address the crisis.

READ MORE: Yes, there are more protests around the world — and here’s why

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been blamed for bringing the country to the verge of bankruptcy. He resigned on Oct. 29, weeks after the outrage boiled over.

While his resignation met a key demand of protesters, though, it hasn’t been enough.

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The demonstrations have continued and protesters have now set their sights on the government as a whole, seeking to hold the political elite accountable for the financial crisis.

What’s going on?

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The lull in Lebanon protests is over as new wave of demonstrations break out – Nov 4, 2019

A proposed tax on WhatsApp, a popular text and voice-calling app, was the catalyst to the widespread protests, but it’s just one of many grievances.

The Lebanese government wanted to impose a US 20 cent levy on the first call a user makes each day in an effort to drum up revenue and mitigate a worsening economic dilemma.

Wait, There’s More: An inside look at the protests in Lebanon

The otherwise free app has become essential for communication throughout the Middle East, and with phone fees already sky-high in Lebanon, the plan was met with fierce backlash.

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Protests erupted in the country’s capital of Beirut, outside the government headquarters, on Oct. 17.

READ MORE: Protests from Hong Kong to Chile highlight global frustrations

Hariri’s government moved quickly and cancelled the tax within hours, but it was too late. Protesters were ready to express their anger about much more than a phone tax.

The next day, thousands of Lebanese citizens from all sects took to the streets, making several demands — including Hariri’s resignation and that of his national unity government, an overhaul of the country’s political system and the implementation of a non-sectarian government.

Over the past three weeks, the protests have brought the country to a halt, closing schools and banks, and tangling roads and highways.

While there has been no armed or violent conflict, the government has effectively been toppled, leaving questions about what’s to come.

Political problems

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Demonstrators gather in Tripoli and Nabatieh, Lebanon – Oct 21, 2019

The protesters say corruption and mismanagement in Lebanon’s government have led to its current economic climate.

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Political sectarianism is widely considered to be the key issue at play.

Lebanon has a number of leaders and parties that hold power over the country’s sectarian groups. There are 18 officially recognized religious communities and the three main political offices are divided by the three biggest sects. The president must be Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament must be Shia Muslim, and the prime minister must be Sunni Muslim.

In parliament, seats are divided evenly between Christians and Muslims, according to BBC.

This system, while religiously diverse, has been criticized for not only being vulnerable to foreign interference but for hindering fair and proper governance.

Political leaders from each sect maintain power and influence through a system of patronage networks, which allows them to protect the interests and communities they represent.

Protesters want the political elite removed, the system overhauled and for Lebanon to create a non-sectarian state.

President Michel Aoun has asked his supporters to work with protesters to create a non-sectarian state. However, he acknowledged that corruption “will not end easily because it has been deeply rooted for decades.”

Economic crisis

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Lebanon protesters return to streets as night falls – Oct 29, 2019

Long before mass demonstrations paralyzed the streets, Lebanon was grappling with a fiscal crisis.

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Lebanon is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world. Its national debt stands at approximately $86 billion and it has the third-highest public debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, around 150 per cent.

After years of inefficiency, waste and corruption, the government has relied heavily on borrowing, often for staggeringly high interest rates.

However, capital and foreign currency inflows have slowed, leading to a shortage of U.S. dollars in the country’s main banks. This has also caused the Lebanese pound to drop below the value of the dollar on the recently-emerged black market.

Banks were closed for more than two weeks at the height of the protests. When they reopened Friday, capital controls were implemented in an effort to hold onto dollar reserves.

The World Bank recently sounded the alarm about the economic situation, warning that things could snowball further without the formation of a new government.

It suggested poverty could rise to 50 per cent if it worsens. Almost a third of the population currently lives below the poverty line and employment among people under 35 sits at 37 per cent.

Demonstrators carry Lebanese flags during ongoing anti-government protests near the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Beirut, Lebanon November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

“With every passing day, the situation is becoming more acute and this would make recovery extremely challenging,” Aoun, who is also the World Bank’s president, said in a statement.

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“Lebanon does not have the luxury of time to waste to redress issues that need immediate attention.”

The fall of the pound has stoked commodity shortages and price hikes.

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The WhatsApp levy was just one part of the government’s initial plan to find fresh funding sources. The previous austerity budget also included a gradual increase of value-added tax and levies on gasoline.

When that didn’t sit well with protesters, Hariri attempted to smooth things over with a new plan to salvage the country’s finances and eradicate corruption. This included slashing salaries of elected officials, no new taxes on citizens, and a promise to end electricity blackouts.

Protesters were still unsatisfied. More than a week since Hariri announced his intention to step down, rallies are still being held in Beirut and elsewhere.

What could this mean?

Students carry national flags during ongoing anti-government protests near the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Beirut, Lebanon November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares.

With no leader and the demands of protesters unmet, there is uncertainty in Lebanon.

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Discussions about forming a new government are ongoing, but it’s been more than a week since Hariri quit and there is little development.

It will be up to Aoun to set a date for consultations with political heads to name a new prime minister, though that has not yet happened.

Protesters want sweeping changes in government, so anything less than an overhaul of Lebanon’s powerful political figures will likely only heighten the situation.

They would like to see a small cabinet of technocrats take over to make reforms and ultimately lead the country to early elections.

Until then, continued demonstrations may only exacerbate the deteriorating economy.

However, if a new government is formed quickly, it will unlock financial support from other Middle Eastern governments, Reuters reported.

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press

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