Last September, sports fans in Lebanon awaited the beginning of the Lebanese football championship. Naturally, when each championship begins, competition between the teams intensifies and quarrels between supporters appear on social media and occasionally in the stands. But this year, the most remarkable thing was that in the stadiums, signboards appeared bringing social issues to the stands. Supporters of the Nejmeh team raised a sign reading “If the people go hungry, they eat their rulers”, while Al-Ansar supporters similarly raised another reading “Poverty is a sharp sword, [so] have mercy on the slaves’ pockets”.
This change reflects the emergence of the expression of social grievance by Lebanese people outside [more typical or expected] spaces such as unions and civil society organizations.
Of course, the current scene is among the most beautiful that Lebanon has witnessed, but it is also one of the most delicate as the current mobilizations are a moment that will lay the foundation for a coming stage whose features are not yet clear.
Undoubtedly, there is no point in saying – as some from the ruling class are trying to market – that these protests are directed only against a three-year-old presidency, or against the current government, or against the political class that ruled on the eve of the Taif Agreement. In actuality, what is now happening is a total rejection of the post-Taif system and composition of government (and not necessarily the Taif Agreement itself).
The Cornerstones of the Post-Taif System
Readings differ, each in accordance with its position, over the pillars of the post-war system and the causes of the crises it produces. Some people say that the system’s problem lies exclusively in sectarianism, the underlying flaw. Others say that the primary flaw lies in weapons and the state’s loss of control over legitimate violence. Others say that the biggest problem lies in the economic and fiscal policies for which former prime minister Rafic Hariri laid the foundations, as well as the sectarian quota sharing that accompanied them.
In reality, the post-Taif system, which was engineered by the ruling class and ensured that it would continue to govern till today, is the result of the correlation of three complementary factors: physical or psychological violence, control over capital and the economy as well as the state’s resources, and control over societal perceptions via the political class’ domination over discourse. What helped perpetuate these factors was the politicians’ ability to divide roles among themselves, either via agreement (from 1990 to 2005) or via obstruction (from 2005 to 2019).
The common denominator during these periods is the complete control over governance via the total elimination of the possibility of being held accountable by the people. This was achieved via an array of mechanisms, some existing in laws and others existing in practice.
Successive laws gradually entrenched the immunity of the ruling class. Examples include the Amnesty Law, which provided it with amnesty not only for the murders and bombings it had committed during the war but also, albeit indirectly, the financial deals and corruption it committed (such as smuggling and arms dealing), as well as the unfair electoral regulations.
Besides the legal system, the most significant thing that helped totally remove the concept of accountability was the elimination of any boundaries between the private and public sectors. In practice, this formula did not allow the development of accountability mechanisms regarding reconstruction or control over and occupation of public properties, for example. Those who have the right to effect accountability are the same people who should be held accountable (among the numerous examples is the garbage issue and the coalescence between the Sukleen company and former prime minister Rafic Hariri).
While the ruling class together was succeeding in eliminating the concept of accountability, it was developing mechanisms to control the state institutions and their decisions. Hence, the state became a resource for politicians to distribute services to citizens (jobs and appointments in the state). Similarly, control was asserted over the government’s decisions via violence (Hezbollah’s “Black Shirts” and the fighting on 7 May 2008). Thus, the state was subordinated to the interests of the ruling class and therefore gradually separated from society.
In this context, social disparities in Lebanon increased: the poor became poorer, and the rich became richer. The powerful became more powerful, and the citizen lacked justice. However, for several reasons, these disparities never emerged into the open in a manner that constituted a break between the ruling class and the people. These reasons include that the ruling class was always able to convince the people that the state is “absent” and society’s problems stem more from regional challenges than from the misadministration of public affairs.
“The State’s Weakness” and the System’s Strength
In effect, since Taif, a discourse based on portraying the state as weak and unable to reconstruct or defend Lebanon has emerged. Hence, we resort to contracting out the state’s basic functions to other actors, the same ones that were represented in the representative institutions (the government and Parliament).
Consequently, the state was no longer an important component in the administration of society’s affairs and did not form into a source of justice for citizens. Clientelist and sectarian allegiances of all kinds took root. Society’s future became a part of the future and pillars of the system, and the future of the system was linked to the marginalization of the state.
Alongside the portrayal of the state as weak, the domination over discourse developed via the externalization of Lebanon’s problems and their placement exclusively into the framework of regional policies and challenges. From this perspective, the priority, according to the ruling class, is confronting external challenges, whether they be the conflict with Israel or the effort to get rid of Syrian tutelage. After Israel and Syria left Lebanon (in 2000 and 2005, respectively), the conflict was portrayed, via this domination, as one between the March 14 Alliance and the March 8 Alliance. Society was thereby divided culturally between those who “love life” and those who “love death” (i.e. the resistance to Israel), between the “collaborators” with Israel and those who “resist”, between the axis of “naturalization” and the axis of “opposition”. All these dichotomies prevented the development of a political discourse that casts lights on the state’s defects. Hence, public policies pertaining to the citizen’s vital, social, and economic demands were intentionally postponed.
While controlling society’s perceptions, the ruling class continued making deals that accumulated its wealth, blatantly disregarding its responsibilities toward society. Hence, the interests of the ruling class diverged from the needs of society.
Facing the economic crises and fearing the Lebanese lira’s collapse, society became increasingly concerned about and fearful for its economic future. At the same time, services and foreign funding benefiting the pillars of the ruling authority dwindled, and the economy receded, causing the citizens’ living conditions to deteriorate to the extent that the previous clientelist networks were no longer enough to meet their needs.
Hence, a government decision to tax WhatsApp – an inherently free service – was enough to spark the unprecedented popular protests. The issue is not about WhatsApp so much as it is about a blatant expression of how public affairs are administered. In practice, the government sells what belongs to the people. The same mechanism applies to several sectors, e.g. the selling of public spaces (selling the sidewalks via valet parking), the selling of the shore, and the abandonment of forestry.
Social Issues: The System’s Achilles’ Heel?
Of course, this is not the first time that the Lebanese have taken action for the sake of economic and social demands. In reality, in the post-war period, Lebanon has long witnessed sporadic social protests in which several groups (such as teachers and the transport sector) demanded improvement to their subsistence rights. At several stages, Lebanon has also witnessed waves of demonstrations against the policies and reforms pursued by the various governments (Paris 1 and 2 and Cedar 1). While these sectors achieved some of their demands (e.g. in the wage battle), analyzing these movements indicates that they faced three fundamental obstacles:
“The sectarian specter”, i.e. the role that sectarianism plays in dismantling the movements and the fanciful fear from sectarian fighting (the “Bring Down the Sectarian System” campaign).
The absence or weakness of the unions. Since the end of the war, the ruling authority has endeavored to dismantle and subjugate them. Hence, in practice, they have become subordinate to the authority and less like structures for defending the rights and demands of the groups that belong to them.
The protests’ inability to link their economic demands to larger reform issues (such as the quality of education in the public universities). Similarly, they were unable to mobilize the broader street in support of their causes. They demanded “gains” rather than comprehensive reform of the sectors.
One direct result of these challenges was that no coherent body (such as a union, party, or board) that negotiates with the ruling authority in society’s name took form. Rather, the authority endeavored to exploit this fragmentation to negotiate with each side individually. Subsequently, it was virtually impossible to link these groups together (e.g. judges and secondary school teachers) and lay the foundations for a cross-sectarian, cross-regional movement that advocates and achieves universal demands (such as old age security, from which all citizens would benefit).
Presently and at first glance, the current protests seem to have overcome these fundamental challenges and issues. Here are the various social classes taking to the street to express their economic and social grievances in a spectacle that stands out among movements of the post-Taif period, if not since independence. There are two reasons for this:
The protests are not restricted to Beirut, i.e. Lebanon’s economic and political center. The other regions are witnessing protests too. Lebanon has had previous experiences [involving protests outside Beirut], such as the demonstrations that Musa al-Sadr led before the Civil War in the regions suffering from destitution (Baalbek). However, this is the first time that the regions have taken action simultaneously and stood in solidarity together.
The current protests have expanded to encompass the broadest array of personal grievances and causes aimed at achieving rights and demands. The protests have, since day one, been an outlet and place for individuals to express the problems they face in their daily life, as well as rights-related and collective demands. They all coexist and find representation without exclusion or stigma. However, we must also mention that this moment has not also comprehended or found a space for Lebanon’s foreign residents (refugees and foreign workers), who are among the most harmed economically, socially, and politically by the current system, even though several chants in support of them emerged from the activists.
After days of continuous protest in the street and blundering by the political class, the most important thing that this unprecedented moment in Lebanese history achieved is the breaking of that class’ domination over perceptions and discourse and the emergence of the state as a true demand for all the groups present in the street. It has now become possible for Lebanese men and women to imagine a future independent of those who spoke in their name for so many years. This was very evident from the portrayal of the ruling authority as one body via the claim “all of them means all of them”.
“All of Them Means All of Them”: The Solution and the Problem?
In 2015, at the height of the popular movement resulting from the garbage crisis, the slogan “all of them means all of them” – i.e. all the ruling class is responsible for the conditions that Lebanon has reached – was used. This was the first sign that part of the domination over perceptions was beginning to crumble. At the time, this slogan constituted both the solution and the problem. It was the solution because it portrayed the ruling authority as one body (which is one of the hardest challenges in Lebanon as unlike in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the authority is not limited to one person). It was the problem because it did not unite all Lebanese as not everyone agreed that it encompasses all the ruling parties.
What is happening today seems to have overcome this issue. The slogan “all of them means all of them” seems to have encompassed everyone (until further notice). The conflict in society has thereby transformed from a horizontal one – a section of the political class alongside a section of the people against another section of this class alongside another section of the people – into a conflict between the people and the ruling authority. Therefore, the politicians are trying hard to get the demonstrators not to include them in this slogan. However, their efforts so far have been less effective than those in 2015.
Of course, this does not preclude that this slogan could still bear both the solution and the obstacle. While the solution is the notion of the authority becoming a single body, the slogan could at some point “anonymize the perpetrator”. In other words, in this moment of anger and grievances, anyone suffering from the economic crisis can easily adopt the movement because it does not call things by their true names. The greatest challenge is moving on to the stage of charging individuals and parties with responsibility, party by party and individual by individual (from Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement to Marcel Ghanem and Riad Salamé). This is gradually developing in the discourse of the various squares and places where the actions are occurring (in front of the Banque du Liban, for example).
It may be too early to interpret the popular protests as a class-based, cross-sectarian movement, meaning that it constitutes a rejection of and break from primary allegiances and clientelist networks and lays the foundation for class consciousness. In actuality, that would become evident not via an immediate, circumstantial analysis of the protests and those participating in them but via the frameworks and infrastructures that the protests will produce (should they be produced) and that will take up the demands in the coming months or days. Only at that point will we know whether we have moved on to a class struggle, or whether we will return to old structural frameworks in Lebanese society (such as the family and the sect), or whether other kinds of structures will form. It may also be too early to say whether the protesters’ demands will be achieved, whether they be toppling “the system”, the presidency, or the government under this presidency or applying the various laws that help combat corruption and recover stolen funds.
However, the greatest gain so far is that the Lebanese have realized and demonstrated that they are far more committed to the state than the ruling class claims. The second gain is that the street has, so far, broken that class’ domination over discourse. In effect, one of the three elements that perpetuates the system has been shaken. So what is to be done about the violence and control over resources?
The path is long, but the gains are great.
Keywords: Lebanon, Protests, Taif, Ruling class