A massive uprising broke out in Lebanon on October 17, 2019, drawing people together across sectarian lines to reject the domination of warlord oligarchs. Four months later, the unrest continues—amid efforts to crush, tame, or redirect it. How can an understanding of Lebanese history help us understand the situation? What can we learn from the Lebanese uprising that could inform struggles against capitalism, sectarianism, and the state worldwide?
With the formation of a “new” government on January 21, anti-sectarian protesters in Lebanon have been dealing with establishment parties’ efforts to derail or co-opt revolutionary momentum. These parties are employing every method from physical violence to online campaigns of harassment and disinformation; at the same time, worsening conditions on the ground have led to fear-mongering. Panic resulting from restrictive cash withdrawal limits at the banks and the fear of shortages of bread and medicine has temporarily reduced the presence of protesters on the streets. Yet the same structural problems that sparked the uprising have only worsened since it began; this suggests that we may see a return to mass mobilization in the near-future.
In the following interview with Joey Ayoub, a co-organizer of previous movements in Lebanon and a participant in the current uprising from the beginning, we explore the structural factors that have limited the scope of the uprising, the similarities and differences between the events in Lebanon and those in Bosnia, Iraq, and Iran, and how people outside Lebanon can prepare for similar opportunities in their own contexts.
Asked what errors or oversights anarchists had made in relation to the Chilean uprising, one participant answered, “It was a mistake not to expect that this would happen.” Has the movement in Lebanon taken everyone by surprise? Had you known that this was coming, what would you have done to prepare, to expand the scope of possibility?
The movement has taken everyone by surprise and, similarly to the reaction to the Chilean uprising, I think this was a mistake. In many ways, we felt extremely down prior to October 17. The rare windows of opportunity we’ve had in recent years were seen as relative failures—I refer here to the 2015 “YouStink” uprising, the 2016 municipal elections, and the 2018 general elections. But while I didn’t see this coming either, I think there were early signs that something—what, exactly, no one knew—was going to happen. I remember describing protest movements in Lebanon some years ago as tidal—they have their highs and their lows, just like tides do.
I suppose the difficulty is preparing for the highs when the lows are so difficult to bear. To have been better prepared for the uprising that began on October 17, we would have needed a more advanced understanding of the sectarian system in Lebanon and how it intersects with capitalism, racism, xenophobia/nationalism, misogyny/patriarchy, and homophobia/transphobia. We would have had to arrive at this understanding while navigating all the contradictions and manifestations of violence of the past three decades of what is called “the postwar era” in Lebanon: two separate military occupations (by Israel and Syria), deeply entrenched clientalism, actually existing neoliberalism, and multiple political assassinations that never lead to prosecutions.
This was very difficult to do for additional reasons:
- The Mediascape
Good journalism is rare in Lebanon. The main newspapers tend to be aligned with the sectarian parties, either directly or indirectly, or have some affinity towards the status quo. There are decent adversarial journalists working in mainstream media, but even they have been struggling. To name two quick examples: Mohammad Zbeeb worked as the economics editor at the “leftist,” pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar but quit due to the anti-revolution stance of the paper, while Timour Azhari quit from his position at the English-language media The Daily Star in solidarity with a colleague, Benjamin Redd, who was fired for helping to organize a strike over the refusal of the (billionaire) Hariri-owned paper to pay salaries. More journalists quit Al-Akhbar for similar reasons.
At the same time, there’s been a rise in adversarial journalism from independent outlets—and here I can point to the outlets that have popped up since 2015 or since 2019 such as Megaphone News (ميغافون), The Public Source (مصدر عام), Fawra Media (فورة) and Akhbar al-Saha (أخبارالساحة), to list a few—but these are all still very new. The hope here is that Generation Zers are growing up with a much more diverse and critical mediascape than Millennials did—not to mention older generations—and that this will influence politics in this country in one way or another (electorally, locally, regionally etc). There’s no guarantee this will happen, but it’s reasonable to expect it.
- The Violence of Privatization
Violence is widespread in Lebanon. When we think of violence, we tend to picture the cops-are-coming-to-beat-us variety, but it’s much more all-encompassing than that. Just like everywhere else, violence in Lebanon is symbolic and structural as well as physical.
For example, the absence of public spaces and public transportation is a form of violence that constrains us to private spheres where interaction with the Other is reduced to a minimum, which in turn encourages homogenization. This is due to rampant privatization, itself a form of violence—sometimes requiring physical violence to force or “persuade” inhabitants to leave a certain area, such as downtown Beirut—that has occurred in the postwar era following the globalized neoliberal framework. Even in mixed areas, it’s fairly common to grow up surrounded almost exclusively by those of your own sect, partly as a result of mass internal displacement during the war as well as other historical factors. The closest most of us come to seeing other people in large numbers on a daily basis is when we are stuck in traffic.
Our generation was raised on stories of the pre-war era while physically going to places that are no longer there: downtown used to be “al balad” (literally “the country,” a common way of referring to a city’s downtown in the Arabic-speaking world) but it became “Solidere,” the private company owned by the two Hariri prime ministers (Rafik, the father and Saad, the son), in the 1990s. This is why protesters graffitied the sentence “it’s called Al Balad, not Solidere” on the walls of downtown Beirut.
- The Violence of Wasta
Wasta (clientalism/bribes) is another form of violence, as it makes access to basic services depend on sectarian and class connections, creating hierarchies that are reinforced by the current sectarian-capitalist-patriarchal paradigm. As a result, local zuama (“chieftains”), whose networks were created or expanded during the 1975-1990 civil war or in the 1990s, can control people’s lives without resorting to physical violence. Those same zuama are also in government—including the speaker of parliament, the president, and the vast majority of MPs—or linked to the government in one way or another. To put it differently, the whole political-economic system in Lebanon is monopolized by sectarian-capitalist-patriarchal networks headed by former or current warlords or oligarchs. Despite their occasional differences, they have much more in common with each other than not.
- The Violence of Gaslighting
Lebanon’s residents are the victims of relentless, decades-long gaslighting. The families of those forcibly “disappeared” during the civil war have been told for the past three decades to move on, as their loved ones will never be accounted for. Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men are told they are Lebanese while their partners, sons, and daughters are deprived of the nationality. LGBTQ people read stories that proclaim Lebanon to be a liberal haven in a sea of conservatism while regularly facing the bigotry of a deeply hypocritical society. Lebanese youth are praised by the sectarian upper classes while being forced to emigrate to find any semblance of stability, financial or otherwise. Even refugees were briefly told, for some time, that they are welcome in Lebanon—despite the hard, cold facts on the ground showing them otherwise and the history of violence against refugees in Lebanon.
“We will shake your thrones.” The hashtag reads “no confidence” [in this government]. Credit: Rabih Yassine.
- No Accountability, Ever
The lack of accountability for crimes committed during and since the civil war did not normalize violence, as is it is often said. Lebanon’s residents are not “used to” violence. No one ever really gets used to violence. Rather, what has been normalized is the anticipation of violence, to use an expression coined by Sami Hermez. Some bombs or some war—whether with Israel, within Lebanon, or Syria-related—are always expected sometime in the not-too-distant future. We are a deeply traumatized population. The lack of nationwide, regional, or local structures to address these traumas has only worsened a widespread feeling of despair and cynicism.
Like others of our generation, I was told from a young age by older Lebanese that it is pointless to protest for such things as protecting our cultural or natural heritage because they will all be destroyed anyway. I was raised with the civil war—“the events,” as they are often called—as the ultimate taboo, never to be spoken of, while others inherited some form of sectarian historiography (to use Craig Larkin’s expression) glorifying the actions of their sect’s warlord and self-appointed representative. I was raised to hate or look down upon refugees and migrant workers (Palestinians, Syrians, Ethiopians, Sri Lankans, Filipinas, Nepalis, etc.) and treat them with suspicion despite the fact that, in many ways, they have been the ones keeping this country from collapsing under its own contradictions.
The way I picture it, growing up in postwar Lebanon with some awareness of its problems is like trying to warn about the incoming tsunami that you can see with your eyes while your parents, schoolteachers, neighbors, and country are aggressively putting you down for disturbing the peace. It’s exhausting. And the same was said about Lebanon during the war. I can only think of the Lebanese poet Nadia Tueni who put it in simple and devastating terms: J’appartiens a un pays qui chaque jour se suicide tandis qu’on l’assassine. “I belong to a country that commits suicide every day while it is being assassinated.” On a fundamental level, not much changed in the post-war era.
All this is not well-understood in Lebanon. It is absent from our education and media systems. At best, you might get some decent classes at a few of the universities, assuming you can afford to go to the private ones or circumvent the obstacles at the only public university. We’ve had to educate ourselves about everything—and that takes a lot of time, energy, and resources in Lebanon, all of which are hard to come by if you’re constantly worried about rent, your health, and your own future in this country.
Understanding these factors and many more would have prepared us better for the way that the state and its representatives responded to the protests. To them, we are an existential threat. Look at what has happened in our region since 2011. The dictators are either dead, like Gaddafi, or have slaughtered their whole country to stay in power, like Assad. The Lebanese warlords and oligarchs are somewhere in between. For now, they can’t risk being too violent towards us because they understand that the whole country is on the verge of collapse and their wealth and physical safety at risk. No one is fully in control of their traditional base, not even Hezbollah. They are loathed by a significant percentage of the population, and even many of their traditional followers are finding it increasingly difficult to tolerate the current state of affairs. Many politicians are now avoiding public places because protesters are following them to protest at whatever restaurant they visit.
We are following their every move. It’s not inconceivable to imagine that they will be physically attacked soon—and they know this. On February 11, protesters attacked an MP from the fascist and pro-Assad SSNP party, sending him to the hospital. Convoys of MPs in bulletproof cars are surrounding themselves with extra security, including the internal security forces, the army, the parliamentary police, and riot police. As if that’s not enough, they also have to be surrounded by their supporters on motorbikes. All of this just to get to parliament. We were attacked on February 11 by Amal and Hezbollah supporters because we were trying to block entrance to all MPs going to parliament, including those from parties opposed to Amal and Hezbollah. Essentially, the sectarians are defending each other to maintain this status quo.
Photo and art by Roula Abdo on a “security wall” put up by the government to prevent protesters from entering Parliament’s Nejmeh Square on January 26.
Do you have any advice for people in parts of the world that have not seen a massive social movement like this yet?
To my mind, the most urgent thing is to identify flaws that are likely to emerge in the eventuality of a protest movement and prepare to deal with them. What are some of the fault lines and contradictions in your society? If I had employed this exercise in the past, knowing what I know now, I would have anticipated the intersection of class and sectarianism to be among the most difficult obstacles to overcome, not to mention the double-edged sword of nationalism, which can be both a tool against sectarianism (“regardless of regions or sects, we are all Lebanese”) but also against the scapegoated racialized “Other,” especially Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
To use a concrete example: the “boys from khandaq,” as they are unfortunately sometimes called in Arabic, are a group of mostly working class men, including some teenagers, who support the two dominant sectarian Shia parties, Hezbollah and Amal. They gather at the entrance of the Khandaq Al-Ghameek neighborhood, close to popular protest sites, to launch attacks at protesters. From a strictly simplistic economic perspective, they have more in common with protesters than they share with the leaders of Hezbollah and Amal. But this is where sectarianism comes in. Just as upper classes everywhere can rally the working class and middle class under the banner of nationalism, a very similar dynamic occurs with sectarianism. You may be poor, but you are also offered a convenient narrative that gives meaning to your life. In the case of Amal and Hezbollah, you are told that you are the son (or daughter, though sectarianism is gendered and patriarchal) of a great cause, of “the resistance,” of a world that stretches all the way to the glorious ayatollahs of Iran. You, and those who are “like you,” are part of a story that centers you in a country where nothing truly feels meaningful. This is why the television stations of Hezbollah and Amal portray the protests as influenced by foreign powers—I was recently called an Israeli agent by a member of Hezbollah who punched me—or accuse opposition sectarian parties (most notably, the Christian “Lebanese Forces”) of pulling the strings. The alternative possibility—that we have more in common with one another than with the leaders—is too dangerous to acknowledge.
These protests have been anti-sectarian from the very start. But since the first month, when revolutionary momentum was at its peak, sectarian forces, especially those currently in power—the Christian “Free Patriotic Movement” and the Shia Amal and Hezbollah—played the sectarian card. Predictably, they especially focused on Tripoli, the Sunni-majority working-class city in the North, and to a lesser extent Akkar, further north. Social media posts are filled with smears thrown at Tripolitans who join protesters in Beirut to defend us against the state and its representatives, with sectarian partisans calling them “Dawaesh” (“Daesh members”) or accusing them of being Syrians or having Syrians with them. It is a way of telling them “go back to where you come from.” That’s exactly what happened to one protester from Tripoli recently: he was beaten by FPM supporters in the Christian-majority city of Keserwan who told him to go back to Tripoli and said “fuck your god” (an obvious reference to the man’s Sunni faith). Protesters, especially Christians, responded by denouncing the FPM and extending the usual greetings to “our brothers and sisters from Tripoli.” A protest against sectarianism took place in Keserwan and the protester was invited to take part, which he did.
With this reality in mind, we can pose two questions:
1) How can we unite the so-called “Sunni streets” with the “Shia streets”?
2) If the “Sunni streets” are standing by protesters of all sects— including Shias—while the “Shia streets” are not, what can we do about this?
The second question already comes with an asterisk—because it is based on a false premise. In fact, protests in Shia-majority areas of the South such as Nabatiyeh were among the first to break out; we should credit them alongside those in Tripoli as having consolidated the anti-sectarian momentum of this movement. Nonetheless, this perception survives, largely due to the hegemonic stronghold of Hezbollah and Amal over the “Shia streets,” a phenomenon that results in dissident Lebanese Shia such as the Lebanese rapper Bu Nasser Touffar being smeared and shunned as an “embassy Shia” (i.e., foreign-funded, or unwittingly doing the bidding of foreign governments) or threatened with violence. At the same time, for various reasons, the “Sunni streets” have already been moving away from the hegemonic stronghold of political Harirism (neoliberal politics dominated by the Hariri family, generally Gulf-oriented) since around 2013-2015. Therefore, we can already rephrase the second question:
2) How can we dismantle Amal and Hezbollah’s hegemony over the “Shia streets” while also dismantling all other sectarian hegemonies (Jumblatt/Arslan/Wahhab hegemony over the “Druze streets,” Geagea/Aoun/Gemayel hegemony over the “Christian streets,” etc.)?
This is just one of many fault lines in current Lebanese society. Here’s another one: for those of us who are anti-authoritarians, our concerns are not only limited to Lebanese or would-be Lebanese citizens, but to all those currently within the borders of the Lebanese nation-state. Going back to the double-edged sword metaphor of nationalism, how should we wield that sword? Or should we just avoid it completely? Would our avoiding it benefit its victims or result in their being further victimized? Do we appeal to a liberal (and therefore limited) conception of nationhood that is more inclusive of refugees and migrant workers than the current one? There are no easy answers to these questions, but we must ask them nonetheless. And it is easier to think about them before a massive social movement breaks out in your country than in the heat of events.
“I won.” From the February 11 protests against parliament in Beirut. Source: Timour Azhari
Trace the political situation in Lebanon from the Arab Spring through the “You Stink!” movement. Were there any precedents that set the stage for this uprising or contributed to shaping it?
The aforementioned 2015 “You Stink” protests were arguably the first major political event of the postwar generations. The 2005 Cedar Revolution occurred before that—but most of its leaders were from the previous generations, including warlords, and they ended up breaking up into the March 14 camp, dominated by the Hariris, and the March 8 camp dominated by Hezbollah. So let’s look at 2015.
First of all, why did Lebanon not join the rest of the countries of the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) region in the so-called Arab Spring? I’ll focus on the most obvious reason: there is no one dictator in Lebanon to overthrow. We have no Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Omar al-Bashir, Hosni Mubarak, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and no Gulf royals either. The Lebanese status quo is a network of warlords and oligarchs who have established a power-sharing agreement, however fragile, that has been able to sustain local and regional contradictions. In other words, things are bad, but “at least we’re not Syria or Iraq or Yemen or Libya.” Forged in the fires of the civil war, the postwar regime has played on these fears expertly.
Still, there were protests in Lebanon in 2011 echoing those elsewhere in the Arab-majority world; it can be argued that their “failures,” as well as those of other pre-2015 mobilizations, led to the “You Stink” movement in 2015. As a member of the organizing committee of “You Stink” in its early weeks, I can say that it failed, too. But its failures helped shape the 2016 “Beirut Madinati” independent list in the Beirut municipal elections, which in turn led to the 2018 independent lists running in the general elections, which gave rise to the anger that gave us the movement that broke out on October 17, 2019.
The chief weakness of “You Stink” was its lack of cross-class representation. Although it ended up including more radical demands, that initial contradiction was never fully resolved. For the most part, it was (cisgender/heterosexual) male-dominated and not intersectional. To put it more directly, the “You Stink” protest was “tamed” by middle-class priorities, a sort of professionalized activism that excluded wider socio-economic demands. It was oriented towards “civil society,” broadly liberal, and ultimately collapsed beneath its own contradictions. More importantly, there just wasn’t enough momentum, as far as I could tell at the time, for a wider political movement. The reasons cited above—violence, sectarianism, and the like—still held sway over large segments of the population.
These limitations also characterized the 2016 “Beirut Madinati” (“Beirut my city”) independent list. The list was comprised of professionals and technocrats. Granted, Beirut Madinati galvanized a cross section of Lebanese society. For the first time in the postwar era, a discernible youth movement mobilized to attempt to take control of a major center of power, the Beirut municipality. They had to contend with the entirety of the sectarian system as political parties from both March 14 and March 8 united to form the “Beirutis” list to defeat Beirut Madinati. Despite taking on the entire establishment, the Beirut Madinati list still managed to gain 40% of the votes.
Two years later, the “my” handle was adopted by various independent lists during the 2018 general elections, including Li Baladi (for my country) and Li Haqqi (for my rights). Sociologist Rima Majed critiqued this language, arguing for “our” rather than “my.” For various reasons, most of these lists did not succeed, and the establishment parties, equipped with significantly more capital, declared victory. The latest government—or “mandate,” as the president likes to call it—has overseen the further deterioration of the Lebanese economy. That government collapsed with Hariri’s resignation less than two weeks after the protests started. As of the time of writing, the new government, inaugurated at the end of January 2020, is being actively challenged by protesters under the slogan “no trust” (لا ثقة).
This protester’s sign reading “We make the decision” followed by the hashtag “no trust” [in the government] has caught a tear gas canister shot by security forces. Photo: Joey Ayoub, February 11.
Bosnia was divided between three administrations as a result of the Dayton accords that concluded the civil war in the 1990s; rampant corruption and social stratification developed while neoliberal globalization resulted in the country being stripped of industries. The Bosnian uprising of 2014, in which participants burned several government headquarters, expressed an explicit rejection of nationalism with the banner “FREEDOM IS MY NATION.” Participants established plenums according to directly democratic principles. Yet once the movement shifted from disrupting the power of the reigning authorities to formulating and presenting demands, it was possible for the government to ignore these demands and return to business as usual. Arguably, the problem was that at some point, the protesters focused on presenting demands rather than bringing about change directly through their own efforts. Much of this story sounds familiar from what has happened up to this point in Lebanon. How can the movement maintain leverage on the authorities—the current authorities and any who succeed them? What changes is it possible to imagine implementing directly?
There is an ongoing debate about this among protesters, and I can’t say that a consensus has emerged. There have already been some demands—early elections with an electoral law abolishing political sectarianism, an independent committee to tackle corruption, an independent judiciary, etc.—but no consensus about them. It might make more sense to compare our situation to the one in Iraq, where protesters are facing much more lethal force than the Lebanese. As in Lebanon, Iraqis are essentially fighting for survival, and when you’re fighting for survival you don’t necessarily have much time to debate the pros and cons of formulating demands.
That being said, though I’m personally unsure whether presenting demands is an issue in itself or not, I believe that making them our only priority would make us vulnerable. We can agree on a list of urgent demands—elimination of political sectarianism, for example—while building the foundation for better alternatives at the same time. The way I see it, we have an opportunity to weaken the authorities that have dominated our lives for the past three decades and we owe it to the next generation at least to try. Getting rid of them all permanently will take a long time, likely several years, but we have to start somewhere. There can be no peace and no justice in Lebanon while they rule.
So I guess this is a non-answer because I don’t think we’re at “that” stage yet. Even if we were to establish plenums on the Bosnian model, we would still have to deal with the fact that Palestinians, Syrians, and other non-Lebanese groups will likely be excluded. Regardless of what next steps we take, the intersection of capitalism and authoritarianism—all of its forms, from patriarchy to racism, including homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia—will haunt our every step. Considering this, we might as well reduce the obstacles in front of us. If targeted demands can do that, it is worth exploring that option.
On a related note, I think it’s interesting to explore how a “freedom is my nation” framework would work in Lebanon. In many ways, this already exists in parts of the art scene in Lebanon. The rap underground in particular is aggressively anti-authoritarian. You can find opposition to Assad and Zionism, Iran and the Gulf monarchies, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority, racism and xenophobia, homophobia and patriarchy, and so on. Some of these artists are really comparable to the most anti-authoritarian and radical music in the African-American tradition. Listening to songs by Bu Nasser Touffar, Gaafar Touffar, Al-Darwish, Rayess Beik or El Rass, to name a few, we are transported to a world that found its anti-authoritarian voice long before the October revolution. Bu Nasser and Gaafar are from Baalbek, El Rass is from Tripoli, Rayess Beik is from Beirut, and Al-Darwish is a Syrian from Homs. Like the Nabatiyeh and Tripoli protests I discussed in my first article, the fact that many of them come from outside of Beirut and include Syrians and Palestinians speaks volumes to their ground-breaking role in pre-revolutionary Lebanon.
Situate the movement in Lebanon in reference to the recent movements in Iraq and Iran. How much have they influenced each other? Or have they simply been the result of parallel conditions?
The recent protests in Iran were quickly and brutally crushed. Those in Iraq are still being brutally crushed but protesters there have managed to maintain their momentum in ways that Iranians, unfortunately, haven’t. I’m not well-placed to comment on these two movements in detail, but from what I can tell, it seems like we are dealing with parallel conditions. Of course, there are direct links between the three countries and Syria, due to Iran’s imperialist and sectarian politics. Iraqi protesters facing the sectarian militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (الحشد الشعبي) are well aware of their links to Iran. Syrians have seen their whole country ravaged by Iran and its sectarian militias, most notably Hezbollah, which is also a dominant party in Lebanon. So these are some of the direct links.
But protesters in these three countries are primarily focused on the issues in front of them, which is entirely understandable given how difficult these are to overcome. Iraqis have to deal with a government that is effectively run by militias and heavily influenced by Iran, whose power there is almost completely hegemonic—apart from Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own dynamics. As for Iranians, they have to deal with an extremely authoritarian regime, a weak economy, and the additional threat of US warmongering.
That being said, there have been small attempts to connect these struggles. In my opinion, the most impressive efforts thus far have come from intersectional feminists. In Lebanon, the brutal repression in Iraq and Iran, not to mention the ongoing extermination campaigns by Assad in Syria, serve as a daily reminder that things can always get worse. These examples are used by pro-government apologists—the ones whose position I’ve been referring to as “hey, at least we’re not Syria”—to blame the ongoing crisis on protesters and dissuade their followers from joining the movement. The challenge is to navigate these fears while not letting them take control.
The discourse of protesting corruption has driven powerful social movements in many parts of the world, but these are often demobilized and pacified by the arrival of new politicians (who ultimately act similarly to the ones they replace). Likewise, the discourse of opposing corruption has been useful to populists like Donald Trump. How central is this discourse to what is happening in Lebanon? Do you see the same vulnerabilities?
Yes, I think the same vulnerabilities exist in Lebanon for similar reasons. But one key difference here is that the focus on corruption is complimented by the chant “all of them means all of them” (كلن يعني كلن), which has been a key component of the protests. This is especially important due to some politicians’ attempts to ride the wave of the protests into power.
Another key difference is that, in contrast to the US, corruption in Lebanon is associated with a whole generation of politicians, not just individuals. There are certain politicians whose reputations are worse than others on this matter, such as Amal’s Nabih Berri and the Future Movement (FM)’s Fouad Siniora, two names people have focused on since October; indeed, this can lead some to argue for the premise of “lesser evilism” when it comes to other politicians, such as the (Christian sectarian) Phalangists’ Nadim Gemayel. The latter has gained some political/sectarian capital from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Lebanese Forces (LF), the two dominant Christian sectarian parties. He has even made some gestures towards supporters of Hezbollah by appealing to a perceived common sense of nationalism, usually by supporting the Lebanese army over Hezbollah’s military dominance. But these developments are not particularly new. The Phalangists, for example, had already built links with some civil society actors over the past decade or so; in many ways, they’re just continuing what they’ve been building so far. They have even opened the doors of their Beirut headquarters to protesters fleeing the teargas.
From the start, then, cooptation has been the chief risk. Anti-authoritarians were worried about this, as I recall from numerous conversations, when the Lebanese Forces withdrew their ministers and when the FM’s Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister in the first two weeks of the protests. There have been several instances in which protesters and supporters of these two sectarian parties stood side by side against security forces or against supporters of Amal and Hezbollah, with the LF and FM supporters forgoing their usual party flags for the occasion. This stands in stark contrast to the initial phase of the protests, which involved supporters of all sectarian parties, from Amal and Hezbollah to the LF and FM. It has been a primary concern for activists from the start.
For the foreseeable future, I think there is less of a risk that a Trump-style populist will gain prominence, for the simple reason that Trump-style populism is already the status quo in Lebanon. It doesn’t take much to see the similarities between Jared Kuchner, Trump’s son-in-law, receiving government positions out of nepotistic considerations, and Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, serving until recently as the foreign minister and remaining the co-leader of Aoun’s party to this day. Likewise, the incestuous politics of the ruling class are on display in Lebanon for all to see. They predate Lebanon itself; they have defined almost the entirety of Lebanon’s existence as a nation-state. But even if, for example, Gemayel manages to gain enough political capital in the near future to be considered for the presidency, which seems unlikely, he will still have to navigate a post-October landscape of anti-sectarianism and “all of them means all of them.”
What organizational structures and practices have driven decision-making within the movement so far? Whether online, behind the scenes, totally decentralized, or otherwise?
Four months in, the movement is still decentralized, but protests outside of Beirut have dwindled. This is worrisome, especially as it has been cities and regions like Nabatiyeh in the south and Tripoli in the north that guaranteed the anti-sectarian nature of the protests. This was surely understood by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, who asked his supporters to withdraw from the streets early on. To re-use the “streets” metaphor, without the participation of the “Shia streets,” for reasons explored in my first piece, it is easy for sectarians to scapegoat the “Sunni streets.”
By and large, protests are usually called for in response to moves from the government or on specific symbolic dates (the 17th of every month, for example). They cohere organically on social media or smaller independent groups call for them. Protesters rarely know who specifically called for a protest; there have been multiple calls for protests that haven’t led anywhere. One thing we can say for certain is that while many groups can call for protests, only a few get significant responses. Most of the successful protests have been time-sensitive mobilizations (for example, when the parliament convened on February 11) or responses to violence by the state or parties (for example, when FPM supporters beat up a protester from Tripoli).
Independent unions have also played some role in mobilizing protesters. For the most part, these are unions that have been created over the past few months as alternatives to the dominant unions, which are widely seen as co-opted by the sectarian ruling class. Recently, the Alternative Union for Journalists organized a protest to defend Mohammad Zbeeb when he was attacked by thugs affiliated with Al-Mawarid Bank. We’ve seen soup kitchens and musical performances, public lectures and impressive graffiti. Although these are not technically organizational structures, they’ve all played their part in maintaining revolutionary momentum.
In addition, partly due to the lack of public spaces and public transportation, much of the anger against the status quo is fomented online. It is common, for example, for politicians’ Twitter accounts to elicit barrages of replies and denunciations—an activity that anti-government diaspora Lebanese can also partake in. The creative use of social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok has also helped build an explicitly anti-sectarian politics for the first time in three decades.
What new relations to space have emerged in the process of the movement? Are these likely to remain exceptional, or could they have long-term effects on life in Lebanon?
It’s too soon to know whether the public spaces temporarily reclaimed by protesters will be re-colonized by private capital. Every individual struggle for a specific space swiftly expands into a conflict with the authorities as a whole: “all of them means all of them.” For example, reclaiming downtown Beirut involves targeting both the Hariri business empire, which owns “Solidere,” and Berri’s, whose three-decades-long speakership of parliament has turned Nejmeh Square, where parliament is located, into his de facto private property. Similar conditions exist in the rest of the country. Taking back our coastline—which is legally designated as public land—from private interests means taking on the entire establishment. Even stopping the unpopular World Bank-funded dam project in the Bisri Valley means facing the entire establishment.
Still, what we’ve witnessed so far gives us reason to hope that these efforts will have long-term effects. We are seeing a more intersectional approach to politics. For example, the Save the Bisri Valley Campaign and associated activists have used revolutionary slogans such as “The Shouf [region where Bisri is] is rising up,” which is derived from the “Lebanon is rising up” slogan of the protests, and adopted the popular Italian protest folk song “Bella Ciao” with lyrics about Bisri.
- The Public Source
- Megaphone News
- Beirut Today
- Fawra Media
- A Resource on Alternative News Outlets
- Lebanese Politics Podcast
- The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies
- Legal Agenda
- Lebanon Support’s Collective Action digest - Special Issue (October 2019 - January 2020)
- Arab Reform Initiative’s Lebanon Section