Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced the resignation of his government on Tuesday following nearly two weeks of nationwide anti-government protests. In a televised address, Hariri said he had hit a “dead end” in resolving the crisis. Demonstrators “were congratulating each other while at the same time acknowledging that the struggle is very long,” says Lebanese journalist Lara Bitar, who joins us from Beirut for an update. She says protesters have promised to stay in the streets until all of their demands are met, including the resignation of all top government officials, early parliamentary elections and the creation of a transitional Cabinet of people unaffiliated with traditional political parties.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Lebanon, where Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned after two weeks of massive anti-government protests. Al-Hariri said he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve the crisis, and announced his decision in a nationwide televised address.
SAAD AL-HARIRI: [translated] For 13 days, the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that would stop the deterioration. I have tried during this period to find a way out, to listen to the people’s voice and to protect the country from economic, security and social dangers. Today, I will not hide it from you. I have reached a dead end. It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis. I am going to Baabda Palace to present the resignation of the government to President Michel Aoun and the Lebanese people in all the regions, in response to the will of many Lebanese who took to the streets to demand change.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Protests across Lebanon have brought more than a million people into the streets. They started earlier this month when the government announced a tax on WhatsApp calls. The demonstrations quickly grew into a call for revolution, with demands for the resignation of all top government officials, early parliamentary elections and the creation of a transitional Cabinet comprised of independent experts to guide the country through its economic crisis and secure basic services like electricity and water.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, many protesters welcomed the prime minister’s departure but promised to stay in the streets until all their demands are met.
PROTESTER: [translated] We will pursue our movement. The means are not clear yet, but we are continuing until all our demands are met, because this resignation is just one demand out of many others we want.
AMY GOODMAN: Lebanon has been on lockdown since the protests began. Banks and schools have been closed for nearly two weeks. Hariri’s resignation Tuesday came hours after chaos broke out in downtown Beirut when a mob of hundreds of men stormed into the capital’s main protest encampment, tearing up tents and setting some of them on fire.
For more, we go to Beirut, Lebanon, where we’re joined by Lara Bitar, an independent journalist who is co-founder of the independent media workers collective Al-Murasila.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Lara. I know there is a bit of a satellite delay. Can you explain to us the significance of the resignation of the prime minister demanded by the protests, and what more the protesters are demanding?
LARA BITAR: Good morning, Amy. Good morning, Juan.
Well, as you indicated in your report, the street — the people on the street who have been demonstrating since October 17th, they’ve declared a general strike that lasted about nine days. Schools and banks have been shut down for 11 days. So, yesterday, after the announcement of the resignation, people were celebrating, they were congratulating each other, while at the same time acknowledging that the struggle is still very long.
However, the general public is very uneasy with the situation right now, because there is uncertainty in terms of the political and economic front. We’re going through a severe economic crisis at the moment. Political parties, such as the president’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, and their supporters viewed this resignation as cowardly, as Prime Minister Hariri as relinquishing his duties and his responsibilities to the nation. But we just got word earlier that the current Lebanese president assigned Prime Minister Hariri to stay on as take-care — caretaker, sorry, prime minister.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what happens now, Lara? Will the president call new elections, or will there be an attempt to form a parliamentary majority government without elections?
LARA BITAR: This is what civil society organizations on the street are calling for. They’re calling for primarily the formation of a new, completely independent government that is not represented by any of the political parties that are currently in power, and specifically not the political parties that participated in the 15-year-old Lebanese civil war. They’re asking also for that independent government to have the ability to legislate laws, laws including one to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, another law to reform the electoral law and hold early elections to form a new independent government.
AMY GOODMAN: Lara, can you explain who the political elite is? The demand of the protesters that it’s not enough for just Hariri to step down; they want the ouster of the entire political elite. And you just said that he has been asked to stay on as a caretaker. So, does that mean he is not leaving?
LARA BITAR: It seems like, for the short term, at least, that he is going to be staying in power. I just got news of this right now, so I’m not sure what the reaction on the street is, but I assume people are not very happy with this decision.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear the beginning of your question, but in terms of the ruling elite, these are different political parties. As they say, as demonstrators have been saying, these are people who, in essence, at the end of the civil war in the early ’90s, took off their military uniforms and replaced them with suits and ties, and they have been ruling this country since.
So, when people talk about the complete overhaul and the complete and radical change of the political system, they are talking about these people. They are talking about the neoliberal economic policies that were implemented at the end of the civil war, that people are really suffering because of these policies. They want to change the entire system, and they want every single political party or officials who have been complicit in the crimes that were committed during the war and postwar to be held accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the attack on the encampment by the men wearing black, and the significance of this, what this protest encampment is?
LARA BITAR: So, let me just very briefly talk about — just provide some context for your viewers. Since October 17, demonstrations have been nationwide, from Tripoli in the north to Sour in the south. Demonstrations that took place in 2015 in the aftermath of the garbage crisis, demonstrations in 2011 against the sectarian system and even demonstrations in 2005 that led to the end of the Syrian occupation were centralized in Beirut. This mobilization is across the country. There has been almost 400 towns and villages who have participated in some form of collective action.
So, while the attacks that happened yesterday generated a lot of media attention, there has been sporadic attacks all over the country by the state and its agencies, the security, the Lebanese army and the Lebanese intelligence, internal security forces and, you know, affiliates or allies of the state who are keen on maintaining the current structure in place.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the growing wealth inequality that’s at the root of many of these demonstrations and protests in Lebanon. After all, Hariri is one of Lebanon’s richest people. He’s worth about $2 billion. It’s been a tough week for world leaders who are billionaires. Over in Chile, Sebastián Piñera, another billionaire, is having massive protests in the streets, as well, against wealth inequality. How has this widening gap affected Lebanon?
LARA BITAR: So, about 1% of the people in Lebanon control — or hoard, I should say — the majority of the wealth. And in the past decade, that has incrementally grown. Since the beginning of this year, there has been also demonstrations because of recently passed austerity measures. There has been cuts to the only public university in Lebanon, the Lebanese University. There has been cuts to various ministries, such as the Environment Ministry, that is crucial to maintain as we continue to face an environmental crisis. There’s been additional taxes that primarily impact the working class and the poor. And we see — and also, because Lebanon has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratio, at almost 150%, making Lebanon the third most indebted country in the world, so this public debt that is at almost $89 billion and continuously growing, the servicing of this debt primarily benefits the wealthy at the expense of the very poor. So there’s a lot of anger on the street.
And, you know, these demonstrations have somewhat been referred to by the international press as a WhatsApp revolution. That’s far from the truth. WhatsApp was a very, very small trigger to what is happening here. You know, there were also plans to not only add a tax of about 20 cents per day, amounting to a maximum of $6 per month — and also, for context, WhatsApp is used by almost everybody in the country, and especially because telecommunication costs are so expensive. So what we see is a gradual increase in taxes that do not really serve people who are being taxed, and tax evasion by the most wealthy and by the banking sector.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You mentioned more than $80 billion in debt. Who holds that debt? What countries are benefiting specifically, or what financial groups, from the Lebanese debt crisis?
LARA BITAR: It’s not really the international community that’s benefiting. It’s actually the local banking sector that benefits from the servicing of this public debt, and, of course, some international — some members of the international community — Saudi Arabia, Gulf states and others. But for the most part, it is the local banking sector that is benefiting. And the local banking sector is very tightly affiliated or close to the political class, so they’re, in essence, serving each other.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about — you’ve described this as a really anti-capitalist mobilization. Can you also talk about how this dates back to and what were the trash protests of 2015, that this has been building?
LARA BITAR: I’ll just briefly talk about the 2015 demonstrations that were ignited after a garbage crisis that continues to be unresolved. And again, the primary difference between what is happening now and what is happening then, and even though in 2015 there was a lot of anti-capitalist sentiment that was expressed, we see it much more vividly today. One of the main protest sites is actually at the central bank. People have been there for almost two weeks. They are calling for not only the downfall of the current political class, but they’re also calling for the downfall of the governor of the central bank, Riad Salamé. They are also calling for the downfall of the rule of the bank in Lebanon.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn right now to Nasrallah, to talk about his response to the protest, urging followers not to join the mass protests.
HASSAN NASRALLAH: [translated] I want to appeal to the people. I want to appeal to the protesters and appeal to those who are blocking roads, with all due respect, love and fraternity, to open the roads for the people to go to their works and schools and hospitals. I am scared for the country. We are scared for the country. We are scared that there might be someone who wants to take Lebanon and create social, security and political tensions that would lead to civil war. Any solution, you, people and political powers and everyone related — you should base your actions on not falling into a government vacuum, a vacuum in the government institutions, a vacuum in the authorities. Why? Because this is really dangerous.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Hezbollah leader Nasrallah. Lara Bitar, the significance of Hezbollah around these protests?
LARA BITAR: So, you know, on one hand, the secretary-general of Hezbollah goes on TV and tells his supporters to not participate in these demonstrations, while at the same time saying that there are legitimate concerns and that there are legitimate demands by people on the street. His supporters, however, sometimes do hear his calls not to act in any kind of violent manner, but then there’s this claim that the secretary-general cannot always be in control of his supporters and of party members.
But the attack that we saw yesterday — and it later turned out that it was primarily by Amal Movement supporters and maybe a handful of Hezbollah supporters — we are not really sure, and we can’t really know who is really sending these young men to attack these demonstrations. But what is very clear, at least from my perspective, is that Hezbollah, being part of this government, even if not as corrupt as other political groups, is at least complicit in the corruption that this government has been a part of for decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Early in the protests, a video went viral of protesters singing the children’s song “Baby Shark” to soothe a toddler in a car that was stuck in the demonstrations.
PROTESTERS: [singing] Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo
Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo
Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo
Mommy shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo
Mommy shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo
Mommy shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo
AMY GOODMAN: The protesters in Iraq have also been chanting “Baby Shark” during anti-government demonstrations there. It’s almost become the song of the movement in Lebanon. Lara Bitar, we want to thank you very much for being with us, independent journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, co-founder of the independent media workers collective Al-Murasila.
When we come back, we speak to a candidate for district attorney in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin. Stay with us.