For over a month now, Lebanese people have been in the streets peacefully calling for an end to corruption, economic disenfranchisement, and government mismanagement, calling instead for accountability and reform of the systems that have allowed these things to occur. The protests are historic for several reasons: their scope and magnitude, as well as the way they have unified a country that has for so long had division baked into nearly every aspect of life, down to its system of governance. And it’s not just Lebanese from different religious sects who have come together. Though the main focus of the protests has been on corruption and economic issues, they have also shined a spotlight on social issues such as women’s rights, discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community, and the rights of foreign workers in the country, among many others.
Perhaps most salient has been the presence and vibrancy of young people, who have been the driving force behind the uprising. That youth of all different stripes are finally demanding change—loudly and nonviolently—should come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with young people in Lebanon before. In 2015, ICTJ launched a photo contest for 15 to 25 year-olds entitled “The War As I See It” that invited entries that showed how the civil war, which lasted for 15 years and ended in 1990, continues to affect their generation today. The project was born out of young people’s curiosity about the past and their suspicion that there was more to their country’s history than the often-one-sided narratives they were getting in school, from their families, and from the government. Participants in organized discussions about the photos expressed surprise, hope, fear, and frustration. They also shared their deep mistrust in the government, political, and religious leaders who have for too long perpetuated a sort of collective amnesia about the war, its causes, and even its ending.
Very few of the 500 young people we spoke with knew about the Ta’if Agreement that ended the war or the 1991 General Amnesty Law that has meant very few perpetrators of human rights violations have faced any sort of criminal accountability. The latter is particularly relevant information to have now, as the government tries to pass a new amnesty bill that, while potentially benefitting certain communities who have been unfairly targeted by the justice system, would also grant new forms of impunity for the political elite, many of whom are the very same perpetrators of past atrocities.
Today, as in 2015, the message is clear: Young people in Lebanon are at once thirsting for knowledge and ready for change. They are also unburdened by the fear and trauma that mark the older generations who experienced war directly, leaving them much freer to take action.
Though today’s protests are not directly related to the horrors of the country’s civil war, they cannot be entirely delinked from the past. The mistrust and fatigue with a government still run by many of the same warlords who committed heinous crimes has been mounting for a long time, and all Lebanese people, especially the youth, have decided they have had enough—enough with the self-inflicted amnesia, misinformation, corruption, impunity, and state-sanctioned sectarianism. It’s time for a new Lebanon that understands and acknowledges its past and demands an inclusive, equitable, and peaceful future for all its people.
PHOTO: Protesters block access to the Ring bridge in Beirut, Lebanon, in late October 2019. (Nadim Kobeissi/Wikimedia Commons)