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“Unprecedented” Protests Rage Across Lebanon as People Demand PM’s Resignation and End to Austerity

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Mass protests in Lebanon have entered their sixth day as hundreds of thousands around the country are taking to the streets to demonstrate against dire economic conditions, austerity and corruption, demanding the country’s leaders step down. The protests were sparked last week when the government announced a tax on WhatsApp calls, but the massive demonstrations have since grown into a call for revolution. More than a million demonstrators flooded the streets of Beirut, Tripoli and other cities over the weekend. Prime Minister Saad Hariri revoked the WhatsApp tax on Monday and announced a package of economic reforms, but protesters are continuing to call for his ouster. For more, we speak with independent Lebanese journalist Kareem Chehayeb, whose recent piece for The Washington Post is headlined “Lebanon’s protests and wildfires tell the same grim story.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mass protests in Lebanon have entered their sixth day as hundreds of thousands around the country are taking to the streets to demonstrate against dire economic conditions, austerity and corruption, demanding the country’s leaders step down. The protests sparked last week when the government announced a tax on WhatsApp calls, but the massive demonstrations have since grown into a call for revolution. More than a million demonstrators flooded the streets of Beirut, Tripoli and other cities over the weekend. The government has revoked the WhatsApp tax, and on Monday Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a package of economic reforms, but protesters are continuing to call for his ouster. This is one of the protesters, Majed al-Darwish, in Tripoli.

MAJED AL-DARWISH: [translated] People are going to the streets for their future and the future of their children. In reality, the political class that we have has left them nothing. Before this uprising, if we can call it that, the government tried to pick the pocket of every poor person until they were left with nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Lebanon has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world and a staggering unemployment rate of nearly 40%. The country is home to one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees and nearly half a million Palestinian refugees. As anti-government protests continue to rage in the streets, massive wildfires are also engulfing Lebanon, sparked by an extreme heat wave linked to climate change.

Our next guest, Lebanese journalist Kareem Chehayeb, wrote in a recent piece for The Washington Post, quote, “This week, Lebanon has seen two unprecedented events sweep across the country: rampant wildfires and sudden street protests against the government erupting across Lebanese cities. Both tell a common story — of how the government’s crippling austerity measures, failed policies and economic corruption have left the country vulnerable.” Kareem Chehayeb joins us now from Beirut, Lebanon.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kareem. Why don’t you describe what’s happening in the streets now and how it all began?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: Thank you for having me, Amy.

Since Thursday night, protests have swept Beirut following a Cabinet decision to add further regressive taxes to help balance the Lebanese budget, which is going through a massive — which has a massive deficit. News outlets used a WhatsApp tax as sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. What happened that night started with a protest that went around Beirut. But following an incident where the bodyguards of the education minister fired warning shots and dispersing the crowds, we suddenly heard and saw protests across the country erupt like never before, across major cities and towns and people blocking major highways across the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kareem Chehayeb, these protests have occurred not only in Beirut, but in other areas of the country where Hezbollah is the main political and governmental force. I’m wondering: Are the protests now spreading throughout the country?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: Absolutely. So, following the incidents of last Thursday night, we have seen protests across the country, including in areas which are considered key political areas for parties like Hezbollah and their allies Amal, such as Tyre, Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh and others. This is rather unprecedented, considering that many of them have been critical of both parties, especially Amal. And there’s been a bit of nuance on Hezbollah which I’ve never seen before in those areas in particular. We have seen some cases of people attacking the signs and offices of MPs belonging to both parties. So, this is something that’s very unique for Lebanon, because despite Lebanon having a relatively vibrant civil society in the region, especially in Beirut, it remains centric to the capital. But here we are, we’re seeing protests across the country calling for — at least the vast majority of the people calling for the downfall of the government.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering whether the folks in Lebanon are being influenced or are aware of the mass protests that have broken out in many countries in the past year. We’ve seen examples, obviously, in Hong Kong, in Puerto Rico, in — now we’re seeing Chile, Argentina, before that, Sudan. All of these are mass protests either against austerity measures or corruption in government. Do you get a sense that folks there are aware of these other outpourings of people power across the world?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: You know, I’m not entirely sure about that. I know that over the past year or so, especially in Hong Kong, we’ve been seeing folks on social media share some of the creative tactics that protesters in Hong Kong have used to gather momentum and to resist any force from the police and other security forces. However, there have been sporadic protests over the past year when the Lebanese government did announce that austerity measures are required in order to solve the economic crisis, but nothing that spread across the country like this and that have lasted this long.

AMY GOODMAN: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced a reform package Monday night. This is what he said.

PRIME MINISTER SAAD AL-HARIRI: [translated] These decisions are not for bartering. They are not to ask you to stop protesting or expressing anger. This is something that you decide, and we are not giving you a deadline, and I will not allow anyone to threaten or intimidate you. … You have to know your voice is being heard. And if early elections are something that you want in order to make sure that your voice is being heard, then I, Saad Hariri, will personally support you in this demand.

AMY GOODMAN: Kareem Chehayeb, if you could respond to what he’s saying?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: So, basically, on Friday evening, Prime Minister Saad Hariri spoke to the protesters from the Grand Serail, and he basically appealed to the protesters and said that he will give himself and Cabinet 72 hours to implement — to pass an economic blueprint that would implement sweeping reforms and solutions to the economic crisis. Following that speech, people began to riot. And yesterday, following a Cabinet meeting at around noon and his presentation of these reforms, people were quite upset. People wanted him to listen to them and to resign and start with a new slate. Some protesters told me that if he could implement or pass such reforms in 72 hours, where were they doing this — when were they doing this for the past three years? And some economists have described some of these reforms as sheer theatrics.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you could also respond to the issue of the refugees so often used as a scapegoat to explain economic crises? You have a massive population of refugees.

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: Absolutely. So, Lebanon definitely has a massive population of refugees, the largest number refugees per capita anywhere in the world. At the moment, the number has definitely decreased. It’s definitely below the 1.5 million margin that has been used for quite some time now. However, it is true that there has been a systematic scapegoating of refugees, especially in the Lebanese media and by the Lebanese government, as sort of one of the key problems of the economy, despite the economic crisis being a product of neoliberalism that was imposed following the end of our civil war. The fact of the matter is, there is some small-scale competition between refugees and working-class Lebanese, but the bulk of the problem comes from the economic and political system that comes in Lebanon, which does not even guarantee some of the most basic rights for people, whether it’s, you know, potable water, electricity and adequate universal healthcare and education.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Aside from the retraction of the tax, the WhatsApp tax, and the announcement that they’re going to cut salaries of top government officials in half, what are some of the other reforms that the prime minister has announced? And why do you feel that the public feels that this is not enough?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: Some of the other reforms include taxing the banks and ending regressive taxes in 2020 to assure that the end of 2020 marks a bit of a near-zero deficit, as they describe it. They’re also cutting the budget of some small government councils, as well. People are not necessarily buying it, because they feel that the government is so inefficient, so ineffective and unable to come to a compromise in order to benefit the working class and what’s left of the middle class, they just have lost complete trust in them. They feel that these are more empty promises that they have been making, and they feel that they’ve been giving them empty promises for so many years now. And they feel that now is enough, enough is enough.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is the international agreement that was reached with the IMF and other outside financiers? Could you talk a little bit about that and when it occurred?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: Absolutely. So, in April 2018, Lebanon as well as members of the international community met in Paris for what was called the CEDRE conference. The CEDRE conference basically ended with the international community pledging an $11.1 billion in mostly loans and soft grants, primarily from the World Bank, as well as the EU. And among the countries present, as well, were Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Russia. The idea was that Lebanon has to reform its economic and political system into a much more efficient, modern — sort of modern state, for lack of a better term, in order to unlock this aid or loans that would help improve its infrastructure. Some policy researchers of Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, believe that the provisions are extremely — are extremely implicit. And a lot of these reforms that take place do not focus on social welfare, and they do not seem to be compatible with Lebanon’s power-sharing government.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about these twin — the twin situations that are happening right now? You have the economic crisis that is taking place in Lebanon, you have the mass protests in the streets, and now wildfires. How extensive are they? And can you talk about the issue of the climate crisis that your country is facing today?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: Sure. So, just to clarify, the wildfires are no longer happening. They happened last week, and it was a devastating couple of days for the people in Lebanon. What basically happened is that we’ve been facing relatively hotter periods with winds, and what started as a small fire in an area just south of Beirut expanded across the country. And what ended up happening was that the government’s three firefighting planes have not been maintained, so they scrambled to put out the fire. They had to use riot police cannons and military helicopters. And really, the heroes of this whole ordeal were ordinary people opening their doors for people who lost their homes, donating food, and volunteer firefighters, who are not paid, to try and put out the fire. Unfortunately, two people died, and many people lost their homes. And usually in natural catastrophe, you think of a sort of a solemn moment where everybody gets together. But in reality, this was a lot of anger towards the government for not even making sure that the basic services to protect its green landscape and its rural population were even ready to be used.

Lebanon is going through a very tough environmental period. You know, the cedar trees are dying out. There is extensive water pollution in the coast, whether it’s through coastal landfills or whether it’s land reclamation in the sea for arguably illegal construction projects. Lots of the mountains are being destroyed for rock crushers. And it seems that the environmental policy in Lebanon, like many other things, is poorly regulated.

AMY GOODMAN: The hashtag people are using on social media is #LebanonIsBurning. But I wanted to turn to yet another protester in the streets. This is Hoda Hafez.

HODA HAFEZ: [translated] We are on the ground and staying here. This is the most important thing we want to say. We are continuing in this movement. We won’t back down, and we won’t leave the streets until all the people’s demands are met. Our demands are right, and we have reached a point where people have suffocated. There is no coming back from this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Kareem Chehayeb, as we wrap up this discussion, what do you see happening in the streets right now? Where do you see this going? We were just covering the protests in Iraq, where over a hundred people were killed, 3,000 people were injured. What about the response, the police response, to your protests, and, again, what you ultimately see happening?

KAREEM CHEHAYEB: The police response this time around has surprisingly been that of restraint. There have been a couple of riots that broke out and that some mass arrests took place in Beirut, but nobody in Beirut has been killed. There have been cases of armed groups affiliated with some political parties in the south or a former MP in the north shooting at protesters, and there have been some confirmed deaths among them. But the interesting thing is — this time around, is the fact that a lot of people are sympathetic to some political parties, but they even want them to step down. The question is: How is the Lebanese government going to respond, given that they have been clinging to power for so long and that many of these parties are warlords that have reformed the political parties after the civil war? It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. Right now the international community has been pressing Lebanon to stand firm but to implement reforms as much as possible. And we’ll see how Lebanon’s government responds. But at the moment I still think it’s early days, but, you know, the momentum is still there on the streets, and it’s only a matter of time to see where this really goes.

AMY GOODMAN: Kareem Chehayeb, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Lebanese independent journalist based in Beirut. We’ll link to his piece for Middle East Eye. It’s headlined “Lebanon’s Hariri vows reforms in speech that falls flat among protesters.”

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Stay with us.

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