Lebanon News

Oct. 17 anniversary: Lebanese look back on a dark year

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Beirut, Nov. 17, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: One night in October last year, Jean-Claude Boulos, 28, was sitting in his friend’s apartment, discussing the confluence of crises facing Lebanon and their fears for the future of the country.

Hours later, news quickly spread that thousands of Lebanese had taken to streets across the country, demanding the overhaul of the sectarian political system.

Boulos and his friends decided to go into Martyrs’ Square that night of Oct. 17, 2019. He said that what he saw was unlike anything he had witnessed in a country plagued by sectarian division and decades of political corruption.

“In that moment we thought we would have the Lebanon we dream of and had dreamed of for a long time,” Boulos told The Daily Star. “There were so many people, a unity that happened that day that I can’t describe,” he recalled.

The protests came as the government discussed hiking taxes and introducing new fees, including a $0.20 levy per day for WhatsApp calls. While the WhatsApp tax was perhaps the final straw, the protests were, above all else, about years of stagnation and corruption.

At the time, the Lebanese pound was trading at around LL1,600 to the dollar on the black market, a 7 percent loss in value, which sparked fears of darker days to come. By the end of summer 2019, banks began reducing access to dollars, following fears of a shortage in Central Bank reserves.

Further shedding light on the state’s shortcomings, devastating wildfires engulfed Lebanon’s forests on Oct. 14 as ill-equipped fire fighters struggled to extinguish the inferno. In the same week, bakery owners went on strike after mill owners, who buy imported wheat in US dollars, announced that they would increase prices of flour in line with the Lebanese pound’s devaluation.

The Oct. 17 uprising and the weeks that followed were for Boulos and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese a euphoric period. For nearly two months, mass protests took over city squares and blocked roads across the country. Community initiatives came together to provide food, legal assistance and housing during the uprising.

The protests ultimately lead to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government on Oct. 28.

“It was like a dream ... Every day we thought, let’s keep this going, let’s not let this die”, Boulos said.

A year on, however, Boulos is struggling to find work, living off of food box donations and is severely injured from the devastating Beirut Port explosion in early August. As the anniversary of the protest nears, the national currency has now depreciated by 80 percent, trading at around LL8,000 on the black market.

“The country right now is not a country. The country is a waiting room for hell,” Boulos said.

Due to the local currency’s devaluation, prices have skyrocketed, unemployment has risen and the poverty rate has doubled to over half the population.

Boulos, a filmmaker, says that for over three months in 2020 he lived off of just $100. “I survived three months off of food boxes. I reached out to someone to help me because I couldn’t pay rent,” Boulos said. “This is not a life, where I am a 28-year-old who is begging for food.”

For 23-year-old activist Mohamed Lawah, after living in Beirut for three months during the coronavirus lockdown, returning to his hometown in Tripoli was a shock. “When I came back to my city, I saw how much more people are suffering,” Lawah said.

The northern city of Tripoli was frequently referred to as the "bride of the revolution" as thousands of Lebanese poured into Al-Nour Square daily, in protests that often resembled massive dance parties.

Now, the protests are no longer people’s priority as the country’s poorest city grapples with an ever-deepening economic crisis. “Now people have forgotten about everything,” Lawah said ruefully.

For Lawah, protesting was something new. His grandfather is Syrian and due to archaic nationality laws he does not hold Lebanese citizenship despite being born and raised in the country. Lawah said he had always been too concerned about his status in the country to voice other concerns. But the number and diversity of the protesters changed that. “I saw hope, I saw a chance of getting the citizenship I deserve,” he said.

After months of sporadic small-scale protests in 2020 – hindered by the economic crisis and coronavirus restrictions – the Aug. 4 explosion would arouse yet another weekend of violent mass demonstrations in downtown Beirut, which ultimately led to the resignation of Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab’s short-lived Cabinet.

Boulos however was unable to attend the protests: the blast destroyed his apartment and left him in the intensive care unit of a hospital for six days. “I broke my skull, my jawbone. Three tendons in my hand need an operation,” Boulos said.

The explosion, which killed nearly 200 people and damaged half the capital, was largely seen as a direct result of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored by authorities in a port warehouse for six years.

On the eve of the one year anniversary of the protests, Hariri has positioned himself to head the next government once again. None of the Oct. 17 demands have been met; while the implementation of necessary reforms needed to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund have been blocked by months of political bickering.

“I hope Hariri doesn’t come back, it’ll be like a bad time loop,” Boulos said.

For both Boulos and Lawah, and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, Oct. 17 was the beginning of a period filled with hope for a brighter future. “I saw some light in it. I had this fantasy,” Lawah said.

Despite Lebanon’s year of calamity, Boulos said he still has hope. “I don’t know where this hope comes from,“ he added wearily. “Some days I just want to leave. There’s really nothing making me stay. Most of my friends have left, there are no jobs. But this is my home,” he said.

“There’s a beautiful energy in this country and it’s being destroyed by the government.”





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