A new politics is rising in Lebanon
With each new crisis, alternatives to an entrenched, sectarian political system are growing stronger and more organised.
Beirut, Lebanon – In the unlit parking lots around Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut, the darkness is illuminated only by lightbulbs strung from camping-style tarps. Thousands have gathered here every evening for the last few weeks. Rows of plastic chairs are full, others sit on the floor or jostle among those standing to get a good view.
From afar, it resembles an outdoor festival, but this is no fairground. These private parking lots lie in the heart of the upscale Beirut Central District run by a private corporation, Solidere, which has effectively transformed the heart of the Lebanese capital into an island for the rich.
On any normal day, Solidere private security guards do not allow street vendors, let alone any sort of public political gathering or performance, in the manicured district. But now the security guards are nowhere to be seen as thousands flood the streets daily. It is not just the occupation of this “private” space by average citizens that is extraordinary, it is the unprecedented discussions and open public forums taking place under dozens of flimsy tarps.
‘We are a war generation’
In one tent, a debate is raging over whether protesters should return to blocking highway traffic (as they had done in the first two weeks of the now month-old uprising), or whether children should be allowed to boycott schools and join the protests.
“We are a war generation, we used to go to school under the bombs,” said one middle-aged woman, standing on the sidelines holding a microphone. “Our kids are learning the best civic education here, they are cleaning the streets, they are recycling, things they never learn in schools.”
She then took aim at the minister of education, who called for schools to reopen after weeks of road closures.
“We don’t have to listen to you minister, you have to listen to us now.” The crowd erupted in applause as one man shouted “Bravo, Bravo” clapping enthusiastically.
Is this a revolution or is it an activist movement? If this is a revolution, everything is allowed, there is no need for a discussion. We don't have to ask for permission to occupy streets or attack ministries.
“We don’t need these Zuama [tribal chieftains],” she continued. “Not the Sunni, Shia, Druze or Christian ones, and I’m for blocking the road.”
The moderator registers her position, marking it on a board, and passes the microphone to the next of many raised hands.
‘Is this a revolution?’
Rejection of the confessional power-sharing system, instituted during French colonial rule, has been a hallmark of the protest calls. But there is also general defiance of the ruling parties – former street militias that transitioned into politics since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990.
“The people are the source of power today – not the ministers, not the members of parliament, not the zauma,” said another woman to applause.
Beyond the immediate tactics, there are also debates and lectures about longer-term economic and political realities and how the state functions.
“Have you ever seen a serious economic proposal without numbers?” a former bureaucrat asked in reference to the government’s one-page document detailing promised reforms and aimed at quelling protests.
These included the privatisation of state assets and the restarting of controversial land reclamation projects that would expand the coastline to create more real estate.
“Will these plans really save money?” she asked. “How much will they cost?” Other discussions addressed the concentration of power by feudal families, media ownership, water shortages, failed government projects, environmental destruction, unchecked corporate power, uneven wealth distribution and growing fears over currency devaluation.
The calm discussions are suddenly drowned out by heated arguments in another tent. One man shouts, urging the protesters to retake the nearby downtown highway.
We are a war generation, we used to go to school under the bombs. Our kids are learning the best civic education here, they are cleaning the streets, they are recycling, things they never learn in schools.
“Is this a revolution or is it an activist movement?” a middle-aged man posed. “If this is a revolution, everything is allowed, there is no need for a discussion. We don’t have to ask for permission to occupy streets or attack ministries.”
The moderator disagrees: “We are here to discuss tactics and all voices should be heard.”
Using the courts to tackle corruption
One of those tactics has been the use of courts to expose corruption, as activists’ collectives have launched a number of lawsuits over recent years, long before the current protests began. But politicians have also isolated themselves from prosecution as explained in another presentation by Assaad Thebian, one of the activists who led the 2015 YouStink protests.
Under another tarp, Thebian gave an overhead presentation about Gherbal Initiative, a new project that seeks to demand budgets and transparency from government officials. A major challenge is that lawsuits launched against a Lebanese politician require a 25 million Lebanese Lira (around $17,000) deposit and losing a case could result in a fine of 200 million ($133,000) or up to a year in prison.
Like Thebian, many of those leading the discussions have been members of activist campaigns that have formed over the last decade. Groups such as Nahnoo (We), The Lebanese Coastal Alliance and the Save Dalieh campaign, which have fought for years to reclaim public properties that had been privatised, are now leading marches to private hotels and marinas built on public property, organising picnics there and facing off with riot police.
The Lebanese government’s own studies have revealed that nearly $1bn in uncollected fines have accumulated from 1,000 illegal resorts that dot the coastline, many of them owned by politicians.
Lawyers, university professors, labour unions and student organisations are also arranging discussions and actions. Legal Agenda, a collective of lawyers who have been representing activists for several years, held a press conference this week attacking the government’s proposal to create a general amnesty law.
While this could help those jailed for minor offences, it could also lead to a lack of accountability for high-level corruption and corporate and government negligence that has helped produce dangerous levels of air and water pollution in Lebanon.
Marches and teach-ins have also been held in other cities outside Beirut and in front of state institutions such as the finance ministry, the central bank, telecom companies and the national electric company, which has failed to provide 24-hour electricity since the 1970s, despite receiving billions in government loans and investments.
Outside the political system
Most interesting about these activities is that they are organised outside the country’s political system. For decades, the only way to participate in Lebanese politics was by joining a party and, since these are organised along religious and tribal lines, positions of power are held by the same families for generations.
Yet, with the help of technology and social media, in particular, new groups have been able to organise in Lebanon, not around party ideology and sectarian dogma, but around everyday issues faced by citizens of all backgrounds.
In the midst of Lebanon’s rubbish protests in 2016, when groups like You Stink (Tul’it Rihetkun) and We Want Accountability ( Badna Nhasib ) were formed, I wrote a research paper about the possibility of them pioneering a new, post-sectarian politics.
Many who joined these groups came from the activism community that began to coalesce around the time Facebook and Twitter first took off in the region, allowing the formation of easily accessible online groups that could coordinate activities and broadcast news over their platforms as an alternative to mainstream media outlets, largely beholden to the political elite. These groups were able to achieve some small victories in terms of resisting major real estate projects and wasteful public works projects.
Although the rubbish crisis persisted in Lebanon and many wrote these youth-driven efforts off as a failure, they helped inspire better-organised groups, driven by more experienced professionals and university professors, such as Beirut Madinati, which fielded candidates in Lebanon’s 2016 municipal elections. Although Beirut Madinati did not win, some of the races were surprisingly close despite its meagre budgets and staffing.
A similar phenomenon happened in Lebanon’s 2018 parliamentary elections, where a record number of candidates (nearly 1,000) and new parties ran in the polls.
Although few won seats, one of the many independent groups that fielded candidates in the election, Li Haqqi, led the protests against the WhatsApp tax that sparked the current nationwide revolt. Members of Beirut Madinati, Kuluna Watani, Baalbek Madinati, and many others that did not win in the elections, have evolved into a platform for dissent and many have been hosting tents in the downtown area.
Gambling on an alternative to sectarianism
The challenge faced by these new groups has often been one of money and resources. Their small donations and events pale in comparison with Lebanon’s political elite, closely tied to banks and former militias. They have developed a political infrastructure that has allowed them to continue to win elections by gerrymandering districts and providing patronage to voters. It is not simply a matter of religious belonging or sectarianism.
Lebanon’s ruling parties and tribal chiefs run their own schools and universities, hospitals and clinics. They can offer not only healthcare and tuition assistance but also favours to get government jobs or secure contracts. As such, the parties have taken advantage of a weak state and a population the majority of which is forced to seek patronage to survive.
The parties are also known to police dissent by deploying loyalists to intimidate protesters. But now that living standards have sunk so low, and a level of fear has subsided, will more people be willing to gamble on alternatives?
It is not clear how long this revolutionary spirit will last, but looking at recent history, each movement seems to put forward new groups of activists and potential future leaders. One of them may well be sitting under a tent or leading a march right now.
Beyond the more mainstream activist organisations, discussions are also being held by small ad hoc groups, huddled in circles on the sidelines of the big tarps. Some television stations sympathetic to protesters have hosted unprecedented, hours-long open mic shows where individuals can speak freely and put forward demands, reveal problems and propose ideas for reform.
A change is coming
One of the main demands has been for early elections, as activists hope to ride a wave of anger on the streets that could propel more independent groups to victory. What is clear is that there is a new political infrastructure in place, one that seems to grow more organised and competitive with each new crisis or political election cycle.
When looking at popular uprisings in Lebanon and across the region, we are quick to judge their success or failure based on numbers: crowd size, poll results, the amount of funding or foreign ties of the opposition (often neglecting the fact that current leaderships are entirely reliant on foreign ties and funding). But we should also be paying attention to more subtle changes in political culture and behaviours that can take root despite conflicts.
In the mid-1970s as Lebanon’s civil war raged, many of the fighters were young, wearing bell-bottoms as they fired Kalashnikovs or bazookas.
Today, the weapons of choice are mobile phones, tents and loudspeakers, live broadcasts and social media posts. It is not just youth. Older people and community organisers are also joining in, using these new tools to increase their existing followings.
Of course, Lebanon is not like other Arab states in that no single party or ruler dominates, providing a space for both chaos and free expression where activism has thrived. The Lebanese are also a battle-hardened people, having suffered the losses of decades of war and instability. But even die-hard party supporters have long wished for a better functioning state. The question many in the streets are now asking is how much longer will they cling to the past, hindering the possibility of a new political future.
Few are willing to wait to find out.
At the time of writing, protesters have just re-blocked several highways across the country, moments after President Michel Aoun called on protesters to be patient, leave the streets and allow the government (inclusive of ruling parties) to work. Despite some clashes with party supporters and security forces and one protester killed, crowds of men and women, young and old are now swelling into the thousands, even outside the presidential palace, demanding the immediate resignation of the ruling political class and the formation of an independent government.