An unwieldy, unyielding global protest movement just claimed its first political victim — Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who announced his resignation on Tuesday.
Given the movement’s escalation, he likely won’t be the last leader to leave.
And even if others survive, their legitimacy won’t, unless they address the core corruption and governance issues that seem to be unifying themes in protests convulsing countries as disparate as Iraq, Egypt, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Spain, as well as in the city of Hong Kong.
The spark that started the Lebanese protests was a proposed tax on online calls made via WhatsApp, the widely used social messenger service. After people took to the streets, the proposed tax was scrapped. But those already scraping by understandably weren’t placated, and disgruntled crowds swelled to up to 1 million in a country of about 5 million people.
In his address to a nation in a deep fiscal crisis, Hariri said that his government had reached “a dead end.” But it’s not just his government. The governance of Lebanon — built on a sectarian spoils system that’s ecumenical in its economic mismanagement and often unable to deliver basics like electricity, clean water and trash removal — has reached a dead end, too.
This failure united many in Lebanon’s fractured society to reject the discredited system.
“The majority of people who are in the streets are the first Lebanese generation who actually did not live the Civil War, and this is major,” Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told an editorial writer.
Ghaddar, an expert on her native Lebanon, added that, “It’s a generation who just want to be Lebanese citizens. They have been hearing sectarian rhetoric, and they don’t get it. This is a generation who have been westernized and globalized and grew up in the era of the internet and Xbox.”
Many of the same dynamics impact the Iraqis taking to the streets of Baghdad in burgeoning protests that have spiraled into violence.
“It’s closer to what’s happening in Iraq, the same Iranian hegemony and same culture and background,” Ghaddar said. “It’s only normal that these protests have developed from a protest against corruption and the economy to a protest against authority, and eventually a protest against Iran.”
Meanwhile, South American protests aren’t related to Iran, of course, but they do share some similarities, including an unexpected trigger that led to something much larger, in Chile’s case an announced transit-fare hike that led to such disorder that embattled President Sebastian Pinera canceled major multinational summits on climate change and Asia-Pacific trade, the latter of which was to feature a potentially consequential meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China.
The accelerating disconnect between the governing class — considered elites in many of these societies — and the governed is a cross-continent phenomenon that impacts relatively rich democracies as well as developing nations. It’s just the latest challenge to democracy, even though it’s a challenge that democratic, market-oriented societies are best positioned to address.
But that will take leadership — both within the protest-prone countries as well as those that traditionally are beacons, including the United States. That’s one more reason why a dysfunctional Washington is so destabilizing. Indeed, the domestic turmoil engulfing the capital threatens to subsume international challenges, including these rolling, roiling protests.