Lebanon has passed the 50 day mark of an uprising that seeks to remove the current ruling class in power since the end of the Lebanese Civil War and rid itself from the confessional system that has plagued the country since its independence.
The uprising has, so far, been able to maintain its momentum in the face of odds that were presumed to be insurmountable. Not only has its momentum not waned, but several successes can be attributed to it from the rejection of concessions, the resignation of the Prime Minster, the forced postponement of a parliamentary session (aimed at passing an amnesty law to protect politicians), and the rejection of a nominated Prime Minster tasked with forming a new government. Smaller, more symbolic, victories, should also be registered. Mainly the success of an independent candidate at the Beirut Bar Association elections and the success of another independent candidate in Lebanon’s Dental Association.
These victories, although still far from the stated objectives of protestors, remind us that a seismic shift has occurred. Between the events over the last 50 days, the fact that most Lebanese support a secular government, and a voter turn out of 47% in the last parliamentary elections, one would feel confident enough to say that there is no going back. Indeed, several activists have already made that claim that even if objectives are not immediately reached, the popular mood would mean a sure electoral upset in 2022 which will see Parliamentary and Municipal elections. However, revolutions are not made by general outlooks, but by an upset in the balance of power itself. A defeat of this uprising may just as well further disillusion potential voters. Faith in the electoral system may also be misplaced in a country that has widespread electoral Fraud.
All of this is to say that the concept of ‘there is no going back’ is a pretty contentious one to make, as is any statement of conjecture over the outcome of this uprising. We have indeed stepped behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ and are left with our wandering and inconclusive thoughts – the source of major anxiety for many on the ground trying to enforce their agency.
The point of this article then is not to try and predict an outcome, but to try and 1) paint a clearer picture of the forces at play by looking at the practices of the different parties involved and the changing material conditions on the ground and 2) provide some aspirational analysis and recommendations based on those forces.
The Lebanese uprising found its spark in the so-called WhatsApp Tax that was suggested. The ‘last straw’ character of this suggested move by the government was perfectly encapsulated by an angry protestor who claimed that the government will soon “put a meter on our assholes and charge us for the amount of shit we release”. Right before the start of the protests, the Lebanese were confronted by the destruction brought about by the governments incompetence after wildfires raged across the country. The lack of an emergency plan and the absence of firefighting helicopters and planes due to a lack of working parts (even through they have been budgeted for) revealed the extent of corruption which has forever been an open secret in Lebanon. It is these conditions and a currency crisis that led to this outpour of people in the streets. Since then, the economic conditions have only worsened; and there is no sign for a relief from this deterioration.
The Lebanese Lira (LL) officially pegged at 1,505 to the US Dollar is now trading at above 2,000 to the Dollar, the cost of Foodstuffs is increasing, hospitals have warned of medical shortages, unemployment is rising, cuts to wages are widespread, fuel shortages have been projected, and capital controls means that access to money is being increasingly restricted by banks who are themselves altering opening hours to avoid dealing with angry crowds. Some have even put up barricades, a telling sign of things to come and an absurd look into a dystopia where even barricades have been coopted by capitalism. Some statistics on the accelerating deterioration of the economy can be found here.
The government’s reaction to this has been in line with its usual complacency. Official consultations on the formation of a new government (after the resignation of the Prime Minster) have not been called. Like banks, politicians remain barricaded behind the machinery of the state.
The Army, although proclaiming a stance of neutrality promising to defend the rights of protestors, has been hard to fight when ‘incursions’ of counter-revolutionary and ruling-class party supporters terrorise protest sites by setting tents alight and beating protestors. The Army’s stance of neutrality was quickly perceived as a victory for protestors, even though this neutrality is nothing but an indication of the weakness of the army as a state institution, parallel to the weakness of all other institutions which has allowed for the unbridled robbery of the Lebanese citizen. This perceived victory by the protestors has also meant the the Army is no longer seen as an institution worth contention, it is to be left aside as opposed to be won over.
On the upside, this has meant that, unlike in Iraq, Iran, Algeria, or Egypt, Lebanon has not seen the levels of suppressive violence we are used to in our region. Even the ‘incursions’ or ‘invasions’ launched by party supporters have only happened twice so far. The objective of these ‘incursions’ though need not be understood as direct acts of suppression and force. They are attempts to redraw the battle lines of this uprising back along confessional lines.
The government’s response to this uprising needs to be understood along these lines of trickery and propaganda. Their bag of tricks has included asking for the formation of a leadership of the revolution to negotiate with the state. The response to this from protesters has been the adoption of the statement “the people do not negotiate, they demand”. Here, protestors rightfully identify the threat in electing a leadership that will then be subject to intimidation, discreditation, and possible cooption. Another favoured trick of the government has been to lay blame of our current economic woes on the protestors themselves. In his last televised interview, the President claimed that people need to clear the streets so that the government can resume its work, hinting that, otherwise, whatever comes next is the responsibility of the protestors who have hindered the ‘proper’ functioning of government. Tied to this is the constant fear mongering of the ‘unknown’, alluding to the political vacuum that may arise if the government submits to the demands of protestors.
The most entertaining tactics have been the scepticism raised by political parties around the funding of protester activities. This rhetoric of ‘foreign funders’ aims to paint the uprising as a foreign plot. Interestingly the first to shed doubt was the leader of Hezbollah, a party that has no problem admitting that it’s financed almost entirely by Iran. Another fearmongering tactic has been to draw parallels between the uprising and the civil-war, or the conditions that took place before it. These comments cover over the fact that Lebanon’s political parties are all headed by the warlords that waged the 15-year long Lebanese Civil war. An ever-present reminder of the destruction they are willing to inflict on the country to secure/maintain their political power.
None of these tactics compare to the governments largest weapon, time. With economic conditions worsening, it seems like the governments plan is to starve Lebanon into submission, a unique form of violence befitting Lebanon’s ruling class. The last few days have witnessed a dramatic rise in suicides as those unable to keep up with economic pressures choose to end their lives as opposed to continuing to live in misery and shame.
Forces of the Uprising
The character of the uprising has been riddled with paradoxes. The core of which is that the protestors claim that they have no faith in the government whatsoever, yet, their demands inherently depend on the government fulfilling a duty in good faith; the creation of a new and smaller technocratic or non-aligned government with legislative powers. How the protestors expect the government to put together its team of executioners is one that no one has bothered to expound on. It is for this reason that I continue to call this movement an uprising and not a revolution.
It’s worth mentioning the ‘decentralized’ nature of the uprising. Protests and reclamations of public space are taking place not only in the capital Beirut, but in all major coastal cities and smaller inland ones including areas that are thought to be the most entrenched in the traditional political system which has sustained itself through clientelism. The makeup of the attendees extends well beyond the intellectual and middle-class makeup of previous movements, it was all-encompassing and spread across confessional lines each city chanting in support of the other — 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 comradery across geographic boundaries, but across sectarian ones as well.
This geographic decentralization should not be confused with ideas of decentralized and pluralistic expressions of the uprising. For although the uprising claims no ‘leaders’ the pace and tone of the uprising is being set by a group of political (or arguably pre-political) actors that have emerged on Lebanon’s political field since 2015 and are now referred to as the ‘civil society’. These actors have so far defined the uprising through largely negative terms (the rejection of the current ruling class, corruption, sectarianism, violence) and some constructive ones (the creation of a new government with early elections under a new secular law). These demands lack any political content, does the uprising want better working conditions? Expanded social services? Increased taxes on the top 1%? Increased rights for refugees?
It can be argued that the reason that no political demands have been made is that there is a fear to ‘divide the street’. If the uprising starts taking a ‘political’ character the government can use that as another point of misinformation. Worse yet, those who do not agree with some political aims may just abandon the uprising altogether. It is best then to focus on these negative demands through a united front and deal with politics after the space for it has been created, that is, after the ruling class has been set aside and a new electoral law that allows for new ‘politics’ to enter the arena.
A major force in the uprising has been creativity. The uprising, although denouncing any talk or acts of violence, have maintained flexibility in their actions and modes of confrontation ranging from road blocks, protests outside government institutions, and sit-ins on public property that has illegally been privatized (such as beaches which have been developed into resorts or docks). Protestors have also set up discussion or debate tents to educate themselves on matters of law and the economy as well as the political situation in general. On Independence Day, a ‘Civil Parade’ was organized with the usual military parade in downtown Beirut being replaced by ‘battalions’ made up of different sections of Lebanese society including mothers, professional associations, retired army personnel, mechanics, etc. Art has also become a major marker of the uprising and has spilled into the street bringing colour back to a uniform and isolated cityscape. Where Lebanon was previously seen as a collective of sectarian ‘cantons’, this can be seen alongside other activities as a reclamation of public spaces that the Lebanese population has been denied and the destruction of the mental boundaries previously found.
It is these activities, which usually surge around the weekend, that have allowed the uprising to maintain its momentum in the face of worsening conditions and suppression. This creativity has also harnessed an energy that aims to create a new Lebanese identity, away from conceptional stereotypes. This is necessary if there is to be any ‘glue’ to hold the Lebanese people together after and should the uprising success.
Noticeably absent from the revolution is any sort of labour or union activity. Lebanon’s Confederation of Unions was decimated in the mid ‘90’s when licences for ‘front unions’ supported and created by the ruling class were provided en masse. As such the more militant unions became a minority and eventually faded. What this has meant is the loss of one of the most useful actions in an uprising, the general strike. In the absence of a strong labour movement, people were forced to leave the streets and continue to work in hopes of earning whatever of their wages was left.
The wide possibilities
It is at this stage that we depart from our ‘objective’ assessment of the conditions of this uprising and enter the field of conjecture. What are the possible outcomes of this uprising, and what could be done to make sure that its objectives are met?
At a most basic level, there is no doubt that we will see an intensification of the uprising as the economic situation worsens. As the uprising is “proletarianized”, we may also see new forms of organization that eclipse the now usual weekend gatherings. Ideologically, the proletarianization of the uprising may lead to a leapfrog over the leadership of the ‘civil movement’. Where previously the uprisings attempted to maintain an a-political tone, clear economic demands may start to take center stage and reclaim the barricade from the banks.
The worsening economic situation also means that the usual forms of clientelism which has served the ruling class is no longer there to serve them. However, this does not mean that we should rule out the intensification of the counter-revolution. The loss of typical clientelist forms of placating the population means that the ruling class will hold on with more ferocity to its core supporters. As such we may also see an increase of ‘incursions’ to continue the campaign of intimidation, force through a government composed of the ruling class that doesn’t meet the demands of the protesters, and then proclaim a state of emergency to ‘maintain order’.
The main question here becomes what can protesters do to maintain or increase pressure on the government and ensure the safety/continuity of the uprising? The answer lays in a characteristic already previously discussed, decentralization. Except this time the term isn’t referring to geographic decentralization, but the decentralization of the power of the uprising. The proletarianization of the uprising should be met with the establishment of emergency councils in towns and cities to ensure the material needs of those hit by the worsening economic situation are met. Emergency councils can take more drastic action if needed such as calling for rent strikes, the establishment of solidarity funds, and redistribution of resources if need be.
None of these counters the current calls for the formation of a neutral government or early elections. Rather, they reinforce these calls and safeguard them against cooption and suppression while at the same time weakening the power of the state and mitigating the destruction of the economic crisis. If these bodies are created the phrase “the people do not negotiate, they demand” will be transformed into the people do not negotiate and they do not demand, they execute.
More importantly, should the uprising succeed, and early elections are called, these forms of informal organization will be critical in amplifying the true demands of the people and suppressing the voice of current political parties. This is critical as current political parties are better funded and organized and therefore have mobilizing capacity and discipline beyond that of protestors.
One thing the government does get right is that the success of this uprising would put us in uncharted territory. Without the current structure of the state and absent its legitimizers, current political parties, thrust in a position of opposition, will do all they can to discredit the formation of a new ‘hegemony’ that may leave them behind. Indeed it is unclear and uncertain that a new hegemony could be brought about without more radical action as its hard to separate the ruling class from the various key institutions in the country which are either directly owned by them or have been thoroughly infected by their holds on power (banks, ports, universities, hospitals, etc.). There is no way of understanding how these parties, especially those like Hezbollah that are armed, poses structures of dual-power, and seemingly unlimited funding, will react. Will they try to legitimize themselves through elections? Will they act in ways to undermine a newly formed government forcing a confrontation? The uprising, in its resilience, has so far been able to categorically reject and weather challenges thrown at it by the likes of Hezbollah, is there any reason to expect that it would not be able to do so after?
There is yet another important consideration to make here. With the success of the uprising politically, there remains the question of the economy. Lebanon ranks third in the world for national debt as a ratio of GDP. Even if the uprising was able to achieve all it wants, how is it going to contend with international pressure of repaying its debt. A program of debt restructuring could impose untenable conditions on Lebanon that leave it no better of than now. Aspirations of an expanded social safety net may have to be put aside if Lebanon is forced to sell all its public assets, devalue the currency, and implement a freeze on savings to meet conditions as part of an IMF debt restructuring – this even if the haemorrhaging caused by corruption is stopped. It is for this reason that international powers continue to support the current Lebanese government against the demands of the people.
All these propositions and questions are built into a scenario where the uprising succeeds. But what if it fails? What if the government is successful in starving out the uprising, or is able through a combination of trickery, concessions, and false displays of competence to dwindle the power of the uprising? Do things go back to the way they were? This is highly possible. The current ‘leaders’ of the uprising have already shown their bias towards electoral politics and ‘legal’ action. A return to how things were would see them hang tighter to such notions. The emergence of a more radical section of the population is also possible, but with a current lack of political infrastructure for radical movements they may remain a minority. The ‘civil society’, however, would certainly be electorally served by this experience and their transition from pre-political forms to political agents would have been accelerated. Although this does not necessitate their success through the ballot if they have been unable to succeed in more radical times such as now.
These are but various considerations posited in a highly volatile and fast developing situation. What is clear is that this uprising still faces many challenges even after a supposed success. The fact that Lebanon has had a short amount of time to awake from its political slumber means that much of the infrastructure needed to have successful movements: labour unions, political parties, unified sense of identity, are all missing and are being invented as the uprising wages on. This is not to mention that the uprising itself is taking place as the entire region passes through similar events under similar revolutionary conditions. Lebanese protestors are not unaware of this and have been seen chanting in support of Iraqis, Sudanese, and Iranians fighting for their rights. One can only imagine how these uprisings may have differed if strong networks of solidarity were established beforehand. It is not too late for that and a sense of regional solidarity and consciousness would certainly put all those countries in a better position to deal with international powers. Perhaps then a new region and not just a new Lebanon or Iraq or Iran could be envisioned.
December 3, 2019