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On the Cusp of Revolution? How Protest Could Turn the Tide in Lebanon

Nisrine, a nursing student at the American University of Beirut, looks back on the 2019 Lebanese protests. These were initially triggered by planned tax measures but have since expanded into a nationwide criticism of governmental deficiencies, leading Prime Minister Saad Hariri to tender his resignation. Such deficiencies are typified by a series of crises that preceded the protests - fires scorching homes; reliance on Cypriot aid; increases in the price of bread and oil; increases in general unemployment - all put down to governmental ineptitude.

As young people took to the streets of Lebanon one Thursday evening in the middle of October 2019, the potential for change was palpable. Suddenly, you could dream of staying instead of fleeing; you could tear down this system, built on the blood of its people, and build a new one in its place. The revolution is ongoing; its first anniversary, two months ago, was marked by protests across the country. But the older generation is not as optimistic when it comes to what could be called a revolution. They do not look at the event through the same lens as those protesting on the streets; not only do they struggle to put aside their traditional political affiliations, but they tend to point out the failure of previous Arab revolutions and fear another civil war.

Before getting into the details of the Lebanese Revolution, we need to briefly dissect the factors which shape the hesitations of the older generation. Firstly, the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) which is a sore subject for those who have lived through it. The war is commonly known as ‘al-ahdath’ or what can be translated to ‘the events’. There are two main reasons for this colloquialism. Firstly, the fighting lacked ideological consistency and was spread among several disparate groups. Justifications for fighting shifted constantly, as did the combating groups, turning the 15-year-long war into a series of smaller conflicts, rather than a single ‘event’. Secondly, in the aftermath of a vague and confusing conflict, people avoided direct reference to the civil war as a symptom of the popular desire to bury and forget this tumultuous episode in Lebanese history. It is clear that the civil war has left a deep imprint on the older generation’s psyche. This is perpetuated as many of the militant leaders, who exploited sectarian anxieties during the civil war, are still in power and continue to exert influence over the population.

Secondly, much of the revolutionary activity which took place during the Arab Spring was not considered to be successful. Countries that fiercely rebelled did not experience the changes that protests had demanded. The uprisings and revolutions of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria for example, can aid us in observing how some of these events had no positive outcomes in the long run. Egypt had elected a Muslim Brotherhood-backed government led by Mohammed Morsi (who was overthrown by a military coup headed by left Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), Libya fell into the hands of the militias that had formed as the armed rebellion fought against Muammar Al-Gaddafi and is now split between opposing eastern and western based administrations, Yemen also experienced violence and is currently split while facing one of the century’s biggest humanitarian crises, and of course the spectre of war-torn Syria frightened many who could still remember the Lebanese civil war. Even when looking at the revolution which many consider successful, Tunisia still suffers from the same corruption it had when protests first took place and many issues remain unresolved. [1] Such examples are not tokens of encouragement for those who want to avoid living through the Lebanese Civil war a second time.

According to many protesters, these arguments are cynical, pessimistic and reactionary, but the younger generation does not just dismiss them. We recognize that these fears are justified, but believe it is necessary that they are overcome for the greater good of political change. To overcome such fears can be a helpful asset in the long term, specifically when it comes to understanding the strategies and thought processes of the political elite. In spite of those who remain committed to their political allegiances, there were - and still are - people in the streets genuinely refuting the sectarian system that has been manipulated by those in power. People are hopeful that we are finally on the brink of real change. Lebanese identity is superseding sectarian loyalties and the barrier of fear instilled by the political elites is starting to crumble. This revolutionary sentiment has intensified as protests have spread across the nation beyond Beirut.

The biggest political shift has been among the youth, who have regained hope that they can make positive changes. From personal experience, leaving behind political loyalties can be a very freeing experience. Furthermore, once you abandon your traditional sectarian loyalties, political and economic discussions are opened up for both the young, who were never taken seriously when speaking about such issues, and for average working and middle class citizens. Those who were previously considered ‘unfit’ to partake in such discussions can now speak their minds.

Lebanese identity is superseding sectarian loyalties and the barrier of fear instilled by the political elites is starting to crumble.

The protests have made politics feel relevant to me. I felt detachment towards previous uprisings, but these protests have become central to my life. Aware of the immense amount of injustice in Lebanon, and the ways it impacts my life and the lives of others; I want to fight for what is right and protesting seems like the only correct way to go about it. We grew up in a country where everyone is aware of the scale of corruption among those in power - yet depressingly, these same people keep getting re-elected. A form of desperation grew out of how sick we were of this narrative and we decided to take matters into our own hands.

I am sure that such sentiments resonate with the majority of the youth who partook in the protests. I remember the first time I ever went to a protest: it was during the Lebanese Revolution, on the evening of the 18th of October. I avoided reporters and cameramen because I was there against my parents’ will. That evening, as we chanted, there were individuals at the front throwing some of the most obscure things at the riot police guarding the road up to parliament, trying to cause a commotion. Occasionally, the crowd would move in waves to the back and then to the front again as those at the front lines tried to escape the cops’ batons. It went on for a while and we didn’t think much of it until the waves broke and people scattered as we were hit with the first round of tear gas. Honestly, I thought I was going to die (probably my conscience playing games because I hadn’t told my parents about my whereabouts) as I took my friend’s hand and ran all the way back to her apartment. And when I had gone back to my dorm, I cried, alongside my peers, for the hopes and dreams we had held for the future - we thought that it was all over. The amount of joy I experienced the following morning when I logged onto Twitter to see that the people had gone back at 4 o’clock in the morning to fill the square again was indescribable.

Although Saad Hariri has been reappointed PM after more than a year since the 17th of October incident, and protests have slowed down significantly, the fight is still far from over. The people are as angry as ever, especially with a crippling economic crisis that only seems to get worse by the second. The rollercoaster ride that has been the past year was brutal on the Lebanese; however, with the sweeping wins for independent and secular movements in the country’s biggest university student councils, there is hope. The only remaining obstacle to the transition into a new political system is that of ensuring it occurs peacefully, as popular will desires. For that, we must regroup and form a clear agenda.



[1] Robinson, K. (2020, December 3). The Arab Spring at Ten Years: What's the Legacy of the Uprisings? Council on Foreign Relations.


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