Lebanon’s protests: The limit of rage

A zero-sum approach to Lebanese politics will undermine the protest movement.

Lebanon demos
A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag during a protest against the newly formed government outside the government headquarters in downtown Beirut on January 25, 2020 [Reuteres/Ali Hashisho]

As a group of protesters tore down the iron gates outside the prime minister’s office in downtown Beirut last weekend, battling riot police, water cannon and tear gas for the third time in a week, I wondered what would happen if the police simply stood back and let them inside.

Would they bash through the ornately carved wooden doors of the 200-year-old Ottoman palace, spray painting its luxurious interiors with anarchist signs and graffiti cursing politicians’ mothers as they had done throughout the upscale downtown district? Would they shatter the stained glass windows and gilded chandeliers or stain its shiny Italian marble floors and fountains?

Gutted by the civil war, the seat of government known as the Grand Serail was burned and looted, only to be restored in the late 1990s at a cost of millions of dollars. This came at a time when many Lebanese were still reeling from the war, waiting in long lines for water or sitting in the dark because basic infrastructure had not been repaired.

Tarnishing this symbol of state power and elitism would surely help blow off steam having endured so much pain and suffering and police brutality. But then what?

The last three months of street protests have been relatively peaceful, drawing women, men and children of all ages from towns and villages that had never before witnessed protests. But this has changed over the past two weeks as much smaller numbers of mostly young men have turned to rioting in central Beirut amid an uptick in police assaults and arrests. The masked protesters have destroyed ATMs, broken shop windows, and peeled granite tiles off the facades of buildings to crush and hurl them at police.  

But how will destroying public and private property set the country on a path towards a brighter future? Will it solve the problem of continuing electricity and water shortages, rampant poverty, pollution and high unemployment? Will it stem the rapidly devaluing Lebanese currency, alleviate a crippling national debt or lift capital controls issued by local banks that have prevented the average citizen from withdrawing more than a few hundred dollars per month?

While the protests have already resulted in some important changes, it is increasingly difficult to imagine how all of their demands can be met. Beyond a reasonable call for a change in government leadership and a vague fight against corruption, these demands also include a far less realistic call for abolishing the country’s entire political system and preventing any previously elected political party from participating in government. 

Meanwhile, the increasingly violent tactics on the part of a group of a few hundred rioters – whose small numbers pale in comparison to the tens of thousands that once filled the streets – are clearly unpopular with many, if not most of the Lebanese people, as they remain at home, watching the destructive scenes unfold on television.

In the first two weeks of the uprising, the fall of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was a major victory. This came after hundreds of thousands of people filled public squares and blocked highways. It was an unprecedented euphoric moment in the history of Lebanon, where only political elites have had a say in who runs the country.

The resignation proved that there was power in the streets, a power outside the political system that could compete in elections.

This incredible new phenomenon was reinforced when crowds filled the streets once again after two well-connected businessmen were successively suggested as Hariri’s replacement and eventually forced aside.

Now after weeks of delays, a new government has finally been formed consisting mostly of college professors, almost none of whom has ever served in government. Some have pointed out that at least half of the new ministers served as advisers or supporters of past politicians, mostly tied to the party of the president and his allies.

But it would be a mistake to assume this latest government is no different than the previous ones. In line with protesters’ demands, it is one third smaller, contains far more women, no familiar faces and even a few ministers who have a proven track record of experience in their fields, a rarity in Lebanese politics.

Nevertheless, some have responded to the formation of the government with the most popular slogan of the revolution, “All means all!”, ie any new government should be completely free from the influence of the dozen or so political parties that have ruled Lebanon for the past several decades, the only political parties the country has ever known. In their street rallies, protesters have lambasted the entire political class as thieves and thugs.

Most Lebanese may partially agree with this sentiment out of frustration. But such sweeping generalisations also obscure the peculiar arrangement that is post-war power-sharing in Lebanon: a delicate “no victor, no vanquished” system where no party or administration is completely in control of the state.

Owing to this arrangement, government projects and services are regularly halted, not just because of incompetence or negligence, but also due to ruthless competition and sabotage between rival parties over lucrative infrastructure contracts. They are left to battle each other in a vacuum of any central arbitration or regulatory organisation that would have a final say. This means Lebanon is not really a failed state, as many foreign observers like to claim, but barely a state at all.  

The argument that banning any person or party that has ever served in a country’s politics will alleviate its myriad of dysfunctions fails to address deeper structural problems. These include an unproductive economy that generates few products or jobs beyond services and tourism frequently beset by wars and instability; a lack of long-term planning due to the short-lived nature of Lebanese governments, often dissolved within a year over competing foreign interests; and broken, underfunded and understaffed state institutions never rebuilt after the war.

The “all means all” mentality also discounts the views of a significant portion of the population that has repeatedly elected the current parties to power, dependent upon their well-established patronage networks that provide social services where the state is absent.

The language many activists use in rallying against “the corrupt” and for “the clean” is not entirely new or revolutionary behaviour. It is similar to the zero-sum rhetoric of Lebanese politicians castigating their opponents on talk shows. What this superficial discourse and deliberate ambiguity always lacked were the details of a political alternative that could ensure meaningful accountability.

Most of the young protesters battling riot police in the streets of Beirut today were born after the civil war. While some claim they are fighting to feed their families and pay their rent, others come from more privileged backgrounds, donning sophisticated gear and gas masks.

They are just waking up to the difficult reality Lebanon has faced for its entire existence as a weak, post-colonial proxy state with few resources and very powerful, manipulative neighbours. They should know that the ruling parties they loathe also came to power through a belief in violent confrontation.

Many of them were militia leaders who also saw themselves as revolutionaries. Many did not come from wealthy, well-connected families – they seized what they felt was owed to them by the feudal landowning class or other militias.  

These parties now seem to be looking for a way to capitalise on the chaos in the streets. Some militant protesters have admitted that they have seen party loyalists join the confrontations. This is not to say that others have come of their own will and out of sheer frustration.

But if protesters want to see meaningful political and social change, they should resist the urge to fall into simplistic explanations and demagoguery, which will only undermine the protest movement and its impressive gains. It is distressing to hear that some are willing to destroy all state structures to meet their objectives, which has led to the violent and tragic downfall of so many opposition movements across the region.

It will take research and steady dedication to pinpoint problems and put forward concrete proposals to gain the support of the majority of the population. Some are already working on this and have been for years. Their efforts should be encouraged, not discarded as weak or even treasonous.

One of the greatest assets of the revolution has been a renewed sense of defiance towards ruling elites and demands for their accountability. But who can be held accountable if there is no one in office?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.