A quarter of a million workers, students and professionals marched through the streets of Beirut on Wednesday of last week in one of the biggest workers’ demonstrations in Lebanon’s history. Schools, shops and businesses closed for a day in solidarity with the demonstrators.
Christians and Muslims poured in from the poor suburbs, chanting that “our rights are a red line” that can’t be crossed and calling on the government to resign.
The march, organised by the teachers’ union and the Union Coordination Committee, has heralded the return of class politics in a country divided by religious sectarianism and pro and anti-Syrian political parties.
For the Lebanese Communist Party, one of the oldest parties in the Middle East, the demonstration is its biggest mobilisation since the civil war ended in 1990.
The anger of the marchers was directed at Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora.
His reforms will slash pensions, increase VAT from 10 to 12 percent, raise fuel prices by 30 percent and impose short term contracts on government workers and teachers.
The head of the teachers’ union and veteran communist, Hanna Gharib, told the demonstrators, “We have come from all over Lebanon to say ‘no’ to the short term contracts, ‘yes’ to protecting our right to medical care, salaries and pensions.”
Siniora has just returned from a visit to the US where he was warmly welcomed by George Bush. His reform package is hailed as the economic version of the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution of 2005 that he hopes will attract more foreign investment.
But the demonstration has turned Lebanese politics on its head.
The Cedar Revolution was held up as proof that the invasion of Iraq was creating democratic ripples across the region. After the anti-Syrian protests, US diplomats celebrated their success by colonising the restaurants and bars of downtown Beirut.
US military officers surveyed the capabilities of the Lebanese army to tackle Hizbollah, the guerrilla movement that drove the Israelis out of southern Lebanon.
Now their optimism has begun to melt away. The promise of a new Lebanon looks very much like the old Lebanon, with rising cost of living and unpopular neo-liberal policies.
The government has been confronted by the return of class politics, and it is finding it can no longer wave a wand, cry “Syrian plot” and shame people off the streets.
The biggest failure belongs to the leaders of the Cedar Revolution. The government is an alliance of the far right Phalangists, the Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.
The demonstration was a public defeat for them. As the unions began to organise the protest, Future Movement activists toured schools to dissuade teachers from joining the protest. They were given short shrift.
So the government accused the protest organisers of being the paid hirelings of Syria. Saad Hariri, the son of slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, denounced the march as a “Syrian-backed attempt to destabilise Lebanon”.
Siniora has made tackling the country’s massive £21 billion debt a priority. The debt, which is owned by local banks, was run up during the breakneck reconstruction following the end of the war.
Whole areas of the capital were rebuilt while infrastructure projects – dubbed “highways to the sky” – bypassed deprived areas.
Ordinary people began to object to the billions of dollars being thrown at prestigious development projects while large swathes of the country sank into poverty, with intermittent electricity, poor services and unemployment.
The demonstration was backed by several opposition parties, among them Michele Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hizbollah.
Although they were on opposite sides during the Cedar Revolution, they were united in the hope they could stop the demonstration calling for the resignation of the government.
Both these parties want to use the rising antagonism against the government to boost their popularity ahead of parliamentary elections.
The left has to push for more mobilisation and radicalisation on class issues – especially now that ordinary people are fed up with the current order. The demonstration is a historic moment that the left in Lebanon cannot afford to miss.