The city of Beirut in Lebanon appears to be a picture of elegance and success. It has French stores selling costly goods, pricey hotels and its streets are filled with imported cars. But it is also a nation struggling with inequality, collapsing public services and high unemployment.
Three weeks of anti-government protests have left the country shaken and have resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
“Lebanon is a beautiful idea,” said Yara Salem. She is a 25-year-old student who spends her days at the protest camp in Martyrs’ Square. The camp is only a few meters from the doors of Le Grey, one of Beirut’s most costly hotels.
“You think you’re in Paris, but you go over there, and people are dying on the streets,” she said. She was talking about the levels of poverty that exist in the city.
Salem called the protests a revolution because they have brought hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people into the streets. But, she said, the protests will be a failure unless the ruling elite are removed from power completely.
The country’s 15-year-old civil war ended in 1990, but the names of those who run the country have not really changed, she said. The protestors do not believe they can build a stronger economy or a better future.
“It’s been the same people for 30 years,” she said. She added that her parents’ generation had lost its belief in politics, but the young still believe change is possible.
“The main point of this revolution is to do something for the poor - jobs, services, education,” she said.
There are many reasons to wonder how Lebanon has been able to hold itself together for so long.
With 18 officially recognized sectarian groups, it has been difficult to reach political agreement. Changing loyalties make decisions nearly impossible. Corruption touches business and politics, which are controlled by large families.
The World Inequality Database, a research group, considers Lebanon one of the most unequal countries in the world. The richest one percent of its people account for almost 25 percent of the national income while the poorest account for 10 percent.
Beirut stores are filled with goods that can only be bought by the wealthy. Yet the economy is not growing, debt is at 150 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment among people who are under age 35 is nearing 40 percent.
“There’s no work, there are no services, the schools are not good,” said Jamal Raydan. He is a Druze protester from the same town as Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s leading Druze politician.
Raydan studied to be an accountant, but has not worked in four years. He asked Jumblatt for help, but did not receive any. He has decided that Lebanon’s political system is a failure.
“It makes me angry,” he said.
“Lebanon should be like a mother to all its people,” he said. “Instead they have turned her into a bad woman.”
I’m Susan Shand.
The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
elegance – adj. graceful and attractive
elite – n. the people who have the most wealth and status in a society
sectarian – adj. relating to religious or political sects and the differences between them
database – n. a collection of pieces of information that is organized and used on a computer
gross domestic product –n. a measure of the size of a country’s economy that gives the value of all goods and services produced in one year