Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

After a dramatic August, Lebanon may see a historic September

| September 2, 2015

The month of August marked a dramatic moment in modern Lebanese history, when tens of thousands of ordinary citizens broke free from their sectarian political anchorage and challenged the state to perform more efficiently and equitably. It might be seen in retrospect one day as the moment when we first saw the birth pangs of the Lebanese citizen. This month of September is likely to be equally telling, perhaps even historic, in that critical arena where citizen rights, expectations and power come into contact — and confrontation — with the power of the government and state, and the oligarchic elite that has managed them both throughout Lebanon’s history as an independent country.

The interaction between the government and the half a dozen activist civil society groups like You Stink, We Want Accountability, We’re Disgusted and others will pass through a critical moment this week, when the government ignores the protesters’ 72-hour deadline to meet their political demands and the activists announce their plans to escalate and continue their non-violent actions. We should now expect to witness an important political struggle between these two forces that is likely to remain non-violent and protracted, and whose outcome will depend on many factors that are not clear today.

The three most important of these are the extent of popular support for the protests, the ability of the activist groups to quickly harness that support and channel it into a coherent political process, instead of the powerful expression of grievance and pain that it has been to date, and the nature of the power structure’s political counter-attack against the protesting citizens. We have hints about all three of these factors, but no conclusive evidence. That should emerge more clearly in the coming month, as both sides muster their political assets, define their strategies and tactics, and engage in a good old fashioned political brawl that should determine whether the dignity and rights of citizenship or the perpetual incumbency of a sectarian and often family-based oligarchic power structure triumphs in the end.

This marks another historic turning point that sees Lebanon start to shed some of its exceptional characteristics and join the rest of the Arab world in the single, overarching struggle that has defined this entire region for the past century: how to achieve a legitimate social contract based on an agreed relationship between citizens and their state. Lebanon and its citizens breezed through the 20th century using the existing political system that apportions power to the country’s religious groups, which effectively mothballed the practice of individual citizenship and entrenched the power of communal elites. Many of these elites passed on leadership to their sons (Hariri, Jumblatt, Chamoun, Gemayel, Salam) or, as in the case of the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, to sons-in-law. The sectarian system worked reasonably well for most Lebanese for most of the last century, but this broke down after the post-1990 reconstruction spree following the civil war, for several different reasons. These included the impact of Syrian control of Lebanon until 2005, the emergence of Hezbollah as a political force that created a new national power configuration, the incompetence or lassitude of many communal leaders, and the exhaustion of the sectarian system’s efficacy, as it led finally to nearly permanent stalemate and the inability of the political elite to make any serious national decisions.

The sudden eruption of the mass protests during the past two weeks was triggered by the garbage problem, which itself captured the deeper weaknesses of the political system that finally caused deep and daily pain in the lives of every citizen — and citizens recognized that the problem was in the nature of the moribund governance system that was manned by their sectarian leaders. So Lebanon now faces a direct confrontation between these two strong forces: on the one hand, an angry, embittered citizenry that cannot long endure the discomfort of lack of essential services and the indignity of the apparent uncaring attitude of the government, and, on the other, a powerful political elite that will fight back to protect its privileges.

This battle will not be determined by who can put more bodies on the street, because the sectarian and ideological elite of Hezbollah, Amal, Free Patriotic Movement, and Future Movement will win that context in its sleep — as we saw Sunday when several hundred thousand loyalists attended Amal’s public commemoration of the disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr. Most of those citizens suffer the same daily discomforts in water, garbage, electricity, and public transport as the Martyrs Square protesters last Saturday — but their loyalty to their sectarian political grouping remains strong.

How quickly and how efficiently the You Stink and other protest movements organize politically to challenge the entrenched power structure will largely determine whether they succeed in turning the already historic but nascent and small phenomenon of the birth pangs of the Lebanese citizen into a national reality that reconfigures the entire power structure so that it treats all citizens with more efficiency, equity, and, above all, respect and dignity.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Middle East Initiative
For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami..“After a dramatic August, Lebanon may see a historic September.” Agence Global, September 2, 2015.