Lebanon News

Young, angry Lebanese ditch differences to target sectarian system

Protesters set up camp in Martyr's Square in Downtown Beirut, Oct. 23, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Like most young protesters flooding Lebanon’s streets to vent their fury over joblessness and inequality, Nina Sabbah demands more than the government’s hastily announced reforms if she is to back down.

She wants to end a political system where, she says, what job you get depends on who you know and what religion or sect you belong to.

Demonstrations dominated by young faces have paralyzed the country in recent days, forcing Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government to rush out measures aimed at quelling anger and rescuing an economy in free fall.

The reforms, which include slashing the salaries of top officials and imposing taxes on banks, have not appeased demonstrators, many of whom are young. The official unemployment rate for those aged under 35 is 37 percent.

Protesters like Sabbah, a Shiite Muslim from the south, say they have shed religious affiliations to join a broad protest movement that has cut across sectarian lines, challenging a system they say fuels inequality, nepotism and corruption.

“It’s a country where which sect or which political leaders you belong to secures you a job,” the 25-year-old said, adding that she’d joined Muslim Sunnis, Christians and Druze in expressing her rage at the country’s elite.

“Everyone has reached a point where we cannot take it any more. We are unified in our outrage.”

Lebanon’s power-sharing system based on 18 recognized religious sects dates back to French colonial rule, allocating posts for each of the country’s communities and forming the basis of its major political parties.

“I’ve come to bring down the sectarian-based regime and replace it with a political system where people get positions based on competence, not sect,” said Younis Kalaji, 21, a university physics student.

Protesters say the system affects everyday life, determining everything from university appointments to quotas for each religious sect in the country’s military and state institutions.

“We don’t want anyone to use our sect to determine whether we pass our exams or get a job,” said Zainab Sharafeddine, an 18-year-old student at the Lebanese University.

Lebanon’s economy was once likened to the Switzerland of the Middle East, with a sophisticated banking sector and thriving tourism industry. But spiraling debt and donors’ increasing reluctance to bail out the economy have triggered an economic crisis. Its once affluent middle class has been decimated and many young people see moving abroad as the only way to get ahead.

Like most Arab countries, the demographics of Lebanon’s roughly 4 million skew heavily toward the young: About 40 percent of its highly educated population is under the age of 25.

“There’s no work here in Lebanon. It’s just exhaustion,” Nour Habib, a 20-year-old engineering student, said. “If any opportunity comes to leave Lebanon, I will take it.”

Protests that have gripped Lebanon for the past week, with their chants for revolution and the downfall of the regime, echo the 2011 Arab revolts that unseated four Arab leaders and the past year’s uprisings in Algeria and Sudan.

“The Arab revolts all had one dictator, but in Lebanon we have one hundred,” said Farah Baba, a university youth activist whose group has camped near Riad al-Solh Square in central Beirut where protesters have converged.

Protests across the country have seen people break taboos by burning pictures of leaders of their own sects and, unusually, chanting against Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, the most powerful figure in Lebanon.

“They have broken the barrier of fear by attacking symbols of their politicians and leaders of their sects,” Baba said.

Some people say their fight is to erase the legacy of a 15-year Civil War that began in 1975 and pitted Muslims, Druze and Christians against one another.

The peace agreement that ended the war shifted the balance of power among the sects, with Christians losing some prerogatives, but left the confessional system in place.

As tens of thousands of demonstrators hoisting the Lebanese flag fanned out across Lebanon, activists have urged protesters to leave sectarian symbols and party flags at home.

A truck rallying protesters in central Beirut, engulfed in a sea of red and white national flags, had on its sides a simple message: “No to sectarianism. It’s time for change.”

Zainab Shreif, 16, a high school student, said that young people were breaking free from their sectarian identities.

“They have discovered that the party they were chanting for, whose leaders’ posters they carried, do not care about them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 24, 2019, on page 2.

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