Lebanon Is Crippled By Massive Anti-Government Protests

Oct 21, 2019
Originally published on October 21, 2019 9:05 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people, many of them young, are in the streets across the country chanting revolution. This is one of the biggest mass protests in Lebanon's history, and their anger is directed against political leaders who they say are getting rich while Lebanon faces a massive financial crisis and while its infrastructure crumbles. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in downtown Beirut. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So what does it look like there? What's going on?

ESTRIN: Well, I'm on the main street, and protesters are already starting to gather here for a fifth day. They're draped in Lebanese flags. They're holding handwritten signs. There's a countrywide strike today, so we're expecting a huge gathering. And last night there were hundreds of thousands of protesters here in this square and throughout the country. And Lebanon has not seen anything like this before. People began five days ago with spontaneous clashes with police. The police shot tear gas.

But now what we're seeing is this very Lebanese-style Mediterranean street party - men belly dancing in the streets without their shirts on, a lot of vulgar chanting against politicians. It's a real celebration, too, but also a lot of anger. And a lot of protesters are remarking to us how unusual it is to have Christians, Druze, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims - you know, the entire spectrum of the Lebanese society - all here protesting together because Lebanon's political system, for so many years, has been bogged down by these sectarian divisions.

So for instance, listen to this 33-year-old protester, Mohammed Ballaghi.

MOHAMMED BALLAGHI: I feel euphoric. For the first time, I see the people of my country standing united together against this tyranny. I'm very proud to say I'm Lebanese because the Lebanese people are not scared anymore. They are not sectarian pieces of [expletive] anymore.

KING: (Laughter) OK, so a lot of optimism there and a little cussing. You said, you know - we've said economic concerns are at the root of this. What's behind these protests?

ESTRIN: Well, it's really been building for weeks and years. I mean, protesters say politicians here have been getting wealthy, and all the while, public services are abysmal. In many neighborhoods, people have to order their own water tanks and pumps. The electricity is a total disaster. There are scheduled power cuts every single day here. The power went off today while I was in the shower. And, you know, people have to buy generators. And this situation's been going on for years, this crumbling infrastructure. And it's really jarring for a place like Lebanon, where people are extremely well-educated and, you know, speak multiple languages.

So also, in recent weeks, there's been major panic because there's a financial crisis here. People couldn't get U.S. dollars out of the banks because Lebanon has one of the highest debt burdens in the world, and there's a major cash crunch. And the solutions being offered are simply not sustainable. Banks are pleading with Lebanese businessmen abroad, please come deposit your dollars here - giving them very high, very unsustainable interest rates.

And I think the final straw was - on Thursday, the government announced that they would try to offset their financial crisis by taxing WhatsApp calls. And WhatsApp's a free service that everyone here uses, so that really got people riled.

KING: All right. So with people riled, what is the Lebanese government doing now?

ESTRIN: Well, the prime minister has given the government a 72-hour deadline. That ends tonight. And he wants them to approve things like slashing government salaries, fixing the electricity, fixing telecommunications. But the protesters we met simply have zero faith that the government will actually follow through. Take a listen to graphic designer Stephanie Shlelah.

STEPHANIE SHLELAH: It's too late. They've been here for so long. We gave them too many chances, and they didn't do anything with them and, for now, to try and do a change in 72 hours - it's too late.

ESTRIN: So they're saying they're not going to be satisfied until the entire government establishment falls.

KING: Wow. NPR's Daniel Estrin in downtown Beirut. Daniel, thanks.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.