Lebanon, August 2015: Notes on Paralysis, Protests, and Hope
by Maya Mikdashi
The past ten years in Lebanon have been a study in political paralysis and escalating anger and frustration among citizens and residents of the country. To recap only the most basic of facts, since 2005 the country divided and polarized into two “camps”—March 14 and March 8, led by the Future Movement and Hezbollah, respectively. In these ten years there has been a war with Israel, armed clashes between these two camps, and a series of political assassinations. These years have also brought the military destruction of a refugee camp (Nahr Al-Bared), armed clashes between the army and Islamists in Saida and Tripoli, a war in Syria that has again polarized the population, a series of bombings by radical Islamist groups across the country, and an ongoing war against ISIS in the north of the country. Lebanon has become a front in the international war on terror, according to the US, Israel, and the Lebanese government. Politicians have failed to form governments, leading to power vacuums and a series of caretaker governments and the degradation of government services and institutions. There has been a presidential vacuum for over fourteen months, and Parliament has illegally extended its own term twice so far. In short, there is no legitimately elected political representation in the country.
The number of citizens residing in Lebanon is approximately four million. In addition to these citizens, there are over two million refugees from Syria, Palestine, Sudan and Iraq currently struggling to live under conditions of structural impoverishment and segregation. There are hundreds of thousands of migrant and domestic laborers also struggling to live in Lebanon, often under structural conditions of servitude. Over thirty percent of Lebanese citizens live at or below the poverty line, and a sliver of the population control the majority of spending power. The sharpest line dividing the population of Lebanon is not sect, as many (and certainly politicians) would argue, but class.
During these ten years one thing has remained constant: corruption, cronyism, nepotism and ineptitude at the government level. Corruption and cronyism—in addition to liberal and, later, neoliberal economic policies and patriarchal masculinism— are in fact what unites the political class. The history of this ruling ideology—and its manifestations as sectarian discourse—is as old as the Lebanese state itself. In fact, sectarian discourse has been the cloak behind which politicians hide their unified stance when it comes to their parasitic relationship to the state and its citizens. Lebanese politicians have for years proven that corruption knows no sect, no political party, and no ideology.
For the past week protestors have been clashing with riot police and armed forces in downtown Beirut. Thousands of citizens and residents were galvanized into participation when footage of police brutality at a protest on August 19, 2015 went viral. Since that day, there have been almost daily protests bringing up to fifteen thousand people to downtown Beirut in order to protest political and economic corruption and the dismal state of public services in Lebanon. Almost five hundred protestors have been injured by the brutality of the armed forces and received medical attention since the protests began. Every day people go to meet the securitized face of the state: brutal men armed with guns, barbed wire, water cannons and batons. These men (and a few women) in uniform are the representations and protectors of an even more brutal political and economic system. In spite of this, protestors in Lebanon have proven that the state does not control the streets. The political class has failed in its aim to control hearts, minds, and fists.
The lack of basic services in Lebanon, including running potable water, sewage, communications, electricity, and garbage pickup, has a long history. The the criminal negligence of the state was exacerbated by the 1975-1990 civil war and the subsequent political settlements, in addition to periodic Israeli air raids. No government has ever succeeded in providing reliable and affordable public services to the entire country. Only the rich (including the politicians) can fully circumvent the lack of public goods and resources in Lebanon. The majority of the population lives and suffers through daily electricity cuts, water shortages, exorbitant phone and internet prices. Even the rich, however, cannot avoid the toxic and mountainous trash buildups throughout the country.
The protests of today were born out of frustration and anger over the trash buildup in Beirut and Lebanon in July 2015. During this month garbage collection stopped in Beirut as citizens and residents successfully closed a landfill that had been dangerously filled to over capacity. This landfill that began functioning in 1997 as a “temporary” solution to Lebanon’s garbage. In 2014 the government had made promises to find an alternative when residents previously blocked access to the landfill, but no action was taken. The government failed to find a solution. In July 2015, after the garbage had not been picked up in Beirut for weeks, the government began trucking and dumping this trash to and in towns and municipalities around Beirut without the consent (or sometimes knowledge) of the residents of those municipalities. The country, quite literally, was turned into a mass garbage dump by the inactions and corruption of the ruling state-business elite. People are living among the waste of the system. The most vulnerable, the homeless (most of them refuges from war torn Syria) are literally living within it.
The mobilization and commitment of today’s protestors grows and builds upon previous networks of activism. These previous movements include “Isqat al-Nizam”, “Take Back Parliament”, anti-sectarian and civil marriage movements, and feminist activism against domestic violence, police negligence, and female second class citizenship. In addition, in recent years labor and teacher union strikes— in addition to electricity workers strikes – have mobilized thousands of participants in recent years.
Each protest is increasingly larger and more diverse than its predecessor, and is met with escalating violence by armed forces. Initially organized by the YouStink movement, the protest movement has grown out of their control. And that is perhaps a good thing: everyone in Lebanon is affected, even if unevenly so, by the lack of basic public services. In order for this uprising to succeed in its stated goals—the resignation of the current caretaker government— mass mobilization is required. And herein lies the glitch: Lebanon is a country ridden with class and sectarian tension, phobia, and bias. A politics of respectability urges non-violence, nationalist chanting, and is generally tied to the ngo-ization of civil society and of activism in Lebanon. Within this discourse of respectability violence, swearing, and the destruction of public property are considered illegitimate actions. Importantly, these discourses of respectability and vulgarity are classed and gendered, as Paul Amar has argued in the case of Egypt and Brazil. In Lebanon, these discourses also intersect with sectarianism, such that groups of young men with covered faces throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails at police are immediately assumed to belong to a particular class, sect, and form of masculinity. They are assumed to blindly follow the orders of sectarian leadership, in this case those of the president of parliament and leader of the Shiite Amal movement, Nabih Berri. They are the purported zombie army of sectarianism, the danger that will befall the country if the system of rule is removed.
Lebanese media pose these young men as “hooligans” or “dogs,” in diametrical opposition to the non-sectarian, educated, independent thinking, middle class and non-violent protestors. The license given to armed forces to break their bones and bodies is more generous than the license given regarding the bones of “peaceful protestors.” These are discourses on masculinity that proliferate across borders in the twinned eras of the war on terror and of neoliberal securitization. They intersect and traffic alongside discourses on sectarianism, masculinity and violence in Lebanon.
Perhaps there are infiltrators within the movement, whether the police send them or this or that political/sectarian party sends them. But if there are infiltrators, they are representing the entire system of corruption and unaccountability that unites the entire political class. No amount of “violent instigation” can explain the hundreds of injuries the police have inflicted on protestors. Blaming protestors for “instigating violence” while facing down riot cops carrying guns and batons is akin to blaming stone throwing youth in Palestine for the disproportionate responses of the Israeli army. It misplaces the responsibility of violence and gives a discursive alibi to disproportionate state violence. The corruption and negligence of the state and ruling elite, tied to the extreme class polarization and segregation throughout the country, must be understood as forms of structural violence in and of themselves. The author of the violence manifesting itself on Lebanon’s streets today is clear, and it is not the protestors.
Many on the ground protestors and commentators have refused to play into the divide and conquer attitudes of politicians. They have refused the corrosive and overwhelming power of sectarian and class discourses in Lebanon. The protestors have rightfully refused the condescending calls of support by this or that politician, the bickering of the political class over who is to blame and the pointing of fingers. The movement is growing, and there are reports that labor unions may join the protest scheduled for Saturday, August 29. The movement grows with every broken bone or bruised cheek, with every arrest, every detainee gone missing in police custody. With every joke of a “solution” (the latest being the tranformation of akkar, one of the most impoverished of Leabnon’s municipalities, into Beirut’s garbage dump) offered by politicians, the movement fiercer. What started off as a protest movement over basic public services may prove to be much more than even organizers had dared imagine.
Hope is an uncomfortable feeling for many living and breathing the Middle East since the uprisings began in 2010. Hope is a risky investment, and this is no different in Lebanon—a country that has been in a seemingly permanent state of war since its independence in 1943. But for the past week, protestors have succeeded in shattering that stubborn myth about Lebanon: that it is a liberal laissez faire broken state. That Lebanon is the only Arab state where citizens have and exercise the right to protest freely and safely, a state where protestors and police and army exchange flowers and are united in a form of nationalist patriotism. That it is a country held together—hostage and complacent and resigned—by fears of zombie sectarian armies and/or a Islamist apocalypse that will prevail if the current system of power sharing fails.
Protestors have proven that the state and political elites do not control the horizon of political imagination.
The greatest success of today’s protestors is that they have inspired millions both inside and outside of the country. They have broken the ceiling of cynicism and opened a space to imagine alternative political futures for Lebanon. If only for these reasons, there is no going back.