Editor’s note, November 20, 2019: This article, originally published on November 13, 2019, has been updated to include later events. The original version is here.
by Jade Saab
Lebanon has entered its fourth week of a popular uprising that seeks to dislodge the current ruling class. The protestors aim to oust the corrupt political parties that have held power since the end of the Lebanese Civil War and to replace the confessional electoral and legal system with a civil state. (“Confessional” refers to a system of institutionalized power-sharing based on social divisions along ethnic and religious lines. It is discussed below.)
So far, the protests have been successful at forcing the resignation of the Prime Minister and gaining major concessions, but the protestors claim they will not stop until the rest of their immediate demands are met. They are demanding the creation of an emergency minimal government, led by technocrats with no previous party affiliations.
The Spark that Lit the Fire
The revolutionary movement erupted on Friday night, 17 October, when the first protestors took to the streets. The last straw in the country’s economic hardship was a suggested tax on VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) apps, such as WhatsApp, that most people use to circumvent the inflated costs of telecoms to stay in touch with friends and family abroad. The VIOP app tax came on top of a diet of austerity that the Lebanese government has been forcing on the Lebanese population.
These austerity measures are considered necessary by the government as part of their efforts to redeem pledges of foreign aid from the IMF and other allies of Lebanon’s ruling class. These pledges were made at an international Conference in Paris in April 2018, Conférence économique pour le développement, par les réformes et avec les entreprises, known as CEDRE.
Shortly after the budget was passed in Lebanon’s parliament in July 2019, and the extent of the budget cuts were revealed, protests and strikes started breaking out across the country. Retired military personnel, whose pensions went under the knife, launched protests. Teachers at the Lebanese University–the national and only public university in Lebanon–launched strike action to fight against increasingly precarious working conditions and a hiring freeze.
The government’s hiring freeze affected the whole of the public sector. Of course, these freezes only applied to regular working Lebanese. The government has continued to hire, through special consultancy contracts, people who they believe ‘deserve’ a job. Such contracts perpetuate a regular cycle of clientelist relations between the state and private interests.
2019 Lebanese protests — Beirut, by Kareem Chehayeb (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Lebanon is also in the grip of a currency crisis. The Lebanese Lira (LBP) is pegged to the US dollar (USD). This peg, known as a dirty float, is maintained through currency reserves held by the Central bank. These reserves have been squeezed by the combination of a shortfall of exports (usually paid in USD), and ongoing debt repayments (the national debt, which is at 152% of GDP, makes Lebanon the third most indebted country in the world). This shortage in USD liquidity has led to local banks refusing to issue USD for citizens with LBP accounts (the two are usually easily interchangeable, due to the peg). This, combined with the fact that most institutions in Lebanon demand being paid in USD because it is viewed as a stronger and more stable currency, has resulted in demand far exceeding supply and a black market for USD emerged, putting additional strain on the day-to-day functioning of the country. The currency crisis has gotten so bad that Capital Control measures have been introduced, limiting personal access to funds in the hope of averting a deepening of the crisis.
Further strain was placed on the country when massive fires broke out across Lebanon’s mountain range. These fires were, for the most part, put out by an army of volunteers, including Palestinian firefighters. These Palestinian firefighters usually have no jurisdiction within Lebanon outside of Palestinian refugee camps. The fires fully exposed the incompetence of the Lebanese state, which had no emergency plan to fight the fire. Once the fires were extinguished, the government’s first act was to launch new taxes. Then the uprising began.
Roots of Opposition
The movement today cannot be understood in the current economic context alone. One needs to also locate its roots in the context of the development of, and changes within, political power in Lebanon.
In 2005, the Lebanese Prime Minister was assassinated by a massive truck bomb. The assassination triggered a nationwide series of protests against the Syrian regime, which had maintained a military presence in the country since 1976, a year after the start of the Lebanese Civil War. The Syrian presence was a de facto occupation—even though it was retroactively legitimized through the Taif Agreement, which formally ended the Lebanese Civil War. The occupiers practised near-complete control of Lebanon’s political life and brutally suppressed any opposition to their rule. The ‘Cedar Revolution’ of 2005 was successful in expelling them from the country and brought hopes of a Lebanese renaissance, political and economic. However, strong opposition was immediately faced from those who maintained loyalty (or thankfulness, as they would put it) to the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
Two political camps emerged out of that period, 8th and 14th March, named after the respective dates they held mass rallies. The March 14 camp presented themselves as economic reformers who wanted to establish strong state institutions, and justice for the murder of the PM (through the International Criminal Court). March 8, on the other hand, consisted of parties closely aligned to Syria, such as Hezbollah, which was implicated in the assassination, and depends on a weak state to maintain its large quasi-judicial militia (the legitimacy of a non-government led ‘resistance’ was enshrined in the Taif Accords, which ended the 15 year Lebanese Civil War). Although initially hostile to each other, a synergy between the two groups was found as time progressed, and they shared a nine-year honeymoon period. They were able to maintain control because Lebanon’s government was paralyzed after the resignation of the President in 2009, and MP’s from all the parties voted themselves extensions on their terms in office time and time again, contrary to the constitution—until elections were finally held in 2018.
In 2015 and 2016, Lebanon also passed through a ‘garbage crisis’, when the government’s lease on the largest landfill in Lebanon ended. This resulted in garbage piling up in the streets, as all refuse collection services were halted. This sparked one of the first protest movements, YouStink. The movement demanded, as its immediate goal, the resignation of the minister of the environment. The protestors were able to stage several successful actions in the capital, including some sit-ins at government buildings. The YouStink movement was successfully suppressed, but it gave birth to a new line of political involvement in Lebanon. Soon enough, campaigns around municipal and national elections, under the banner of refusing any and all of the ‘old guard’ political parties, were born. These various movements became known as the ‘Civil Movement’, a catch-all phrase referring to various reformist social groups, parties, and NGO’s that were positioning themselves against the ruling class.
Although both electoral drives failed to achieve any success, the ideological shift in Lebanon away from the previous March 8 and 14 camps was now complete. When the parties that made up both camps collaborated to crush the burgeoning ‘Civil Movement’, it became clear to all that the deep corruption found in Lebanese politics was not a result of one or the other party, but that it was systemic and reinforced by all the current parties. This gave rise to the current slogan of “All of them means all of them”, that is, it’s not sufficient for the prime minister to resign; we demand that the whole government resign.
An Uprising Begins
It is on these social fault lines that the spontaneous uprising began on 17 October. People took to the streets in a show of solidarity never before seen. Protests and reclamations of public space took place, not only in the capital, Beirut, but in all major coastal cities and smaller inland ones. The make-up of the attendees extended well beyond the intellectual and middle-class make-up of previous movements. The protests were all-encompassing and they spread across confessional lines.
Each city chanted in support of the others, a most unusual and inspiring occurrence considering the geographic division of Lebanon across sectarian lines. As such, a salute to another city was not just seen as comradely across geographic boundaries, but across sectarian ones as well. It’s also worth highlighting that, although a few occurrences of violence and vandalism took place, the protests were largely peaceful.
The following days saw an expansion of the protests with more and more people showing up to demonstrations, with an estimate of ‘hundreds of thousands’ participating. This time, the demonstrations were jubilant, with music, dancing, and DJ’s and fireworks at night.
The established political parties attempted to subvert the protests. Each party leader called for the participation of their supporters, while at the same time accusing other parties of ineffectiveness and unwillingness to cooperate. Protestors responded with an amazing display of popular democracy. They immediately banned the display of any party flags and even expelled several politicians and known media personalities with party affiliations, from the spaces they had reclaimed. The message was simple: ‘You, our rulers, have had decades of uninterrupted rule. It’s our turn now.’
To understand the significance of this uprising, one must understand how entrenched sectarianism is in Lebanon. Sectarianism is not just a social phenomenon resulting from the diversity found within Lebanon, although it has been used as a tool for colonial control, but has been institutionalized in the government since Lebanese independence in 1943 and the announcement of the ‘National Pact’. Under the Pact, Lebanon is run by a power-sharing government. Each position of power, in the government, is assigned to a confessional group: the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the House a Shia Muslim. This sectarian structure is replicated at the top level of important government institutions, such as the Army, the Central Bank, and others. This has come to be known as the ‘confessional system’.
Instituted sectarianism also means that there is no common ‘civil’ law in Lebanon. Citizens from different religions cannot be legally married in the country, although their marriage will be recognized if it takes place outside of the country. Personal matters like divorces, deaths, and burials, are also dealt with through courts based on religious law. Each individual’s religion is still noted in the civil registry and was previously marked on national issued ID’s. This resulted in what was known as ‘ID killings’ during the civil war, where civilians were killed at militia checkpoints based on what religion they were found to be.
It is for this reason that protestors are demanding not just an end to the sectarian representative system, but also the introduction of a unified ‘civil’ law. The number of seats in parliament are also assigned along confessional lines, with the aim of maintaining a ‘fair share’ to ensure all groups are represented. It’s worth mentioning here that the Army, although confessionally aligned at the top, remains the most cross-sectarian institution in Lebanon and is thus seen as a ‘neutral’ institution. It is for this reason that Lebanon’s last three presidents were former heads of the Army, whose leadership was popularly viewed as being based on consensus.
This confessional system, which was initially aimed to maintain fair representation, quickly became a breeding ground for discontent and civil strife. This discontent resulted in an armed conflict in 1958 and then a larger civil war from 1975 to 1990. Both these conflicts were fought between the parties that now constitute the ruling class. Their power has been sustained by the power sharing confessional system. Over time, these parties consolidated their grip on power by acting as vessels for the confessional groups they represent–they became the voice of a sect, just as a church claims to be the voice of God. Through securing a monopoly on that representation, they also became the gate keepers of material well-being of their ‘subjects’. Individual economic and social problems found their solution under the auspices of the sect/party leaders. If you were unemployed, you sought the help of the sect/party leader who may be able to find you employment in a government institution. If you or a family member were sick and needed access to a hospital or medication, the sect/party leader would find you a bed. Of course, it helped that it was these leaders who were responsible for Lebanon’s crumbling social infrastructure–that way they could ensure a steady stream of loyal supporters. As the saying goes, one hand washes the other.
The First 72-Hour Deadline
In response to the protests, the Prime Minister, in a much-awaited speech, proclaimed a 72-hour deadline for parties to come together to find a solution to the crisis—playing dumb to the known fact that he and his cohort are the crisis. At the end of the 72-hours, the Prime Minister announced major concessions. What he thought was a winning strategy of appeasement immediately backfired on him.
The concessions were immediately rejected through a press conference of a ‘leadership group’ made up of members of the ‘Civil Movement’, who also extended their list of demands:
1) the resignation of the government, and
2) the formation of a smaller body of technocratic representatives, who will
3) freeze all previous politician’s assets, and
4) draft a new electoral law that kills the confessional system, which has plagued Lebanon since its independence.
Another immediate defeat was a proclamation of neutrality by the Army. The Army command made it clear that they will not tolerate any acts of violence against protestors, nor will the Army forcefully remove protestors or clear roadblocks. This announcement alleviated protestors’ fears that they might face violent suppression from party members, who are better organized and armed than the protestors.
Changes in the Protests
After the Prime Minister’s speech providing concessions, civil disobedience and a de-facto general strike gripped the country. All major roads were blocked and mass participation in protests in major towns and cities continued. The army’s neutrality also seemed to be paying off. A motorcycle convoy of government supporters, which had been heading towards a confrontation with protestors in one of the capital’s main squares, was stopped. Then the Prime Minister resigned and things started to change.
It may simply be that the momentum of the protests was hard to maintain. In situations such as this, time acts against revolutionaries, as a prolongation of strikes starts to have adverse impact on the material lives of protestors. Although major roads remained blocked, the country slowly returned to a sense of normalcy. Government propaganda warned of an imminent collapse and a power vacuum emerging if protestors’ demands were met; this seemed to be working to quell the revolt.
The resignation of the Prime Minister also led some protestors, who were initially supporters of the revolution, to revert back to party lines. These protestors saw the Prime Minister’s resignation as redemption and the right thing to do, so their opposition to him was now moot.
The Prime Minister’s resignation also emboldened the President and his party supporters. They have promoted the idea that they occupy the mantle of reformism and that change should happen through ‘the legal process’.
Finally, the police seem to have been given the mandate to ensure that roads remain open. They have no problem doing the job that the Army claimed it wouldn’t do. Even the army was nowhere to be found, when hundreds of party supporters swarmed the main protest encampment in downtown Beirut, destroying all the tents and assaulting any protestors they could get their hands on. It was only when the destruction was complete that the Army emerged to push them back.
Intensification of Counter-Revolution
The state’s intensification of the counter-revolution has operated at two levels. The first and most substantive is that of direct physical confrontation by party loyalists. Although these confrontations have been infrequent, they are very effective. Through intimidation, they have damped down the continuous protests. This intimidation has been supplemented by frequent party leader speeches.
In these speeches, party leaders have shifted the blame for failures onto other party leaders, and have attempted to delegitimize the protestors by highlighting the dangers of sudden transition. These efforts have had some success in drawing away protestors from the movement.
The second aspect, although not entirely distinct, is the government’s attempt to restore ‘business as usual’. Besides the newfound ‘reformist’ role of the President, the government has successfully placed pressure on businesses to remain open. These ‘political’ measures have worked alongside the use of force to keep roads open.
Issues of Leadership
Fault can also be found with the protest movement itself, which has refused to consolidate a leadership or map a clear strategy. The movement has acted as though street momentum were infinite. Here we see a sort of fetishism of the spontaneity and ‘leaderlessness’ of the movement.
The protestors and their leadership consistently repeat that they do not belong to any political school of thought or movement. They claim that they are simply calling for a removal of the entire ruling class and its system of confessional representation.
The proof of this ‘non-alignment’, they say, is that they are not seeking power for themselves. Instead, they want to replace the current government with technocrats who have the technical skills to save Lebanon from doom. This presentation is a bid to present Lebanon’s problems as simple, technical, or administrative problems, with scientific solutions. But this point is met with immediate contradictions. What political method will be used to select the ‘technocrats’? What decision-making system will tell us the correct technical solution? And, since we’re asking this question, who said a team of technocratic administrators should be the next step? Why not opt for direct democratic control of the economy by the people? It’s their revolution, not the leadership’s. Obviously then, these proposed solutions are themselves political and subscribe to a set political-economic ideology.
2019 Lebanese protests (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A further contradiction can be found here. For an entity to be able to disqualify itself from leadership, it must be in a position to take up leadership. As we have seen, it is not that this movement doesn’t have a leadership–the uprising has a leadership, constituted from the various political oppositional forces that have been manifesting since the garbage crisis of 2015. The problem is that this leadership refuses to play a leadership role. This refusal is an outright political decision.
What we can take from this refusal is that the concept ‘leadership’, as used by the leading activists in the movement, references organizational leadership. The leading activists in the movement are refusing to determine what the movement should do next, or how it should be organized, but they have no problem in practicing an ideological/thought leadership. It’s granted that this thought leadership has, so far, been agreeable to participants and therefore can be seen as democratic.
The movement also has no problem with embracing current administrative institutions. The Army’s announcement of its neutrality was quickly hailed by protestors as a victory, as an alliance between the Army and the protestors. This meant that the Army was not seen as an area of contestation by protestors, which allowed the Army to entrench its role as an arm of the state.
Non-Governmental Ruling Class Institutions
The Army is not the only institution that the uprising refuses to contest. The leadership of the uprising has refused to contend with the network of banks, construction companies, export/import businesses, universities, and hospitals, all of which are aligned to the current ruling class. Even if the protestors are successful at destroying the confessional political system in Lebanon and installing a civil government, these institutions will remain, as will their loyalties to the ruling class. One can argue that, once the seizure of power by the uprising is complete, these institutions will automatically redirect themselves, as the old ruling class stops being useful. But these institutions are inseparable from the ruling class. Consequently, they will not turn on the ruling class.
The seizure of power, the way in which the ‘leaders’ of the protest movement present it, would require the ousting of all the institutions associated with the ruling class. That would leave technocratic administrators with nothing to administer. It is clear, then, that the uprising should not just contend with the abstract of the confessional system it seeks to destroy, but also the complex webs of institutions that currently insulate the ruling class and keep them in power.
This refusal to contest these institutions, and the uprising’s alignment with the Army, has also meant that the uprising’s arsenal of direct action is automatically limited. The movement cannot escalate tactics to occupations and building dual power, if they want to be seen as an ally to the institutions that have propagated their oppression. These too are political decisions that place unnecessary shackles on the uprising, and relegate it to a position secondary to the government it wishes to overthrow. Without the ability to escalate tactics and intensify the revolutionary process, the uprising fails to thwart the government’s best weapon, time.
All of this can be seen as the result of a misdiagnosis of the problem. Lebanon’s confessional system, which the protestors are eager to bring down, cannot be understood outside its historical emergence as the synthesis of capitalist accumulation of wealth, with the social fabric of Lebanon as shaped by colonial divisions. Thus, a war against one is impossible without a war against the other.
Success or Failure?
The protestors, even though facing increased suppression and dwindling numbers, are still holding on to their current direction. A regeneration of activity is usually found around weekends, with aims to place more pressure on the government to form the technocratic emergency cabinet, as per the protestors’ demands. The government has so far been taking its time and the President has not even announced consultations for the formation of a new government, even though he has claimed to support a smaller technocratic government and the creation of a secular state, seemingly conceding to protestors.
At the same time, the Army has started to play a greater role in clearing the streets of protestors and roadblocks. These actions by the Army provide a perfect example of the two-faced characteristics of the Lebanese state.
Protestors have also been adapting their strategies. As of November 6, protestors have started gathering outside private and public institutions such as the telecom providers (both government owned), Ministry of Finance, ports, and private beach resorts dotted around the coast, which have been constructed under political cover, as they are against Lebanese law which reserves beaches as public spaces.
These tactics are promising. Not only do they avoid unnecessarily frustrating fellow citizens, as road closures do, they will also prove to be more economically devastating to the ruling class. More importantly, they espouse a practice of direct confrontations with institutions that were previously left untouched, and may inspire further radical action.
It may be said, then, that as the government’s counter-revolution escalates, and as protestors contend with keeping the uprising alive, protestors are having to re-assess the practices and ideologies that created the self-imposed limits previously discussed.
The success or failure of this revolution is still a topic of conjecture, although this hasn’t stopped some from writing it off completely. In its 28th day, protestors have proved their resilience and adaptability, something that cannot but be commended and praised to the highest degree. Having said this, there is no doubt that the underlying ideology directing the protestors and their demands has its limitations, at least the refusal to push for local democratic power and organization while continuing to see their role as subordinate to the government, as opposed to being superior to it.
Even if the uprising achieves its goals, it will still have a set of unprecedented challenges to deal with, as the roles of opposition and control become reversed. The revolution also won’t instantly fix Lebanon’s financial woes, and new ‘technocrats’ may find themselves still advocating a diet of austerity, just as their predecessors did.
If defeated, the uprising has already gained major concessions and forced the departure of a Prime Minister. More importantly, it has shown the Lebanese people that unity across confessional and geographic lines is possible, and that a revolutionary ethic does pay off.
Jade Saab is a Lebanese/Canadian writer based in Scotland. He is working toward a PhD at the University of Glasgow on the topic of ideology and the process of socialist revolutions. He keeps an active blog at https://jadesaab.com/