Lebanon’s revolt against oligarchic sects

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 21 November, 2019 - 12:21
A protest

Joey Ayoub, a Lebanese writer and participant in the protests, talked on the phone with Daniel Randall from Solidarity. This is what he had to say.

The movement started on 17 October, hence it’s being called “The 17 October Revolution”.

That day was very much a straw that broke the camel’s back; the consequences of some natural disasters, such as wildfires on 14 October, had piled social misery on a number of disastrous policies, and led to a widespread revolt.

More and more people have taken to the streets. The momentum has built up, and the movement now targets the entire political system.

The historical and political context to the movement is the settlement that ended the civil war, which took place from 1979-1990. That agreement institutionalised sectarianism, imposing quotas for political representation.

The president must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament must be a Shia Muslim. That has been how politics works in postwar Lebanon, and has defined an entire generation.

Everything is done according to sectarian priorities, and political and economic life is dominated by warlords and oligarchs who have enriched themselves in postwar reconstruction, which of course all took place within a neoliberal capitalism.

The oligarchs have had a power-sharing agreement amongst themselves. There is no real opposition within the political system.

Being able to name these people means you can put faces to this corrupt establishment. That’s why the focus of the protest movement is the overthrow of the entire political system.

The English translation of a frequently chanted slogan is, “all of them means all of them.”

The largest protest has been of around 1.5 million people. In a country of five or six million, that is a significant proportion of the population. Every day there’ll be hundreds or thousands of people in various areas, with larger mobilisations on weekends.

The most visible actions have been the street protests – huge marches and demonstrations. There have also been other forms of action, such as roadblocks. More recently we’ve seen strikes and workplace occupations, with doctors and lawyers striking and protesting.

There’ve also been sit-ins at power stations and telecoms workplaces, as well as protests at banks. The official unions are entirely co-opted by the oligarchs, so we’ve seen groups of workers including media workers and lawyers take steps towards forming independent unions.

The movement is leaderless and highly decentralised, which means the state is struggling to keep up.

Unlike previous movements, such as the protests in 2015, this movement is not Beirut-centric or top-down. It’s extremely spontaneous; even now, I’m not necessarily aware of what’s happening in other parts of the country.

It’s much less dominated by the middle class than previous movements. It’s highly organic, a vast swathe of the population responding to the social situation.

Within weeks of the movement beginning, the Prime Minister, and therefore the government, resigned, which was an achievement. But that doesn’t mean the system is gone.

The movement’s demand is for the entire government to resign, for good, and for none of them to govern again. We’ve seen resignations in the past, but people usually return and shuffle positions between themselves. This time the movement won’t settle for anything less than the removal of the entire government.

People want an interim government made up of independents, and a new electoral system not based on sectarianism, so people are not forced to vote according to sect.

Society in Lebanon is segregated by sectarianism. You can’t marry someone from another sect or background, unless one of you converts. People often travel abroad to get civil marriages, for example in Cyprus, which the Lebanese government recognises, but even then, children must be registered in one sect, usually the father’s.

The protest movement is assertively anti-sectarian and involves people from all backgrounds. There’s been cross-communal solidarity between protests in different parts of the country, which has made it hard for the oligarchs to play on sectarian divides.

They are still attempting this, and the media platforms, which are linked to sectarian factions, are attempting to divide people – for example, Hezbollah’s TV station Al Manar, and the FPM’s OTV, have been trying to do this, but not as effectively as they would have liked.

Another key demand of the movement is for the return of public funds which have been looted. Billions of dollars have been siphoned off from public money in the last several years, and stashed away in offshore tax havens. The government is waiting for $11 billion of additional funds, agreed by the CEDRE Conference which took place in France in 2018, to be unlocked, in exchange for enacting certain reforms.

It’s seen as a joke that so much of the political class is focusing on unlocking these $11 billion dollars, when a far greater amount has been looted by the same oligarchs in or around power.

Discussions are taking place within the movement about longer-term political perspectives.

There have been some tentative attempts at independent, non-sectarian politics in the past, for example in the 2015 Beirut municipal elections. These forces exists, but not all have an organic relationship with the protest movement, and some are trying to ride the wave of the protests. However, there are a lot of people in the movement who are ready to run in elections.

No-one is naïve enough to think anything will change immediately. We know this will be a long fight. The hope is that those who are more focused on more official forms of political action will be in tune with the anger on the streets and represent that in parliament.

In the postwar era, there has never been a parliament with a significant percentage of independent MPs, only a handful at most. All the others are drawn from sectarian factions and come from the upper classes.

What we might see in the short to medium term, rather than the overthrow of the whole system, is a significant increase in the number of independent MPs. This would shatter the aura of untouchability that the sectarian warlords and oligarchs have created around themselves.

These people must be held to account, that’s another common chant on the streets. If we elect more independents, we must pressure them to hold the sectarians accountable. That’s something the warlords and oligarchs greatly fear.

In terms of what activists elsewhere can do to support the movement, there are places internationally where the oligarchs have assets. Many of the oligarchs are dual citizens, and they have offshore bank accounts.

How much of their money are in Swiss banks for example? These are questions that need answering.

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