Lebanon’s people are calling out the disease of corruption, but say cure out of reach
The last two weeks of tumultuous change in Lebanon have revealed a country suffering from a chronic disease – one that the Lebanese people have long diagnosed but struggled to cure.
Young and old chanted “Thoura” – “Revolution” in English - and “Kilon yaani kilon” – all of them means all of them, a call for the entire political class to step down from power.
These chants have been heard in the streets since October, when the recent wave of anti-government protests broke out.
Every Lebanese person I spoke with could identify the disease in the political system: politicians that profit off the backs of the people who they claim to represent.
The disease of corruption had now taken over 170 lives in the Beirut port explosion, which many Lebanese attribute to negligence as authorities left 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate in a warehouse close to the densely populated city center.
Signs read: “The blood of victims are on the government’s hands” and “my government killed my people.” An older man held up a sign with figurines that looked like politicians hanging from nooses.
The message was clear: corruption had not just destroyed the Lebanese economy but had also directly led to people’s deaths, and the Lebanese people would not stay silent.
Every Lebanese protester I spoke with could recite a long list of corrupt activities by politicians from across the political class. The protesters frequently ended with the demand that the tumor of corruption plaguing the country must be removed.
But when I asked what led to the tumor, everyone had a different diagnosis.
One older woman said that Lebanon’s religious factions are to blame. Lebanon has a sectarian political system that requires a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and Shia Muslim speaker of parliament.
These three roles can only go to someone of that designated religious affiliation - a framework established following the country’s civil war. As a result, the major political parties in the country maintain largely sectarian support bases.
While the system intends to ensure a balance of different religious sects in the country, a framework based on religion perpetuates religious divisions, the woman said.
This can lead politicians to act in a way that benefits their own community, who elect them, rather than the good of the nation as a whole.
One young Lebanese man said that the real cause of the political plague was nepotism, associated with the Arabic concept of “wasta.”
Once someone assumes political office in Lebanon, he or she appoints their family members to other positions to ensure the family has a presence in the political system forever, he said.
The case of Gebran Bassil, the former foreign minister who is the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, has been used as an example by protesters.
Others pointed the finger abroad, saying that foreign countries such as Iran, Israel, and the United States are interfering in Lebanon, enabling domestic politicians to manipulate the system.
One sign held up by protesters on Saturday read: “Help! We are hostages of a corrupted government and an Iranian religious militia,” a reference to the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah.
But while the people on the streets gave a variety of diagnoses, when asked to suggest a cure their response was uniform: “There is no cure.”
Unlike protests elsewhere, the protesters do not have a detailed roadmap for the country or specific goals.
The behemoth of political depravity has become so large that has it blocked the Lebanese people from imagining a future without it.
“There is no solution,” I would hear when I asked what would solve the country’s current situation.
Some said their short-term goal was the resignation of the government – naming President Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and longtime parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
But there was no consensus on who would replace these leaders in a power vacuum.
The government cabinet resigned Monday night, undoubtedly influenced by the protests over the weekend.
The resignation is evidence that the voice in the body of Lebanon demanding justice and change, has the perseverance to outlast cronyism and shirking of responsibility – though the old political elite still holds power in the state.
Now, Lebanon is at a watershed moment. It needs a vaccine to rid itself of the disease of corruption forever.
The remedy may be complex, perhaps even unattainable.
But on the ground in the protests, it is clear Lebanon has citizens committed to healing their country in the wake of a global pandemic, economic crisis, political unrest, and an unprecedented tragedy.