One Year into Lebanon's “17 October Uprising”: Is There a Reason to Celebrate?

A year has passed since the Lebanese “17 October Uprising”. Just as with other Arab uprisings, the first anniversary raises many questions about successes and failures, the nature of the regime and the reasons behind its durability, the organizational requirements and mechanisms of a political transition, and about the despair or the hope that have been created.

In this conversation, Paul Achcar and Jamil Mouawad address these different topics through a political analysis of the movement, its players, and the system and its components. The discussion is not limited to analysis, but also offers some ideas on how to move ahead. This will perhaps help in the transition from a state of contestation to consolidating an opposition that becomes a constant political player in the Lebanese scene.

©Hiba Al Kallas / Shutterstock.com
After 1 week of the catastrophic explosion in the Port of Beirut, Lebanese people gathered near the devastated port, remembering Beirut’s victims. Beirut, Lebanon–August 11,2020 ©Hiba Al Kallas / Shutterstock.com

A year has passed since the Lebanese "17 October Uprising". Just as with other Arab uprisings, the first anniversary raises many questions about successes and failures, the nature of the regime and the reasons behind its durability, the organizational requirements and mechanisms of a political transition, and about the despair or the hope that have been created.

In this conversation, Paul Achcar and Jamil Mouawad address these different topics through a political analysis of the movement, its players, and the system and its components. The discussion is not limited to analysis, but also offers some ideas on how to move ahead. This will perhaps help in the transition from a state of contestation to consolidating an opposition that becomes a constant political player in the Lebanese scene.

Paul Achcar is a retired journalist. From 1971 to 2010 he worked in Lebanese, Arab, French, English, Brazilian, Portuguese and Polish newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV stations. He is a founding member of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (1994) and Civil Forum (2019). Achcar was also the coordinator of the “Baladi Baldati Baladeyati” campaign (My Country, My Town, My Municipality) between 1997 and 1998.

A year has passed since the “17 October” uprising, what do you have to say about it, or how do you remember it?

Paul Achcar: It was an unexpected and unplanned moment, although it is probably an event that Lebanon has not witnessed in its relatively young history. A hundred years in the life of a country is nothing, after all. It was a moment to break free from social isolation (which had become the norm) and an expression of a desire to mingle with various familial and traditional sectors. This is true for its earliest expressions and its earliest days at the very least.

At the same time, you cannot but see it as the explosion of the anger of a teenage generation who realized that no one in their country takes them seriously and that they have no future here.

Ironically, this out-of-context event took place in the last year of the first century of the Republic, as if to tell the country: "Yes, there is another way, sectarian Lebanon is not your destiny."

Jamil Mouawad: I view October 17 as a moment and a space. A moment because it gave a chance to different sectors of the Lebanese society to simultaneously express their different grievances, and a space as it also took place in multiple squares, such as Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, and Jal el-Dib. The linkages between the moment and the space produced one of the most beautiful outcomes of popular movements in Lebanon.

In my opinion, the problem is that, despite all that is said about the gains (which are numerous and we’ll come back to that later), the protests didn’t come out on top of the “moment and space equation”, with different sectors failing to share the same grievances. It even seemed that the grievances in certain places were contradictory, though we may not have realized this at the time; those who took to the streets to protest the loss of their financial status, no longer able to continue living in luxury through excessive consumption, are totally different from those who protested in the belief that the movement was a class struggle and also from those who believed they were attempting to expand their freedom and reaffirm their agency. The protests have not followed an institutional path, meaning that the conflict was not transmitted from the streets to the institutional structures and professional sectors, despite some faint attempts to form independent currents or unions.

The problem today is that some are still addressing the revolution as a space and a moment. That is to say that they are calling for the celebration of the revolution in the streets, like the “I Am a Red Line” group, 1https://www.facebook.com/AnaKhatAhmar/  for example, something which neither establishes a political action nor leads to real change.

Let's move on to political action. How do you evaluate the gains of the revolution while keeping in mind the often-repeated line “you haven’t achieved anything”?

Paul Achcar: This rhetoric has two sides. One that is aimed at holding the revolution responsible for the state the country has reached and, in this sense, the regime’s discourse is perfectly authoritarian, almost saying that it was the revolution that brought bankruptcy and then impoverishment. Indeed, this view has been directly or indirectly expressed by a number of officials and you can sometimes hear it repeated in the streets. After a while, these groups might hold the revolution responsible for the explosion on August 4 and even Coronavirus. This may seem funny but it needs to be addressed as it stems from the intense loss that the country has suffered. It is also strangely and greatly ironic that the main pillar of the system, around which the majority of the people revolve, should collapse in the last year of the centennial, even with differentiated profit and support according to social class. This main pillar is, of course, the banking sector.

The other side is more normal: There is as much blame as there is the hope that was born on October 17. The hopes of activists, and even that of the larger population, can be discussed, but this is another issue. Who would have expected, even one week before the revolution, this overwhelming tsunami that shook the zu'ama system,2A term used to describe the clientelist networks that underpin the sociopolitical functioning of the country or the “archipelago of sects", landing direct blows and suddenly making what used to be normal look old and impotent? Before all this, traditional leaders acted like the leaders of the national movement in “A Long American Movie – film ameriki tawil’’3“A Long American Movie” (1980) is a Lebanese play by Ziad Rahbani. The film is set in a mental hospital and each character represents a category of the Lebanese society during the Lebanese civil war. , whose leader (I don’t remember his name, maybe Nizar) knocked at the doorstep of the old woman so that she would ask him for the right analysis of what was going on. Later, she was the one waiting for him while he tip-toed silently back up to his flat.

Also, after October 17, even the smartest and strongest among them reconsidered their views multiple times to be able to put together a speech capable of convincing their constituency, their party, and the public opinion. October 17 confused the country's 30-year-old regime and made it appear outdated, to use the words of Yassir Arafat, also shaking the "archipelago of sects" (the zu'ama system), where there is no nation, only parties. All of this caused the regime to lose all equilibrium. The problem is that although it has lost many of its functions, there is no alternative. Finding the alternative requires not only willful acts but also sustained political action and for people to gradually fill the role of the leading opposition.

In the context of suspicious increases of people involved in the public sphere, the political gains are very important, with the regions free of unilateral loyalty, the crystallization of the elements for a discourse capable of expressing the unity of people, and with the reemergence of a liberalized self-image not necessarily confined to the unilateral thinking that prevailed before October 17. These are gains that are difficult to translate into concrete reality. But the key mission remains to preserve them as much as possible in the reality of bankruptcy, impoverishment, indigence, and anxiety. What is more important is that these gains do not vanish completely. How do you measure gains? For me, they are measured by their expansion of the world of possibilities. In fact, this process of translation from the abstract to the concrete requires ground prepared to receive it itself and an accurate description of what the reality is and who the protesters are. Maybe the most important thing is to invest in the awareness that you are able to change things, to change yourself, your professional sector, your region, and finally your country. It is certainly possible, but this has to be done in reality and not just with wishful thinking. This euphoric feeling should not vanish either.

Jamil Mouawad: The gains are numerous. Like any social movement, there are no given objectives against which success or failure can be measured. It is therefore imperative that we read subjectively and personally, starting with those who have actually changed their lives as a result of October 17 (becoming aware of the importance of public action, etc.) and working up to the blunders of members and parties of the ruling class.

Practically, I believe there are two main gains, despite the lack of measurable results:

First, the most prominent result of October 17 was that it allowed simmering resentment to transform into public protest. The protests have given space, which still exists now, to speak about politics more impartially and not just through analysis. Those who speak to ordinary people know that many often find justifications to defend their leader (he was forced to do it, he had no choice but to take such a stance, etc.) while they were secretly unhappy about their leader's actions. Today, politics is becoming objective and the leader is accused directly, even those by those who support the regime and its pillars. Arguments in their defence have changed. People justify the revolution, for example, but disapprove of its strategies. They may ask: What did you achieve? This is not only a recognition of the uprising but also, in my view, a reflection of the desire that the uprising achieves change.

Secondly, the revolution shook one of the three pillars of the regime. What are these pillars? Controlling imaginaries, controlling resources, and controlling violence. In practice, a large number of Lebanese had given up their own perceptions about their leader’s centrism. Not only can we now imagine a community without a leader (where it was previously impossible to do so), we are also demanding that they be held accountable, cursing them, and calling for them to be hanged. The regime has lost a key element of its pillars: Its ability to achieve almost total domination over society and its perceptions.

On failures: Are we seeing a lot of them? Are there more or less of them than gains?

Paul Achcar: Here, we need to take two steps back to rectify the discussion. It is wrong to view what happened on October 17 from the perspective of activists' biographies. Let me be clear, everyone can read into the events however they'd like, especially if their reading is mixed with emotional investment. October 17 then becomes a stepping stone on an upward path that started in 2011 (the social struggle over the ranks and salaries), then the movement associated with the 2015 waste crisis, followed by the 2016 municipal elections, which some considered to be the rehearsal for the 2018 parliamentary elections, culminating on October 17. This is a legitimate narrative, but I repeat: It is the narrative of activists and the story of their interventions at any given point.

The story of October 17 is more than that: It was a reaction to the crisis of the zu'ama system (the archipelago of sects) which began to prepare its ground with the beginning of the war and which came to completion at the end of the war through the desertification of the whole civic scene, not to mention the political scene. This regime, which has been shaken or which began to lose essential elements of its legitimacy on October 17, is the same regime that sees no need for a program for its government, as its role is limited to the "division" of the State (the allotment system). This regime, which is losing the resources of its sustainability and is based on the integration of roles, is an irredeemable regime in the sense that it is difficult to replace one piece with another – as if this were how God created it - as the last year has shown.

For this reason, and this is the point, this regime – and excuse me for being blunt - produced an irreparable contestation in turn. It is a moral contestation in the sense that it is abstract and not political, it idolizes its people at times and curses them at others. Unaware of political gradualism, it wants to "topple the regime" without keeping a position for itself in the political scene. This is impossible in any political action and even more so in a system like the Lebanese sectarian system, which has more than nine lives and is based on continuous tremors that can drown anyone or make them move from one role to another or entrap them even without their knowledge and without their committing a mistake! And so how about when we commit innumerable mistakes, lapses in judgement, and off-the-cuff governance?

Last but not least on the issue of failures: Of course, the regime has “fallen” in all moral or even functional criteria. Any judging committee would have dismissed it and considered it bankrupt. In the Lebanese system, things are different: Despite everything we've said here, if we do not have a real alternative with at least some civic modalities that people are able to distinguish first and adopt later, the current political class could end up ruling us again in 40 years. These are two totally different scenarios...

Jamil Mouawad: Whether deliberately or not, the demonstrations mainly focused on the “collapse”. This appeared to be a point of strength against the regime, potentially used to expose the secrets of the regime and hold it responsible for the financial and economic collapse. However, there were no plans. I remember that after each demonstration we would ask ourselves “now what? Will we go home?” There was, and still is, a complete absence of the political project.

What the uprising did achieve was that it paved the way for everyone to identify with public spaces and with the chants. It included all the Lebanese, including non-politicized citizens, leftists, rightists, and even some members of the political class, ironically. Marxists dealt with this as class warfare. Those concerned with environmental issues dealt with it as a way to express their environmentalism, and so forth. This was both a strength and a weakness. Many said that the revolution contributed to restoring public spaces, but this is not true. We have not regained public space (downtown Beirut and Zaituna Bay are still owned by Solidere). Rather, we regained the function of public spaces. We realized the importance of an open space for discussion for all people equally. The uprising was lost between dream and reality.

How can we avoid this weakness? It can be avoided through two factors: leadership and planning.

During the demonstrations, some voices claimed that the beauty of the movements is that there are no leaders. This was followed by the slogan “revolution doesn't negotiate, it demands”, which is problematic in itself. Those voices, however, were unable to agree on a united program or common leaders. They hid behind the poetic slogans that concealed their inability to act further. They knew that the movement had no practical revolutionary components (neither a central committee, nor an integrated plan, nor perhaps elements of revolutionary violence, etc.), but they tried to make it look like a revolution merely because the change they imagined should have been based on a grass-roots revolution, following the example of global leftist revolutions.

In the absence of a larger project, slogans remain loose, even allowing some members of the ruling class to go very far in supporting and exploiting the uprising, as some would say. Let’s mention some examples for the slogans: The oligarchy slogan was a model that was prominent during the early days of the revolution, dividing society based on the following equation: 99% against 1%. Some time has now passed since it was launched. Previously, we used to talk about overthrowing the “regime” and now we talk about overthrowing the “system,” meaning individuals. We have moved from the regime to the system, and from the bases to the individuals. I am no longer surprised by a politician like Samy Gemayel, who is a product of the regime and its philosophy (on the familial, regional, traditional partisan, sectarian, and populist levels), wanting to overthrow the “system” through early elections.

Hope: No hope, no politics; and this conversation lacks hope …

Paul Achcar: I am not a master in the art of selling rosy dreams. We hope. Or rather, we wish. Political hope will not pour over us like rain, it will not exist except with systematic work to change the prevailing mentality of the protests. It can be attained through the gradual rise from blind objection to political opposition. It is a long road, along which some have taken the first steps, and it is the key to transitioning from one level to another.

Hope may also come in an integrated way from a society that is gradually getting used to deciding its own fate. There are indications that some groups are choosing options in this regard, either regionally or professionally. However, in order for those budding mechanisms to turn into hope, they should be more intense, prominent, and systematic in order to contribute both individually and collectively to driving hope here. Partial victories can help by snowballing or by becoming a role model for popularizing a new culture of presence.

To conclude, in a society restricted on both the authority and the opposition levels, initiatives must be taken to drive change or alter the commonplace “automatic count,” which is unthinkingly repeated by everyone. If we find out how to narrow this distance and contribute to updating and renewing political (or opposition) ideology, we will save precious time. Saving time helps create hope: there is a vicious circle that could result in (or is already leading to) deep despair due to the combination of elements that are either objective (such as bankruptcy, impoverishment, and the August 4 explosion) or subjective (such as choosing the easy way out, narrow minds, and difficult tasks). There is no magical solution for change, though fans of securitized solutions might disagree. Hope must be a mix of determination and hard work, with measurable interim results. It must simultaneously campaign to analyze the impasses of the regime and interfere with them to positively change the game and attract the attention of ordinary citizens more than activists. This is how we will be able to create change. It is also a long-term process that could create hope in the medium term, though only if we initiate it right now…

Jamil Mouawad: There is always resistance in the face of any authority, and from despair is born hope. Despair is fairly dominant in Lebanon currently. It is not just a psychological state but also material. Between the “collapse” and the “explosion”, the community feels strangled, with no security networks to protect them. That is why hope should not be the reflection of sweet dreams. It should not be created from festivals to celebrate “the memory of the revolution,” for example, or poetic slogans that affirm that “we will not leave the country, we will not immigrate.” The material aspect, coupled with hope, should be secured through a political project. Hope is never real if not accompanied by politics, just as there is no politics without hope and a vision for a better future.

It should be emphasized that Lebanese society has always held onto hope even when it is not real. During the civil war, people used to say “one day, the state will take them (the militias) out.” After the civil war, hope turned into a draft provision controlled by politicians; it was the hope of reconstruction coupled with wagering on making peace with Israel. Conversely, it coexisted with its opposite – i.e. the hope of victory over Israel and eliminating it. Some of the objectives of the two projects were achieved, but neither of them laid the foundation stone for a society that could protect its own project. Those objectives did not include any social rights or a just economy, for example. The reconstruction process thus resulted in vulnerable infrastructures and an abandoned commercial community. As for Hezbollah, while they did achieve victory over Israel, they failed to articulate a project capable of protecting society from corruption. After 2005, we linked the departure of the Syrians to the recreation of hope in the country and our transition towards it. This hope turned out to be false, with nobody benefitting aside from the ruling class and their projects.

Today, the regime is no longer able to talk us into believing any hopes. This is the biggest proof of its helplessness, which is a source of hope for the opposition. We have to develop a political project that creates certain hope of a better future.

The Transfer, Legitimate Government, and Elections: Lastly, how do you view all the currently raised political issues, including the transfer of power, a government with legislative powers, the elections, and so on?

Paul Achcar: This discussion cannot be handled without systematic thought; a logical framework must be set up. The protesting forces need to rise to the level of opposition. It’s their historical mission to prepare to be a strong opposition party and to convince the people that they're worthy of playing this role. This should be acknowledged by the people, not by us activists. First, we should prove that we are the best opposition force, that we are better than other fake opposition forces. When we reach this status in the eyes of the people, we will be qualified to play the role of the alternative. We cannot be a convincing alternative except by proving ourselves to be a convincing opposition force. It is okay for this opposition force to have specialized committees or even a shadow government, as it is called. However, these are just names and we should not waste the time we have to forming formal governments by telling people that we have names or that we are the alternative or whatever it may be. Rather, we are required to convince them that we are a wise, capable, and knowledgeable opposition force, and that is how we will gain their trust as a possible alternative.

The issue of forming a government from the non-ruling class and with exceptional legitimate powers has two sides. The revolution is unable to impose a government from outside the ruling class, which means fierce public pressure like what happened in the first two weeks after October 17. Public pressure prevents the ruling class from interfering with the government. On the other hand, the ruling class grants this government trust due to the enormous public pressure. The fact that such circumstances might be realized in the future does not mean that they can be realized now. There is a dire need for exceptional legislative power given the collapse of the state, whether the government is formed from inside or outside the ruling class.

In normal life, elections are a political event, and they should remain so in the world of protests. In other words, they are a way to measure the changes that occur in the state and what has been concretely accomplished since the last election. In this collapsed situation, we cannot be driven by elections. We should be driven by hard work, every day, to be political participants in the public scene. But what if the elections don't happen? If we work hard instead of being distracted, they will just be a normal part of the process. Also, elections will not grant us anything except a modest result the first time. Five, ten, or even twenty parliament members? Either way, elections should not be the point. The point is that the country “collapsed.” Our goal thus becomes to build an opposition force that is both political and social. I repeat, the point is that the country “collapsed”. This means that our point revolves around the project we want to build and providing for our people after the end of the financial casino era where the lira “supported” all of us, rich and poor, and helped us live beyond our means before we had the rug pulled out from under us. This time, the poor lost before the rich. How can we come back and rebuild the country? This is the question. How should we start building the opposition force? This is the mission.

Jamil Mouawad: Periodical elections are essential to any democratic system, or at least to preserve a sense of democracy. Some demand early elections based on a modern and fair electoral law. However, elections are not a technical issue relevant to legal justice. In practical terms, elections in Lebanon are convenient for competition, not for general politics but rather for seizing resources and clientelist networks. Consequently, competition in advance is for the benefit of the ruling class which owns and controls both election tools and voters (including full knowledge of neighbourhoods and their residents, people’s everyday needs, and owning what is called the electoral keys, a kind of symbolic violence that takes place on the eve of and during the elections. This is without a doubt a form of intimidation). As such, I believe we cannot compete with the ruling class in terms of elections, because they’ll win and restore the popular legitimacy they once lost.

To me, the issue is much bigger than elections. It is an issue of competitiveness and conflict with the ruling class.

I think we have to consider the idea of conflict before the idea of competitiveness. Conflict means opening up areas to fight the regime everywhere (the last arena being the parliamentary elections). These conflicts are diverse, from protesting in the streets to criticizing the regime on social media, breaking the image of the leader, developing political, economic, and social programs, union elections, and so forth. This conflict does not only aim to confront the regime but also to transform public work from a policy of service provision to a policy of public policies and reimagining society. This is the challenge. That is when we will perhaps be able to transform the parliamentary elections from vote-counting elections to program-discussing elections.

Footnotes

1 https://www.facebook.com/AnaKhatAhmar/
2 A term used to describe the clientelist networks that underpin the sociopolitical functioning of the country
3 “A Long American Movie” (1980) is a Lebanese play by Ziad Rahbani. The film is set in a mental hospital and each character represents a category of the Lebanese society during the Lebanese civil war.