Exploring Political Identity among Supporters of the Lebanese Uprising

2020-11-11    |   

Exploring Political Identity among Supporters of the Lebanese Uprising

On the eve of 12 November 2019, an army intelligence officer shot dead Alaa Abu Fakhr in front of his wife and son in the area of Khaldeh south of Beirut. Abu Fakhr was very active in the protests and roadblocks of the October 17 Revolution and occupied a position in the Progressive Socialist Party, one of the country’s governing sectarian parties.[1] Following his death, Abu Fakhr became a martyr in the eyes of revolutionaries across the country and protestors were quick to point out that his political affiliation did not prevent him from being critical towards his party nor from actively participating in the revolution.[2]

The case of Abu Fakhr sheds light on the issue of complex political identities. His case was one of the rare instances where the revolution acknowledged an identity that not only transcends the binary of revolution versus sectarian, but combines both. His complex political identity was reflected during his two funeral ceremonies: the first was organized by the Progressive Socialist Party and the second by protestors in Martyrs’ Square. 

In most cases, individuals who support governing sectarian parties are regarded by the revolutionaries as antagonists to the revolution, ‘infiltrators’, or ‘wave riders’ exploiting the movement solely for the sake of their party’s interests. Since its eruption, revolutionaries have established a mechanism of inclusion/exclusion, drawing the lines between who’s ‘inside’ their ranks and who’s ‘outside’. Affiliation or support to one of the governing sectarian parties served as a main axis to demarcate these lines.

Given the lack of studies exploring this kind of multiple loyalty, this article looks into the grey area where individuals who supported or still support governing sectarian parties participated in the October 17 Revolution. Before diving any further into the subject, it is essential to define what is meant by ‘governing sectarian parties’, or ‘sectarian parties’ for short: they are the sectarian parties that have been in power from 1990 until the eruption of the revolution. In terms of methodology, interviews were conducted with ten individuals who supported or were formally affiliated with one of these parties (at least up until 17 October 2019) and who participated in the revolution.

The names of all interviewees have been changed for anonymity and they fall into the following three categories: individuals who quit or distanced themselves from their party since the revolution: Gaby (Lebanese Forces), Hassan (Amal Movement), Sayed (Marada Movement), and Khaled (previous supporter of a za’im [leader] in Tripoli[3]); those who stopped protesting and retreated to their parties: Karl and Rita (both supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement); and those who are still active in both the revolution and their party: Jad (affiliated with the Lebanese Forces), Lara (affiliated with the Progressive Socialist Party), Rym (supporter of Hassan Nasrallah), and Rania (affiliated with the Future Movement). These individuals, regardless of their varied, complex relationships with their parties, will be referred to as ‘sectarian partisans’ for the sake of this article.

An Attractive Revolution Leaves Sectarian Partisans in Anxiety

Since its first days, the revolution managed to attract a section of sectarian partisans. These individuals were in the crowded squares feeling the ecstasy of this collective experience, or in the tents listening and engaging in the debates and alternative ideas that were raised by protestors. The revolution – as a meeting space and intellectual experience – shook their political beliefs.

Motives Behind Protesting: Beyond ‘Riding the Wave’

The interviews show that the motives that pushed sectarian partisans to take to the streets were not necessarily different from non-affiliated protestors. Deteriorating living conditions were the main reason Rym and Hassan joined the revolution. “We took to the streets because we were hungry, because we were asking for our right that was wasted years ago and they (the Amal movement) were not taking care of us,” said Hassan. Other interviewees have a long history of civic activism like Lara who has been active in several social movements and campaigns. As a result, when she saw a public invitation by a civil society group to protest on October 17 it felt natural for her to join. 

Another motive was emphasized by Jad, Rita, and Karl: all three highlighted the participation of their close friends, who are independent from all parties, as a main motive for taking to the streets. “I was encouraged to participate when I saw pure people with good intentions that are close to me participating,” said Karl. This highlights the important role that social relations and networks play in the participation of individuals in social movements, a role that can be even more important than the demands raised by the movement.

A ‘Big Bang’ in the Mental Universe of Sectarian Partisans

The participation of sectarian partisans in the protests and the discussions in the tents alongside other protestors has redefined the interviewees’ political horizons. The revolution made them question many of the approaches, ideas, and perceptions that were entrenched in their minds. As a result, sectarian partisans were left in a state of anxiety.

The revolution offered itself as a new means to achieve change, compromising the sectarian partisans’ belief that their party is the sole way to do so. Karl described the revolution as a “reality slap” saying that it “not only made me re-question, it broke something in my mind I thought was impossible”. He explained that he never thought of protests as an effective way to make any change, until the revolution came and proved him wrong. Others, like Jad, saw in the revolution hope for political change after he saw partisans detaching from their parties in different areas of Lebanon. Although Jad had a very consistent narrative throughout the interview, when asked if he also hailed the detachment of partisans from his own party (the Lebanese Forces), he seemed a bit confused: “I don’t know, maybe if I leave my party I would have a bigger impact. Some people are experiencing a state of schizophrenia and I’m one of them. When I sit down with people from the Lebanese Forces I ask myself, what am I still doing with them?”

Moreover, the protests as a meeting space and collective experience allowed some interviewees to envision a future that was not possible prior to October 17. Gaby, who quit the Lebanese Forces, was very descriptive about his experience protesting in Tripoli with people from different social classes and religious sects. “Everything was somehow homogeneous, it was crazy. The scene convinced me that we can actually build the society that they [the Lebanese Forces] have been saying is impossible for the last 30 years”.

As for Khaled, he was influenced by the ideas and demands raised by the revolution through his daily participation in the discussions that took place in the tents of Al-Nour Square in Tripoli. Specifically, his perception of what he called a “civil government” (as opposed to a sectarian government) changed. He explained that he was one of the strongest opponents to the establishment of a civil state in Lebanon, but after the tent discussions explained what it really meant and its different aspects, he changed his mind: “I liked the idea, that if we take a distance from religions we become free.” Moreover, the revolution was a source of information and shed light on facts about corruption. Rita, a supporter of the Free Patriotic Movement, said: “I see the revolution as criticizing a corruption issue, I talk to them [her party] and ask them, “Why weren’t you against it before?” and they tell me we were against it and send videos to prove it. I shut up, I don’t know what to argue about anymore”. She then added with a sarcastic smile: “You don’t know what to believe anymore”.

Criticisms of the Revolution Through the “All of Them Means All of Them” Slogan

Interviewees gradually developed a critical view towards the revolution that drove them away from it and, for some, it led to the end of their participation. The criticism of the main slogan “All of them means all of them” reveals the deeper criticism of the “unrealistic” and “naïve” approach of a revolution that seemed so attractive at first. Most interviewees portray themselves as wise and “pragmatic” given their experience in politics, thus enabling them to draw the line between achievable goals and romanticized slogans.

The slogan “All of them means all of them” emerged during the 2015 “You Stink” movement that erupted as a result of the garbage crisis that the country was witnessing. Back then, what protestors meant by the slogan was that all the ruling class was responsible for the extent of the crisis in the country,, but this failed to garner public consensus.[4] Since its first night, the October 17 Revolution used this same slogan but, unlike in 2015, there was a portrayal of a vertical struggle between (all) “the people” on one hand and (all) the ruling class on the other.[5] Protestors across Lebanon were chanting “All of them means all of them” in the sense that they wanted to bring down the corrupt clientelist system.

A Hijacked Revolution?

Several interviewees raised the issue of the slogan being selective since it does not really encompass all political elites. Lara, referring to some fellow partisans in the Progressive Socialist Party, said: “They have a problem with the slogan… there are a lot of partisans who protest against all of them except their za’im”. Others expressed their concerns about the participation of some sectarian parties in the revolution, notably the Lebanese Forces, the Phalangist Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, and the Future Movement. “These parties can’t be more shameless! People are protesting against them,” was Rym’s comment. Rita and Karl stopped protesting because they felt like the revolution was hijacked by the sectarian parties mentioned above. “They have a political agenda and a target,” said Karl, referring to his party, the Free Patriotic Movement, as the targeted actor. Rita and Karl also believe that the sectarian parties participating are behind campaigns on social media attacking their party. They blame revolutionaries for “falling into the trap” by blindly sharing the content of these programmed campaigns.

The Revolutionaries’ “Unrealism” Versus the Sectarian Partisans’ “Pragmatism”

The most recurrent argument in the interviews about “All of them means all of them” is that although it can be attractive theoretically, it is unrealistic. Karl portrayed the revolutionaries as an angry mob who have had enough, as if their anger blurred their sense of realism since it cannot be applied and their sense of justice since it is “unfair to ‘clean’ politicians”. He believes there should be a compromise between their “unrealistic” slogan stemming from anger on the one hand, and the requirements of justice and realism on the other: “People are angry and they don’t care who stole a lot and who stole a little and who didn’t steal… We should meet in the middle and get over the expression “All of them means all of them”, we should take all the measures to hold all politicians accountable and, in the end, it will show that it’s not all of them who are to blame”.

The interviewees’ arguments that the revolutionaries can be unrealistic went way beyond the slogan discussed. For Rym and Rita the revolution should have stuck to its socio-economic demands. “They want to change everything with the press of a button,” said Rym. Another recurring criticism was the lack of unity between demands raised by protestors, as if this lack is an indicator that the revolution is incapable of evolving into a serious political power. Moreso, four interviewees had commented on protestors “who were never involved in politics”[6] and were protesting for the first time during the revolution. These protestors were portrayed by interviewees as individuals who “were in a coma”[7] before October 17 and “didn’t used to vote and only go out to drink and smoke shisha”.[8] These protestors “woke up and now want to bring down all politicians,” said Jad sarcastically. Here manifests an implicit comparison of legitimacy between partisans on one hand and the ‘beginners’ on the other, as if partisans are disregarding the latter’s legitimacy since they, according to Gaby, don’t have any “political awareness”.

Sectarian Partisans Suggest an Alternative Explanation for the Slogan

Based on all the criticisms above, sectarian partisans came up with an alternative interpretation of the slogan: all politicians should be referred to the judiciary and only after they are charged and proven so should they be accused of corruption. According to Karl this alternative interpretation will prevent the alienation of people who support a sectarian party: “The slogan creates tension for a person that maybe wants the same things as the revolution but also believes that his politician is not corrupt. This person would be with the revolution up until he feels like he needs to defend his politician”.

All ten interviews showed a sense of relief towards the alternative explanation of the slogan, specifically to the idea of trying all politicians without any prior condemnation. “Even if Hassan Nasrallah was tried, I don’t mind. And if he comes out clean, I would be very happy,” said his supporter Rym. The judiciary is depicted by interviewees as the legitimate actor to hold politicians accountable, transferring the trial from the ‘prosecution of the people’ on the streets to the judiciary. This same view that is based on the image of an independent judiciary was contradicted by some of the interviewees themselves when they pointed out political interferences in the judiciary. Rita believes that it is impossible to try politicians “with the judges we have today. We need judges that are able to hold them accountable like all other countries”. The interpretation of this contradiction, between legitimizing the judiciary as the sole source of condemnation versus acknowledging its lack of independence and integrity poses the following questions: Is it a sign that sectarian partisans are avoiding any serious prosecution of their politicians? Or is it a contradiction that can be settled by reforming the judiciary before referring the politicians to it, like Rita indicated?

Reactions to the Participation of Sectarian Partisans Leaves Them in Limbo

Despite the fact that the revolution managed to gather a wide array of sections of Lebanese society, sectarian partisans didn’t feel welcome by revolutionaries despite their active participation and their support (to different extents) of the demands raised. The revolutionaries denied pluralism within the base of sectarian parties. This flattened all sectarian partisans into ‘infiltrators’ or ‘wave riders’. Protestors saw that the only way for sectarian partisans to join their ranks is by leaving their parties.

Sectarian Partisans as ‘Infiltrators’: The Denial of Pluralism Inside Parties

Since the first week of protests, the leadership of sectarian parties started exploring different ways of exploiting the revolution for political benefits. Revolutionaries projected the motives of these leaders onto the base of parties, as if the partisans were simply ‘infiltrators’ used as a tool for their leaders’ interest. This depiction of partisans as a monolithic bloc strips them from any autonomy and critical thinking which explains the “sheep” label that was heard frequently in the squares.

It’s common for social movements, in general and in Lebanon specifically, to have a category of protestors portrayed as ‘infiltrators’ in contrast to ‘real’ revolutionaries. The figure of the ‘infiltrator’ resonates with two classical political symbols.[9] The first is the figure of the qabaday, the local gang leader at the service of the za’im in the sectarian clientelist system.[10] The second, from a Marxist perspective, is the “lumpenproletariat” which refers to the category of individuals who are “devoid of political consciousness, available to the highest bidder and always on the bad side”.[11] The revolution’s categorization of ‘infiltrators’ becomes the tool for revolutionaries to flatten out the spectrum inside the base of sectarian parties.

There is no denial that some sectarian partisans participated simply to ‘ride the wave’. What we are trying to highlight here is the problematic depiction of the base of sectarian parties as a monolithic bloc devoid of any political consciousness. Interviewees presented the spectrum of reactions to the revolution inside their party. Gaby laid out some of the categories he finds inside the party that he left, the Lebanese Forces, and their reaction to the revolution:

“There are those who believe Samir Geagea should be worshiped right after God and believe he is right no matter what. There are those who are realistic and know where the Lebanese Forces were right and where they were wrong, but they believe it’s their only option. There are people who were sincere about their participation and not because their party participated… There are those who are shy sitting at home and are afraid to leave the party”.

Moreover Jad, who is still affiliated with the same party, presented similar categories: “There are people who left [the party], people who took a distance [from the party], people who are still with the party to try to reform it before they think about leaving, and there are people who go with whatever the party wants”. The diversity described by Gaby and Jad can be applied to other parties according to other interviews.

The Denial of Complex Political Identities

With drawing the lines of who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ of the revolution based on affiliation to one of the sectarian parties, revolutionaries left no space for a grey area of complex political identities. The interviews offered some of the ways in which these identities can manifest, joining both the “sectarian partisan” and the “revolutionary”. For example Lara, who’s affiliated with the Progressive Socialist Party, doesn’t see any contradiction between her affiliation and her participation in the revolution. For her Kamal Jumblatt, the founder of her party, was the first to raise the demands and slogans raised by protestors today, from abolishing the sectarian political system to holding politicians accountable. “These are the principles of my party so why would I quit it? I stay in my party and ask for the prosecution of Walid Jumblatt like any other politician who was involved in corruption”. Rania strongly believes that there isn’t any conflict between her affiliation to the Future Movement and the revolution: “a person becomes free when he liberates himself from intellectual restriction, not by being affiliated to a party nor the revolution, what’s this have to do with that?” Karl explained that he saw in the revolution a new alternative way of lobbying to achieve demands. He thinks the revolution can act as a pressure group that works in parallel with the efforts of the Free Patriotic Movement to reach demands he thinks are legitimate.

In her research about political identities, Bobbi Gentry argues that political identity and political affiliation are fundamentally different.[12] While “political affiliation is more of a label”, political identity goes beyond to include “how the individual interacts, believes, and behaves”.[13] According to this view, a person can achieve a political identity without being affiliated to a party or be affiliated to a party and still not achieve a political identity.[14] From this perspective, limiting the sectarian partisans to their affiliation doesn’t only mean denying their complex political identities but, even further, it means denying them a political identity altogether.

Ties to Sectarian Parties and Leaders as an Indicator of ‘Backwardness’

Affiliation to one of the sectarian parties became a pivotal boundary in the revolutionaries’ mechanism of inclusion/exclusion. The line drawn relies on the assumption that what links sectarian parties to their partisans are ‘irrational’ emotional ties. In other words, the attraction to the revolution is depicted by its ranks as ‘rational’ since it is based on clear demands and goals, while partisans supposedly follow their leader ‘blindly’. The question of emotions in politics does not lie in the presence or absence of emotions inside sectarian parties, rather that emotions are present in both the revolution and sectarian parties and the issue lies in the ways they manifest and how they are experienced.

During the interviews, supporters showed an emotional aspect to their affiliation. While talking about his za’im, Khaled said: “I have his pictures at home… With time I started loving him even more, I got more attached to him”. Khaled’s speech resonates with Isabelle Rivoal’s ethnographic study on supporters of the Progressive Socialist Party. Rivoal argues that there’s an intimacy between a leader and his partisan that is constructed through social practices and symbols that make the za’im part of his supporters’ daily life.[15] The pictures of Walid Jumblatt in homes become an extension of him in the supporters’ intimate space where they interact with these pictures far from any hierarchy.[16] Jumblatt thus becomes, in their eyes, more of an uncle figure.[17] Supporters know what their leader likes, from favourite activities to favourite dishes, as if they become an extension of him and he becomes an extension of them.[18]

Bruno Lefort discusses the idea of intimacy inside sectarian parties. Specifically, he explains how Michel Aoun managed to build an image of himself as a father figure for his supporters, generating “organic” intimate ties with them that are usually reserved for the family sphere.[19] Based on this view, when protestors call on sectarian partisans to leave their parties, they are asking them to break an intimate tie that they experience with their leader.[20] Khaled mentioned how hard it is to break ties with his za’im that he loves so much using the analogy of a boat: “I feel chained, the boat has been docked for so long so it’s hard to untie the rope. You put water on the rope and it gets a bit looser, then you do that again, and eventually a time comes where you can untie and get rid of the boat completely”.

Moreover, another aspect of emotions was highlighted during the interviews which is the emotional attachment to the party as an institution. Given the long time and effort invested in the party, as well as the social network established through it, an emotional tie to the party – as an institution and social space – is established: “Rationally it’s easy to leave a party but emotionally it’s very difficult. The people who have experience with a party know how hard it is to leave, it means leaving fifteen years of investment of your life”.[21]

Finally, a number of scholars who worked on partisanship in Lebanon argue that affiliation to sectarian parties is based on the attachment to a cause or imagined community that is embodied by the za’im. Lefort believes that one of the main characteristics that makes a za’im is his ability to construct and delimit an imagined community that followers feel like they belong to and can identify with socially and politically.[22] For example, Michel Aoun embodies, in the eyes of his supporters, an imagined community that represents the state (versus the militia) and the “honest people” (versus the thugs).[23] For supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement, leaving their party might not only mean leaving their leader but also letting go of an image they have of themselves.

Revolutionaries Impose a ‘Walk of Shame’ on Sectarian Partisans

In the midst of the denial of pluralism within the base of sectarian parties, the denial of complex political identities, and the oversimplification of partisanship, revolutionaries became more concerned with whether an individual supports a sectarian party or not rather than whether he or she supports the demands they are raising. It seems that revolutionaries imposed a ‘walk of shame’ on sectarian partisans so they could prove their ‘revolutionary’ credentials. The walk of shame manifests in asking sectarian partisans to leave their parties, break their membership cards in public, curse their leaders, and admit that they were wrong to support them. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, these actions would make up a rite of passage for the partisans from the sin of their ‘backward’ sectarian party to the ‘rational’ revolution.

“In the squares they make you feel like this is not your place,” said Rita. Rania also experienced a “campaign of criticism and violent attack” against her from some protestors, while Lara expressed distress at the way she was treated: “What do they [the revolutionaries] want? For me to break my membership card? Curse him [Walid Jumblatt]? We used to get tired of trying to prove to them that we are the real revolution”. Rania sees this approach towards sectarian partisans as “extreme” and accuses revolutionaries of being “radical” given the fact that, in her opinion, they are refusing to accept anyone who does not fully agree with them.

On one hand, the revolutionaries’ approach towards sectarian partisans can generate counter-reactions where these partisans are pushed away from the revolution back to their party: “When someone calls you a sheep you get angry and you want to get back at them so you tell them that they are all rioters, although you know that not all of them are”, said Rita. On the other hand, some sectarian partisans find themselves in limbo between the revolution and their party, which are both criticizing them. Khaled believes that protestors shouldn’t be aggressive towards sectarian partisans, on the contrary they should understand their fear of leaving their party and try to attract them.


In conclusion, the experience and ideas of the revolution triggered changes in the political identities of sectarian partisans where they tried to combine their participation in the movement with their party affiliation. They later developed a critical view towards the revolution which led them to either halting their participation or trying to negotiate their participation by, for example, giving a new interpretation to the “All of them means all of them” slogan. However, in the midst of the rigid lines of inclusion/exclusion being drawn, the partisans did not feel welcome by the revolutionaries. In one of his articles, Samer Frangieh argues that after October 17 sectarian parties have been facing their biggest legitimacy crisis since the end of the Lebanese war. He continues to say that one of the revolution’s main challenges is to come up with a discourse and an approach that is attractive to the partisans that are now “on the edge of their party”. From here the following questions arise: How can revolutionaries distinguish which partisans are “on the edge of their party” if they deny any pluralism within the base of sectarian parties? Does undermining the affiliation to sectarian parties make up a discourse that can attract partisans? Is the ‘walk of shame’ an appealing approach for these partisans? These are questions that the October 17 revolutionaries need to address.


This article is based on four articles originally published in Arabic.


Keywords: Lebanon, October 17, Revolution, Sectarian parties, Sectarian partisans, Partisans, Political identity, Revolutionaries


[1] Secretary of the Choueifat Interior Agency.

[2] Diana Skaini, “Dam ‘Alaa Abu Fakhr Yusheil Khaldeh wa-al-Choueifat… ‘al-Aishtirakiuwn Yandamun ‘ila al-Thawra’”, Annahar, 13 November 2019.

[3] The interviewee requested that the za’im in question not be specified.

[4] Jamil Mouawad, “‘Kulon Ya’ni Kulon’: Bidayat Kasr Haymanat Nizam al-Tayef?”, The Legal Agenda, 27 October 2019.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interview with Gaby (ex-partisan with the Lebanese Forces), 27 February 2020.

[7] Interview with Rita (supporter of the Free Patriotic Movement), 19 February 2020.

[8] Interview with Jad (partisan with the Lebanese Forces), 6 January 2020.

[9] Marie-Noëlle Abiyaghi, Myriam Catusse, and Miriam Younes, “From isqat an-nizam at-ta’ifi to the Garbage Crisis Movement: Political Identities and Antisectarian Movements,” Lebanon Facing The Arab Uprisings, p. 73-91, 26 October 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bobbi Gentry, “Political Identity: Meaning, Measures, and Evidence,” Why Youth Vote, p. 19-48, 3 December 2017.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Isabelle Rivoal, “Intimate Politics: The Art of the Political Relationship in Lebanon,” Anthropology of the Middle East, Volume 9, Issue 1, p. 1-17, 1 March 2014.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Bruno Lefort, “Michel Aoun, ‘Patriarch of the Christian Street’: Leadership, Affect, and Politics of Communalization in Lebanon,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Volume 8, Issue 1, p. 102-123, 1 January 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Interview with Gaby (ex-partisan with the Lebanese Forces), 27 February 2020.

[22] Lefort, “Michel Aoun, ‘Patriarch of the Christian Street’”, op.cit. 

[23] Ibid.


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