Corruption, Protest and Hope in Lebanon - An Interview with Assaad Thebian

Assaad Thebian is a communications professional and activist in Lebanon. In 2015, he led—and was arrested in connection with—the #YouStink Movement, a protest movement decrying the Lebanese government’s corruption and failure to provide ser- vices. The Journal spoke with Mr. Thebian about growing up in Lebanon’s sectarian society, the #YouStink Movement, and the anti-government protests of 2019–20.

October 29, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What was it like growing up as a religious minority in Lebanon?

Assaad Thebian (AT):  I come from a very small faction of Islam, which  is called Druze, which constitutes around 7 percent of the population of Lebanon. Although historically they were among the founding members 200 years back, they ended up becoming a minority.

Being a religious minority didn’t mean much for me when I was a young kid. I wasn’t born into a sectarian house, and my parents didn’t tell me that there are people who believe differently, so growing up I felt as if I was equal to anyone. But eventually I started to see differently and understand that the state doesn’t see me as a human being, and that my relationship to the state went through my sect.

And this is the problem. Sectarianism has defined the Lebanese system since independence, almost 80 years. We are always having problems because of it: political problems, economical [sic] problems, even a civil war. Each sect lives in fear of other sects, and the warlords who govern the sects are the ones represented in the government. They are the ones who appoint all the positions in the state and they make all the deals for the state. And they do it in a covert way which only benefits their friends. This leads to more corruption, leads to hiring the wrong people.

JIA: Has the economic inequality in Lebanon improved or worsened since your child- hood?

AT: Combine Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm with New York’s mafias and you will get a sense of the political leaders in Lebanon. They’re all militia leaders, mafiosos, warlords, who are watching you all the time. If you are not in conformity with the rest of the sect, you are pushed out of the system in one way or another. Socially you’re not treated the same way, economically you don’t have the same privileges, and so on.

When you are born into Lebanese society, this sect determines your life: when you are born, when you are married, when you die, inheritance, and everything. We even have different personal status laws for each sect in Lebanon. So Muslims inherit in a different way than the Christians: the religious courts are separated, all of this, the education system is not the same, you don’t have a unified history book because each sector wants to tell its own story about the civil war, they all try to victimize themselves, they all try to say they are living in fear of the others. And because of this complex of fear, people tend to follow a leader, who is basically a mafia lord. Even if you don’t like your leader much, you have to accept his power and his behavior.

And these mafia lords, they sit together and they treat the whole state as if it is a pie. And then they cut this pie into shares, and each takes a share according to their power at the moment. So some of them take 10 percent, 20 percent, whatever is offered. And when we’re talking about the pie, we’re talking about every construction project and public service, from building a bridge to waste management. We’re talking about appointing individuals to government positions, we’re talking about every form of corruption you can imagine.

This has increased exponentially since the end of the civil war. By the end of the war there was the Christian Lebanon, the Muslim Lebanon, the Druze Lebanon, the Shia Lebanon, the Sunni Lebanon, where each sect had its own power in its own region. And then when the war ended, the people who were militia leaders, they just put a suit on but their mentality never changed. They led the whole state with the mentality of a militia.

So, in 1990, the civil war ended. We had to rebuild the country. In  order to rebuild the country after a war, usually you get some loans, you invest in the infrastructure, you create the new ecosystems. But none of this happened in Lebanon. We started taking on debt: internal debt, in the beginning, and then external debt. We kept getting debt in order to make the state function, but instead of making the state function, our politicians made themselves rich. They gave huge rates of interest for people who put money in the bank. So imagine you are someone who had $100,000. The government was basically telling you, “Don’t do any project. Don’t invest in agriculture. Don’t invest in industry. Don’t try to create jobs for others. Just put the money in the bank.” You get a huge interest rate, at least 40 percent. So, they were telling people all the time, “Don’t do anything. If you have money, put it in the bank. If you don’t have money and you’re smart enough, just leave the country.” That’s why half of my classmates now live outside Lebanon. Everyone with common sense will tell you, “Buy a one-way ticket, leave the country.”

It is pure clientelism and pure corruption. This kept going on for two decades. Over two decades, our foreign debt increased from around less than $20 billion when the war ended, and now they’re talking about $160 billion of debt.

We’re talking about huge inequality, we’re talking about 0.68 percent of the depositors owning around 50 percent of the amount of the deposits. We’re talking about fewer than 500 families owning two-thirds of the economy. We’re talking about people who work with minimum wage for three generations and don’t spend anything, they can’t afford to buy a flat in their own capital city.

So if you are born into this system, you think it is normal. But when you go elsewhere in the world you can see that the police are there to serve you, not to beat you when you ask for your rights. You see that the politicians are being elected to serve you and not to control you, and you see that the media is for freedom of expression and not for oppression, and then you start thinking, “What is missing?” You try to come back here and try to voice your concerns and try to do something about it, and the first thing you do, the society just neglects you or attacks you. The people in power will try every possible way to cut you down. And this has systematically been done with every activist that has tried to go out and voice their concerns against the system since the [1990s].

JIA: What motivated you to start the #YouStink movement and what you were protesting?

AT: Back in 2015, I took a small vacation to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life. One of my friends said, “Why don’t you do satire videos about the politicians in this country?” So, I did three of these videos. Some of them went a bit viral, in comparison to the size of the population.

The morning before I recorded the fourth video, I looked down at the street and saw it was filled with garbage. It had been that way for three weeks because the politicians could not agree how to split the pie. So I recorded a one minute video that ended with two words: “You stink.” In Arabic, it has a double meaning. It means the garbage stinks, and it means the people who are in power stink. I posted the video and in less than an hour it had thousands of views. So, I contacted a fellow activist and I told him, “Hey, we need to do something about the garbage. Let’s ask for a protest.” And he replies back, “Wow, two other people have just contacted me to say the same thing.”

When we staged our first protest, there were 50, 60 people, tops. There were more media and more police than us. This didn’t deter us, and we kept showing up week after week. Our biggest rally in that first month had 3,000 people.

There’s a standard way the system treats protests. First, they ignore you. When you start to gain momentum, they try to ride the wave, and then you will see politicians actually voicing the same things you’re asking for. And when that doesn’t work, they start to harm you.

On [19 August 2015], the government was announcing the winners of the bidding over who would collect the garbage. We decided to demonstrate in front of the Grand Serail, where the government is. While we were there, I had a huge surge of adrenaline, and I found myself storming into the Grand Serail. I was arrested on live TV. Three other people were arrested within 15 minutes. People who were watching on TV saw peaceful demonstrators arrested for asking for a basic right. This inspired others to protest too. The night ended with more than 5,000 people down on the streets and they didn’t leave until we were all released. So we called for another protest on [22 August] and 20,000 people showed up. Now we were not only asking for better treatment for the garbage crisis, we were asking for better governance. People were fed up by the system.

JIA: The #YouStink Movement has been criticized for being non-specific in its goals. Do you think this is a fair criticism?

AT: When people refer to the #YouStink Movement, they are talking about two different groups. First, there is the small group I was part of that started the protests, and then there were all the people who joined in the protests that year. Our small group was asking for (1) a solution to the garbage crisis, and (2) a new electoral law; these were our two demands. But when people protest in the streets, they bring their own demands—this is something that you cannot and should not control.

JIA: Do you see the #YouStink Movement reflected in the protests that have occurred over the past year?

AT: #YouStink was a warning. It was an alarm sounded by young people that the system was failing and that a catastrophe was coming. In 2015 we were talking about public debt. We were about the lack of good governance. We were talking about the fishy deals that were happening between politicians. And we were asking for change, because if the system doesn’t change, the state will fall.

The political parties saw us as a threat, and so they tried to stick together to overcome us. Directly after the #YouStink revolution, in March 2016, the [Free Patriotic Movement] and the Future Movement reached an agreement; a new president was elected, [Saad] Hariri was back as the prime minister, and most of the political parties were back in government, with a new electoral law that suited them.

In the 2018 parliamentary elections, all the political parties ran on an agenda of fighting corruption. And they promised their people things we knew that they could not deliver. After failing for two years, they started to increase taxes on the people. They passed the 2017 budget, 2018 budget, 2019 budget, and in each budget, new taxes were imposed on the people. They stole directly from our pockets this time.

People were frustrated. There was an increase of taxes and decrease of public services. Increase in taxes and more electricity cuts. Increase in taxes and worse roads. Increase in taxes and increase of prices. Things were getting worse and worse, week after week. Although most people did not protest  at the moment, you could sense that people lost trust in those whom they had voted for in 2018.

The people in power realized that the state was on the verge of collapse, so they did their best to let people revolt while remaining in power. They formed a faceless government, they called it a technocrat government, but it is actually being ruled by them. So when the bad news started piling up, people became despairing but did not know who to blame it on.

And now the Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value. We are being told that our public debt is around double the size that we thought it was. Prices are increasing, and we are losing the ability to get our own money from the bank. And now the politicians, who own the banks, are saying  the state owes them money. So basically they’re asking now for everything the state owns: land, companies, telecommunications sector. Anything that generates money for the country, they want to privatize it.

JIA: Has there been any improvement under Prime Minister [Hassan] Diab?

AT: After 100 days in power, the prime minister went on public television and said he was able to achieve 97 percent of what he had promised. Two months later, he goes out in public saying that he will start fighting corruption, and we asked, “Oh, so the whole corruption issue is only 3 percent? That’s cute.” The government is a trick, a cover-up. The political elites are trying to convince the international community that they have learned their lesson, but in reality nothing has changed.

JIA: With Lebanon on the verge of economic collapse, what is the general mood there? What does this mean for the protests?

AT: [Recently] I got a call from a cousin who told me he lost his job. My sister called me two weeks ago saying she has run out of milk for her baby and she is asking me to try to find cheaper milk in the stores around me.   I have 12 job vacancies groups on WhatsApp, which means I am in touch with around 2,600 people who are actually searching for jobs, to whom I send vacancies on a daily basis. The number of beggars I see on the street has grown tenfold. I look at my nephew and I wonder about the future he will live in. I know a lot of businesses that have closed. Myself, I cannot reach my deposit from the bank. We cannot travel anywhere, because we don’t have dollars in our pockets. The average minimum wage in Lebanon, which used to be $450 per month, has now reached $80, which I think is the lowest in the world.

In a country as complex as Lebanon, people demonstrate unpredictably. They stayed in the streets through October, November, December, and some of January. You’re talking about three and a half months of protesting, through wind, the rain, the snow, the beating, the arrests, the accusations of being spies, the sectarian speech, even killings. For three and a half months, people like me bought a ticket back home and went to the streets asking for their rights. We had hope. In a democratic country, this would topple the system. But in Lebanon, the system is bigger than you can imagine. The system is everything. Every product you buy in the market, you are benefiting the system.

After all this time, people decided to stop because they need to eat, they need to rest. According to Maslow’s pyramid, people need to eat, have a shelter, and then they can ask for other rights. And this is why people are not demonstrating in big amounts as you think they would. Because they are actually trying to survive. They’re all thinking of how to emigrate. The system made people hopeless.

With coronavirus we have a lockdown. On October 7 there will be a special tribunal over the assassination of Prime Minister [Rafik] Hariri, which will create a bigger rift in society. We are in daily fear of having a new civil war. We are afraid of having a new war with Israel.

People are dealing with it. They’re either in real despair or they’re just living it day by day. Or they’re trying to seize the day as if it were the last day of their lives. Nobody has any prediction of the future. When the world looks at us, they don’t see this. They only see politics, they only see the interests, they only see the same political corruption. They don’t look at us as humans, they look at us as numbers. Europe is only afraid of new migration. The [United States] is only interested in its own interests, Iran in its interests, Saudi Arabia the same, and the Syrian regime never cared about us, so we’re just lost here. Everyone knows the solution and nobody wants to do it: the solution is to change the system. You cannot expect a 21st- century country to survive with a medieval government. You cannot keep expecting people to be ruled by the same mafia warlords who will only look at you as if you are a cow, wondering how much milk you will give them every day. In order to reach peace, you need a secular state, a state where one is treated as a human being, where every politician is held accountable, where the law is above all. We’re not asking for a privilege; we’re just asking for basic human rights, and I don’t think that is too much to ask.

The above interview was conducted on 31 July 2020. On 4 August 2020, Beirut experienced an explosion that killed at least 178 people, injured 6,500, and left more than 300,000 people homeless. The prime minister and the Lebanese Cabinet resigned shortly after. The Journal reached out to Mr. Thebian for his thoughts.

AT: Since the interview was done weeks back, nothing really changed in Lebanon except for things getting harder for people in their daily lives.  Our capital witnessed one of the most powerful explosions due to neg- ligence of our officials, public administrations’ staff and security forces personnel. When I was answering the above a few days before August 4, I did not expect that the words I was trying to imply would become a reality. “Corruption kills.” And this time the bill cost the lives of 200 innocent victims, the displacement of tens of thousands, and billions of dollars in losses. It has been two months; Mr. Diab’s government resigned and the political elite tried to replace him as fast as they could with Mr. Adib who had international support. It didn’t work—Mr. Adib is no longer forming a government and the political mafia proved to the whole world that they will not back off one inch from power. They will cling to authority until the last second, even if it leads to a civil war or an economic catastrophe. Lebanon is hijacked and we are under an occupation of a different form: a coalition between the medieval sectarian clerks and neo-capitalist warlords who will do all they can to silence our voices.

I remain hopeful that one day, some young men and women among us—the ordinary citizens of this country—will pave the way to a real revolution and change the status quo. We know that our path is hard and none of the local, regional, and the international powers favor a democratic, secular, strong, sovereign state of Lebanon. Such a module on the eastern shores  of the Middle East will cause troubles for many regimes of the world who have in their best interests to keep the third-world citizens in such mess and chaos. It is inevitable that one day, we will change the course of history in our own way.

This Feature appears in Politics of Protest, the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Subscribe or purchase to read the article in print or via JSTOR.

Photo Credit: Roman Deckert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license