Art museums and galleries across Beirut have closed their doors in solidarity with the more than two million people protesting the government’s mishandling of the country’s deepening economic crisis. According to the Art Newspaper, the Beirut Art Center, Dar El-Nimer, Sfeir-Semler Gallery and the Sursock Museum are among the institutions which halted operations.
The demonstrations, which have been mostly peaceful, were sparked on Thursday, October 17, when officials proposed a new tax on calls made from popular messaging services including WhatsApp and FaceTime and have since morphed into a movement for sweeping political reforms. Among the organizations that have pledged their support for the protests are the Beirut Art Residency and the nonprofit Ashkal Alwan. A spokesperson from Dar El-Nimer, an independent space dedicated to art from Palestine, told the Art Newspaper, “It’s our mere duty to join the crowds and take to the streets because this rightful uprising is uniting the country and the Lebanese diasporas around the world.”
Some protesters have also been occupying government-owned buildings that have been abandoned since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, including cultural venues such as the Grand Theater in Beirut designed by Lebanese architect Youssef Aftimus more than a century ago. According to Aljazeera, during the civil war, the cinema became a space for X-rated films, and the building next to it became a brothel. During the five days of protests it has served as a hub for activists and people who want to reclaim former public spaces.
In an attempt to pacify protesters, the government held an emergency meeting on Monday and introduced a package of economic reforms ranging from slashing the salaries of legislators and members of parliament, as well as the budgets to a number of state agencies, to increasing taxes on financial institutions in an attempt to redistribute money to families living in poverty. It also approved a budget for 2020 that does not involve any new taxes. In a televised press conference, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said, “These decisions are not designed as a trade-off. They are not to ask you to stop expressing your anger. That is your decision to make.”