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A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag during a protest seeking to prevent MPs and government officials from reaching the parliament for a vote of confidence, in Beirut, Feb. 11, 2020.

Lebanese protesters forge public shaming campaign against politicians

The campaign has pushed more than a dozen political leaders out of restaurants, malls and other venues in the past few months.

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A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag during a protest seeking to prevent government officials from reaching the parliament for a vote of confidence, in Beirut, Feb. 11, 2020.

Credit:

Aziz Taher/Reuters 

When Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora attended a Christmas concert at the American University in Beirut, he got a nasty surprise.

As Siniora waited for the show to start, dozens of concertgoers stood up chanting “revolution, revolution.” 

At first, Siniora and his entourage stayed put, ignoring the crowd. But soon, almost everyone in the concert hall was on their feet, chanting or filming with their phones.

“Siniora, get out,” the crowd chanted.

Related: As Lebanon’s economy spirals, foreign domestic workers remain stranded

And like that, a man who once led Lebanon, was forced out of one of the country's most prestigious institutions. 

The crowd cheered as Siniora exited. 

That spontaneous ousting has spurred a campaign against Lebanon’s elites that has pushed more than a dozen political leaders out of restaurants, malls and other venues in the past few months.

Lebanon is teetering on the edge of financial collapse, defaulting on a loan payment last week for the first time. The Lebanese lira, pegged to the US dollar for more than two decades, is in freefall. Banks have implemented strict capital controls, limiting withdrawals and foreign transfers and enraging clients. The price of food and other goods is rising quickly and almost 800 restaurants, cafes and bars across the country have closed in the past five months.

Protesters say the crisis is the result of decades of corruption and financial mismanagement by the very politicians now being chased out of venues. Siniora was questioned last year by the state prosecutor for over $11 billion in unaccounted public funds from his time in office.

Related: Could reclaiming public space be key to ending Lebanon’s sectarian system?

Lebanon’s politicians are also criticized for their lavish lifestyles and spending, especially as the country slides into crisis. When former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil showed up by private jet at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, he faced a barrage of questions about how a minister, with a salary of around $5,000 per month, could afford such a luxury.

“People are dying of hunger while our politicians are seen in expensive places of leisure,” said one of the campaign’s organizers, who asked to remain anonymous fearing retribution. 

The campaign uses crowdsourcing, an Instagram account and a Google map to execute the oustings. When someone spots a politician in public, they send the name and the location to the account, ThawraMap  (RevolutionMap). Within minutes, there is an Instagram post calling “revolutionaries” to “go shame the person!” and a red star is added to the Google map. The revolutionaries descend on the location. 

As the deputy speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament, Elie Ferzli, sat for dinner at a restaurant in the city’s popular Gemmayze district in January, a crowd of protesters gathered at the window chanting “thief, thief.”

Some made it inside, confronting Ferzli at his table, filming as he tried to ignore the chants. 

Related: How Lebanon's 'WhatsApp tax' unleashed a flood of anger

Eventually, a polite voice can be heard off camera: “Monsieur Ferzli, think it's better if you leave.”

Last week, Lebanon’s former minister of the environment, Fadi Jreissati, sat in a newly opened cafe. ThawraMap posted a photo of him laughing at a table: “URGENT Fadi Jreissati is at Zulu in Gemmayze. Can someone go ask him why he’s happy?”

Within minutes, protesters were at the cafe confronting Jreissati. It started with a civilized but heated conversation about his time as environment minister. Lebanon’s environment is in a dire state. Water is unsafe to drink. The sea is too dirty to swim in, and air pollution is way too high for a country with almost no industry. 

This confrontation itself is a victory for protesters. They have a rare opportunity to confront a politician face-to-face.

Soon, things escalate. 

“You’re not welcome here,” shouts one of the protesters. 

Eventually, Jreissati leaves.

Related: Lebanon becomes a refuge for Venezuelans of Lebanese descent

“If they can’t leave the house, they’ll think about everything that they did,” said a man in his 60s sitting at a table with friends. He refused to give his name, citing his own business interests. “Until they find a solution for our country, they should stay home … We are in deep s*** in this country.”

Politicians have caught on to the campaign and now often get the heads up before the protesters arrive. The Instagram account was even reported several times and was briefly shut down. 

“I think it’s not enough,” says a woman at the next table, who didn’t want to be identified. “We can kick them out every day but nothing is going to change. More extreme measures should be taken.”   

And the Instagram account behind the shaming campaign is doing just that. It’s publicizing politicians' home addresses and businesses. It’s urging protesters to boycott them. And it’s not restricted to Lebanon. Over the weekend, a Lebanese minister was spotted at a restaurant in Paris. Protesters headed to the location.

But there has already been victory, says the campaign organizer — many politicians no longer feel comfortable going out and the number sightings, and shammings have decreased. 

“They can’t hide forever,” said the campaign organizer, adding, “They’ll go crazy.”

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