After years of silence, protesters have returned to the streets of Beirut. Only this time, it’s about inequality, not Syria
Roughly a decade ago, well before the Arab Spring, tens of thousands took to the streets in Lebanon, demonstrating against the Syrian occupation. It was called the Cedar Revolution, but it quickly it fizzled, as sectarian politics managed to silence dissent.
That is, until now. On Tuesday, thousands marched through downtown Beirut. The protesters represented a cross section of Lebanese society: Women in neon-colored tube tops mingled with men in business suits. Conservative women in hijabs marched alongside municipal workers. Only instead of protesting against Syrian influence, this time—as Parliament debates a bill that would increase public-sector wages—the people in the street were inveighing against the growing disparity between rich and poor.
Beirut now ranks as the most expensive city in the Middle East—beating out perennial contenders like Dubai and Abu Dhabi—and many of Lebanon’s government workers, from firemen to teachers, say they can barely afford to get by on state salaries. A 2012 Credit Suisse Bank report ranked Lebanon as the third most unequal country in the world.
On top of all that, the protesters are dealing with a Parliament that has passed virtually no meaningful legislation in years and is currently consumed by backroom horse-trading to pick a new president.
The atmosphere in downtown Beirut was carnival-like, with music blaring through loudspeakers as the protesters demanded higher wages. One man in a silver-sequined cowboy hat, was shaking hands with the protesters, repeating over and over, “They will hear us now!”
Others were more explicit about their complaints. “I would like to tell our leaders to just give us our rights,” said Shaza, a 23-year-old social worker from Beirut who, like other protesters, is fed up with the government’s failure to approve a public sector pay-scale increase. “That’s all we are asking for.”
Nearby, outside the heavily fortified Arab Bank, Lebanese soldiers and police stood guard quietly behind triple-stacked coils of razor wire as the late morning crowd swelled into the afternoon.
The protesters chose downtown Beirut not just because of its proximity to Parliament. After 15 years of brutal civil war, the city’s commercial district became home to hundreds of high-end stores: Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Chanel. Most are beyond the reach of average Lebanese. Instead, they serve as quiet monuments to the wealth and consumerism of Lebanon’s upper crust, as well as the foreign tourists these stores were meant to attract.
The group leading the protests, the Union Coordination Committee, is also leading a general strike against the government. It has demanded a 121% increase in wages, retroactive to 2012 and paid in full. Currently, lawmakers are talking about paying for the wage increase through a tax hike on basic goods, which union leaders say means the workers would effectively be paying for their own raises.
“We won’t accept the funding of the pay scale unless it is funded with the money of the corrupt,” said Hanna Gharib, the union’s leader, as he spoke downtown on Tuesday.
Seated in a small patch of grass near the podium, a group of men explained why the pay increase was so important to them.
“My son can see how difficult it is to support a family in Lebanon now, so he’s planning to move abroad for better paying work,” said Abu Karim, a teacher from the southern city of Sidon. “I would go, too, if I were younger.”
“What will be left of Lebanon when all of our children have gone?” asked a man sitting next to him.
The union has called for more protests this week, as private school teachers and airport workers are set to join the strike. Other prominent labor unions seem to be getting on board as well.
In the end, the protesters may not get the wages they want, but for now at least, they have momentum, which is something they haven’t had in a very long time.