The Lebanese society at crossroads: The birth of a united country
| Raphaël Gourrada, Fellow de l'Institut Open Diplomacy
As protests are still paralyzing Lebanon since October 17, the country faces the harshest challenge it has experienced so far: a choice between continuing as it went to this dead-end or rebooting its whole constitutional system. For the first time in decades, a new generation woke up against clientelism and confessional divisions, and the Lebanese society is now intending to take control back. But as the dangers of violence and counter-revolution lay ahead, protestors need to structure their demands and propose rather than oppose.
A historical momentum. This is merely the word which comes out of every mouth since the start of the Lebanese protests on October 17. Prompted by a bill aiming at settling a new taxation on internet messaging applications such as WhatsApp or Viber, what began as a spontaneous movement in Beirut soon became a long-lasting blockade with repercussions throughout the whole country. The international press cover of these protests, amplified by similar events in Iraq, Hong Kong, Bolivia or Chile, gave a tremendous momentum to the demands voiced by the protestors. Such protests are not entirely new in Lebanon. But the form taken by these demonstrations reveals their originality and allows analysts to concur that, whatever outcome they may have, this moment is already history.
Hariri received by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman
The Lebanese split: How clientelism brought a Nation down
In order to catch the particularisms of the 2019 protests, it is essential to take a step back and look at the Lebanese complex political environment and how it is perceived both inside the Lebanese society and abroad. Since the constitutional creation of the country in 1926 and then the formation of its legal framework in the following decade, Lebanon has seen its 3 presidencies (Republic, Council and Parliament) split between Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shia Muslim communities. This agreement, although never written, is at the very core of the political praxis in Lebanon: From 1943 to 1975 and even more after the 1990 Taef Agreements, which put an end to the 15-year civil conflict, primary positions in the Lebanese administration are distributed between the main actors of these communities. Therefore, it is neither the political agenda nor the reform programs of such candidates which matters but first and foremost their confessional affiliation and then, within their community, their partisanship and clientelist influence. The 2014-2016 run for presidency shed light on the matter: Neither did Samir Geagea nor Michel Aoun, both candidates, campaign on domestic issues such as electricity, water or minimum wages, but on their affiliation to parliamentary groups, one being Saudi-friendly, the other partially Iran-backed. This election, which saw the victory of Michel Aoun, after two and a half years of parliamentary boycott, focused more on foreign allegiances than domestic matters.
This involvement of foreign powers conditions the pace of the Lebanese political life, which is set on regional dynamics. Since the armed outburst of 1975, and then the fragile peace of Taef, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, or the domestic tensions of 2008, every conflict and crisis have been blamed on the involvement of foreign powers or non-state actors threatening the civil peace in Lebanon. This prism is constantly referred to by domestic actors to justify the 75-90 civil war and its dramatic long-termed developments; to explain the economic slump Lebanon has been facing for over 40 years, resulting from the over-presence of refugees on its soil due to neighboring conflicts; or to denounce the rise of fundamentalism and its jihadi versions backed by Saudi Wahhabism or Iranian Shia depending on the point of view of the enunciator. In any case, the formula of the “War of Others”, as depicted by Lebanese Journalist Ghassan Tueni, has long been a magical rhetorical spell which allegedly allowed peace and stability in Lebanon by avoiding accountability among the domestic actors of the many conflicts that have set the country on fire since then. That was the purpose of the 1991 amnesty law.
The third dynamic conditioning the political praxis in Lebanon is the omnipotence of confessionalism in the legislative structure in Lebanon. Private Law is controlled and ruled by religious legislative corps related to community structures. In other words, there are as many private laws as there are communities (that is to say “officially recognized communities”). This includes marriage, divorce or inheritance among other things. But this organization has consequences beyond the sphere of Law to reach society itself: The Lebanese society has long been seen as a de facto divided body between so many “small Lebanons” with their own legislative structures, rules, political parties and so on. Far from forming a nation, these communities are seen as simply coexisting, following their own social dynamics.
Poster showing Presidents Aoun, Hariri and Berri, captioned: "Get out"
The force awakens: When the Lebanese people stand up
Youth rose against this vision of Lebanon during the past decades. In 2011, people already marched in the streets to call for the abolition of the confessionalism system, voicing the demands regularly advocated by civil society associations regarding cross-community marriage for instance. In 2015, people protested against corruption as garbage were no longer collected due to a poorly handled monopoly contract with a firm that reached its term but failed to be renewed. During the 2016 municipal elections, and later the 2018 parliamentary elections, several lists regrouping civil society actors emerged and tried to break the dominion of political machineries and zu‘amâ’ (leaders) on state institutions that have been ruling for over 40 years. Despite the will of a vibrant and vivacious society, especially within young people, these attempts fell short. This was both the result of the lockdown of the political field by the traditional parties and of the general fatigue of a population still listening to security speeches legitimizing immobilism to avoid any armed crisis between communities.
That was before the “WhatsApp bill”. For many people this was the symbol of a corrupt political class which steals public money and funds, and plagues the population with daily new taxes to supposedly improve an ever-worsening economy. But this question soon began to transcend the question of corruption to focus on the heart of the problem: The Lebanese political system as a whole and the societal status quo preserved by the political elite. Less by its length (fourty days as we are writing these lines) than by its various aspects and its refusal of the dynamics promoted by the Lebanese confessional system, these protests took an entirely new shape, as never seen before.
For the first time, pacific demonstrations took place gathering all the various social profiles of Lebanon: From the Beiruti upper-middle class to the Christians of Batrun in the north, to the Sunni of Sidon or Tripoli, to the Druze of the Shuf and the Shia of Tyre or Nabatieh. All gathered in a cross-communities, cross-generations, cross-social layers’ movement, wearing no flag except the national one, singing “Kulluna lil Watan”, the Lebanese anthem. This is not only a spontaneous staging but also a way to show to domestic actors how non-partisan these gatherings are, and to state that no political instrumentalization would be tolerated. It is also the first time that Lebanese issues are pointed out as a result of domestic policies and strategies, and not foreign interference. Today, neither Syria, nore Saudi Arabia or Iran is blamed for the difficulties Lebanon is facing, but the local elites themselves.
But the harshest blowback for Lebanese politicians are: first, the pacific aspect of these protests, and second, the involvement of sections of the population which did not oppose their leaders in the past. The unity and pacifism of these demonstrations combined with the relative absence of violent actions from the protesters and the little repression on behalf of the army first show some kind of solidarity between soldiers and protestors but also reveal how torn apart the Lebanese army is when it comes to civil strife.
Only the geography of the 2019 protests makes it a revolution. In every demonstration so far, protests were confined in Beirut and its suburbs: Footages of those events often show protestors gathering around Martyrs’ Square or Riyadh El Solh Square in Downtown Beirut, that is to say near the political centers of the capital (Serail and Parliament). Those footages also illustrate quite accurately the profile of the people taking part in these protests: Mostly middle-class members, often between 20 and 40 years old, college educated and mostly atheist. Since the start of the uprising on October 17, several unusual spots have also been the theater of protests: Indeed, cities like Tripoli (up north) or Nabatieh (in the south) are not familiar with such events. The main reason resides in the security lockdown of these areas by local establishments and militia men. Tripoli is often the theater of harsh outbursts between armed bands of the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tebbaneh and the Shia district of Baal Mohsen, while Nabatieh is entirely under the yoke of Hezbollah and its ally Amal. In both regions, and mostly in the south, people are scared to protest as they fear armed backlashes from local militias devoted to the zu‘amâ’. This time however, the awakening of the “Shia street” underlines the diversification of the protestors’ profiles as Lebanon’s both economic and geographical margins are included and their members are joining fellow citizens from other social layers. Moreover, protestors are also criticizing Shia leaders like Hassan Nasrallah, the all-powerful Secretary General of Hezbollah, or Nabih Berry, the immovable President of Parliament and head of the Amal party, denouncing their role in the current economic and financial quagmire to the sound of “Kullun ya‘ni Kullun” (“Everyone means everyone”).
Reproducing the Arab Spring’s slogan of 2011 “Ash Sha‘b yurid isqat al nizam” (“People want the fall of the regime”), demonstrators managed to bring the government to an end on October 29, twelve days after the start of the first spontaneous protests. As 1.5 million people went down the streets, camped days and nights on Martyrs’ Square, blocked the main traffic arteries by raising barricades, and even settled temporary stands to provide food, sofas, couches or even yoga class in Beirut or Tripoli, banks remained closed for weeks, so did schools, and the country’s activities were paralyzed for nearly a month in spite of the warnings of President Aoun or the Governor of the Lebanese Central Bank (LCB) Riad Salame. Both personalities are harshly criticized by a population blaming them on the current financial and political crisis. People’s anger did not sooth as classic political bargaining resumed between traditional parties in view of forming a techno-political government instead of a cabinet purely composed of independent technicians and experts as it was voiced down the streets. President Aoun’s speech on November 14 prompted wrath among demonstrators as they were intimated to “emigrate if they were not happy”. Later on, as the name of Muhamad Safadi – a Tripolitan billionaire and former Minister of Economy, Finance and Trade in the 2005 Siniora government – emerged as a potential head of cabinet, a new wave of anger stimulated the protestors and in fine forced Safadi to renounce the position 5 days later.
Flamed tires blocking the road in north Beirut
What’s next? The need for a laic constitutional reboot
As the generational gap between the old guard of the Lebanese za‘âma (leadership) and the population seems more and more impassable, the question of “what’s next?” remains.
The victories of the Lebanese people are indisputable as they have seen some of their demands met for now, namely the fall of a government gathering all the major political forces of the country. They have also managed to show unity, pacifism and brotherhood in spite of social barriers or community frontiers. Nevertheless, the blockade and power struggle between President Aoun and the street regarding the nature of the government-to-be reflect the core of the issue at stake: The very constitution of the Lebanese political system. Circumstantial victories have been won, and now structural challenges have to be addressed in order to tackle the diagnosis of this profound social illness as difficulties lay ahead.
Lebanon faces today the gap between its society and its leaders; it has to cope with a divisive political system despite strong legislations to sustain consensus and conservatism. This is an issue which goes beyond the formation of a new government, the exclusion of some political personalities or the fight against broader corruption. It entails resetting the whole constitutional system.
To get there, Lebanon still lacks the necessary structuration of the protests and demands. Many people have argued that these movements needed a leader, starting with President Aoun himself who voiced in favor of the nomination of spokespersons to discuss with him. More than leaders, the protestors need to bring forth viable and actionable solutions to address socio-economic fears. A recurring moto in Lebanon is a phrase by the journalist George Naccache: « Two negations do not make a nation ». This phrase pings point very accurately the lebanese trap: By defining itself against something, it failed to build a common identity to which people may refer to. Lebanese youth is now committed to define such an identity, not by pointing out what it is not, but rather by underlying what it may become.
Building new perspectives still seems difficult in the current system. The formation of a technocratic government does not currently sound to be able to meet the expectations of the street. Such a cabinet would be facing a double challenge: Gaining trust of the parliament and keeping the people as one. The Chamber is for now composed of the major political formations that civil society lists did not manage to breach during past elections. The cabinet, in need of the support of the Chamber, has very little room for maneuver. The floating idea of a non-partisan government of experts to match the balance of powers of parties at the parliament might be seducing; but the only game-changing solution sounds to be a constitutional reboot. Such a Constitutional Assembly would reset the rules by abolishing confessionalism in the Lebanese Law and writing a new “atheist” legal corpus. Then and only then can the Lebanese people elect its own representatives without being trapped in sectarian imperatives.
To this end, protestors need to stand the counter-revolutionary project of the ruling elites. Their first technique is to recycle security speeches and anxiety discourses. This has been the main strategy aimed at legitimizing the elite conservatism both in Lebanon and to the eyes of their foreign counterparts and especially Western governments. We have regularly heard the concerns of several leaders and members of the ruling establishment advocating for a peaceful end of the protests in order not to worsen the economic health of an already ill country: Hassan Nasrallah spoke about the upcoming “chaos”, President Aoun regretted the “destruction of the country” and LCB governor Salame warned against an “economic collapse”. These pointless speeches were relayed with discourses denouncing an alleged underground foreign power driving the protests: For instance, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general Naïm Qassem accused the United States of being involved in Lebanon’s current predicament in order to undermine a country governed by a cabinet in which Hezbollah has a great influence. Failing to result, the counter-revolution oughts to take a more violent turn. It has already begun as partisans from Hezbollah and Amal physically attacked some demonstrators on October 29 and November 24, or burnt protestors’ tents on Al Alam Square in Tyre on November 25. Such drift towards violence reveals the deep discomfort of Shia parties towards those movements while their Iranian sponsor is itself challenged on its own soil. In spite of these obstacles, the only viable solution for demonstrators would be to remain peaceful, not to be driven into violent response and not to leave themselves wide open to criticism in order to present themselves as the only legitimate voice.
Lebanon’s historical turning point is far from being over as there still is a long way to go for a constitutional reboot. The first battles were undoubtedly won by the street but this is merely the beginning of a legal war aimed at bringing down a sclerotic regime. This comes down to the question of combating immobilism, nepotism and corruption. The generational gap between a youth fed up with worrying about its future and the political establishment is now too big to be ignored. Whatever may come out of the 2019 protests, people discovered that they are strong. The Lebanese nation rose and solutions are now to be found within its society and not outside.
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