Mourad Ayyash, a Lebanese citizen living in the Northern city of Tripoli, entered his bank on March 6, spilled gasoline over himself and threatened to self-immolate. A video of Mourad at the bank went viral across different social media platforms, but more importantly on WhatsApp – Lebanon’s most popular messaging app and the straw that broke the camel’s back. Apparently, Mr. Ayyash had been visiting the bank for 2 weeks straight, demanding to withdraw money from his own savings account. The bank would constantly promise to allow him to withdraw his own money the day after, but to no avail. Yet, Mourad’s tipping point might have been when his mother asked him day after day for 50 thousand Lebanese liras (an equivalent of $33 according to the official exchange rate, but now worth $20 on the black market) probably to buy some household necessities and he was unable to provide her with the money. This prompted him to take severe action and the bank capitulated. Mourad proceeded to withdraw all his savings and said that he is buying a one-way plane ticket away from Lebanon.
Mourad’s incident is one of many mushrooming across the country and it won’t be the last. Yet his case is very symptomatic of the stage the popular protest movement that hit Lebanon on the eve of October 17, 2019 is currently at.
Initially, the direct trigger for the October 17 protests was social and economic. Lebanese people took to the streets to resist a bundle of austerity measures and tax hikes the previous ‘national unity government’ of ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri had wanted to impose, among which was a 6-dollar monthly fee on internet calls on the popular WhatsApp app. Meanwhile, fanning the fire was a series of indirect circumstances following decades of failure in governance, rampant corruption, sectarian strife, extreme income inequality, increasing unemployment and poverty, wars and a refugee crisis. The politicization of the movement came at a later stage.
The first phase of the protest movement, barring the first two days, was mostly dominated by the middle and upper classes that have reached a breaking point with the system. For 5 months, Lebanese people protested in the major cities of Beirut, Tripoli, Saida, Nabatieh and Baalbek demanding a sweeping change. “Kellon yaani kellon” (which translates into “all means all” in an indication of the culpability of the entire ruling political class), was the main chant that fueled the movement, yet it remained short of being a catalyst to overthrow the muhasasa ta'ifia (sectarian quotas) regime that was cemented in place towards the end of the civil war. One of the main reasons was that the movement in the streets was not quite representative of rural areas and lower social classes.
With Saad Hariri’s government forced into resignation two weeks into the movement, the Lebanese oligarchy launched its counter-revolution in an attempt to quell the protests. An intricate web of alliances between the banking sector, sectarian leaders and the heavily armed militia of Hezbollah, moved on the protesters and beat them into submission; the first protest wave subsided. The aforementioned alliance exercised three types of violence against the protesters: a formal one through the state’s security apparatuses, which used excessive force against protesters and systematically targeted activists; an informal one by the Hezbollah-Amal alliance that sent their thugs to beat protesters and set their tents on fire wherever they staged a sit-in, or banks who hired thugs (or mercenaries) to physically attack activists who fed the protest movement with the necessary information regarding the responsibility for the dire economic situation and who to blame; and finally, an illegal capital control enforced by those same banks, which saw Lebanese citizens queuing up for hours at banks to withdraw a limit of $100 per week. Yet the winning card for the Lebanese oligarchy was its appointment of a Western-educated academic as the premier and forming a government of technocrats. This was a spinoff of the initial protesters’ demand for a government of experts, leading to the depoliticization of the protest movement whose anger and frustration had started targeting tier-one politicians equally.
Hence, 5 months on and just like Mourad, protesters are hardened but dogged by fatigue, desperation, mass layoffs, a coronavirus outbreak, no money and a national currency that has officially lost 33% of its value as per its central bank (66% on the black market). Additionally, the massive agenda for reform in a country that had seen no reforms since the end of its civil war in 1990, resulted in the scattering of the movement’s effort and its lack of clear-cut goals.
Yet today, Lebanon – one of the world’s most debt-strained countries (more than $90 billion of debt, equivalent to roughly 170% percent of the country’s GDP) – enters a new phase as its government bowed to the inevitable and suspended its bond payment, defaulting on its debt for the first time ever. With the country’s economy also on its knees, the warlord-banker alliance is stuck between a rock and hard place. Whether the ruling elite decides to go to the IMF, slash government spending and start a longer-term program of tax hikes (entailing a raid on deposits and savings), or adopt the Argentinian model, simmering frustration and an already emboldened public will explode in its face, setting the country on a path of more violence and brutality.
The second wave will add a new element to its ranks: the working class. As the national currency depreciates and inflation rates go higher, public sector servants are losing their purchasing power by the day. The World Bank estimates that 50% of the population will be below the poverty level in 2020. Additionally, the major sectarian parties that had already lost part of their sway over their constituencies will find their hands tied, unable to feed the rentier system they lived off by embezzling state funds and channeling them into their clientelist networks. This raises more concerns as precedents in the Arab world are not encouraging. With the status quo fundamentally challenged since citizens have nothing to lose anymore, the sectarian parties that remain heavily armed until today will react more violently in order to preserve order. A new wave of protests in the next few months might be of different nature and nothing like we have seen in the past months.
However, in the midst of this grim reality a lot has been achieved due to the popular protest movement of October 17. Although the country has a vibrant civil society which has been protesting at least since 2010 against its sectarian system, this time around the decentralization of the movement, its transcendence of sect and area allowed it to shatter previous taboos in strongholds of sectarian parties. Protesters flooded the streets of Baakline and Aley (areas heavily dominated by Druze leader Walid Joumblat), Tyre and Nabatieh in the south, which are controlled to a fault by the Shia duality (Amal-Hezbollah), Saida and Tripoli that were once considered a Hariri-Sunni stronghold and in Byblos and Batroun once deemed a Aounist Christian bastion.
Additionally, the movement’s ability to equally highlight and augment social, political and economic grievances among Lebanese resulted in the delegitimizing of the entire ruling elite, which ironically had just recycled itself through a parliamentary election held in May 2018. Today, the youth of Lebanon find themselves heavily invested in their country again, a new sense of citizenship has arisen, levels of awareness have skyrocketed, and civic engagement is at its peak. The political rhetoric has shifted from identity politics towards economic and social policies where everyone is chiming in. A group of young Lebanese economic and financial experts, dubbed as NERDS, are shaping public opinion and influencing the government’s agenda regarding debt restructuring through their threads on Twitter. Since activists have devised a public naming and shaming technique, the system is growing more afraid of the people and politicians are nowhere to be seen in public.
Learning from past mistakes, protesters are flocking to organize and to start grassroot movements, knowing well enough that this will be the only way to unseat a 30-year old system. New movements are appearing on the political scene as people coalesce in order to create a safety net to avoid the hard crash and a violent backlash from the system. Yet if Lebanon’s youth manages to outduel an aging oligarchy and bankrupt corrupt businessmen, it shall witness the birth of its third republic.
 Trying to strongarm any resistant bond holders into a deal by effectively locking their money in the country, which would come with extreme risk. In Argentina, a litigious group of funds took the country’s government to a New York court when it refused to pay. That court effectively banned international banks from buying any new Argentina bonds while the case went on and Argentina found itself locked out of international debt markets for the best part of a decade.
 In reference to Michel Aoun, President of the Republic and the leader of the right-wing Christian conservative party the Free Patriotic Movement.