Joey Ayoub is a Lebanese writer and activist. He spoke to Daniel Randall from Solidarity about the protest movement in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion.
For a previous interview with Joey about the Lebanese protests, from November 2019, click here.
DR: What are the implications of the recent resignation of the government? How has this been received by the protest movement?
JA: This is the second resignation since the 17 October revolution. Then-prime minister Saad Hariri had resigned soon after the revolution and was replaced by Hassan Diab, who is himself now-interim prime minister. There are talks of Hariri coming back, as he provides a good Western/Gulf-friendly cover to the current parties in power, especially Hezbollah, who are not on good terms with the West or the Gulf countries.
Before Diab had been picked, they were still trying to reinstate Saad Hariri which meant that we found ourselves in a position where the supposedly “anti-imperialist” parties were actively seeking out the most pro-Gulf prime minister since the death of his own father, Rafik Hariri.
Protesters had found themselves in the odd position of being called foreign conspirators by these parties while these same parties were seeking out the most unpopular pro-Gulf politician in recent memory. Hariri had become so unpopular that his resignation was even celebrated in “his” traditional cities of Tripoli and Saida. This had placed Hezbollah in particular in a very hypocritical position, which Hezbollah only used to double down and support the suppression of the protests.
Now, whether Hariri is picked again or not doesn't really change much, but these pre-Diab manoeuvrers are why no “change” coming from this government will be accepted by protesters, and why they have been demanding the resignation of the entire government - not just the prime minister.
So the implications are not particularly big. There wasn't a celebratory moment on the streets such as we saw when Hariri had resigned, largely because we already know what the government's next steps are. They will either pick Hariri again or get someone more respected, maybe the diplomat Nawaf Salam. The problem is that even if someone like Salam is picked, there would still be the other two members of this troika in their positions of power. If Aoun and Berri resign, which is unlikely, and someone like Salam picked, this may be an acceptable concession as we've never had a situation where all three members of the troika are independents. That would install a “let's wait and see” moment, whether rightly or wrongly, that we have yet to see.
What specific demands is the movement raising in the aftermath of the explosion?
These are the same demands as the 17 October revolution, but with more anger. The calls for the full resignation of this regime - currently symbolised by the president Michel Aoun, the speaker of parliament Nabih Berri and the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah - and the complete rejection of any co-optation by rival sectarian parties - especially the Future Movement's Saad Hariri and the Lebanese Forces' Samir Geagea.
A popular demand is for early elections to be held while a transitional government is established without the presence of any of these key sectarian figures. This last demand has been rather vague which allowed the government enough “negotiating space” to elect an outsider like Hassan Diab as prime minister while maintaining their power.
In addition to the above, we now have calls for an international investigation into the explosion. No domestic one will be accepted as all major political figures are implicated in the explosion, from the security services to the (now-interim) prime minister, passing by the president, speaker of parliament, Hezbollah and the army. The government has rejected such calls for the same reasons, so we are now at a moment of increased tension because the government and all its figures as a whole are widely perceived as implicated in the devastating explosion.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic been handled in Lebanon?
At first it seemed like Lebanon was dealing with it relatively well. Most people were following physical distancing measures, wearing masks everywhere and generally being careful. There was no real foothold for the sort of conspiracy theories we've seen elsewhere, likely because we all understood that we couldn't afford to be reckless. With the re-opening of the airport, and the increase in community spread rates, the situation started deteriorating.
Even before the 4 August explosion, we were getting dangerously close to reaching full capacity at the main hospital dealing with Covid-19. We have now reached full or quasi-full capacity. This is both part of the increasing rates that preceded the explosion and the inevitable increase that will follow it. There are fewer functional hospitals now, the explosion having destroyed what the economic crisis had already worsened, and we are heading into uncharted territory where the cases of Covid-19 will be too great for us to handle while the combination of the economic crisis and the explosion weakening an already weak healthcare system.
Here it is important to note that Lebanon does not have universal healthcare. We have a combination of private healthcare and a social security system. The private hospitals have largely failed to take on their fair share of Covid-19 cases as the government has also failed to pay its debt towards them in years. So we have been essentially relying on a handful of hospitals, and especially Rafik Hariri University Hospital, to deal with the country's Covid-19 crisis. We are currently at a very dangerous crossroads which could see a sharp increase in deaths.
There are risks inherent in any movement that aims for the overthrow of a government without having a clear positive alternative for what kind of alternative government it wants; e.g., it risks the movement being "captured" by the better-organised political forces which may be "anti-government" but which don't represent a progressive alternative in any sense. How is that challenge being confronted inside the protest movement in Lebanon, and are leftist/radical forces able to articulate their own positive alternative?
There are a few independent parties that have been created in recent years and that have participated in the protests. Two worth noting are LiHaqqi (“For My Rights”) and Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla (Citizens in a State). The latter is led by Charbel Nahas, a former Aoun-ally who resigned in protest, set up his own party and is generally viewed as a progressive leftist in Lebanon. LiHaqqi is another progressive platform that came out in recent years as well. They both have a growing base and it is assumed/hoped that were early elections to happen, they would get the independent votes as well as dissatisfied traditional voters. It is still very uncertain.
Besides the more party/election-oriented groups, there are hundreds of initiatives and collectives focusing on mutual aid and more broader solidarity networks. In my view, a lot of energy will be spent whenever elections happen, assuming they do happen, as removing the main sectarian figures from power is viewed as an absolute priority.
What is the state of the workers' movement in Lebanon? Has organised labour played an independent role in the protests?
To a certain extent yes, but the unions were largely repressed or co-opted in the 1990s and early 2000s (there is a good episode of the Lebanese Politics Podcast with labour researcher Lea Bou Khater that goes into the relevant details on that). There are independent unions that started being formed in the aftermath of the October revolution but this has slowed down due to Covid-19, the economic crisis and now the explosion. I suspect that they will pick up steam again in the near future.
What we do have are independent student groups often working with independent labour movements. With Covid-19 for example, we've seen increased focus on the dangerous working conditions of medical workers in a country largely captured by private interests. The student-labour coalitions are nodes of resistance that are likely to continue to grow.
How have social questions such as women's rights been taken up as part of the wider protest movement?
They were centred in the October revolution by feminist groups themselves. There's also been a smaller but vocal pro-LGBTQ rights dimension to the protests, as well as an anti-Kafala movement. (Kafala is the sponsorship system that governs the lives of migrant domestic workers)
I wouldn't call these social questions though as they are all inherent to the political system. Lebanon has a highly patriarchal political system where women are deprived of the right to pass on the nationality, where queer people are criminalised and/or stigmatised and where migrant workers' bodies are routinely policed as well. Migrant domestic workers, being mostly women, have to deal with both gendered and racial aspects of the Lebanese repressive apparatus.
What can socialists and other radicals internationally do to support workers and the protest movement in Lebanon, specifically in the aftermath of the explosion but also more generally?
As a first step they need to get rid of the Tankies that continue to lurk around anything remotely “radical”, especially online. This is creating a lot of resentment towards western leftists especially, not too dissimilarly to how other groups of people like Hongkongers, Taiwanese, Uighurs, various Latin Americans, Belarusians, Ukrainians and so on have been treated in recent months and years. There has to be direct support based on a people-centred anti-authoritarian form of politics. Without that it will remain a primarily online shouting match that doesn't lead anywhere productive, with those repressing us continuing to benefit from it.
In the more immediate future we will require a lot of medical aid. We simply cannot handle the combination of Covid-19, the economic crisis and the explosion. In the more long-term future, I am expecting increased government repression coupled by intensified disinformation campaigns online designed to demonise and dehumanise us just as Belarusians and Hongkongers are currently being demonised and dehumanised.