Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s turbulent tenure apparently came to an end on Tuesday with his second resignation. His first was delivered, and then retracted, during a memorable episode in November 2017 when he was more-or-less kidnapped by the Saudi Arabian monarchy and forced out of office.
This time, Hariri resigned to thunderous cheers on the streets of Lebanon, so it looks like he is gone for good.
Protesters have filled the streets for the past two weeks, demanding Hariri’s ouster in a season of discontent that began with a deeply unpopular tax hike proposal and developed into a revolt against the entire Lebanese system of government.
The surprisingly upbeat protesters have come to describe their movement as a thawra, or revolution, much like the protest movement in Iraq, except with much more beer, dancing, lullabies for children trying to sleep, hugging, and colorful profanity. It might be the first attempt in history to completely overthrow a government with a block party.
The Lebanese even appropriated the deathless 90s pop hit “Baby Got Back” and adjusted one of the lyrics to say, “You ain’t got none unless you got funds, hun,” replacing the original song’s celebration of ample female posteriors with a mocking reference to the financial problems of the Lebanese government. Every revolution dreams of a knight on horseback riding in to save the day, but it usually isn’t Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Like every party, the Lebanese protest had some unwelcome guests. One of its major complaints concerns the influence of the Iran-backed Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. Ironically, the Saudis had the same complaint when they checked Hariri into his extended stay in Riyadh and helped him write a letter of resignation in 2017.
Hezbollah did not take kindly to this criticism and dispatched gangs of black-clad thugs to beat protesters and set their camps on fire. Some of the attacks reportedly involved knives and guns. Witnesses claimed Lebanese security forces did not act to protect them from the attackers, who made their identity clear by chanting “Shia!” and singing songs that praised Hezbollah and the Shiite political party Amal.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned before Hariri’s resignation that overthrowing the government could lead to “chaos,” “collapse,” and “civil war.” He said the protest movement began with legitimate complaints about corruption but became a puppet of Israel and the West, which he accused of seeking to destabilize Lebanon for their own gains.
The protesters have a broad spectrum of complaints, coupled with the conviction that the usual Lebanese power-sharing deals and tepid gestures at reform will not lead to satisfactory improvements, especially not with Lebanon teetering on the brink of financial collapse.
“The only real way forward for Lebanon is to appoint a government that can move on from the disruption of this revolution and restore the confidence with the people and the international community,” Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said on Monday, predicting there are literally only days to act before a fiscal meltdown becomes inevitable.
“I tried to find a way to listen to the people’s demands and to protect the country from security, economic and living risks. Today, I have reached a dead end and we need a positive shock to end the crisis,” Hariri said during his farewell speech on Tuesday.
“Positions come and go, but the dignity and safety of the country remains,” he said. “No one is more important than their country.”
“I can’t hide this from you. I have reached a dead-end,” Hariri admitted. “To all my political peers, our responsibility today is how to protect Lebanon and to uplift the economy. Today, there is a serious opportunity and we should not waste it.”
Protesters quickly let it be known they have no intention of halting their activities because Hariri is gone and he took most of the Lebanese government with him. For that matter, they observed Hariri is still the “caretaker” PM until the parliament votes for a new leader, and there is nothing stopping them from nominating and re-electing Hariri.
The most popular slogan of the protests is “All of Them Means All of Them,” which is meant as a demand for all of Lebanon’s party leaders to resign. Most observers find that outcome unlikely and suspect a new government will be formed by many of the same players but with more promises of reform and a few more token independent representatives.
“We don’t want any part of the ruling class to be part of this government. The most important thing is to get rid of them all, and form a new electoral law that abolishes sectarianism and has Lebanon as one district,” one protester explained.
“It’s a good first step but we’re still going to stay in the streets. Hariri is part of the problem but he’s not all of the problem,” said another. “I don’t think anyone thinks we’re done.”