A closer look at Lebanon: a new chapter of the Arab Spring?
Perspectives from local protagonists: Myriam Mehanna and Azmi Bishara
By Vanessa Breidy *
On October 17, 2019, demonstrations started in the different squares of the Lebanese territory. Since then, the reality of Lebanon has changed drastically.
People of all ages, families, youths, elderly people, lower class, middle class, Sunni, Shia, Druze, and the different confessions of Christians went out to the streets and filled the squares from Wadi Khaled to Tripoli, Zouk, Jal el Dib, Beirut, Sidon, Tyr, Nabatiyeh and many other places.
Protesting in Lebanon is not uncommon. Shouting slogans in the streets against confessionalism, clientelism, and corruption, and demanding to topple the system is not new. Protests against a certain government, certain politicians, or political parties from one side or another, accusing each other of corruption or foreign infiltration, is the daily bread of the Lebanese political game.
However, what happened on October 17 was special because people from all social colours protested saying: “killun ya‘ni killun”, an expression in Lebanese dialect that can be literally translated as “all of them means all of them”. What is intended by this is that all political parties, without exception, who have historically (at least for the past 30 years) played a role in Lebanese politics are part of the corruption and failure of the state, and for that reason they should all go home. This is new.
In fact, one of the main difficulties that prevents the accountability of politicians in Lebanon is the threat from the other. In other words, to avoid being accountable for their corruption, politicians highlight the threat that other parties’ projects could have on the communities they represent. As a result, in order to avoid the ‘big threat’, many Lebanese people tolerate the corruption of politicians from one side or another.
One other difficulty that makes accountability and change difficult is clientelism, which makes many people believe they are benefitting from the corrupt system and for that they fear losing their jobs or benefits acquired through certain political parties.
Furthermore, some political parties, especially Hezbollah, threaten their supposed supporters in such violent ways that, if the latter dares to express blame, disagreements or opinions against the politics of the party, they are forced to publicly apologize in videos that are spread on social media.
On October 17, a taboo was surpassed and people united against the political elite. They broke their fear and took the risk to stand with each other for the good of everybody. It seems that this was so genuine and determined that it created panic in the already precarious Lebanese financial situation. Huge amounts of money were transferred from one day to another outside the country, the Lebanese currency devalued dramatically within weeks, and banks limited extremely the withdrawal of money from their clients’ accounts. The country fell into poverty very rapidly. The coronavirus lockdowns and the explosion in the Beirut port on August 4, 2020 (another episode of corruption) additionally aggravated things, causing a very fast deterioration of the financial and economic situations. Thirteen months have passed and we are already talking about half the population living below poverty line.
To understand more about Lebanon’s actual situation and about its perspectives for the future, we talked with Myriam Mehanna, and reported below some suggestions and analyses from Azmi Bishara’s lectures and interviews.
Myriam Mehanna: what started in Lebanon on October 17, 2019
Myriam Mehanna is a lawyer and head of the legislation department at the Legal Agenda in Beirut. For the past sixteen years, Mehanna has been participating in many movements aiming for change in the political system in Lebanon.
Dr. Mehanna, what is the meaning of what happened on October 17?
«It cannot be described as a birth of new political ideas such as a political movement or party that is trying to take over the old system to build something new. What happened is just that the old system failed dramatically, in a way that the people had to go to the streets to save what remained of their dignity.
«What happened is a culmination of political leaders having crossed too many red lines; starting from the waste crisis in 2015 up until a few days before the start of the protests when fires spread in many Lebanese forests during which, for instance, Lebanese people found out that the recently acquired firefighting airplanes were dysfunctional. Many Lebanese people perceived this as one more deal of corruption that was costing the country what was left of its beautiful forests. And finally, the demonstrations started when the government declared its plan to put taxes on WhatsApp use».
So, what is the major issue that is impeding the Lebanese system or state from functioning? Any perspectives for solutions?
«On this – Mehanna replies – the confessional system had its own benefits when it started with the Ottomans and then maybe it served in a way to keep the diversity that exists in the country today. However, this system could not prevent the cruel fifteen-year civil war that started in 1975, which says a lot about the fragility of this system and its incapacity to maintain a peaceful coexistence».
And after civil war?
«The confessional system reached a turning point: the leaders of the confessions became mostly the warlords of the civil war and businessmen. This meant practically a spread of social injustice and militia approach to the common good and led to corruption as never seen before which led today to the breakdown of the system in all its components».
Is Lebanon ready to renounce its confessional system?
«I think that it is not ready yet, but young people are ready to start a project to build a state. In fact, the huge problem that confessionalism has created in the Lebanese society is the decrease of the state rule to almost inexistent. Lebanese people do not experience a relationship with the state, they experience a relationship with a confessional political leader or party, who pretends to fight to give them a ‘piece’ of the ‘Lebanese state’ that they consider their right as a confession. State building is essential to be done in Lebanon with direct access to it by the citizen. At the same time, the celebration of diversity in Lebanon should not disappear, but it should be managed in a way that it does not threaten the rule of state».
Is this possible, Myriam?
«Yes, but my fear is that it will take time, and Lebanon with this deep financial and economic crisis does not have the luxury of time».
Azmi Bishara: Lebanon seen from an Arabic context.
The leading role of citizenship.
Azmi Bishara, a political thinker and the director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, reflected on what is happening in Lebanon approaching it from its Arabic context. 1
According to Bishara, the Arab Spring experiences, among others, have taught us that one of the conditions for a transition to democracy is the unanimity on the principle of state or national unity. Moreover, where there are ethnic and confessional rifts, the transition may transform into dispersion and division and not political pluralism. One of the examples that confirm this theory is the Syrian case. This is why the Arab Spring failed in the eyes of most of the observers today. However, the Lebanese and Iraqi2 experiences are showing us that maybe we jumped to conclusions too fast.
Bishara analyses that what is happening in these two countries can be called citizenship. It is a rejection of confessional belongings in their consideration as regulators of the relationship between the individual and the state.
What is notable in his opinion is that this rejection comes from the people and not from the governing political elite as it usually happens. As a matter of fact, the ruling class usually insists on national unity but in these cases, the latter insist that there is no alternative other than the confessional state, whereas the people insist on a non-confessional state.
In our days, the political culture of the ruling elite in these countries is less advanced than that of its own people. This is why what is happening in Lebanon and Iraq can be considered a cultural and ethical revolution.
He also notes that this is the first time in 150 years for Lebanon and since 2003 in Iraq that a mainstream movement based on citizenship values and opposed to confessionalism has been created.
He acknowledges that there have always been currents and parties opposing confessionalism in both contexts but these were usually based on leftist or nationalist ideologies. This time it is something new: it is not ideological but cultural and ethical.
However, Bishara warns that «this ethical consciousness and revolution might be dangerous because it is often accompanied with a despising of politics and this is bad for democracy since in general this attitude facilitates a takeover by demagogues and fascists.[…] It is wrong to think that technocrats can resolve political issues. […] The real solution is by creating new political parties and secular political movements. […] This attitude is understandable given the terrible experience young people have had with politics, but this cannot continue this way for long»3.
In fact, he was asked in an interview4 if he thinks that the insistence of these young revolutionaries on a thorough and drastic change and their refusal of any compromise could become unproductive. He answered that this insistence reveals a moral and cultural maturity but not a political maturity.
He thinks that this political maturity will come with time and experience and by forming new parties and political movements that would enter the political arena and start the change process with small steps from within the current systems.
For Bishara, the importance of what is happening today in these two contexts is that, in any case and whatever obstacles these young people might face moving forward, they have experienced walking together Sunni and Shia, Muslims and Christians for the same causes and values and against confessionalism. This is an experience that has already stamped their collective memory and will have influence on how they project themselves as a society in the future. Nobody can take that away anymore.
For Bishara, what is happening in Lebanon and Iraq might be an indicator that the defeat of the Arab Spring in Egypt and what turned out to become civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya are just chapters that maybe will not last long.
The seeds have been sown and the examples are starting to manifest and mature.
Finally, I would like to share an impression I have: although these revolutionaries might not have yet reached the political maturity that will enable them to implement their ethical inspirations and drives into real political change, they might constitute an announcement of a new approach to politics in the region, and maybe also abroad. Maybe this political maturity is still not reached because their ethical revolution is driving them into a renewed understanding of state and democracy and not just into an adaptation of today’s world understanding of these concepts?
1 In what follows I extracted parts from the analysis he publishes on his channel on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/DrAzmiBishara
2 The Iraqi experience intended here is the one of the demonstrations that started also in October 2019 where Iraqis from all confessions and ethnicities (especially Sunni, Shia, Kurds) protested against the corrupt confessional system (that exists in the country since the US invasion) and against foreign interference in their country. The most notable act was the revolt against the interference of Iran. The information of many Arab newspapers estimates that around 700 evolutionaries have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the revolts. The Human Rights Special Report, Demonstrations in Iraq 3rd update, May 23, 2020 estimates 490 dead and 7,783 injured at the time of drafting the report. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/3rd%20Update%20on%20Demonstrations%20-%20Abductions_23%20May%202020.pdf
Also on the subject: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/08/1071172
* Lawyer and researcher in interreligious realities and politics.