Twenty Days of Lebanese Protests: Between Continuity, Innovation and Uncertainty

How to make sense of the current Lebanese protest movement? The ongoing demonstrations against an entrenched sectarian system and a failing economy in Lebanon have some roots in past citizens’ activism but also represent new dynamics that were not present in previous mobilizations in 2005, 2011 or 2015. This paper describes some of these dynamics that continue to evolve as protesters experiment day by day with new ways of doing politics.

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Lebanese protesters in al-Nour Square, Tripoli - October 2019© Randa Ayyoubi

Summary

This paper examines the uprisings that have been taking place in different parts of Lebanon since 17 October relying on direct observation of the protests and interviews with various participants. Acknowledging that the protest movement and the situation in Lebanon remain highly dynamic, it proposes some elements to better understand and contextualize the movement. Although Lebanon generally avoided the wave of protests that swept the Arab world in 2011, there were early attempts to criticize the sectarian system and dysfunctional public services. The paper outlines what current events owe to a recent history of protests in Lebanon, in particular, the short-lived 2011 protests demanding the fall of the sectarian regime and the 2015 “you stink” movement (Tala’at Rihatkum) which denounced the public mismanagement of garbage and called for accountability for political corruption. While the current protests have some roots in past citizens’ activism, it is also clear that there are new aspects that continue to evolve as protesters experiment day by day with new ways of doing politics.

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A few months before the revolution of October 1917, when he was deeply wounded and humiliated by the failed revolution of 1905 and was in exile in Zurich, Lenin said: “we old people, we will probably never see another revolution in our lifetime”.1This sentence was extracted from the documentary of Cédric Tourbe, “Lenin: Another Story of the Russian Revolution, 2016.

How to make sense of the current Lebanese protest movement? A good place to start is to recognize that given the magnitude of this popular political phenomenon – with protesters occupying squares and streets of cities from south to north, from east to west – and the extremely rapid and uncertain evolution of events, any observer has for the moment only a partial and incomplete view. The on-the-fly analysis of a political movement that is still in the process of transformation requires that the observer be aware that his or her understanding is evolving at the same time as interlocutors on the ground, and that any proposed framing of the movement is provisional. Therefore, one should refrain from decrypting these last 20 days by assigning to the movement a coherence and a logic that it does not yet have and to which it is not certain to aspire. Yet, by observing the day-to-day unfolding of the protests and interviewing some of the protesters and protest organizers, one can venture a context – a matrix – through which the events can be analysed.

A movement that feeds on previous protest experiences… but that has quickly overtaken them.

The current protest movement did not come out of a void. There is a constellation of movements currently active in the protests, notably those of university students, leftist and non-sectarian parties, and feminist groups, that were formed and active between 2011 and 2015. According to the author’s 12 interviews with university professors, journalists, and activists in Beirut and Tripoli over the last weeks, many activists already knew each other before the events through friendships and networks of activists built during previous rounds of mobilization and protests. Some of the slogans, such as calling for “Isqât al-Nidhâm al Taifi” (the fall of the sectarian regime), were already used in 2011.

While these networks existed, interviewees who had participated in previous protest movements stated that the current protests felt very different as they were much more massive and had a national as well as a decentralized character.

This time, according to many of those interviewed, there is a desire to learn from past experiences and not to repeat the same strategic mistakes. Many interpreted the failure of the non-sectarian movement to achieve a breakthrough in the 2018 legislative elections to be rooted in the traditional political reflex of putting a leader in charge, which ended up in failed attempts to join efforts. “It did not work,” said a former sympathizer of the party “Citizens in a State” (Mouwatinoun wa mouwatinat fi Dawla) in the middle of a hectic evening in the Place des Martyrs.  “Something new is happening... Our role must be at this stage to try to understand what is happening. This is the hardest and most reasonable thing to do at this point,” he added. The existing networks of activists seem completely overtaken by current events, as admitted by some of its members, who appear happy to go along with the flow, or the “street” as many have said.

Other interviewed protesters, including journalists and university professors, cannot and do not wish to have a direction given for this movement. There was a consistency between their ways of acting and their ways of talking about it.

A mobilization that transcends the usual political divisions

The current movement appears to have support in all regions and communities. Most interlocutors are aware of a new power and energy that come from transcending community membership in a country that is heavily segmented along sectarian lines. In fact, the main novelty of the movement at this stage seems to lie in the invisibility of the confessional belongings of the protesters. This manifests itself in particularly stark terms in Tripoli where Christian and Muslim inhabitants of the city are protesting side by side against the state public policies, and where populations from the neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tebbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal al-Mohsen (Alawite), who had been at war a few years ago, were seen side by side during the first protests in the city’s Nour Square.

The movement has also allowed new exchanges to take place between unlikely interlocutors. Several university professors in Tripoli told me that communists and members of the Islamist Tawhid movement had engaged in discussions and exchanges in the very bustle of al-Nour Square in Tripoli:

There are people who are bridging the two sides. Some people who have spoken today, have voiced revolutionary and socialist demands in Islamic language... to try to respect the different trends present in the square.2Interview with a professor of sociology at the Lebanese University, al-Nour Square, 27 October 2019.

Words without a spokesperson

This movement has no head. It is both a strategic choice and an almost automatic mechanism: people want to speak, express themselves, and speak for the first time publicly about political issues and on topics that interest them. We feel a need to talk and debate... Past experiences with a leader did not work: Koulouna watani (We are all our Nation), 3It’s the civil society alliance during the 2018 Lebanese general election.  Beirut Madinati (Beirut is my city)4Beirut Madinati is a volunteer-led political campaign to run the 2016 Beirut municipality elections. etc. In short, experiences with leadership did not work... This time it's national. It's much bigger. We do not want to interfere as before... And we think it's not fair to speak for them [the protesters].5A protestor interviewed next to Riad El Solh Square, 23 October 2019.

In the early days of this mobilization, there was an intense need to innovate in contrast to previous political experiences, to invent “pro-active modes of action”6According to the expression of the social movements’ historian Charles Tilly (1978). and new ways of practising citizenship. Given that these modes were not articulated or laid out through organized channels, the novelty of this mobilization should be uncovered through the observation of the operating mode used by the protesters.

During a debate organized under one of the associations’ tents in Beirut on 23 October 2019, a journalist and human rights activist was trying to speak again even though she had already spoken and intervened a few minutes earlier. Several people then intervened to remind her to leave the floor to others who had not yet spoken, and to interlocutors less accustomed to public debate. Here the democratic demands of those present chattered the certainties of professional activists often convinced that their expertise – in human rights in this case – make them legitimate to set themselves up as spokespeople.

If a feeling of uncertainty about the future of the movement has been accompanied by a certain anxiety among the protesters, this has not yet led them into the torment of “what to do?”,7It’s also the title given by Lenin to one of his political treaty in 1901. except to affirm the active character of the current revolutionary process, whose libertarian atmosphere recalls the May 1968 protests in France, according to many professors of the Lebanese University interviewed by the author. Indeed, the various groups of protesters seem inclined at this stage to resist the emergence of potential leaders, a phenomenon that is particularly visible in the al-Nour Square in Tripoli and downtown Beirut, the two places covered by this study.

The spontaneity and plurality at work in the current movement have surprised the protesters themselves and reinforces non-spoken rules that are generally respected. The fact that various associations and groups have set up tents in the car park between Martyrs' Square and the building known as “the egg” does not at this stage testify to an attempt to offer a “head” to the movement or influence it. They act rather as spaces for discussion with mostly horizontal exchanges and a general resistance to the emergence of spokespersons or leaders. The protesters managed to establish a very democratic atmosphere in the collective discussions and the improvised parliaments of the street, visible in the concern to let everyone speak, whatever their confessional origin, social, or political orientation.

Who manages the stages on the squares? Self-management or “invisibilisation” of the balance of power?

While there is no official spokespeople and horizontal exchanges dominate discussions, questions remain about who exercises control over what may be one of few symbols of centralized and hierarchical relationships in the squares: public stages.

Standing on the al-Nour Square in Tripoli, the central space for protests in the city, a professor of sociology at the Lebanese University described what he saw unfolding before his eyes as residents of the city regaining control and redefining what was an emblematic public space.

Our relations with other groups in the square are good. There is a lot of collaboration. We are different but we welcome everyone. We do not want to create a clash. Opportunists [those seeking to speak in the place of those who didn’t] are quickly pushed out. People gathered here are organizing much better than the municipality. The place is better organized now than before the uprisings. People from all political parties and from all social circles are here today.8Interview with a professor of sociology at the Lebanese University, al-Nour square, 27 October 2019.

And yet, this self-management seems to recede when it comes to other aspects of the square.

The disorder seems to be everywhere in this place. But it's a planned disorder. There are some forces [political parties and security forces] that run the place, but they are invisible. In any case, I do not see them. The selection of the spokespersons seems random, but it is not really... Even there you see, we are on the spot, the event unfolds before our eyes, and yet it is very difficult to know what is really happening. Of course, Islamists and state services have more control of the place than us [university professors, apparently leftists, gathered in a tent, at the edge of the square]. Who decides who gets to talk on the podium? Who decides which music to play? It's the most powerful who decides the music. There are the pro-Hariri [Lebanese Prime Minister, who resigned the 29 October 2019, two days after this interview], Miqati [“Azm movement”], pro-Rifi [Ashraf Rifi, former director-general of Lebanese security forces and former Justice Minister], and the Islamists of the Tawhid movement. They all decide the music and choose who will speak and the content of the speeches.9One of the discussion’s moderators at al-Nour’s square.

Citizen solidarity that challenges regional and community belongings

Protesters in different parts of the country showed their solidarity with each other by regularly calling out and voicing support for each other during the protests. Many even travelled from their town or village to other regions and towns, such as groups from Nabatieh to the al-Nour Square in Tripoli or from Beirut to Kfar Rumman in the South, to directly show their solidarity. Moreover, a group of professors from the Lebanese University in Beirut has organized itself to protest in Tripoli and Baalbeck in support of professors that could not join the protests in Beirut and build connections with professors of Lebanese University from other regions.

A key element in building this solidarity has been the perception that each region was shedding and criticizing its own leaders. Protesters from Tripoli and various southern cities opposed their respective traditional leaders. On social networks circulated images of Nabatieh residents tearing up posters of Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shia militia movement Amal while chanting “thief, thief Nabih Berri thief” (harameh harameh Nabih Berri harameh). This was followed by the Tripolitans going out on the street to criticize the Sunni leader.

But this civic solidarity between the protesters from different regions does not prevent the protests from echoing differently depending on whether they are expressed in the North, in the East, in Beirut, or in the South. The stories of each region and each community are different and limited to issues relevant to their respective groups of protesters. The act of demonstrating by singing the national anthem in Nabatieh or Tyre – Hezbollah and Amal strongholds – has a very different intensity and meaning than in the other regions of the country. In fact, the south of Lebanon had acquired the reputation of being particularly detached from the rest of the country because of security considerations tied to the closeness of the border with Israel and the fear that this would make it prone to external state intrusions. For many Lebanese interlocutors and observers, the eruption of the protests of the southern populations is further proof of the unprecedented nature of the unfolding events.

Effects of political generations

Faced with this political crisis, whose evolution and outcome remain unpredictable, different groups of demonstrators react in different ways. If the uncertainty about the ultimate impact of the protests is present in all minds, it should be noted that some are more pessimistic than others about the ability of the mobilization to last or initiate a major change in Lebanon. To varying degrees, distinctions appear between a political generation disappointed by past collective protest attempts (in 2005, 2011, and 2015) and a generation – often of a younger age – more enthusiastic or at least less concerned by the risks of fatigue, contestation’s absorption, or even counter-revolution.

The role of university professors is clearly secondary to that of students. The observation of the professors’ activities – through the organization of public discussions for example – during the protests highlights the fact that the previous political experience of each individual is what makes the difference in relation to the individual’s perception of the possible outcome of the protests. In fact, the older generation, deeply disappointed by past political experiences, sometimes takes a very pessimistic view of the movement's ability to effect real political change or to sustain mobilization.

The ultimate impact of the protests and their ability to weaken or even undercut Lebanon’s sectarian system remains to be seen. But to observers and participants in the current protest movement, the uprising feels different. New dynamics that were not present in previous mobilizations in 2005, 2011 or 2015, can be seen, experienced, or felt every day. For many protesters, there is a sense of wonder and amazement at the unfolding events, an exhilaration – often mixed with apprehension – about an ongoing experiment that each seems to be cultivating every day through new ways of doing politics and participating as a citizen. Therefore, for many protesters, the protests are more than just an uprising. For many, it is a revolution.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This sentence was extracted from the documentary of Cédric Tourbe, “Lenin: Another Story of the Russian Revolution, 2016.
2. Interview with a professor of sociology at the Lebanese University, al-Nour Square, 27 October 2019.
3. It’s the civil society alliance during the 2018 Lebanese general election.
4. Beirut Madinati is a volunteer-led political campaign to run the 2016 Beirut municipality elections.
5. A protestor interviewed next to Riad El Solh Square, 23 October 2019.
6. According to the expression of the social movements’ historian Charles Tilly (1978).
7. It’s also the title given by Lenin to one of his political treaty in 1901.
8. Interview with a professor of sociology at the Lebanese University, al-Nour square, 27 October 2019.
9. One of the discussion’s moderators at al-Nour’s square.