Lebanon’s government has vowed to end corruption following a week of street protests.
The protesters were demonstrating against tax hikes which the government claims are necessary to fund an overdue pay raise for public sector employees. In a country steeped in overt corruption—Lebanon ranks 136 of 176 states in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index—that message was always going to be a tough sell, the Middle East Institute’s Antoun Issa writes:
Over the past few years, the loss of faith in the political elites to deliver on governance is resulting in a significant development in Lebanon’s political landscape: the emergence of a grassroots, secular, pro-democracy civil movement. It is this movement that was largely the catalyst behind Sunday’s protest. Among the organizers of the protest included Beirut Madinati, an independent, secular political movement that gallantly lost last year’s Beirut municipality elections, and the YouStink movement, which came to fame during the garbage crisis of 2015.
This loosely connected movement of secular, civic activists has been born out of years of frustration with the ruling elite’s corruption, nepotism, and seeming indifference to the public interest. The movement gathers a wide range of civil society actors supporting a raft of issues from civil liberties to combating economic and political corruption. And the movement has made some headway. Long brushed aside as liberal elitists hailing from Beirut’s affluent neighborhoods, the weekend’s protests saw a mix of sect and class, showing that the movement’s messages are reaching those outside of its traditional areas of support.
In a further indication of civil society innovation, efforts to combat violent extremism drove the nongovernmental organization MARCH to open a cultural cafe located between the rival Tripoli neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen, which is home to an Alawite majority, and Bab al-Tabbaneh, which is Sunni dominated. Festivals, cultural events and job-training workshops continue to take place at the café, Florence Massena writes for Al-Monitor.
“We try to give the youth a voice. They are angry, but there are other alternatives than fighting with extremist groups,” said Lea Baroudi, a co-founder of MARCH [and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy].
“They just want to vent their frustration, and culture allows it,” Baroudi (left) told Al-Monitor. “Even with our renovation project of the streets damaged by the clashes around the cafe, the youth feel they have a voice, they are able to make a positive change in their community and also earn an income.”
“Beirut Madinati’s contestation of the Beirut municipal elections was the first significant crossover from protest to political action,” MEI’s Issa adds. “There is a growing portion of the Lebanese population that is secular, liberal, pro-democratic, pro-human rights, and anti-corruption, and it needs to find a way to be represented within Lebanon’s overwhelmingly sectarian and oligarchic political system.”