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The protest movement weakened in Lebanon

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BEIRUT – Thousands of people marked Saturday the first anniversary of a protest movement in various parts of Lebanon, including its three largest cities, Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon. But the protesters were far fewer than last year.

A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets protesting against taxes and a rapidly deteriorating economic crisis. A spontaneous and hopeful nationwide movement was born, denouncing an entire political institution that had pushed Lebanon to collapse for decades.

Today, as crises multiply and the country plunges deeper into insecurity and poverty, protests seem to have ended. Even widespread anger over a devastating August 4 bombing in the port of Beirut, blamed on government negligence, failed to revive the movement.

Some argue that the protests have lost momentum due to moves by the political elite to seize and weaken the movement. Protesters have met with violence, arrests and intimidation. Others say Lebanese have become numb to incompetence and corruption among the political class.

But Lebanon ‘s confessional – based power-sharing system also proved difficult to overthrow. A revolt against the status quo means breaking a sectarian patronage network cultivated by the ruling elite from which many benefit the divided population. Even if they are not satisfied, some blame other factions for the country’s problems or fears that change will give another sect power over them – a fear that politicians eagerly ignited.

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“We do not have a head of state, it is a group of men, they have agreed to share the spoils of the state at every level. It is a system that you can hardly overthrow,” said Carmen Geha, associate professor in public administration and an activist. She likened the dismantling of the Lebanese system to the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa, a long and arduous process.

For all its limitations, the protest movement that emerged on October 17, 2019, succeeded.

Even after street demonstrations broke out, basic networks were mobilized quickly after the Beirut bombing, which killed nearly 200 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Authorities almost completely left the public alone to deal with the consequences, with no government cleaning crews on the streets and little communication with those whose homes or businesses had been destroyed.

So activists intervened and took over the reconstruction.

“You find the most mobilized people to help each other … this is another face of the revolution,” Geha said. “We need to show people how good politicians are and provide them with an alternative, service-focused system.”

Two governments collapsed under street pressure – one last October, the other shortly after the Beirut bombing.

Jad Chaaban, an economist and activist, says the protest movement was hampered by the political elite.

“Politicians cemented their alliances again and distributed roles to protect each other,” he said. “The counter-revolution was at the level of the economy, allowing it to deteriorate … [and] on the street through a severe police crackdown “.

Ruling political factions have generally claimed to support the protesters’ intentions to change and end corruption. At the same time, they have made no move to approve changes, often describing protesters as agents of instability.

The protest movement also failed to provide solid leadership. From the beginning, protesters shun calls to do so, concerned leaders may be targeted or co-opted. Over time, this lack became a hindrance.

Some experts see the main demand of the protesters as unrealistic – typified in the chant, “All of them mean all of them”, which means all politicians in the institution should withdraw.

This addressed a misguided issue and was “a dilution of the problem,” said Nadim Shehadi, of London-based researcher Chatham House.

“The problem in Lebanon is not the system of government, it has its flaws but it is not the cause of the problem, Hezbollah is,” said Shehadi, who is also the executive director of the New York headquarters and the academic center at the American University in Lebanon. .

In various protests, supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal attacked the demonstrators.

In Beirut, hundreds marched on Saturday from different parts of the capital and gathered outside the port, the scene of the big explosion. They later lit a giant flame over a metal statue that reads in Arabic “October 17 Revolution.” The flame ignited at 6:07 p.m. to mark the moment when the port exploded.

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FILE – In this Friday, October 18, 2019 file photo, Lebanese riot police fired tear gas during a protest against government plans to impose new taxes in Beirut, Lebanon. A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protests across the country that raised hopes among many for a change in a political elite that over the decades has pushed the country to the ground. (AP Photo / Hassan Ammar, File)

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FILE – On this Sunday, November 3, 2019, the photo file, anti-government protesters ignited flames and chanted slogans against the Lebanese government, in Beirut, Lebanon. A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protests across the country that raised hopes among many for a change in a political elite that over the decades has pushed the country to the ground. (AP Photo / Bilal Husein, File)

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Anti-government protesters stand near the fist with an Arabic word that reads “Revolution” in Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday, October 12, 2020. A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protest in the whole country that raised the hopes of many for a change in a political elite that during those decades has run the country on earth. (AP Photo / Bilal Hussein)

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FILE – In this Thursday, October 17, 2019 photo, anti-government protesters shout slogans against the Lebanese government in Beirut, Lebanon. A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protests across the country that raised hopes for a change in a political elite that over the decades has brought the country to the ground. (AP Photo / Hassan Ammar, File)

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FILE – In this photo of Sunday, October 20, 2019, an aerial view shows the anti-government protest, in the center of Beirut, Lebanon. A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protests across the country that raised hopes among many for a change in a political elite that over the decades has pushed the country to the ground. (AP Photo / Hussein Malla, File)

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Anti-government protesters hold torches as they light a giant flame over a metal statue that reads in Arabic: “October 17, Revolution.” near the site of the deadly August 4 explosion in the seaport of Beirut that killed many and injured thousands in Beirut, Lebanon, on Saturday, October 17, 2020. Thousands of people marked the first anniversary of the protest movement in various parts of Lebanon including three major cities, Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon. (Photo AP / Hassan Ammar)

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A man is crossing the wall of the United Nations Headquarters, decorated with graffiti painting in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday, October 12, 2020. A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protests across the country that raised hopes for very much a change in a political elite that during those decades has run the country on earth. (AP Photo / Bilal Hussein)

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FILE – In this photo of Tuesday, February 11, 2020, a Lebanese security officer pulls an anti-government protester, who was clashing with riot police during a protest, in the center of Beirut, Lebanon. A year ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protests across the country that raised hopes among many for a change in a political elite that over the decades has pushed the country to the ground. (AP Photo / Hussein Malla, File)

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