'We know that it was the largest demonstration in the history of Lebanon'

Special interview with Omar El Deeb from the Lebanese Communist Party.

ICP, 23 October 2019

The uprising that started last week and still continuing in Lebanon developed during the 21st International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties. ICP made an interview with Omar El Deeb, member of the Political Bureau responsible for International Relations of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP), on the events and political evaluations of the LCP. The interview took place on the last day of the meeting, on the 20th of October, hours before the call of the LCP for a general strike and declaration of demands.

How did the uprising occur and what is the current situation?

The current uprising in Lebanon has not occurred just because of the recent developments. There was an accumulation of events that led to a social explosion in Lebanese society. We’ve been suffering for 30 years from strong neoliberal policies enforced by our government. Policies that are based on growth, based on debts, such as borrowing money from banks, from international institutions to make infrastructure and other investments. All the government policies are oriented to support the banking sector, real estate and tourism. But our productive sectors, industry, agriculture has been greatly neglected by our government. So basically they set a system based on consumption, based on borrowing money from abroad with no real production inside our country.

What was the result of these policies on Lebanese society?

Of course at the beginning, you feel that there is an economic growth and things are going well. But when you start paying the interest, getting big deficits in the budget, the conditions change. Due to these policies, we’ve reached the highest level of debt. We have like 160 % of the GDP. 52% of our expenditure in the budget is just to pay the interests for the debts. Like half of what we spend is for interests. And all other things like wages, social benefits, infrastructure are all in the other half. Those interests go mainly to Lebanese banks and they are owned by the capitalist ruling class in Lebanon who are in coalition with the leading sectarian parties and who have led our country since the end of the civil war. So basically people are paying taxes and are exploited through these taxes that are transferred to the owners of the banks. We have one of the highest levels of inequality, meaning that the rich are very rich and the rest is poor. Lebanon is a middle-income country. Basically we have the resource and with our current resources who can have a good economy. The problem is that the level of class exploitation is very high. The richest 1 percent in Lebanon owns 51 percent of the bank deposits. Which means that most of the fortune is controlled by the 1 percent. If you look for example at the richest 10 percent, it would be 78 percent of the bank deposits being owned by them. We have many statistical data that reveals how much inequality we have. There is 35 percent poverty and very high migration. About one quarter of the Lebanese people are outside Lebanon. So they migrate to Europe, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia to make money and send it to their families. In each family, on average there is one migrant. It’s very tough. All of these conditions accumulated...

When did the people start to feel the crisis?

Two years ago our government wanted to get more loans. But the banks were not willing to give more loans, it became difficult for the government to pay back. So they organized an international conference in Paris, the Cedar Conference, with the Lebanese banks, the IMF, some European governments and some Arabian governments. It was organized to get more loans and the lenders said ‘We are ready to provide loans by 12 billion dollars on 5 years on condition that you should cover your budget deficit by half. And to do that you should put taxes on fuel, on electricity, on communications to lower the spending on public services.' So the government started to try implementing these conditions to get the money from the conference. Last year, in the budget of 2019, they tried to introduce some of those taxes. But our party and the unions organized demonstrations against it. Participation was 10-15 thousand in Beirut and also the public employees made some strikes. In the end, the government could not introduce many taxes, just a few ones. So they absorbed the anger.

What triggered the uprising against the budget?

At that time we were saying that we are gradually reaching a financial collapse. We warned that new policies are needed. Last month, when they were preparing the budget of 2020 they started discussing the introduction of taxes again and this was discussed for about a month. They kept all taxes hidden like the initial budgets. The last day, they introduced what they had in mind. This budget was voted and on the same day sent to the parliament. That was last Thursday. People became desperate and angry, with no more hope, no more trust, and still suffering, so they started calling ‘let’s demonstrate, reject the taxes!’ We also called on the people to object and to demonstrate. Thursday night we had a few thousand in several places. On Friday it grew larger and people started calling for participation. No other party, just our party and the general public opinion, the angry people. On Friday it was tens of thousands and people started becoming self-confident in their objections. Friday night it spread to many cities, Tripoli in the north, Saida in the South. In the south, when it grew larger, the militias tried to oppress the people. So they went to their guns, threatened the people to leave the streets or else they would arrest them...

Who are these militias?

It is a sectarian militia in the south. The south is the base of Hizbullah and Amal. Amal is the one which oppressed the people. However, this caused more anger and it was surprising that people were not intimidated when faced with the militias. They did not fear and leave the streets. There were civilians arguing with armed people. There are many videos of them saying ‘You should be ashamed, if you’re going to shoot us, shoot us, we’ll not leave!’ So the armed militias were also taken by surprise. They gathered in more numbers and attacked the people, not by shooting but by hitting them so that people had to disperse. Saturday morning the people came again and they blocked the highway in the south preventing any movement in the south. Then the militias came with cars, raising their guns and threatening to kill anybody who says a word against the speaker of parliament which is the third party, Amal. But again more people came and they were forced to leave. A few hours later, about noon, the speaker of the parliament issued a statement. He called the demonstrations ‘individual acts’, denounced them and asked the people to leave the streets. But when this was issued more people poured to the streets, there were tens of thousands in the south. People from other regions seeing what is happening, –since everything is now on social media- witnessed how the people in the south could confront the militias and people throughout Lebanon became motivated. We had around 50 thousand in Beirut that afternoon. So people became more hopeful.

We know that Hizbullah is popular among the people in the south. What was its attitude?

Nasrallah, the general secretary of Hizbullah made a speech on TV, yesterday. In Lebanon many people like Nasrallah as a figure of resistance, even if they don’t accept his policies. And these people were expecting him to say ‘now we’ll change the government, we’ll make reforms.’ But then he said, ‘OK, we’ll cancel the taxes but the government should remain, otherwise there will be chaos.’ So people became disappointed, even his base was not satisfied. The attitude was ‘we want to keep the government, we want to keep the president.’ So this made people angrier and caused more people to join the demonstrations, even people from Hizbullah.

This seems to be the turning point. And from then on, how did things develop and what was the role of the Lebanese Communist Party in these developments?

Yesterday night, we could not estimate the numbers but we know that it was the largest demonstration in the history of Lebanon. Because all of Beirut was full, the moderate estimate says 300 thousand people were in Beirut. And we had at least 100 thousand people distributed all over the country, in the south, in the north. All of the Lebanese people were supporting. Our party showed a very good presence, our general secretary was in the demonstration and people were praising us. We were fully involved, especially in places where there is a confrontation, to block a road, to close a highway, to organize the people of a village... Almost everything that happened outside Beirut was with the help of our cadres. In Beirut, it was very popular, everybody was there apart from us. But we are the only political party calling for participation.

Can you tell us about the appeal of LCP and the strategy it will follow?

Now we are calling for removing the government, for deep reforms in the regime, for an interim government with powers to make economic reforms. We are suggesting a plan with alternative taxes against the capitalists, against the banks, against the usurers of bank deposits. We are calling on the people to support these demands. We are calling for making political reforms, for a representative electoral law and to organize elections according to such a law. But we need a few more steps in order to be able to organize this, we first need to force the government to resign. The government is still resisting to resign. In our opinion, if we can continue the next week, the working days the demonstrations, organize a general strike, close all the roads and all the highways, we can force them to resign. The big demonstrations happened during the weekend and it is more difficult for us to gather people in working days, but it is very important. We will start early in the morning like 6 AM, block the main streets and to try to force the strike. And we will call on the people to participate during the day. We are the only organized group in this demonstration, so people will need us. If we can do this tomorrow morning and keep the people participating afternoon, tomorrow night, we think that in a few days the government will resign. It will not last long. When it resigns it will give more hope. We’ll be able to build on that.

Do you have any evaluations about the risks of this strategy?

When the government sees that they cannot do anything, they have two choises. Either they will resign or they will try to oppress, brutally... They will let the army shoot people and this will lead to complete chaos. We do not find it improbable. OK, it’s more probable that they will resign, or they can also peacefully resist, but there is the possibility that they might try to attack. This is something dangerous, so we are calling for international support, the neighbouring parties, the Lebanese people living abroad, to demonstrate in front of Lebanese embassies, to raise this issue everywhere, to keep the eye open about what’s going on, to put more pressure, to make it more difficult for the government to act in a stupid way. So today, we have big demonstrations where the Lebanese people live, in London, in Paris, in Sydney, three or five thousand people living in each city. We have smaller demonstrations in Athens, in Ottowa. We also have at least ten parties sending solidarity statements from Arab parties.

If the government resigns, what will be the strategy of the big capitalists who are mainly responsible for these policies?

I think now they are in a tight corner. Because all the people are saying ‘you are the ones who should pay.’ Even the prime minister issued an alternative plan on taxes, not raising taxes on the people but raising taxes on the banks. So he is trying to absorbe the anger. But the general feeling among the people is far more advanced. They are not listening, they don’t trust the politicians anymore. Every participant wants the government to resign, but when you speak of alternatives, it’s not clear. First, many people are not politicized. The second thing is, how will you implement the alternatives? There is the constitution, there is the parliament, how can you make a political change? So this is an uprising but it’s not a revolution.

Do you have an alternative plan?

We do have our own alternative plan. Today we’ll issue a statement saying that we are ready to be a part of the transitional period, to run the crisis with an economic and political plan. In the short run to impose taxes on the big banks, and in the longer run, to support the productive sectors of the economy, to improve the social benefits of the people, especially to support industry and agriculture in order to improve our productive forces, have a more advanced labour and working-class movement. How can you do that in an economy based only on services? We are also having a fight for the role of the public sector. In Hariri’s plan, there are taxes on banks but at the same time, he wants to privatize many sectors to raise money. So one of our alternatives is first to protect the public sector, second to nationalize -without using the word- to take back the main companies like telecommunications to the public sector, to make them publicly owned. So this is one of our main ideological differences in how to control the public ownership of the means of production. But going beyond that needs much different balance of powers, not only in Lebanon. This is the most ambitious thing that we can currently say.