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Lebanon’s Protest Movement Is Just Getting Started

The massive protest movement in Lebanon, now in its fourth week, is still far from its goal of systemic change. But the unprecedented demonstrations against austerity show no sign of slowing down.

Riot police remove anti-government protesters occupying the "Ring" intersection on November 4, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon. Sam Tarling / Getty Images

Defiant flames of protest and discontent have been spreading like wildfire across Lebanon for more than twenty days now. What began as actual conflagrations, engulfing more than three thousand acres of woodland from the North to the South, has transformed into flames of rage over deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and political stalemate.

The fires that ripped through the nation’s forests laid bare the ravenousness of the country’s system of accumulation and profit-making and its outright neglect of environmental and human needs. And no sooner were the flames extinguished than protests, strikes, and road blockades erupted on October 17, following a government decision to impose taxes on all online calling apps — what came to be known as the “WhatsApp tax” — and raise levies on fuel, cigarettes, and consumption.

The country has been grappling with serious socioeconomic woes that have culminated in dollar shortages, devaluation of the currency, and a months-long bread and fuel crisis, raising alarm bells among the wider population. Despite the government’s retreat from the tax plan, protests have grown and diffused in scope and scale. Attempts by political leaders to quell the anger and contain frustration have proved futile amid disillusionment and disgust at the litany of broken promises. In a recent interview with CNN, Lebanese central bank governor Riad Salameh conceded that an economic collapse is imminent.

The scope and nationwide diffusion of the protests — crossing sectarian, regional, and class divides — is unprecedented in Lebanon’s recent history. An estimated 2 million protestors took to the streets in the largest nationwide demonstrations on Sunday, October 20. Protests have erupted in regions previously deemed uncontested sectarian strongholds: Nabatiyeh, Tripoli, Baalbek, Saida, Sour, Halba, Aley, Jal el Dib, and Zouk.

Protests have been met with police and army repression — resulting in several injuries and arrests — as well as violence and threats from counterprotesters and party thugs, raising concerns that the situation could devolve into sectarian warfare (a risk ruling political parties may be all too willing to pay to retain their positions in power). Yet these attacks failed to quash the protests.

Following thirteen days of heightened tensions, massive strikes, and school, university, and banks shutdowns, prime minister Saad Hariri announced on October 29 that he would step aside. Activists nevertheless insisted that the demonstrations, strikes, and blockades would continue. They see the resignation of the cabinet as a piecemeal victory in the face of the long-term struggle required to redress the systemic economic and political crises roiling the country.

Now in their fourth week, the uprisings have proven unrelenting, as spontaneous, hundreds-of-thousands-strong, nationwide protests take over the streets and squares of major cities and different regions. On Sunday, protesters launched their largest demonstrations since Hariri resigned. In a historic move, school and university students have taken to the streets across the country over the past two days, defying calls to resume classes and expressing their support for the demands of the movement and for a better future.

Protesters have been moving from the main squares to the hotbeds of corruption, holding a number of demonstrations against the unlawful encroachment of lucrative private investments on public property (for example, in Ramle el Bayda and Zaytouna Bay). And last night women marched to the heart of Beirut in a candle vigil, with the sound of banging pots and pans heard across the city’s neighborhoods.

A Critical Tipping Point Long in the Making

The current grievances and protests are long in the making. The political elites and sectarian political parties that have led the country since the end of the civil war (1975–1990) have pushed Lebanon further down the road of socioeconomic degeneration. The post-conflict reconstruction period, scholar Fawwaz Traboulsi writes, amounted to an “extraordinary war” against the working classes through the “fragmentation and factionalization of organized labour.” The ruling class — rooted in the banking sector and large market monopolies — co-opted and weakened formal labor organizations and unions.

Profound structural changes have also been underway within the Lebanese working class. Following the war, the emigration of skilled and professionally trained workers was coupled with an influx of foreign unskilled workers, exploited for their cheap labor under the kafala (sponsorship) system. Meanwhile, issues of poverty and unemployment have been obscured by faulty methodologies and assessments or dismissed using the neoliberal credo of self-help and meager assistance.

The result has been that Lebanon’s upper class (the “oligarchy,” as Traboulsi puts it) enjoys a stranglehold over economic and political power. According to recent studies, “the top 10 and 1% of the adult population receive approximately 55 and 25% of total national income, which places Lebanon among the countries with the highest levels of income inequality in the world, alongside Brazil, Colombia, Russia, South Africa and the United States.”

This yawning gulf between the wealthy and the dispossessed has placed Lebanon at a critical tipping point.

A Massive Movement in a Larger Cycle of Protest

The protests in Lebanon can be seen as part of a regional and global cycle of contention that has erupted in recent decades against the onslaught of neoliberal policies and the degeneration of representative politics in the service of money-making and profiteering. In the Arab world, “Ash-shaʻb yurid isqaṭ an-niẓam” (“the people want to overthrow the regime”) has become the major cry of protests, signifying the destruction of the fear barrier and the rise of ordinary people’s demands for self-determination and social justice.

Taking a global view of these movements reveals their departure from traditional organizational frameworks (unions, political parties, etc.) and their adoption of new forms of communication, organization, and identification. These movements tend to be fragmented and refuse to adopt traditional forms of leadership, rejecting them as overly hierarchical. While extraordinary in their capacities to quickly mobilize massive numbers of people, these movements often experience significant challenges in their ability to build coherent organizations and strategies capable of sustaining long-term action and realizing substantial change.

The current movement in Lebanon and the large-scale rejection of corrupt and sectarian politics is reminiscent of the early waves of antiestablishment protests during the 2011 Arab uprisings (demanding “the people want the downfall of the sectarian regime”) and of the country’s garbage crisis protests in 2015. The unbearable stench of accumulated waste pushed people into the streets in the summer of 2015, where they expressed anger and frustration with declining socioeconomic conditions, political impasse, and outright corruption. Dubbed the “You Stink” movement, the protests rejected conventional politics and its organizational forms (political parties) by proclaiming “all means all” (“kelon ya’neh kelon”) — all politicians are corrupt. Yet the groups’ contending strategic and ideological orientations generated tensions, with some hoping to focus singularly on the garbage crisis and others looking to place it within a larger structural context.

In the wake of the movement’s dissolution, several activists turned to the electoral process and reformist agendas to pursue a strategy of gradual “change from within.” The following two years witnessed remarkable attempts by independent groups to engage the political system at the level of municipal elections (in May 2016) and parliamentary elections (in May 2018). While raising hopes and capturing people’s imagination, both contests ultimately brought about mixed results and recurrent disappointments.

The recent protests represent a decisive moment in this larger cycle of contention as well as an important development from earlier stages. The alternative forms of collective action seen since the garbage crisis have revealed the shortcomings of single battles and electoral programs limited to non-confrontational, technical programs and the need for a broader view of socioeconomic realities and struggles. Nevertheless, there’s much to be learned from recent experiences in “alternative” collective action in Lebanon.

Lessons (and the Future) of the Upsurges

The demonstrations taking over the cities and regions of Lebanon have been marked by extraordinary expressions of collective exuberance, creativity, and vigor. Protesters are hosting public dialogue meetings in city squares, taking university seminars out into the streets, reclaiming historical landmarks destroyed during the civil war, preparing and distributing free food, partying into the wee hours of the night in public squares before live DJs, performing musicals and theatrical plays, and practicing yoga at road blockades.

These moments of collective effervescence represent remarkable flashes of solidarity, possibility, and hope. They’re moments of rupture, breaking with existing modes of being and seeing, and challenging previous notions and dominant conceptions of the world. They have laid bare the depredations of the corrupt, self-serving, debased political class, breaking down barriers of fear and tearing down the already crumbling edifices of long-standing sectarian leaders. It is precisely these moments that threaten the status quo and the established political system, which seeks to divide citizens across sectarian lines.

Yet while recognizing the potential of these moments to inspire hope and pave the way for transformative change, we should also avoid celebratory appraisals that tell us little about the challenges facing these movements or the difficulties of these “new political times.” It will take more than celebratory moments to topple the existing order. The movement in Lebanon, like elsewhere, will have to build lasting organizations and formulate common strategies that can harness the extraordinary power of the streets to realize concrete, radical reforms.

Contemporary movements and forms of mobilization that eschew leadership and institution-building often peter out. Despite the speed with which they are able to mobilize people, the lack of organization and structured deliberation eventually catches up to them. What’s more, in attempting to develop “horizontal” and “leaderless” organizations, contemporary movements often give rise to “informal leaders” that are unelected and less accountable than their traditional counterparts — the so-called “tyranny of structurelessness.”

Another prevalent strand within the movement is “demandlessness” — refusing to issue specific demands from the political class and instead calling for the resignation of the government or wholesale resignation of political leaders. This perspective argues that demand-making confers legitimacy on a political class that is unwilling and uninterested in advancing any change that threatens the status quo.

While this points to a marked development in the revolutionary rhetoric of the movement, it remains necessary to lay out a clear, comprehensive analysis of the political and economic crisis and concrete steps that can address it. Waiting on the establishment political parties to deliver such a plan is futile. Just look at Hariri’s proposed plan, which was filled with misleading information and recycled neoliberal policies. Instead, the movement will need to develop new democratic and representative leaderships that foster popular participation and inclusive deliberation — capturing the power of the streets and bringing forward a much-needed comprehensive agenda for change.

There is cause for optimism: recent weeks have seen important attempts at self-organization, in the form of “alt”-unions and sectoral collectives. A unified front of university professors and students (the University Professors Coalition) has brought together thousands of professors and students from private and public universities, resisting administrators’ calls to resume classes and organizing joint protest actions. Different professional groups, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists, cinematographers, economists, and writers are also collectively mobilizing in support of the protests. The emergence of these nascent collectivities is an important development in light of the history of elite co-optation and weakening of workers unions and labor organizations.

The calls from some quarters for a government led by experts — on the argument that technical expertise stands outside the realm of politics — must also be questioned. What is needed is not “technical expertise” (in fact, technocratic experts have been present in previous governments) but a coherent, encompassing political agenda that can radically overturn the current state of affairs — a substantive political and economic agenda that moves beyond discussions of corruption as individual practices and attacks the deep structural inequalities embedded within the neoliberal economic model and the sectarian power-sharing political regime.

The scale and scope of the recent protests is truly astounding — a decisive turning point in the history of antiestablishment movements in Lebanon. Given the depth of the political and economic crisis, the nature of the sectarian patronage regime, and the still-fledgling organizational frameworks of oppositional forces, the movement will likely take time to make its impact felt. Yet one thing has been made apparent already: public scrutiny and incredulity today is greater than ever before. The country’s political elites will have to answer to a citizenry that has been significantly altered.