Behind Lebanon’s historic uprising

November 1, 2019
A protest in Lebanon.

Since October 17, Lebanon has been witnessing an unprecedented uprising — both in scale and intensity — against the country’s ruling class.

What started as a modest protest quickly turned into a huge demonstration. Over the next few days it grew to become arguably the largest protest movement in the country’s history. Estimates of the number of protesters across the country the following Sunday [October 19] ranged from 1.2–2 million people, in a country of 6 million.

The magnitude of this movement stems primarily from its huge spontaneous grassroots involvement. The people not only filled the large squares of downtown Beirut, reclaiming it after it was transformed in the last 30 years into an exclusive gentrified space for the rich, but they also mobilised locally. At one point, protests were taking place simultaneously at up to 60 different locations, including most major cities and towns.

The power of these mobilisations has been simply overwhelming.

A general strike — although not comprehensive, as many employers are not allowing their employees to join — has disrupted the country’s economy and institutions since October 24. However, it is not a strike led by unions, as one would expect. Instead, it is enforced by protesters blocking the major roads of the country, preventing most economic activities and giving workers an excuse to join the strike and demonstrations.

Unsurprisingly, the people’s demands are not set in stone; in the end it is a popular uprising where most participation is driven by the spontaneous initiative of citizens and residents, rather than by any organised effort. However, all protesters seem to agree on a few basic demands: the resignation of the current Council of Ministers, the formation of a government that is independent from the ruling parties to prevent imminent economic collapse; and early elections.

The political class has struggled to foil the uprising, but not for a lack of trying. First, political parties attempted to downplay the significance of the uprising while supporting the demands. Then some parties attempted to co-opt the movement by encouraging their supporters to take part in the protests and influence rhetoric, especially outside Beirut, but lately also in the capital’s iconic Riad al-Solh Square.

While authorities soon gave up on attempts to contain the uprising by means of police repression, it has deployed the army in an attempt to end the numerous roadblocks. Their reasoning is that even 1 million protesters in downtown Beirut do not disrupt governance and capital accumulation as much as the obstruction of the flow of goods and workers across the country.

Why now?

The uprising started with a call to protest by LiHaqqi — a progressive and horizontally-structured political movement that was born out of a grassroots parliamentary election campaign in 2018 — and other individuals, after the country woke up to the news that the Council of Ministers passed a series of regressive taxes, most remarkably a strange 20 cent tax on every first WhatsApp call every day, which would amount to a maximum of $6 a month.

The ministers could hardly have passed a more regressive tax, because the Lebanese, especially working-class people, rely on WhatsApp as an affordable means of communication, as telecom services are very expensive and unreliable.

Two hours after the call, the protest had gathered just a few hundred participants, but when they blocked a main bridge in Beirut, the media became interested and news of the action quickly spread to all corners of the country. After marching through various neighbourhoods of Beirut, the protest ended up coming back to the starting point in Riad al-Solh Square, now joined by many thousands more.

However, this was not just an uprising against a WhatsApp tax; this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The tax merely served to expose the real face of the country’s political elite and its top-down class warfare. Moreover, the days before the protest had already displayed the elite’s profound incompetence in managing the country.

Four days before the uprising started, wildfires had ravaged various areas of Lebanon, eventually destroying as much forest in two days as would normally be lost to wildfires in an entire year. The Lebanese state rushed to ask the support of Cyprus, Jordan and Greece, who sent firefighting airplanes. Lebanon’s own firefighting helicopters had been grounded for years because the authorities failed to allocate funds for their maintenance.

While people came together to create spontaneous solidarity initiatives and send support to volunteer firefighters, some politicians saw the moment fit to incite division. A member of the right-wing political party Free Patriotic Movement, the largest party in the parliament and cabinet and known for its sectarian rhetoric and scapegoating of migrants and refugees, popularised a conspiracy theory that the fires targeted the Christian demographic in the Chouf area of Mount Lebanon.

The failure to deal with the wildfires combined with the passing of regressive taxes brought the frustration many people felt with the government to boiling point. It reminded many of us that we lived in a country ruled by incapable elites, who not only fail to manage the government, but who actively seek to divide and impoverish the people.

It was a week which brought out the very worst in Lebanese politics, and the very best in its people.

Rise of anti-establishment protests

Over the last eight years, the country has witnessed many anti-establishment movements, starting with Lebanon’s share of the Arab Spring, the 2011 movement to “overthrow the sectarian system”, whose major accomplishment was to popularise the perception and rhetoric that the various Lebanese ruling parties are partners in crime, and that the people can take a collective stance against all of them simultaneously.

Prior to that, the country had witnessed the so-called “Cedar Revolution” in 2005, which led to the end of the Syrian regime’s occupation of Lebanon, following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. But rather than unite the people, the Cedar Revolution divided the country into pro-Syrian and pro-Western camps.

The 2011 movement was perhaps the very first to clearly put all of the ruling elite figures from both camps in one basket and describe them as the enemy of the people. Movements against the parliament’s extensions of its own term in 2013 and 2014 reinforced this rhetoric. It then boomed in 2015, with an anti-establishment movement fuelled by the government’s incompetence, this time in waste management.

After 2015, anti-establishment activism became more normalised, and people from across the country joined what is understood as “civil society”. This civil society was put to the test regularly in the three years that followed; from the municipal elections of 2016, to the Order of Engineers’ elections in 2017, and, most importantly, the parliamentary elections that finally took place in 2018.

Groups and candidates opposed to the political elite ran lists in most districts, but only one parliament seat was won; MP Paula Yaacoubian’s in Beirut. This was the first moment that this anti-establishment struggle was taken to the national electoral sphere, and nothing is more reflective and defining of the state of national Lebanese politics than parliamentary elections.

Against this backdrop, 2019 started with protests against the government’s proposed austerity budgets, led by left-leaning groups and those directly affected by public sector salary cuts. In the following months, Beirut witnessed several protests, organised by activist groups and at other times by social media influencers.

By now, all the excuses that supporters of sectarian parties have made on behalf of their leaders are no longer valid. Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and Saad Hariri’s Future Movement are considered to be the godfathers of the mega-corruption that characterises the post-war system. Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement claim to be newcomers to the political stage and therefore not to blame for the current situation.

However, these two parties have proven in the last few years that, despite their excuses, there is no serious effort on their part to crack down on corruption and bad policy-making. The supporters of all these political groups are now finding themselves in want of justifications.

In parallel to the disillusionment and the escalation of anti-establishment sentiments, the last years were also characterised by a serious economic crisis, stemming from the country’s unproductive, biased and unsustainable economic model. The country’s foreign exchange reserves, key to maintaining the model, had been deteriorating.

Economic growth has also been stagnating, and salaries — especially in the private sector — are stuck at levels that prevent many from having a secure livelihood and a good standard of living. Economic inequality has also reached new extremes, making Lebanon one of the most unequal countries in terms of the distribution of wealth and income.

For instance, a quarter of the national income between 2004–05 went to the richest 1%, and 0.1% of all bank deposit accounts contain 20% of all deposits. In the absence of any progressive redistributive policies, this translated into the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and a self-perceived “middle class” in a highly precarious situation.

The crisis only became major news in the last two years, when it became clear that the accumulation of public debt had become unbearable as a result of high budget deficits caused primarily by the burden of the interest paid on that debt.

The government opted for the classic neoliberal solution. Rather than reforming the tax system and monetary policies that currently reward rent-based sectors at the expense of their productive counterparts, it chose to put the burden on ordinary working families.

While the 2019 budget created a new tax bracket, with a 25% tax rate for companies and individuals making more than US$150,000 a year, it left the tax on banks and financial companies at a flat 17%. This means that a bank making 4000 times more revenue than a small factory currently pays 8% less in income tax.

The latest regressive taxes proposed for the 2020 budget clarified the picture and made it clear whose interests the elite serves, and whose it targets.

Significance of this uprising

The current uprising should be taken seriously for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it has brought a coalition of poor, middle-class and even upper-class families into one single movement against the establishment.

Members of these social groups, which previously rarely interacted, are now chanting slogans and raising fists shoulder to shoulder; bringing their various modes of expression and finding ways to manage the questions around tactics of contention that previously divided protests, including riots, anti-police violence and roadblocks.

For a long time, roadblocks had been perceived by many as an aggressive protest method, used primarily by the poor or those perceived as “thugs”, as opposed to the mostly university-educated anti-establishment activists who avoided this tactic to avoid losing the support of people attempting to reach their destinations.

Today, however, roadblocks is what is keeping this uprising powerful — it is an extremely powerful method of disrupting the economic system in the absence of trade union actions. The union movement has been subjected to repression and co-option for decades, to a point where union organisations in both the private and public sectors have been neutralised, and, in some cases, turned against the workers.

This, along with the economic transformation that weakened workers’ rights and the ability to organise in the post-war order, created a vacuum in civil society that weakened the power of protest movements and limited their strategies. The current uprising has now found an answer to this weakness through roadblocks.

Rather than workers themselves having to risk striking without union support in a country with little-to-no labour protection, the roadblocks are offering the necessary justification for most of them to take to the streets. This method should be expected to play a key role in the future mass protest movements in the country — organisers are learning about what seems to be a tactic way more powerful than other tools of advocacy and campaigning.

The uprising is also highly significant as it has created what has been called “the end of the civil war” — various religious communities are taking part in the uprising, with deep contempt towards sectarianism.

Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, but its mode of politics remains dominant today. Political parties based on sectarian affiliation have dominated politics, and maintain a complex and deeply entrenched clientelist system where citizens’ rights to work and services have become a privilege to which access is granted in return for political loyalty.

The various sectarian parties attempt to maximise their share of the state’s resources and channel it to their own people, their business allies and, to a lesser extent, their constituents. The model of consociational, power-sharing democracy has created an extremely stubborn system in terms of its adaptability and openness to change. It also entails a deeply corrupt public administration and a mode of economic governance that is biased towards the economic elite of each religious group.

The lines of political conflict are therefore drawn vertically between sectarian groups, eclipsing the real conflict of interest that exists between the members of each respective group based on their class location. Sectarianism has been the system’s best vaccine against the rise of class-based politics; and the opposition to it might provide an opportunity to bring back class and material interest as main factors in political division.

The lines of conflict have now been rotated 90 degrees, showing a similar discontent between all religious groups with their own representatives in power; in other words, those at the bottom and those at the top. The huge participation in the uprising, as well as anecdotes shared by protesters about challenging their own affiliations, prove that those who voted the establishment political parties into power in 2018 are now demanding they leave.

The grassroots involvement in the movement, as well as its highly decentralised nature, also provides a huge opportunity for progressive politics in the future.

Networks of those taking action have burst the bubbles of the “professional” activists and involved those often named “ordinary citizens”, in other words, the masses that have been alienated from politics by the combination of a rotten political system and a crony capitalist economy.

Movements and groups organising today — including LiHaqqi, which has sought to operate a flat and grassroots model of involvement based on direct democracy — have no better opportunity to expand their grassroots reach, an objective that is highly necessary for any serious political contestation in the near future and the long term.

The success of this movement and its political outcomes are highly dependent on these movements’ coordination, and their support of grassroots and spontaneous actions.

A victory of the people today, manifested in the resignation of the Council of Ministers, would revoke a sense of political desperation that has dominated public sentiments — most strongly since the election of 2018 brought the same parties back to power. It is as necessary for political psychology as it is for sparing people the misery of handling the cost of the economic crisis, and breaking barriers to independent political representation.

On the other hand, the weakening of the ruling class in this era of economic crisis does not mean new monsters will not arise. Neoliberal and right-wing populists will seek to focus on narrowly-defined corruption, non-nationals or democracy itself as the source of all evil, distracting from the class warfare that the few are waging on the many.

Those groups often tend to have the most resources, and they are the captains that drive angry populations slowly towards the cliff.

This is why progressive and leftist groups need to use the current momentum to reach ears with a rhetoric focused on economic, social and environmental justice, and channel the anger towards those who caused the country to sink in debt and suffer under a system of crony capitalism and sectarian division.

It is not only the Lebanese citizens and working class that would benefit from this politics, but all marginalised groups, including refugees and migrant workers. The fate of so many depends on those who can build on this moment to achieve a serious breakthrough in the nature of Lebanese politics.

[Abridged from ROAR Magazine.]

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