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What Protests in Lebanon Can Tell Us About Inequality Worldwide

Confronting inequalities is not about merely bridging gaps, it requires confronting entrenched interests.

Protesters chant as as they demonstrate outside Lebanon's Central Bank during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon November 11, 2019 (Photo: Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

Protesters chant as as they demonstrate outside Lebanon's Central Bank during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon November 11, 2019 (Photo: Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

Lebanon is more than two months into the wave of protests rocking the country. Chief among the grievances driving people onto the streets are entrenched inequalities and compromised human dignity. Even given the notorious vacuum of data, Lebanon is clearly a highly unequal place where nearly a quarter of income is held by the richest 1 percent, a larger share than in, for example, South Africa and the US.

Poverty is staggering and is well recognised as the outcome of public policymaking driven by elite interests. This is why protesters no longer call for policy reform. Denouncing the deeply entrenched private interests that tie the main pillars of Lebanon's failing economy to the ruling elite, they are demanding a radical transformation of the political system.

They have evidence from the UN to back them up; the just-launched Human Development Report focuses on inequality and supports radical reforms to change the fundamentals of how our societies, economies and political systems work. It calls for confronting elite interests to stop the distribution of political power mirroring that of economic power.

Lebanon's protests are led by a young generation dissatisfied with the lack of options to work and live with dignity. They are revolted by a status quo that destines them to emigration, as the future suppliers of remittances that will balance the notorious deficit of public coffers. Like many in the Middle East, they have had to live through wars, large waves of forced displacement and undemocratic rule.

Unlike older generations, today's protesters are unwilling to compromise, unafraid to defy, and outraged by structural inequalities that they associate openly with crony capitalism, sectarianism, patriarchy, and homophobia. They have loudly made their points clear in marches, chants and graffiti. Their complete loss of confidence in government has made #no_trust one of the most trending hashtags in the past weeks.

But the most precarious populations - refugees, migrant workers, and the poorest Lebanese families - have not been able to join the predominantly middle-class protesters. Effectively disenfranchised, they have neither been able to visibly join the protests nor demonstrate their anger.

The first heavy rains of the season have flooded the streets and homes of the informal settlements where they live. Neglected for decades, these precarious neighbourhoods are overflowing with people who cannot find alternative shelters in cities ravaged by the financialisation of land.

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Once considered self-help neighbourhoods in the making, on a trajectory to become legitimate parts of the city, informal urban settlements have become reservoirs of populations deemed superfluous, with no recognised entitlements.

Owing to climate change, downpours are heavier and their effects on precarious neighbourhoods are more dramatic. Roofs have crumbled, a family died and homes have overflowed. Their enforced silence means the protesters only represent the very tip of the iceberg of deprivation.

As the Human Development Report argues, income alone fails to account for the lifelong disadvantages these shadow city-dwellers face. Nationality and parental income effectively define someone's lifelong access to adequate healthcare and education - or lack thereof. Some divides cross borders; women are at a disadvantage everywhere. Beginning at birth, inequity defines the freedom and opportunities of children, adults and elders.

Confronting such inequalities is not about merely bridging gaps, it requires confronting entrenched interests. Citizens in Lebanon are denouncing today's elites using their wealth to capture government and mould policies to their will. Their claims are well-documented in scholarly works.

Economist Nisrine Salti recently connected rising poverty levels to the unfair tax system. Facundo Alvaredo, Lydia Assouad and Thomas Piketty have identified the Middle East as the most inequitable region of the world, arguing for a closer examination of fiscal injustices to determine the true extent of inequality and their roots in subverted policy-making. Unjustly levied taxes are part and parcel of the model of government denounced by protesters in Lebanon for sustaining the wealthy, their banks, and the political system at the expense of the majority.

My fellow citizens caught the world's attention by prompting a prime minister to quit. With all eyes on them, they now have the opportunity to outline an ambitious programme for reform, which would never happen if left to the whim of those at the top. I hope to see reforms that meaningfully tackle inequality for current and future generations, which provide opportunities throughout people's lives. Such a palette of interventions should include investments in higher education, quality healthcare and ensuring access to technology (and reliable electricity to power it).

Through taking to the streets, Lebanon's protesters have woken up a nation. By plotting a path of prosperity for all, they can lift it up.

Mona Fawaz

Mona Fawaz

Mona Fawaz is a Professor of Urban Studies & Planning at the American University of Beirut.

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