Lebanon unifies in an attempt to turn the tide of graft

Enough is enough. Calls for change in Lebanon have united people from all ages and walks of life

Lebanese people from all walks of life have come together with their new Lebanese flags, outside the Central Bank, demanding that its longtime governor, Riad Salameh, quit, hand himself over to judicial authorities, explain his son’s opulent wedding in Cannes this year, and provide details of money stolen by the government.

“All of them means all of them,” is the revolution’s cry — out with Salameh, and the Maronite Christian president, Michel Aoun, and the Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, and the Shia speaker, Nabih Berri, and even Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the militant group and political party that is a member of the coalition government.

Nasrallah? Taboos are falling at a giddying pace. Some sources estimate that as many  as one million people, a quarter of the Lebanese population, have taken to the streets in protest.  In this most sectarian of countries everyone stands together, for now. The unity is fragile. Lebanon, through Hezbollah, is Iran’s proxy on the border of Israel. Hezbollah fought to save Bashar Assad in Syria. It will not let its Lebanese power base go lightly. Already, Nasrallah has started blaming outside forces for the unrest and has warned of impending chaos.

But young Lebanese are tired of being other people’s proxies. They are claiming their own country; hence those flags. Beirut is in lockdown. Banks are closed, businesses shuttered. A speech by Aoun, a week into the protests, was a flop. “Regime change, young fellows, does not take place in the streets,” he declared and was roundly mocked. The crowds believe the street is precisely where transformation occurs.

A leaderless popular movement, propelled by social media, determined — with sudden unity — to overturn the status quo and render justice to the people. From Turkey to Chile, from France to Egypt, from Brazil to Libya, such upsurges of fury and idealism have marked the past decade, only to fail or fade more often than not. But this is Lebanon, with its one feeble government, two armies (the state’s and Hezbollah’s), two currencies, 18 officially recognised religious groups, and one thousand conspiracy theories.

The state is weak, the economy on the verge of collapse, and an awakened citizenry unready for compromise with their leaders, whose demands for an end to dissent have spread division and woes. Enough of war and warlords and the sectarian politics of fear! Lebanon is seeking a fresh start. “This is the first time in our history that Christians, Druze, Sunni and Shia and everyone get together like this,” Rudy Marroum told journalist Roger Cohen,  outside the Central Bank. “It’s make or break, a last chance for Lebanon. The Lebanese and Palestinians helped build Dubai. They could not build their own countries, so they had to go and build other countries to feed their children.” Meanwhile, Mona Massalkhi stood nearby with her 20-year-old daughter, Leila, an occupational therapist. “We are not a poor country,” Massalkhi said. “We are just governed by thieves. I will stay in the street as long as it takes for the sake of my daughter, who has no future without change.”

There is no shortage of elaborate theories  — never in short supply in Lebanon — about how the economy is dollarized in order to enslave the country to American interests, and how Salameh, the Central Bank governor for the past 26 years, has facilitated the offshore transfers of vast sums by government ministers, their families and cronies.

The economy, starved of capital inflows, is in free fall, with no growth, high unemployment and  huge pressure on the Lebanese pound. Banks have not opened for a week for fear of a panic-driven stampede for dollars.

Garbage piles up. Electricity is intermittent. Sewage spills into the sea. “The only thing we recycle here is politicians,” Paula Yacoubian, an independent member of parliament, observed. The gold necklace she was wearing formed the Arabic word for “Enough!”

This edited article by Roger Cohen first appeared in The New York Times

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