Analysis & Opinions

The Lebanese Intifada: Observations and Reflections on Revolutionary Times

| Nov. 10, 2019

On Thursday 17 October 2019, thousands of exasperated Lebanese citizens took to the streets of Beirut in protest. The spark was the government’s latest plan to impose taxes on the popular and free based application, WhatsApp. Yet the protests were in fact the consequence of a series of ongoing and related crises: a fiscal crisis of insufficient revenues; a debt crisis; a foreign currency shortage crisis; a developmental crisis of stagnating growth compounded by rising unemployment and cost of living. One can certainly add to this list an infrastructural crisis—most popularized by the 2015 garbage protests, but part and parcel of people’s everyday lives as experienced in the problematic provisioning of electricity, water, and more. Such crises are largely homegrown, in that they are the result of decades-long mismanagement of public funds, rampant corruption, and political polarization. They are however exacerbated by regional and international players.

On Thursday 17 October 2019, thousands of exasperated Lebanese citizens took to the streets of Beirut in protest. The spark was the government’s latest plan to impose taxes on the popular and free based application, WhatsApp. Yet the protests were in fact the consequence of a series of ongoing and related crises: a fiscal crisis of insufficient revenues; a debt crisis; a foreign currency shortage crisis; a developmental crisis of stagnating growth compounded by rising unemployment and cost of living. One can certainly add to this list an infrastructural crisis—most popularized by the 2015 garbage protests, but part and parcel of people’s everyday lives as experienced in the problematic provisioning of electricity, water, and more. Such crises are largely homegrown, in that they are the result of decades-long mismanagement of public funds, rampant corruption, and political polarization. They are however exacerbated by regional and international players.

The immediate climate in the weeks leading up to 17 October demonstrated the depth and scope of the government’s ignominy in its inability to extinguish the wildfires that scorched Lebanese towns and forests for days, putting dozens of residents in serious harm. Moreover, the government failed to soothe growing concerns of shortages in fuel and wheat, and the availability of currency and capital liquidity for individuals that needed to convert Lebanese liras to US dollars. In fact, various social and economic sectors featured short-term protest and strike activities throughout the past several years, including Palestinians in refugee camps. In less than three days, the unexpected spark of 17 October mobilized over two million people to the streets of Beirut and other major cities and regions in a spontaneous and leaderless uprising. These include Beirut, Jbeil, Nabatiyeh, Saida, and Sour, and Tripoli, as well as different neighborhoods outside the capital, such as Furn el-Chebbak, Corniche al-Mazra‘a, Jal el-Dib, and others.

As of this writing, twenty-six days have passed to this popular uprising: twenty-six days of demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, and road-blocking across the entire geography of Lebanon. For about fourteen consecutive days, almost all public and private schools, colleges, and universities suspended classes. While the Ministry of Education has since ended its school closures, many high school and university students have gone on strike. The banking sector was similarly shut down for nearly two weeks. By many accounts, this period of bank closures was longer than what occurred during any part of the fifteen-year civil war. People from all walks of life flooded the squares of their cities and towns and occupied streets and highways to set up roadblocks. In the current phase, protestors selectively moving from blocking roads to targeting government ministries and other buildings that serve as symbols of the political and economic systems. In some cities, they have organized to remove all banners and posters used by politicians to promote themselves. The tactics are varied, and they are changing as protestors try to maintain their numbers on the streets at the same time that they want to escalate the pressure on the political class. 

The sum total of these acts has served as an explosion of public outcry against corruption, nepotism, paternalism, sectarianism, and racism. Slowly but surely, the protestors started producing spontaneous and long-awaited demands that fell under the overarching call for the fall of the political and economic regime that has ruled Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. It is important to highlight that many protestors have dissimilar views on issues pertaining to transitioning to a secular and democratic state or a shifting away from neoliberal economic policies. Yet, the networking and solidarity between different protestors against the corrupt political class have, for now, eclipsed their divergent views on various economic and sociopolitical issues and steps moving forward.

The existing political regime has so far succeeded in insulating itself from growing pressure since 17 October by pursuing a double-edged policy. The political elite have offered some concessions, including a pledge to introduce and implement serious economic reforms. An upcoming parliamentary session has on its agenda the introduction of laws to fight corruption and embezzlement of public funds. Yet it also includes an amnesty law covering abuse of public office, wasted state funds, and environmental crimes. In brief, the current political regime and various political parties within are riding the revolutionary wave by claiming that their own demands complement those of the protestors, while at the same time preventing any genuine accountability. Regional and international actors continue to monitor the situation and signal their preferences, hoping to maintain or improve the standing of their local allies.

One major compromise was the resignation of the Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (and thus his cabinet) on 29 October. This resignation was the consequence of sustained pressure from actions by protestors across Lebanon for twelve consecutive days. This clearly demonstrates the resolve and emerging power of the people. However, it is also a concession from the ruling class to relieve some pressure and undercut growing solidarity between demonstrators that were divided on whether the government’s resignation serves as the main or first step toward overhauling the entire political system. The resignation has allowed Hariri and other political actors to boost their declining popularity by coopting the demands of the protestors as their own.

The political elite are also using the regime’s coercive apparatus, mainly the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the Internal Security Forces (ISF), and other security organizations, to repress protestors that are actively and peacefully blocking roads. The coercive apparatus is one of the main organizations that shore up the regime and will to a large extent remain loyal to the ruling political class. The LAF and the ISF have already used excessive force at several junctures, especially the Ring highway which connects to various areas in downtown Beirut, and other suburbs that connect the capital to the northern part of Lebanon, such as in Jal el-Dib and in Zouk. Volunteer lawyers have also been active in tracking detentions and arrests so as to provide legal counsel to protestors. The current Lebanese government has not hesitated to order different security organizations to crack down on demonstrators that are blocking roads across Lebanon. There are have also been violent attacks on the protestors in Beirut by partisans of established political parties, most notably supporters of the Amal Movement and Hizballah.

This article is not about what may come next. Rather, it is a reflection of what has happened so far; it is about bringing to the fore the voices of the October Revolution, the people in the streets, and about assessing some of its results or achievements.

From Uprising to Revolution

From the early days of this uprising, many of the people in the streets defined the unfolding events as a revolution. Since these events have not yet, and may not necessarily, become a revolution in the traditional definition of the concept, can we call this a revolution? The post-war settlement, inaugurated by the Ta’if Accord,  institutionalized and sacralized the sectarian political system that had been founded during the French Mandate in Lebanon and was formalized by the informal National Pact in 1943. The post-war regime also adopted public borrowing and neoliberal policies that reinforced the dominant rule of the banking sector.

In a loosely organized fashion, people have, for the first time in the history of Lebanon, risen against this political and economic system and in opposition to, rather than at the behest of, the political parties underpinning it. While earlier periods in the modern history of Lebanon, including the political crisis turned civil war in Lebanon in 1958, had revolutionary overtones, the core demands were about redistribution of power between the elite and the sects rather than a new and more inclusive political system. Other mobilizations in 2011, 2013, and 2015 targeted the government for specific goals, including the abolishment of political sectarianism or an end to a garbage crisis. These former experiences were mostly limited to Beirut and often dominated by a particular strata in society. Though important moments of politicization for some, and building blocs for others, these mobilizations did not exhibit the geographic spread, cross-class nature, or ubiquitous overarching demands for structural transformation that today’s protests have exhibited thus far. 

The protestors today seem to have so far overcome the regionalism and factionalism of the late civil war era, and that the post-war settlement had institutionalized and incentivized. By bridging sectarian, political, ideological, regional, and partisan lines in the streets, people have experienced what a genuine end, a closure if one may say, to the civil war may look like. This conscious drive toward fighting sectarian discourse as a sociopolitical tool is the beginning of a long struggle against the post-war order and the first real threat to it. Even if this uprising does not succeed in entirely usurping this political and economic system, this collective generational experience cannot be denied or reversed, and will create a marker in the Lebanese historical timeline.

If nothing else, this then is a revolution against the consciousness of the late civil war, against an entire regime’s conspiracy to sustain the divisions of that war and to withhold a closure and a chance of reconciliation from that war. It is a revolution against the complicity that has crippled the people in the last decades, a complicity that obscured the power people had to bring about change. People in the streets are no longer imagining how their country should be or in what way to change the status quo. They are actively creating the alternative and fighting against the surreal and abysmal hardships that affect everyone. In their slogans, demands, public discussions and actions, people have demanded that the sectarian ruling political and economic system be replaced by a civil, secular, democratic, and socially just system.

Class and the Interconnectivity of Struggles

The calls for solidarity extended from Tripoli to protestors in Dahiya, and from Nabatiyye to Saida, and between various regions in Lebanon that had historically been divided, do not signal solely cross-sectarian solidarity. There is something to be said here about class. Different socioeconomic groups are present in the protests, though in varying degrees across the geographical landscape. The unequal development along the urban/rural divide has been an integral part of the state’s underdevelopment of rural areas in the post-war order, including discrepancies created by the state between Beirut and other cities. Therefore, on the one hand, rural regions and cities outside Beirut, including suburbs, have witnessed protests from lower socioeconomic classes. On the other hand, class composition among protestors in Beirut has been mixed and varied, with lower income protestors pushing against the transformation of the squares into elitist revolutionary spaces.

Class is also present in the way workers and different professions are reconfiguring class-based organization. Unions have for decades been tainted by sectarian politics and controlled by political parties, and with the exception of very few, like the union of physicians in Tripoli, have either remained silent or opposed the uprising. Workers and professionals today are breaking ranks with, and organizing outside, these traditional unions through newly created alliances. These new workers’ and professionals’ alliances are a direct product of this uprising, and they are being formed and mobilized each day. Professionals independent of any political party from various sectors – professors, lawyers, engineers, physicians, pharmacists, journalists, actors, social workers, filmmakers, and writers – have formed a coalition (and sub-coalitions within each profession) that are mobilizing against the Lebanese Central Bank and the various ministries that have crippled their professions’ work and corrupted their sector. 

The streets and walls of Lebanese cities today are covered with demands for the fall of capitalism, alongside rejection of racism, and demands for women’s rights for citizenship for their children. There is therefore a niche within the uprising, however limited one can argue it is, that has demonstrated a belief in the interconnectivity between different sociopolitical issues rather than privileging a single issue. This particularly niche, which has been loud and vocal particularly in the student-led demonstrations in Beirut, understands that most social, economic, and political issues, including social justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, migrant workers’ rights, and refugee rights and protection, are interconnected struggles. In the place of the discourse against refugees and the ‘othering’ of the poor that the regime had emphasized recently, protestors are pointing out the shortcomings of the regime instead as responsible for the bread and fuel shortages that people have suffered from most recently. 

Protestors are becoming more aware of this interconnectivity of issues within the Lebanese system, but also about the similarities of these struggles among other Arab countries, as well as the rest of the global south that has risen today against the neoliberal policies of its elite. People in the street of Beirut are chanting in solidarity with Baghdad, protestors in Tripoli squares are waving Algerian flags, and online platforms are portraying the image of Malak kicking a politician’s bodyguard alongside that of the Sudanese Ala’ Salah. 

Desecrating the Sacred

The rallying chants uniting thousands of people are centered on an all-inclusive criticism of Lebanon’s political class best exemplified in the demand/chant: “killon ya`neh killon” [all of them means all of them]. Despite attempts by politicians, the regime’s press, and religious authorities to police the uprising, protestors have announced an end to the veneration of the political and religious elite. They have also toppled any sacredness of politics by embracing and celebrating obscenity in their chants directed against particular politicians and sectarian leaders, primarily but not exclusively against the minister Gebran Bassil. The popular anthem of hela hela ho, is in and of itself a revolution on the monopoly on obscenity and morality that President Michel Aoun’s particular patriarchal order had created and controlled over the past three years of his rule as “father of all”. In a reversal of this patriarchal trope against the self-appointed patriarch, some protestors have demanded the fulfillment of the ‘fatherly’ duties of the president as “father of all”. Other protestors, particularly feminist groups participating in the uprising, have answered back with chants rejecting this paternalism, “you are not our father” (mannak bayy al-kill). These feminist voices, while not necessarily adopted by all the protestors, have however become louder and harder to ignore; they have also created spaces in this uprising for marginalized groups to exist and protest. The anthem of hela hela ho itself, seen by some feminists as problematic in its use of the female body as a curse to the person intended, has been altered by feminist to a direct curse against Bassil and the president who has been reduced in this alternative chant to his “father-in-law.”

Other “sacreds” have fallen too in this revolution. Since the beginning of the uprisings, universities have suspended classes pending the developing situation, and most if not all Lebanese schools have been closed. The streets have become the classroom at a time when traditional centers/places of authority are being removed or perhaps reduced in power. Traditional centers of knowledge such as schools and universities are no longer the ones monopolizing knowledge production. The streets are deciding who gets to speak and who is to be heard; learning is being democratized. 

The disruption of regular movement and activities as well as people’s constant presence in the streets and different squares, has also transformed them into places of worship; people are praying and listening to mass in the streets. Demands for a civil personal status law and the graffiti on the streets of Lebanon calling for the fall of religious authorities also contributes to the transition of authority and centers of knowledge from traditional religious institutions to the streets.

One of the most obvious and yet most celebrated desecration has been the people’s reclaiming of public spaces. After the civil war ended in 1990, successive governments in Lebanon have systematically transformed Beirut from its former status a relatively inclusive and open city welcoming of Lebanese from all walks to life to a posh and exclusive area for the affluent. Most Lebanese are unable to dine in any of the restaurants, spend nights at any of the hotels, shop for clothes or jewelry at any of the stores or even imagine Beirut’s old charm and past that flourished on as a space for all Lebanese. The protestors reclaimed Beirut’s stolen properties, the real estate that was predominantly taken over illegally by the company Solidere in downtown Beirut and the coastal public property that has also been illegally occupied by companies in liaison with the corrupt political and economic elite. Protestors broke down the physical and psychological barriers to reclaim the many empty spaces literally and figuratively by occupying empty real estate in martyr’s square, holding public discussions in the ‘egg’ building, and having their dinners from newly setup street vendors.  Graffiti artists have also reclaimed public spaces by taking to the cement walls of Beirut that have become their canvases.

A New Hope

The splendor of the leaderless uprising turned revolution in Lebanon is not just its spontaneity, but rather the momentous, strong, and collective exposure of the multiple and overlapping voices that, although existed, are now being heard in the main streets and squares of the country.  These are the voices of women and for women’s rights, voices for a secular and inclusive state, voices for just and equal economic development, and voices for a democratic and representative political system.

The level of political engagement and awareness across sectarian, ideological, gender, and socioeconomic lines inject new hope in Lebanon. The barriers of fear and the sacred that the political and religious elite have sustained to rule between factions in Lebanon are being shattered piece by piece in the rave parties, public forums for deliberation and classrooms, collective work between unions and universities, music concerts, and food festivals.

The wider consequences of the Lebanese Intifada turned revolution are hard to outline and might not translate into actions that immediately overhaul the archaic, patriarchal, and sectarian infested political system. But we know that revolutions are messy processes that require patience, resilience, and determination. This revolutionary moment that erupted on 17 October 2019 truly marks the beginning of a new chapter in the modern history of Lebanon. This chapter is being written by the people in the streets and for generations to come. Whatever happens, there is no turning back to what was before Thursday, 17 October 2019.

  – Via Jadaliyya.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Karam, Jeffrey G.“The Lebanese Intifada: Observations and Reflections on Revolutionary Times .” , November 10, 2019.