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Lara Bitar discusses Lebanon's ongoing protest movement


Protestors head to the demonstration in downtown Beirut on 19 October 2019, the fourth day of the uprising.
Protestors head to the demonstration in downtown Beirut on 19 October 2019, the fourth day of the uprising. Photo: Doha Hassan

Lebanon witnessed its last big protest movement in 2015. Where do you see continuities and differences between the previous and current movements?

There are many people who are trying to delegitimize the current movement by casting doubt over the "spontaneous" nature of this mobilization, hinting at a variety of conspiracies, including foreign agitation. But there is nothing spontaneous about what we are witnessing. This mass mobilization is a continuity of the 2015 “anti-garbage” protests, the 2011 protests against the sectarian system, and the many other movements led by feminists, migrant workers, public sector employees, the families of the disappeared, etc.

It also builds on the foundation of organizing for refugee rights, for the reclamation of the coast, for housing rights, for environmental justice, etc. that has been ongoing for many years. This moment is just an extension of that work—admittingly, on a much larger scale. Lebanon Support recently published an infographic showing the gradual build-up that led us to this moment. In 2017, they tracked 84 collective actions; in 2018, there were 188. Since the beginning of this year until 16 October, there were about 200; and finally, between 17–25 October there were over 300 actions. This demonstrates a clear movement progression caused by growing economic, social, and political grievances.

Lara Bitar is a media worker, editor, and organizer of a nascent independent media workers' collective in Beirut. She has been covering the uprising in Lebanon since 17 October 2019. Find her on Twitter: @larajbitar.

The main difference between the 2015 movement and what some are referring to as the “October Revolution” of 2019 is that the latter is decentralized and nationwide. In 2015 protests were mostly held in downtown Beirut, whereas the demonstrations today are taking place in nearly 400 towns and villages from the north to the south and are shaped by local organizing. Another key difference is that the working class ignited these demonstrations and continues, to a certain extent, to be leading them. In 2015  the liberal middle class set off and led that movement, taking on the mantle and speaking on behalf of the “street”. Today, we have an unequivocal rejection of any type of leadership.

Something I've been very interested in is the wide acceptance of a diversity of tactics today. We see people from varied backgrounds and age groups engaging in sustained direct action (blocking roads, shutting down government offices and banks, and disrupting the work of state-affiliated companies) as opposed to 2015 when the media spent a lot of time lamenting over the shattered glass front of Le Grey[1] after it was broken by the protesters. Finally, since the Taif Agreement in 1989[2] calls for abolishing the sectarian system have never ceased, but today we see a somewhat transformed consciousness, moving away from sectarian-clientelist belonging towards a generalized belonging to a loosely unified precarious class. Furthermore, there has been a lot of swearing going on in the protests, especially in the early days of the uprising, so much so that some political leaders have been speaking out against the level of insults and cursing arising from the street. 

Many of the protesters' grievances have socio-economic underpinnings that have been accumulating for years. What visions for a just, social Lebanon are circulating among the protesters?

Recurring violent attacks by security agencies and different militias have been interrupting the process necessary to establish a collective vision. Sure, conversations by civil society organizations and groups with electoral ambitions are still taking place, but it would be hard to refer to one vision that unites everyone on the street. Clarity is absent, as far as I am aware, since there are some real and irreconcilable differences between the diverse groups of demonstrators. 

There is an agreement, however, on what is to be rejected: the sectarian system, the entire ruling class, neoliberal economic policies, vast wealth inequality, widespread corruption, life without basic services, inadequate access to health care and education, gender inequality (at least for the womens' rights groups), regressive taxes, among other long-standing issues. 

“I am the leader of the revolution” is one of the main slogans of the revolution, alluding to the uprising's leaderless character. Where do you see the advantages of a grassroots, “leaderless” uprising, and where do you think organization is necessary?

There is also “I am the founder of the revolution” and “I am the negotiator of the revolution”. 

What is really interesting to note, first, is how much people have learned from former experiences. The 2015 “leaders” were instrumental in the de-legitimization of that movement. One the one hand, the state and its affiliated media started targeting individual leaders, and one by one led character “assassination”. Campaigns. On the other hand, the (all-male) spokesmen of that movement fell into a trap that was laid out for them, when they started to distance themselves from the so-called “infiltrators”[3] and split the “street” into two, which resulted in a weakening of the movement.  

Today, we see a complete rejection of the so-called leaders, with people going as far as saying that anyone who claims to be one is a traitor. In their speeches, Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and President Michel Aoun both stressed the need to form a leadership capable of negotiating. This recommendation was rejected and viewed (rightly so) with suspicion. This insistence on forming a negotiating body was not proposed in good faith, its sole goal was to find ways to discredit and then blame the body for failing to meet its mission. And for this reason, the response was immediate and clear: “the people make demands,” “the people do not negotiate.” I think it's important to hold on to these two elements of the movement to bring about its radical potential. 

At the same time, it's important to highlight that just because this is a leaderless movement, it does not mean that organizing is not taking place. It happens daily, at a rapid pace, and takes place in majority of the squares, be it over tactics such as road blockades, or long-term strategic planning such as the formation of independent unions and the development of collective visions for our future society. 

The Lebanese political elite is partly condemning the protests, partly trying to crush it, and partly making small concessions. How would you describe their strategy?

I'm not sure if I agree with the claim that the political elite is making concessions. When we tune in to what people are saying on the street, a popular chant, before the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was: “your reform paper is useless. Go soak it in tea… tea… tea,” to the tune of the Italian anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao.” Either way, when you look at the “concessions”, they do not address the structural changes that are being demanded. 

In my opinion, the ruling class is buying itself time to crush this movement through the use of violence. As for their strategy, I think it's been a combination of fear tactics (fear of a new civil war, fear of a so-called “political vacuum”, fear of financial collapse, fear of ISIS, etc.) while planting seeds of division among the protesters. There are also co-optation attempts, most notably by the Lebanese Forces, but also by other political parties (such as the FPM) who are trying to claim ownership over this movement and present it as an extension of their own struggle. Finally, there are daily disinformation campaigns that attempt to exhaust activists who then, often, have to disprove them. 

What is your personal wish for the revolution’s future in the upcoming weeks?

Without trying to romanticize the moment we’re in too much, I think that by virtue of opening spaces, both physical and symbolic, we've opened possibilities for new ways of relating to each other, of seeing the world, and of being in it. I think it's crucial for this moment not to end in a complete defeat and to come out of it and mark a decisive break from the past 30 years. Squares around the country are attracting revolutionaries, but are also a reflection of our societies. Poor people are coming to eat for free, to seek shelter, elderly people are coming to share their stories and plights, etc. Unfortunately, very little space has been made for migrant workers and refugees and I hope that will change. I'm also not too fond of the hyper-nationalist sentiment that's overtaken public spaces and hope for more conversations around it. But to end on a positive note, I’d say that the act of collectively dreaming in public gives me hope that the future could perhaps belong to us.

[1] A luxury hotel in downtown Beirut whose glass facade was shattered by protestors in 2015.

[2]The agreement that officially ended the civil war in Lebanon.

[3] Mundaseen in Arabic:  refers mainly to young men who protestors accused of using violence and aggressive action as a tactic to crush the movement.