The Lebanese Revolution has resurged after a period of relative inactivity, with protesters declaring a “week of rage" amid a continuing economic and political crisis. The struggling Lebanese pound and capital controls on foreign cash have provoked a new wave of indignation that has sharpened the stances of both the demonstrators and the state. The last two days have seen hundreds injured and arrested.
For three months prior to these latest events, protests in Lebanon had been peaceful. The two-million-strong demonstrations on the streets at the height of the movement almost had a carnival atmosphere. However, nothing changed for the masses. Indeed, in addition to a sputtering cash supply, their living conditions have worsened, with continuous water shortages and increasing electricity blackouts.
This has led to a qualitative change within the movement. Frustrated protesters have been intensifying their methods. In particular, demonstrators have been targeting banks and exchange offices. “There’s no other way. It’s been almost a hundred days,” one female protester told Al Jazeera TV. “Nobody’s listening… We are ruled by criminals.”
Attacks on banks and state violence
Last Tuesday and Wednesday, protesters descended on the headquarters of Lebanon's central bank (BDL) in the prestigious Hamra neighbourhood in the capital Beirut, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the building’s facade. Across the city, furious demonstrators smashed the windows of commercial banks and vandalised ATMs with bricks and fire extinguishers.
On Saturday and Sunday, protesters targeted the main building of Lebanon’s Banking Association (which represents finance sector bosses), breaking its windows, smashing its exterior with iron bars and setting fires outside the premises. Continuing indignance at political corruption was also plain to see. Several individuals tried to cross the concrete barriers surrounding the parliament building, while hundreds of marchers chanted “Revolution!”
It is not accidental that these institutions have borne the brunt of the masses’ fury. Since September 2019, banks have set increasingly strict limits on the withdrawal and foreign transfer of US dollars in order to maintain reserves. Years of deficit financing have caused a massive devaluation of the Lebanese pound (which has now fallen to 0.00066 USD) and gave rise to a burgeoning black market, where the dollar reached a rate of 2470 LBP. Protestors (correctly) feel they are being made to pay for this liquidity crisis, while corrupt politicians, state bureaucrats and bank bosses smuggle billions of US Dollars to Swiss bank accounts. This was reflected in the main slogan of the demonstrations on Saturday: “We will not pay the price!”
In the given conditions, it is the poorest layers of society who are leading acts of vandalism against the banks. These are people who feel extreme pressure from the falling Lebanese pound and capital controls, which are putting a severe strain on their ability to pay for basic necessities. The entrance of these layers has helped radicalise the movement, shaking it out of its naive, early phase and pushing it towards a sharper and more serious period of struggle.
The actions of the bosses in the finance sector in the face of these rising tensions have contributed to this sharpening of the movement. "As informal capital controls intensified, people became angrier,” explained Hussein El Achi, Lebanese lawyer at the Beirut Bar Association. "Banks started to use private security and Internal Security Forces against clients who refused to leave the premises [after trying to withdraw money from their accounts]. On numerous occasions, customers were attacked and assaulted inside the banks. Some of them were even locked up in small offices and got their phones confiscated, which is illegal, of course."
The parasitical finance sector is a key component of Lebanese capitalism and the masses are acutely aware of its cosy relationship with the hated political elite. "Banks here are very much intertwined with the political class," El Achi says. "Politicians are either shareholders in these banks, both directly or indirectly through third parties, or occupy seats on the bank boards [receiving] very high remuneration. Banks in Lebanon are the biggest state lender. All those suspicious dealings and the corrupt projects you see... are all financed by these banks. Everyone sees that the banks are complicit in state corruption."
In the light of these actions towards the banks, the relative restraint exercised by the security forces in the early months of the demonstrations (with some exceptions) has now been abandoned. Lebanon’s security and military forces issued a warning in advance of the weekend’s demonstrations that attacks on private or state property would be met with force. In the end, over 300 people were wounded and 100 arrested in Beirut as riot police attacked the crowds with teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets, who responded in turn with rocks, fireworks, tree branches and metal bars in battles that lasted for hours.
Among the injured were two journalists, including a cameraman from local broadcaster Al Jadeed and a reporter for MTV, who was hospitalised. The former was allegedly told by a policeman: “If you don’t stop filming, I will break the camera on your head and shove this baton up your ass.” The police also set fire to the tents set up in the capital by protestors in the course of the movement.
There are reports of police firing teargas canisters indiscriminately in residential areas, with some landing on people’s balconies. There are also claims that police fired the canisters directly at protesters rather than into the air, which can be lethal. Human Rights Watch reviewed footage that confirmed two female protesters were attacked by gangs of policemen. One of the women was kicked in the head and beaten, while the other was injured in the neck and dealt a cut to the head that required five stitches.
Further footage shows riot police violently arresting protesters and dragging them into police stations. A source from the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters told Human Rights Watch that 55 people were arrested on Saturday evening. All the Lebanese detainees were released the next day. Foreigners were transferred to General Security, the agency that deals with the entry and exit of foreign nationals. In response to this brutal repression – as well as the government’s apparent strategy of "waiting it out" in the hope that people will get tired and the revolution will wane – the protesters chanted: "We do not get scared, we do not get bored."
Following these events, the regime has condemned the "violence" displayed in this new surge of protests. But we must be clear: the fault for the violence lies completely on the side of an arrogant, corrupt, and callous government, which has sent its armed bodies of men to beat and terrorise the people, after denying them their most basic needs. Between the use of force against bank windows and ATMs and its use on human beings, there should be no equivocation.
The role of the state is made clear through these actions. It is not an impartial arbiter and protector of the people, but a defender of private property in the interests of the ruling class. When the property of the ruling class was not being attacked, the police were able to remain relatively calm. But now that the movement is radicalising and targeting banks, the state forces are drawing a line. This should also be a warning to those who call for a new government, of any kind, while maintaining the present state apparatus, as a solution to the problems faced by the masses.
“All of them means all of them!”
The revolution began in mid-October, calling for "the fall of the regime". The most popular slogan became: "all of them [politicians] means all of them", signifying the complete breakdown of trust in the whole establishment.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, his post was eventually filled by Hassan Diab, Vice President of the American University. Diab demagogically came out in support of the movement in its early days. While he is not a very well-known politician, he is a member of the political elite (he served as Minister of Education from 2011-2013) and is closely linked to the pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah wings of the ruling class. For this reason he was rejected by the movement, which demands a non-sectarian and “technocratic” government: i.e., a government of impartial ‘specialists’ with no connection to the hated political elite or any of Lebanon’s various ethnic and religious factions.
But this episode also highlights exactly the weakness of the movement and its demands. Diab is a technocrat par excellence. However, like all technocrats, he is connected to the ruling class by a thousand threads. In truth, there is no such thing as an impartial, apolitical technocrat: all such characters benefit from and have a vested interest in the maintenance of the capitalist status quo.
The problem in Lebanon is not that there are particularly evil people in charge, who need only be replaced by “non-political” figures. The problem is the capitalist system and the capitalist class, which are incapable of solving the problems facing the people. Any government of “independent experts” or technocrats will inevitably be tied to one wing or another wing of the ruling class, and will carry out the same types of policies as the present regime.
In truth, there is no need to promote benevolent ‘experts’ to rule the country. The only way forward is for the masses to take power into their own hands. As the slogan goes: all of them means all of them – that is, the whole edifice of the rotten system built by the sectarians, warlords and charlatans, who have been milking the Lebanese people for decades. Only the working class has an interest in satisfying the pressing needs of the masses.
Diab has so far failed to assemble a cabinet due to internal squabbles between Lebanon’s political factions. In Beirut, the demonstrators chanted: "They are stalling the process of cabinet formation [hoping that] we would get bored; we will form the cabinet ourselves and we will not leave [the streets]". The second part of this chant (in adopting an attitude of "we will do it ourselves") displays a correct instinct of the need for a society run by the working class, for the working class.
As we have said before, what is needed is to break the movement’s isolation and draw the working class into the struggle. Breaking bank windows might send a message to the political establishment, but it is not a tactic for victory: the mass of workers cannot be won over through these methods.
Instead, the movement must develop a programme with clear social and economic demands, focusing on the poverty and misery suffered by the majority of the workers. The banking sector must be taken over and its cash supply placed under democratic control, to alleviate the daily problems affecting ordinary Lebanese citizens. Furthermore, by opening the banks' books, the revolution could expose the full extent of corruption and collusion between the banking sector and the political elite, and bring the culprits to justice.
#Lebanon: Day 95 of the #Revolution.#Protesters clashed with #riot police near #parliament entrance in #Beirut.#police fired tear gas, rubber #bullets and water cannons to disperse the crowds.#photojournalism pic.twitter.com/Z2FX0Uk8ht— Hasan Shaaban (@hasanshaaban) January 19, 2020
The ailing and criminally mismanaged energy and water sectors should also be seized, and a general industrial plan drawn up to modernise these utilities throughout the country. At present, Lebanon is almost entirely powered by a series of generators owned by a mafia of private big capitalists who deliberately prevent any serious investment or development. These pirates should be expropriated and all essential utilities nationalised and run on a democratic basis.
These economic demands must be connected with the main demand for the working people to take political power into their own hands. There must be calls to set up democratic bodies for the coordination of the movement in the workplaces and neighbourhoods throughout the country, as the basis for an alternative seat of power born out of the revolutionary struggle of the people.
A revolutionary situation does not last forever. At some point, it must either move forward towards victory or face defeat. Right now, the Lebanese Revolution is riding on a wave of anger, and momentum has surged once again. But without taking measures to organise along class lines and deploy methods of working-class struggle, there is a danger of demoralisation and exhaustion creeping in, thus emboldening divisive sectarian elements and the counter-revolutionary forces of state repression.
Only an organised revolutionary leadership can present the necessary demands, coordinate the action of the masses, and lead the way out of this chaos. With an escalation of tactics towards forming revolutionary committees of workers, students, and soldiers, the Lebanese revolution can move forward with a vengeance.