Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

This uprising is demanding justice beyond sectarian, class, religious or cultural divides. In the clarity brought about by the uprising, the regime’s politics of division has been challenged by the uprising’s politics of solidarity.


 

On November 19, 2019, protestors blocked all six entrances of the parliament building located in downtown Beirut in an effort to prevent parliamentary approval of a blanket amnesty law that was an attempt by Lebanese political elites to extinguish the 32-day-long national uprising through the appearance of reform. Although the proposed law granted amnesty to hundreds of people arrested and held for years without trial, the real thrust of the law aimed to pardon public officials accused of embezzlement, corruption and misuse of public office. The law also would have played the sectarian card by pardoning some Shi`i drug dealers from the Beqaa region and some Sunni Islamists from the north charged with terror offenses.

Demonstrators wave Lebanese flags in Martyrs’ Square during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, November 10, 2019. Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters

Putting such an item on the agenda for the first parliamentary session a month after the outbreak of Lebanon’s thawra (revolution) was both unconstitutional and provocative—and illustrated the very corruption being called out by the protestors. In the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis and after the resignation of the government, Lebanese citizens expected the parliament to begin presidential consultations and deal with pressing issues, rather than find ways to pardon parliamentary criminal complicity in the economic crisis. Although one convoy of parliamentarians successfully made it into the building under cover of gunfire by security guards, protestors banged on pots, pans, garbage bins, steel gates enclosing buildings and anything that made noise. The protests forced the cancellation of the parliamentary session, resulting in widespread and even euphoric celebrations.

Lebanon’s revolution began on October 17, 2019, as Lebanon’s financial crisis was peaking. The government had proved incompetent to address such issues as the wildfires ravaging the country and shortages in gas and bread due to the US-dollar liquidity problem. Rage against the regime was finally unleashed when the government announced highly regressive taxes, including one on the popular social messaging service WhatsApp, leading hundreds of young men—mainly from deprived backgrounds—to mobilize in Beirut on their motorbikes, blocking roads and burning tires in protest. This initial protest rapidly spread to other parts of the country, from the north to the south, in a display of public disgust with the political and economic ruling class described by many protesters as “insolent corrupt thieves.”

The uprising is a broad-based revolt against Lebanese-style neoliberalism—a kind of neoliberalism playing out in a context of elite-maintained sectarianism. The uprising is the first time since the end of the civil war in 1990 that large numbers have protested against both the ruling sectarian elites and the financial elites and banks they see as responsible for the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of protesters are speaking an “us versus them” language that is increasingly class-based: The few in power are seen as ruthlessly suffocating the many for their own benefits and interests. Both the economic crisis and incompetent government responses have made clear to many that the haves who govern and reproduce their wealth and preserve their positions of power were doing so at the expense of the have-nots, who could no longer make ends meet.

Prior to 2019, sectarian divisions were maintained and able to withstand public criticism even when exploitative and dispossessing neoliberal policies and a mounting economic crisis threatened to connect the dispossessed across sectarian lines. In fact, neoliberal policies often made sectarianism even more ruthless by fortifying sectarian enclaving. The revolution of October 2019, however, marks a turning point, as the escalating financial crisis made the economic situation appear irreparable to Lebanese across wide sectors of the society, at least in the short term. A broad swath of Lebanese citizens saw that the neoliberal sectarian system was unsalvageable and took to the streets, aiming to force a major turning point in the post-1990 Lebanese political and economic order.

All of Them Means All of Them

Two main protest slogans—in addition to many profanity-laced chants—have taken over the squares across Lebanon during this uprising: the well-known chant from the Arab uprisings of 2011, “The people want the downfall of the regime” (al-sha`ab yurid isqat al-nizam), and “All of them means all of them” (kellon ya`ani kellon). The latter references the particularity of Lebanese sectarianism, whereby the regime entails not one dictator to topple but rather a number of sectarian rulers who govern in a system of sectarian power-sharing—an obsolete variation of what is known as consociational democracy.

These slogans had been heard before. In response to the Arab uprisings in 2011, a movement emerged in Lebanon under the slogan, “The people want the downfall of the sectarian regime” (al-sha`ab yurid isqat el nizam al-ta’ifi). A second wave of protests started in 2015 following the government’s failure to find solutions to mounting public waste known as the garbage crisis under the slogan “You Stink” (tol’et rihetkom), associating the foul smells of refuse in the streets with the rotten politicians, who literally sunk people in garbage. The slogan, “All of them means all of them,” was chanted in the squares in downtown Beirut and subsequently spread elsewhere. At that time, however, protesters did not dare name politicians—especially not the leader of the Shi`i Hezbollah organization, Hassan Nasrallah.

The revolutionary uprising of October 2019 expresses this politics of presence by drawing from a deep well of distress among the general population at the current state of Lebanese affairs.

In a radical shift during the first week of protests in October 2019, the taboos and unspoken fears fell. Without exception, all politicians (including Nasrallah) were named and shamed—and even cursed—in the streets. The demand “to bring down the sectarian regime” became “to bring down the regime.” As if in a moment of clarity, many Lebanese realized that the ills of the regime were not only related to sectarianism and that no leader or politician would be excluded from the accusations against the ruling class.

Sectarian leaders attacked that angry language and the radicalization of demands during that first week of protests in an effort—partially successful—to roll back the demands, accusing protesters of “impoliteness” in an attempt to discipline the uprising. In one of the first speeches addressing the enraged Lebanese street, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah lectured protesters about civility and proper behavior and speech, which he claimed were virtues which set “us” apart from “them.” Nasrallah was not alone in patronizingly calling for civility.

Tropes of “civility” and “proper speech”—especially coming from those in power—are primarily disciplining mechanisms that aim to reinforce self-censorship. The tropes were not only calls for politeness, but they also conveyed threats of violence should the naming and shaming of politicians not stop. Yet cursing is cathartic for protesters precisely because it liberates them from this self-censorship—expressing anger that breaks hierarchies and frees the self from its own established beliefs. Embodied politics is a politics of presence (and cursing, if need be), of showing up and of putting ones’ corporeal integrity on the line. The most vivid examples are the men and women from all backgrounds and age groups blocking streets and filling squares and corners while cursing all politicians equally.

Feminist to Intersectional Demands

The revolutionary uprising of October 2019 expresses this politics of presence by drawing from a deep well of distress among the general population at the current state of Lebanese affairs. In a context of manifold indebtedness, corruption and declining standards of living—overseen by an unaccountable ruling sectarian order—many Lebanese have grown tired of leading lives physically estranged from partners, siblings, children and beloved friends who emigrated in search of more dignified lives. This weariness is especially true for women who bear the brunt of the care work—the care labor of those who stay to nurture what’s left of communities and families decimated because of neoliberal policies that have rendered dignified lives impossible in Lebanon.

For this and many other reasons related to the unjust patrilineal and patriarchal legal, social and cultural system, women have been at the forefront of the uprising. The feminist politics unfolded in the various squares of the uprising, aiming to dismantle interlinked manifestations of patriarchy, capitalism and sectarianism. What has come to the fore in these protests is the equating of various systems of inequality in an intersectional manner. Chants devised by the feminist activists, for example, have focused not only on gender and patriarchy, but on all aspects of the production of inequality—including the banking system, capitalism, sectarianism, religious courts and other institutions that form the crux of the crisis today.

The tired establishment lexicon of “charity” deployed to tackle poverty, “coexistence” to tackle sectarian diversity and “religious and cultural norms” to protect patriarchy, all have failed. This uprising is demanding justice beyond sectarian, class, religious or cultural divides. In the clarity brought about by the uprising, the regime’s politics of division has been challenged by the uprising’s politics of solidarity.

Rule by Banks

The spontaneous solidarities that have emerged in the streets have also targeted the rule of the central bank (hokm al-masref)—a rule personified by the patriarchal figure of the governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salemeh. For the last two decades, Salemeh, the master planner of the Lebanese banking system in the post-war era, hovered over the everyday lives of average Lebanese. The oft-repeated assertion that he was protecting the Lebanese lira from collapse became so normalized, that his life—his bio-political existence—came to be equated with the solid and stable macroeconomic performance of the Lebanese economy.

But rule by the banks is by its very nature dispossessing. Lebanon’s economy is fully dollarized and relies heavily upon the global Lebanese diaspora that sends US dollars back home to their families. In 2016 alone, remittances accounted for the equivalent of 14 percent of the country’s GDP and totaled $7.31 billion. This rentier economic system systematically kills any possibility of developing productive economic sectors since the end of the civil war and survives only on debts, remittances, real estate and a dangerously celebrated banking sector.

With the recent crisis of this banking system and the diminishment of the banking godfather figure of Salemeh—who still insists on defending big depositors at the expense of most Lebanese (by refusing to officially impose capital controls and haircuts, or loan forgiveness)—the fallout of the economic crisis has been felt unevenly. Lower- and middle-class families have been hardest hit. For the first two weeks of the uprising, for example, banks used the road closures as an excuse to not open their doors. The banks were trying to prevent the majority of small and medium depositors from withdrawing or transferring their funds, while big depositors (all closely related to politicians) had the back doors of the banks opened for them to transfer their millions abroad and save their capital. When the banks reopened their doors to everyone, chaos reigned in bank branches nationwide.

The threat of an impending collapse of the economy, compounded by rampant rumors, has turned banks into sites of confrontation between small depositors and tellers. The situation worsened so much that the government deployed armed security forces to protect the 1,200 bank branches throughout the country. The government has used the militarization of banks as a stalling tactic instead of devising a road map to restructure sovereign debt and pave the way for a productive and solid national economy. The images of armed forces protecting banks while the government refuses to take measures on the looming financial crisis again brings to the fore a moment of clarity for Lebanese: This regime protects banks at the expense of its people.

From Social Explosion to New Society

In the midst of those scattered, yet recurrent, moments of clarity, the uprising has managed so far to maintain its focus, resisting elite efforts to sectarianize the streets and divide the protestors over old fault-lines. The primary challenge will be to organize what began as a spontaneous social explosion to carry it into a transitional phase and eventually create a new political and economic system.

Lebanon’s lack of organizations able to provide a clear political roadmap and mobilize people is not surprising. The post-war regime systematically worked to coopt or repress any serious attempt at organizing that threatened its neoliberal sectarian ideology. Sectarian politics has ripped through all forms of collective organizing, including rigging syndicates and labor unions of all professions: doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects and higher education professionals, among others. Unions and syndicates also have mostly become defenders of the interests of the sectarian ruling class. The workers unions, for example, became so coopted that in 2011, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers rejected the Minister of Labor’s proposed increase in the minimum wage. That action speaks volumes about the challenge of collective organizing based on horizontal and interest-based lines in a country where the leaders want to make sure people remain locked into sects, never identifying collectively in ways that could threaten the established elites’ rule.

Yet the 2019 uprising has opened up new spaces and opportunities for alternative solidarities and modes of collective organization based on class or group interests. The reactivation of many syndicates and unions, the creation of alternative unions and the formation of the new Association of Professionals, are all shining points in the path of an ongoing revolutionary process of social and political transformation. The November 17 election to the head of the Lebanese Bar Association of Melhem Khalaf, a competent non-partisan lawyer and academic, opens up hope for alternative unionizing. It is these moments of clarity, as scattered or condensed they might be, that highlight the path forward for Lebanon’s thawra.

 

How to cite this article:

Rima Majed, Lana Salman "Lebanon’s Thawra," Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).
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