- Massive protests have swept across Lebanon for nearly a week.
- The protests started over proposed taxes on WhatsApp, among other things, but have morphed into calls for an overhaul of Lebanon’s entire political system.
- The protests have largely been peaceful, and many have described them as an unprecedented showing of unity in a country normally divided along sectarian lines.
The Situation in Lebanon
Massive protests in Lebanon entered their sixth day on Wednesday with no signs of abating.
The demonstrations started last Thursday after the government announced new taxes, including a $6 monthly fee for calls on free apps like WhatsApp.
In Lebanon, the protest quickly evolved into broader calls for economic and political reforms.
Lebanese Political System
To understand what’s going on and what the protestors are asking for, we have to take a look at Lebanon’s political system.
In Lebanon, power is spread out among the three largest religious communities: Christian, Sunni, and Shia. Because of this, the political system is very sectarian— meaning that leaders govern based on religious differences and divides.
For nearly 30 years now, that political system has largely been credited with keeping relative peace. Now, protestors are saying that it has created corruption and allowed elites to maintain power and enact policies that benefit them and make them wealthier while the rest of the people suffer.
Meanwhile, many of those policies have put Lebanon in the middle of a massive financial crisis, with some economists warning that it could face a complete economic collapse.
Lebanon also has one of the world’s highest debt to GDP ratios, and that massive debt means the government does not have as much money or resources to address social and economic problems.
Many in Lebanon’s lower and middle classes experience power and water cuts almost daily, forcing huge swaths of people to pay high fees to access private generators and buy bottled water.
Even when the water is on, it is highly polluted due to a trash crisis that started in 2015 and has never been fully resolved.
Unemployment is also very high, especially among young people, and many are also upset that the ruling elite have done little to stop forest fires that have been raging all over the country in recent weeks.
On top of everything, Lebanon has a massive population of Syrian refugees, which is currently estimated at 1.5 million. That number could grow as hundreds of thousands are of people in Northern Syria are being forced to flee due to the Turkish incursion.
Protests Ramp Up
Although many have been upset for a while, Lebanon’s politicians have used sectarianism to control their populations and prevent different religious groups from unifying against them.
All of that now seems to have changed.
While smaller protests have gone on throughout Lebanon for weeks now, the government’s decision to raise and implement more taxes seems to be the straw that broke the camels back.
Many perceived the move as the elites— who have done nothing to help people already paying tons of money for basic services in the midst of an economic crisis— basically telling the general population to give them more money.
During the first few days of protests, thousands of people in cities all over the country came out to demonstrate. Young people, most of whom were men according to reports, protested by lighting fires, smashing windows, and chanting against the government.
Protestors reportedly clashed with police, who responded with tear gas. The government quickly scrapped the WhatsApp tax after the protest started, but it was too late.
A New Kind of Protests
Things started to change Saturday when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over the country for peaceful protests— the largest Lebanon has seen for nearly 15 years.
People usually divided along sectarian lines have come together to demonstrate against their own leaders, calling for them to step down and for a wholesale change of the political system.
Those protests were different from other recent protests all over the world. For one, the peaceful demonstrations that started Saturday and have continued ever since are just that— peaceful.
There have been few reports of any violence at all, both among protestors and with the police. In fact, many protestors and reporters on the ground have described the demonstrations as a huge celebration largely marked by hope and joy.
“I feel euphoric,” One protestor in the capital city Beruit told NPR. “For the first time, I see the people of my country standing united together against this tyranny. I’m very proud to say I’m Lebanese because the Lebanese people are not scared anymore.”
Despite the hope and optimism, the underlying anger and frustration that brought the Lebanese people together of course still remains.
Government Response & Continued Protests
In response to the protests, several government ministers and deputies have reportedly stepped down.
On Monday, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a list of reforms which included: no new taxes, cutting government officials’ salaries in half, privatizing the telecom industry to cut down on cellphone plan costs, overhauling the electricity sector, and eliminating some governmental bodies, among other things.
During a speech following the announcement, Hariri told the demonstrators, “Your movement is what led to these decisions that you see today.”
But protestors did not seem to buy it. Many believed it was an empty promise, while others did not want the same people who got the country into the place it is now to be the ones to try and fix the problems they largely created.
Following Hariri’s speech, thousands of people gathered outside his office in Beruit. People chanted “revolution, revolution!” and “the people want to bring down the regime!”
With the protests still ongoing, the mood reportedly still seems optimistic. However, many are watching carefully to see what happens next and if that mood will change.
Regardless, this is a huge deal and an unprecedented showing of unity among different groups of people in Lebanon.
Police Arrest Hong Kong Man for Booing Chinese National Anthem
The man’s boos were launched during the first time the Chinese national anthem had ever been played for a Hong Kong athlete at the Olympics.
Instulting the Anthem
Hong Kong authorities announced Friday that a man was arrested for allegedly booing and “insulting” the Chinese national anthem while watching the Olympics on Monday.
The unnamed 40-year-old, who identified himself as a journalist, was allegedly watching the Olympics fencing medal ceremony for Hong Konger Edgar Cheung at a local mall. When the anthem began playing, he allegedly began booing and chanted “We are Hong Kong!” while waving a British Hong Kong Colonial flag.
The man’s actions were particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the Chinese national anthem had been played for a Hong Kong athlete in the Olympics. Hong Kongers compete at the Games under a separate committee called Hong Kong, China. The last time a Hong Konger won gold was in 1996 for windsurfing, at which time the British anthem of “God Save the Queen” was played.
Concerns for Freedom of Speech
The man is suspected of breaking the relatively new National Anthem Ordinance, which was passed in June 2020, and has a penalty of up to three years in prison and fines of $6,000 for anyone who publicly and intentionally insults the anthem. The law mirrors one in mainland China, but it has faced considerable scrutiny from increasingly persecuted pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong.
They argue that it tramples the right to free speech, which is supposed to be enshrined in the city’s Basic Law. Hong Kong police, however, say that’s not the case and claim that his actions breach common restraints on freedom of speech. Senior Superintendent Eileen Chung said that his actions were “to stir up the hostility of those on the scene and to politicize the sport.”
Police issued a warning that it would investigate reports of others joining his chants or violating the separate National Security law passed last year.
This incident isn’t the only case of alleged politicization of the Games. Badminton player Angus Ng was accused by a pro-Beijing lawmaker of making a statement by sporting a black jersey with the territory’s emblem. The imagery was very similar to the black-and-white Hong Kong flag used by anti-government protesters.
Ng countered that he wore his own clothes to the event because he didn’t have sponsorships to provide jerseys and he wasn’t authorized to print the emblem on a jersey himself.
See what others are saying: (Inside) (Al Jazeera) (CNN)
Canadian Catholic Priest Says Residential Schools Survivors Lied About Abuse
The Roman Catholic Church is facing considerable backlash across Canada for its treatment of indigenous peoples in the residential school system, along with its subsequent efforts to downplay the problem.
Priest Sparks Outrage
Father Rheal Forest was put on forced leave Wednesday following remarks he made over a weeks-long period starting July 10 in which he doubted victims of the country’s infamous residential school system.
Residential schools were a system of schools largely for indigenous children that were mostly run by the Catholic Church with federal government funding. The schools were notoriously cruel and long faced allegations that children had been abused or went missing under their care.
To date, over 1,300 unmarked graves have been found at four former residential schools across Canada, a fraction of the over 130 that used to exist.
Forest, of the St. Boniface archdiocese in Winnipeg, was standing in for a couple of weeks while the main priest at his church was away. During that time, Forest told parishioners that victims of the residential schools, particularly those sexually abused, had lied.
“If [the victims] wanted extra money, from the money that was given to them, they had to lie sometimes — lie that they were abused sexually and, oop, another $50,000,” he said.
“It’s kind of hard if you’re poor not to lie.”
In that same sermon, he also added that during his time with Inuit groups in the north of the country, most had allegedly said they appreciated the residential school system. Instead, he said they blamed any abuses on lay people working at the facilities rather than priests or nuns.
Forest’s comments drew a ton of backlash, prompting the archdiocese to place Forest on leave. A spokesperson for the archdiocese said that the institution “completely disavow” Forest’s comments, adding, “We very much regret the pain they may have caused to many people, not least of course Indigenous people and, more specifically, survivors of the Residential School system.”
Overall, the archdiocese has attempted to apologize to indigenous communities for its part in the residential school system, with Archbishop Albert Legatt saying in a video that the way forward was by “acknowledging, apologizing, and acting” on terms set by indigenous groups.
Church Allegedly Kept Money From Victims
Forest’s views and subsequent dismissal aren’t the only public relations scandal the Roman Catholic Church faces in Canada.
According to documents obtained by CBC News, the Church spent over a decade avoiding paying out money to survivors per a 2005 agreement. At the time, it, alongside the protestant churches that also ran some residential schools, agreed to pay an amount to victims of the schools in the tens of millions.
Instead, according to an internal summary of 2015 court documents, the Catholic Church spent much of that money on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company, and unapproved loans. It seems that some of this was technically legal, such as a promise to give tens of millions back via “in-kind” services; however, there was no audit completed to confirm that these services actually happened or to prove the alleged value of the services. This led to doubts about whether or not they were done effectively.
The Catholic Church was unique among the signatory churches in the 2005 agreement with its efforts to avoid paying victims. All of the other denominations paid out their sums many years before without issues.
While priests such as Father Forest have supported the Church, there has been internal backlash. Father André Poilièvre, a Saskatoon priest and Order of Canada recipient, said the Church’s actions are “scandalous” and “really shameful,” adding, “It was a loophole. It might be legal, but it’s not ethical.”
With these latest revelations, widespread anger at the Church has triggered allegations that indigenous groups are behind a spree of church burnings across the country.
The entire situation is likely going to continue to smolder as a government commission set up to investigate the schools estimates there will be thousands of more unmarked graves found across Canada.
See what others are saying: (CBC News) (The Guardian) (CTV News)
Tokyo Sets Back-to-Back Records for Number of Daily COVID-19 Cases
Some positive cases were detected among people attending the Olympic Games, including a handful of athletes.
Cases Going Up
The Tokyo Olympic Games found itself in more controversy on Wednesday after Tokyo experienced a record number of daily COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row.
On Tuesday, the city recorded 2,848 new cases of the virus, passing the 2,500 daily new case threshold for the first time since the pandemic began. Then on Wednesday, it shattered the record again with 3,177 new COVID-19 cases.
At least 155 of those new cases were detected among people attending the Games, including a handful of athletes, which contrasts Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s promise that the Olympics wouldn’t be hit with the virus. The spike in new cases has largely been attributed to the delta-variant, something that many countries are dealing with around the world.
Nishimura Yasutoshi, a Japanese economic minister, told a parliamentary panel this week that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue rising for at least a few days. He also explained that many people may have delayed getting tested last week due to holidays, therefore inflating total daily new case numbers.
Governors in prefectures around Tokyo have moved to ask the government for states-of-emergency, which Tokyo is already under.
Doubts About Government Response
The prime minister said in a press conference on Tuesday that “the government has secured a new drug that reduces the risk of serious illness by 70 percent,” adding, “we have confirmed that this drug will be used thoroughly from now on.”
However, he never actually mentioned what drug he was referencing.
“In any case, under these circumstances, I would like to ask the people to avoid going out unnecessarily and to watch the Olympics and Paralympics on TV,” Suga continued.
He also stressed that canceling the Olympics amid the outbreak was completely out of the question, although there have been continued calls from the public and opposition lawmakers for just that.
Beyond refusing to cancel the Games, Suga is facing backlash for refusing to enact strict state-of-emergency protocols. Currently, the measures in Tokyo are almost all voluntary and consist of asking people to stay home, along with requesting restaurants that serve alcohol to completely close and telling all others to shut down by 8 p.m.