'Enough!': Lebanese protesters demand change as demonstrations stand strong
Lebanon has seen daily protests since Thursday October 17 following the proposed tax on WhatsApp by the government.
Despite the government recalling the tax, people have continued to come to the streets demanding the end to the current political leadership and an end to the intertwining of religion and politics that have caused decades of strife in Lebanon.
Leila Nasrallah has been participating in the demonstrations since the second day and has continued to come to the streets every day since then. She explained that the biggest problem that Lebanon faces is sectarianism and that this is the first thing that needs to change.
"Our biggest problem in Lebanon is that religion is very related to the politics," Nasrallah said. "So, everything that has to do with big people in Lebanon is divided over religions.
"Lebanon has to be one big group of people where religion does not divide people and the politics have to be totally independent from religion," She added.
"The people going into the government just need to be Lebanese. Why do the Shia need to have that number of people in the parliament or in the government or whatever?"
|I would like to see Lebanon as a country that separates religion from politics because this is the main problem
- Eli Abi Khalil, a protester
Elie, another protester who did not give his second name, works in Cyprus and returned to Lebanon once he learned of the protests and how different they are from previous demonstrations.
"I was working there and when I found out what was happening here, I came back," he said.
"Usually I'm not into protests. For me, every protest that has happened before didn't have a big impact. So, I was kind of like ‘what was the point?'
"But this time, it felt so special. And it was so unprecedented because it has never happened in Lebanon before. It has never happened that in all of Lebanon, not just one city, all people from all religious backgrounds came down to the streets waving one flag that is the Lebanese flag.
"That never happened before. Never. And you could feel that there was something there. That was why my blood started to boil and I just needed to come to Beirut as soon as possible. Just to participate in it and do what I can do. Even just me being here and vocal about this, that is me doing what I can do to push this forward."
He agreed with Nasrallah's argument that sectarianism is the biggest problem that Lebanon faces and added that he believes that it is time for the people to lead the country rather than religion.
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"What we are protesting against are these sects themselves," he explained.
"We don't want that anymore. We just want the people to rule and not the other way around because the government is the people that work for the citizens," he added, noting Lebanon's political elite is tired, old and must step aside to allow "the young people try to steer this boat."
Another protester, Elie Abi Khalil, also agreed for the need to end sectarianism.
"I would like to see Lebanon as a country that separates religion from politics because this is the main problem," he said.
For Abi Khalil, this protest is different to him than others that he has seen since it is not a political party or any specific movement that is leading them, but, rather, it is being led by the people.
"For a Lebanese guy who has witnessed a lot of movements in the streets, it is something unique and shocking because it has never been this way for such causes," he said.
Read more: Radical reform or total chaos for Lebanon?
"Usually it was done by political parties, it was done by specific politicians and movements, but this one was spontaneous, and it was led by people who have had enough of this whole situation in Lebanon through years.
"It's not something that happened at this moment. It's an accumulation of a lot of daily stress and right that are being taken from us and humiliation. We have been humiliated as Lebanese citizens by our government and politicians for years. The WhatsApp [issues] was like the last drop in the cup that made it spill over."
Abi Khalil also explained that it was different because the Lebanese people have continued to protest daily.
"Usually the Lebanese people get bored so fast from anything that they are interested in at the start," Abi Khalil said.
"But what I'm seeing now, it's not going back. It's always in a progressive stage. Every time a politician goes on television to speak, it gives people more reason to go down to the streets. To demand what they did at the start of this [protest]. People don't want to move back. They want to move forward. And the politicians, they don't want to lose their system. So, these groups are holding their ground and the people are holding their demands and no one wants to retreat."
Elie agreed with Abi Khalil and believes that if the protests are successful, then it has the potential of not only helping Lebanon's politics and people, but also the economy.
|Lebanon has seen daily protests since Thursday October 17 [TNA]|
"It's not just a sudden thing," Elie said, "That pain united us because even the people that follow Hezbollah have the same goals. They want the same thing. No one wants to live in a corrupt country.
"Our politicians are so corrupt that Lebanon has become one of the most indebted countries in the world. It's very much known that the people that are in power, basically make this not a democracy anymore. It is a dictatorship, but a different kind of dictatorship.
"One person isn't ruling the country. It's like multiple people that are ruling the country and they're stealing so much money from the government's vault. There've been some calculations made by professionals and they say that if that money is returned to the people, then not only will Lebanon close down its debt, but our Lebanese pound will regain its value that was prior to the civil war."
However, sectarianism and the calls for the government to resign are not the only topics on the minds of the protesters. For Nasrallah, who is pursuing her PhD, being able to get a good education is on the top of her demands.
"Our biggest problem, for me, is why do I need to think about travelling outside [of the country]," she asked.
"Let's say travelling to France, which is what most people do to continue their PhD, because France can pay me for pursuing my PhD at their universities. They can give me back the money that I pay for rent as a student. They can give me back the taxes that I pay. As a Lebanese citizen, I don't get this in my country.
Read more: The time has come to define the Lebanon we want
"At the same time, I don't want to leave my country because my people are here. My parents, my friends, my hobbies, everything that we want is in our country, but we can't live a decent life."
Women's and LGBT rights are also issues that have been more widely discussed, as women have been seen acting as buffers between protesters and security forces as well as a woman who kicked an armed bodyguard in the groin becoming an unofficial symbol for the demonstrations.
"They've always been on the front in Lebanon and that is what the West gets wrong," Elie said passionately.
|People have come to the streets to demand an end to the
current political leadership [TNA]
"Our women are some of the leading women in the world. Not just the Middle East. They have a voice. The stereotypes about eastern women don't apply to Lebanese women. No. They're on the front from political views to being in the field. They’re the first ones on the ground."
However, while demands for women's and LGBT equality continues to grow, Nasrallah, Abi Khalil and Elie all agree that any other issues besides sectarianism and a change to the political system will have to wait.
"A government that has been in power for 30 years will not be toppled in a week or nine days," Elie said.
"Of course not. It's going to be very hard. But, hopefully, we won't lose motivation and we won't lose stamina because, now, if we fail, it is going to be a big, big, big slap to what we have been trying to accomplish. There's a sense of urgency that if we fail now, then it is going to push us back."
According to Abi Khalil, by solving one problem, it will become a domino effect where other issues will be able to be solved.
"It's all like a chain," Abi Khalil explained.
"When you free yourself from fear of people attacking your religion, people attacking your political party and when you have a free mind, you start thinking differently. You start looking at things differently.
"So, I think it will help women's rights and LGBT rights. Not in the meanwhile, but in the long-term when everything starts to change step-by-step, we will reach there maybe."
For Nasrallah, though, it is not just about solving sectarianism first, but changing the way people think that women's and LGBT issues need to be addressed.
"I don't think that all men in Lebanon are conscious or mature enough to know the ability of a woman," Nasrallah said before laughing.
"This revolution is not going to help people get out of the shell that they are living in. But I hope that if women are involved in politics, it will help the next generations if it is not going to help now."
Another major staple of these protests has been the chants that have gained wide popularity throughout the country, with many including curses and swear words directed at politicians – the most popular of which has been against Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
While these chants have continued to rise in popularity, Nasrallah argued that even if all of the protesters were silent, it would still send a loud message to the government.
"I'm against bad words," she said, "It's not going to solve anything. The protests themselves are showing politicians that we are down in the streets because we want our rights. Because we are standing in your face, we want to change this country. We're not letting people go to their work. We're kind of paralysing the country and services and everything. And this is enough to show the politicians that we're here. We don't have to insult them to show them that we hate them. It’s enough to stand and show them that we don't like them in their chairs."
The protests have shown no signs of slowing down and continue to draw more and more people to the streets as they enter their second week. Nasrallah, Elie and Abi Khalil all shared the same sentiment that thousands of other protesters have repeatedly reiterated: They are not leaving until their demands are met.
"They used to call Lebanon the 'Switzerland of the East' and there was a sense of hope that we were having during these nine days that change is coming," Elie said passionately. "Change is going to come. And that feeling of hope moved the whole nation."
Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist who reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.
Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno