On October 17, 2019, the Lebanese cabinet met amid a rapidly deteriorating financial situation and catastrophic forest fires ravaging the country. During this now infamous meeting, the government decided to impose a number of new tax measures, including a tax on WhatsApp and other internet calling. When the news broke, it sparked an unprecedented uprising that changed the country and marked the start of a revolutionary process that is still ongoing.
Echoing the mass movements of the Arab uprisings of 2011, the Lebanese people demanded the fall of the regime. However, the protesters not only called for the overthrow of a dictator, as in other Arab countries, but demanded the dismantling of the entire neoliberal regime and its use of sectarianism to co-opt and suppress progressive political movements.
Two million protest
When the new taxes were announced, protesters first mobilized in Beirut, blocking roads with burning tires. The movement quickly spread across the country, with thousands of people united in anger against the government and the entire ruling class. Within hours, the country was paralyzed by protesters blocking roads and declaring the start of a revolution.
Mass mobilizations are not new in Lebanon. In 2012, public sector workers and teachers in private schools mobilized through the Union Coordination Committee, as did thousands of people who protested in 2015 during the garbage crisis, when the government failed. to find a solution of waste management after the closure of the Na’ameh landfill. October 2019, however, was different in terms of scale, scope and composition. Unlike the movements that preceded the end of the 1990 civil war, the October uprising simultaneously mobilized large numbers of people in all parts of the country. At one point, there were around two million protesters out of a population of 4.8 million.
This was not made up of the usual bourgeois militants and their circles; nor was it just a mobilization of workers and officials. For the first time in post-war Lebanon, opposition to the regime brought together poor, working-class and middle strata of society, many from the usual constituencies of the sectarian political parties that rule the country. In a clear turn against traditional rulers, the October uprising declared its rejection of a political system ruled by sectarian patronage, supported by the absence of a welfare state or a fair distribution of wealth.
The uprising opened a new political chapter in which politics could no longer be discussed without acknowledging the existence of a significant part of society opposed to the ruling elite. While the first wave of Arab uprisings emerged in autocratic countries where regimes were embodied by figures of individual dictators, the political system in Lebanon is multi-headed and known as a sectarian “consociational democracy”, despite an obvious lack of democracy.
By grouping all the politicians under the slogan “Kellon Ya’ne Kellon” (Everything means everything), the Lebanese demonstrators expressed a rejection of the whole regime and the ruling elites. In addition, the uprising has focused heavily on attacking the country’s central bank and the private banking sector. By mobilizing against both politicians and bankers, the movement actively opposed a neoliberal sectarian system dividing people by identity in order to rule them.
Lack of direction
In early 2020, the Lebanese government admitted that a fifth of the population lived in extreme poverty (defined as surviving on less than $ 4 a day), having more than doubled in a year. The World Bank and other estimates have warned that figure could rise to 40 to 70 percent unless a solution is found to the financial crisis. For the regime, this required increased police and military repression, as well as violence by militia thugs, to quell the protests. With protest fatigue and an unclear strategic vision, it had the desired effect. And if the absence of a defined leadership was a strength at the start, allowing as many people as possible to join the movement, the lack of organization and political vision – as well as the rejection of emerging ones – finally played a role. a detrimental role role.
The material conditions for a strong opposition with clear leadership did not exist because Lebanon has experienced more than three decades of decline in the required structures and organizations of civil society. There has also been a systematic weakening of trade union organizations and unions, in addition to a sharp decline in membership of most left-wing political parties and movements. Under such circumstances, there were no groups that could serve as the scaffolding of the revolution and lead the political transition desired by the masses.
In this context, as the economic crises worsened further towards a full-fledged financial collapse – with the decline in the value of the currency and exponential inflation – the revolution entered a phase of decline in early 2020. A new one technocratic government was formed by the ruling elites. While some interpreted the absence of key figures from the old regime as a victory, others argued that it was just a puppet in the hands of the same former ruling lords.
The Covid-19 reached Lebanon at the end of February 2020. In a context of declining street politics and revolutionary groups still in the process of repositioning themselves, containment has been imposed. Taking the opportunity, the government rushed to end the sit-ins and remove the tents that had filled squares across the country. Under the pretext of a pandemic, the security state has stepped up its crackdown on activists and journalists.
Ultimately, as casual / informal workers could not afford to stay at home in the absence of government support, foreclosure became an impossibility. Gradually, the economic situation overshadowed the pandemic and people returned to the streets to protest their dire conditions. The enormous social transformations caused by currency devaluation and hyperinflation have altered class relations with dramatic speed. A large part of the middle classes found themselves in poverty. It was feared that a real famine was looming.
On August 4, 2020, when the Lebanese population was already depleted by poverty, lack of electricity and water, and shortages of fuel and wheat, large areas of central Beirut were torn apart when a huge amount of ammonium nitrate exploded in a warehouse at the port.
Almost a third of the Lebanese capital was demolished in one of the biggest explosions in recent history. More than 200 people have died, 6,000 have been injured and around 300,000 have been displaced. The period following the explosion saw a major mobilization on August 8 and, once again, protesters faced intense state repression. Since then, smaller, sporadic protests have taken place, but the hustle and bustle and huge crowds of 2019 are no longer there.
In a clear change from the optimistic and peaceful protests of 2019, the political mood in the aftermath of the explosion is steeped in anger and despair. Today, the walls of Beirut are full of graffiti declaring: “We do not want responsibility, we will take our revenge”. While the first anniversary of the revolution mobilized only a few thousand across the country, violent clashes and armed looting have become commonplace. At this crossroads in the history of Lebanon, Gramsci’s words have never sounded so premonitory: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and that the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. It remains to be seen whether the Lebanese uprising will follow similar patterns to those seen in the region since the Arab uprisings of 2011, or whether the sectarian consociational nature of its regime will produce a new plethora of “disease symptoms.”
Rima majed is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut. This article originally appeared in issue 230, published in December 2020