The death of the Second Republic: Understanding the spark for social mobilization in contemporary Lebanon

By Marie-Christine Ghreichi*

Felt across the Mediterranean on August 4th, 2020, some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut exploded, killing at least 190 people and injuring at least 6,500, resulting in an estimated $10–15 billion USD in property damage, and leaving an approximately 300,000 people homeless. The ammonium nitrate gas had been stored in a warehouse without proper safety measures in place for the previous six years, after having been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities from the cargo ship MV Rhosus that had docked in Beirut and been declared unseaworthy. The official cause of the detonation is under investigation. Yet the ruling elites’ failure to address the presence of the material in the port and the subsequent explosion perhaps signifies the apex of political corruption and public negligence.

In addition to daily disruptions in terms of social service provision, public inefficiency and corruption, the global financial crisis and the rise in influence of Hezbollah, investment, aid, and remittances has starkly declined. This has been coupled with enhanced sanctions against Hezbollah from neighbouring Gulf states and the United States, making future investment in Lebanon unattractive at best. Months prior to the protests, Lebanon itself was also inching towards an economic collapse. The economy grew a meagre 0.2% in 2018, possessing the third highest public debt burden in the world. Its credit rating was downgraded earlier this year, and unemployment had reached 20% according to the IMF, which also noted the systemic corruption in Lebanon and the government’s inability to implement reforms. By late September, the circulation of US dollars plummeted, with people unable to withdraw USD from Lebanese ATMs, seriously impacting companies importing gas, wheat and medicine, “all of which needed to pay in dollars but sold their goods for Lebanese pounds.”

Buckling under these pressures, on October 17th of 2019, Lebanon erupted into a series of demonstrations, increasingly known as the October revolution, amassing somewhere between 1-1.5 million protestors in the streets and mobilizing Lebanese expats in 35 countries around the world in 90 cities. These protests are believed to have been triggered by the state’s failure to adequately put a stop to the worst wildfires in decades, which burned large swathes of the countryside on October 15th, as well as a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, and the impending economic crisis. The movement mobilized Lebanese citizens of all sectarian backgrounds, ages and classes across the country, beyond typical locations of social contestation (primarily Beirut), demanding the removal of the political elite, an end to rampant corruption and, for the first time an overhaul of the entire political system.

In a structure of governance characterized by traditional alliances of patronage and clientelism, bolstered by sectarianism, corrupt practices have thrived. Existing literature largely attributes this dynamic to the sectarian power-sharing system governing Lebanon since its independence. Yet, corruption appears to have reached levels in the post-civil war era that is unmatched, at least in the perceived experience of Lebanese. The revolutionary movement exhibited narratives surrounding corruption that highlighted its linkages to other forces in the system, offering alternative explanations. The events of October 17th provide an opportune moment to interrogate the mechanisms that have allowed corruption to reach the intolerable levels one observes in Lebanon today. In studying the response of Lebanese citizens to the current uprisings, we can begin to understand why Lebanese citizens now refuse to tolerate it in its the current state.

Structural inequalities and the spark

After years and years of swelling corrupt political practices, economic exploitation and the marriage of these two forces, signs of a potential dollar liquidity crisis began to materialize in September of 2019. The looting of state funds created conflict, not between rich and poor but rather generated a reaction against the perceived predatory behaviour of the political and economic elite in rent-seeking. In addition to the very real concerns for survival and ensuring their livelihoods, the driver for many Lebanese was a call to restore their dignity. The theft and ensuing deprivation had reached unprecedented levels. The crony neo-liberal and the confusion of public and private sectors facilitated corruption and sectarianism, which was also reproduced by these mechanisms. Echoed in many of the discussions and interviews I conducted while carrying out research Lebanon in December and January of 2020, the lack of access to basic services and the consistent interruption of quotidian life compounded by long-term, structural social inequality pushed some to drop political clientelism and go down in the streets. Therefore, this movement triggered a struggle to reclaim basic fundamental rights surrounding daily needs and by extension—dignity. Anger over the hi-jacking of this dignity manifested itself in the discourse surrounding the ever-increasing brain drain, personal status laws, citizenship laws, youth unemployment, increasing emigration and declining remittances. Consequently, a popular campaign expressed throughout the movement was جنسيتي كرامتي or “My nationality, my dignity.”

The spark for the popular reaction can be found in the uncontrolled forest fires and the WhatsApp tax proposed in the days leading up to October 17th. The Lebanese are no strangers to taxes with this scale of impact. However, the proposed tax on WhatsApp calls reverberated throughout the country for both its symbolic significance but also the timing of its discussion.

Following these fires (which the state was unable to address due to its failure to carry out maintenance of the required emergency helicopters), and as the WhatsApp tax was announced and discussions ensued, a post on social media circulated that perhaps best embodies the larger meaning imbued in the reaction to the tax. In the post, an individual speaks of his experience as a young Lebanese living abroad in the diaspora. He recounts how his mode of communication with his family and friends in Lebanon is primarily through WhatsApp, common for the vast majority of Lebanese. He speaks of bitterness for being unable to participate in this turning point that is the result of “decades of culminated degradation.” Family and friend WhatsApp group chats are often the most effective window into both daily life back home, but also understanding current events on the ground as many do not trust traditional media outlets. Photos and videos of solidarity protests across the diaspora are all sent back through these chats in support. The individual who authored the text describes families scattered across the world, as well as a friend, a recent graduate working in Dubai out of necessity rather than choice. He goes on to add that the nation is “fragmented due to the sectarian divides maintained by politicians who have more interest in money laundering and less in public affairs.” He asserts that this political fragmentation transcends to the familial and social level, citing the lack of sufficient telecommunication infrastructure (i.e. results of political disputes) preventing Lebanese from calling their loved ones abroad as a prime example. Significant life events, achievements and memories have been reduced to digital communication, and yet even this option was threatened on October 17th. Therefore, he concludes that this is not about “protesting a WhatsApp tax; (they) are protesting all the factors that have resorted (their) feeling of belonging to the realm of virtual reality.”

The ties that bind

This testimony situates this moment of social contestation in a context of meaning beyond the tax itself. As argued by Erica Simmons, threats to norms and values in a society leave room for the possibility to mobilize across typical points of division. Therefore, the implications of the WhatsApp tax relate to their larger meaning as a threat to an imagined community and the failure to protect this community. In addition to the added cost the tax would impose, it signifies the greed of the political class. First, this tax and its invasive nature into Lebanese daily life reminded citizens of financial decadence of the political class and their inability and incompetence to find alternative methods of extracting state revenue that would not punish or burden the working class. Rather than investigating theft, corruption or inflated public salaries, the elites turned immediately to further dispossess their own people. It also illustrates the way in which the political class continues to overstep and exploit without facing significant consequences. Secondly, this proposed tax symbolized both total control over the destiny of the citizen and the complete indifference on the part of the political elite to the plight of their constituents. The most basic right to communicate with one’s community, family and the larger world was instantly threatened and devalued. Even on the precipice of economic collapse, with thousands forced to leave the country in search of a better life, the audacity of the powers responsible for this crisis attempted to sever one of the only tools remaining that connects individuals to their home. Therefore, the tax highlighted more broadly the violation of fundamental principles that are consistently denied to the Lebanese citizen, which infringes upon their dignity and welfare that is carried out with callousness and disregard.

Class Divisions

The mobilization was by no means consistent across different social stratifications in Lebanon. As the weeks went on, it became evident that two types of individuals either possessed the privilege or the imperative to revolt. The former is able to protest due to privileges such as not having children, their age, or possessing a foreign passport. The latter is so poor that they no longer have anything to lose. As a result, the majority of those I observed participating as the movement progressed were youth (typically unemployed), students, activists and individuals from the poor, working classes. Those residing between these two segments may or may not have expressed sympathies towards the revolution. However, either due to their own savings or family that face the risk of a chaotic transition or threat to their position in society, the consequences of upheaval did not seem worth upsetting the secure, status quo. However, the two segments visible in the street possessed similar grievances and demands, both frequently speaking of theft and stolen money. They also highlighted the need for the removal of the ruling political elite, the need to fight corruption and push for an independent judiciary and technocratic government, calling for the fall of the sectarian regime. Whether compelled by poverty or the dearth of viable futures for graduates and the youth, both linked these grievances to what one artist and activist would label as the political elite maintaining a façade masking what is really “neo-liberal sectarianism” driven by greed and corruption. It seemed that those who refused to support the movement or were unable to participate were partially motivated by fears surrounding escalation and violence, due to very recent memories of civil war traumas. However, the generations born after this era and those with nothing to gain from the status quo proved to be liberated of this apprehension. In this case, the significance of the infringement on virtual communication is two-fold: for the working poor, this serves as the final blow after decades of mismanagement, underdevelopment and neglect. For youth, this tax reminds them that if they are forced to leave, their bonds will be tested, and the political class is failing to entice them to ever return.

Generational trauma

The movement and reactions to this social mobilization also revealed resilient generational divides. Older generations with more recent memories of conflict were quick to take stock in conspiracy theories, mistrust of the movement and a victimization narrative regarding foreign interference. In one interview, a participant highlighted how older Lebanese often trace roots of corrupt practices to the deeply rooted Ottoman and French style kinship-based structures in the Levant, which ultimately serves as another form of exoneration of current leadership. During the clashes between security forces and protestors in downtown Beirut in the “week of rage,” I had a conversation with a woman from Jounieh, who upon observing the protestors fighting more forcefully with the security forces and damaging property, lamented what she saw as the demise of the revolution. Disturbed by the violence she was witnessing, she quickly placed blame on “Muslim Brotherhood” extremists coming from Tripoli to infiltrate the protests. This claim evolved into a critique of the Sunni leadership more broadly, specifically Hariri and the Future movement. These examples in which people divert responsibility to other religious communities or political dynasties other than their own or consistently across the entire political class illustrate an infantilization of the generations affected by the height of sectarian politics—violent conflict along religious lines. I argue this infantilization is carefully crafted by the ruling elite as a means of maintaining their hold on their respective constituents. However, through a new, common struggle, younger people in particular began to shed this mentality, instead adopting an outlook of increased autonomy to seize and claim their rights. Efforts to shed this mentality appear to signify foundations for new-found trust between citizens, but also in the institutions laid to waste during the civil conflict. Calls to end foreign interference from all external powers categorically is a departure from the rhetoric of previous generations. Additionally, though not universal, there was an emergence of a budding political consciousness.

The clientelist bargain

The mobilization, particularly of the two segments most active indicate alterations of the sort of bargain Lebanese citizens are bound by in the consociational, post-Taif system. In this bargain, the citizen is forced to pledge allegiance to the Zaim or respective political leader representing their community or sect. This leader promises protection to his community in what he portrays as a treacherous political arena, in which their position will be precarious without his leadership. In return for loyalty and submission, citizens will have access to social services and connections depending on their level of demonstrated allegiance. This relationship calls on the citizen to overlook or disregard corruption and impunity in their own political community due to the lack of any viable alternative in the political and social system where these connections are essential for survival. Additionally, some citizens have internalized a narrative of infantilization and genuine fear of the chaos that would ensue if they deviate from their Zaim. This bargain in recent years proved to no longer benefit most citizens, leading many to social mobilization, triggered by the WhatsApp tax. Daily life had become so unbearable in terms of basic needs not being met but also the repeated violation of peoples’ dignity visible in social injustice. Therefore, the payoff no longer outweighed the corruption inherent to this relationship. Such a reaction to the sparks (WhatsApp tax, the fires) perhaps underscores a struggle for dignity and pride in citizenship, which is universal; as such factors do not possess sectarian dimensions, but threaten the lives of all.

The Shia population in Lebanon has historically been the most disadvantaged, despised and deprived. After decades of political activism by Musa Sadr and the Amal movement and in recent years through Hezbollah, this community can obtain services and social support through these entities. This provision comes at the price of authoritarian and mafia like behaviour in asserting control in these areas and demands for unwavering loyalty, at times through coercion. In Tripoli however, the historically privileged Sunni populations during the Ottoman era have not been afforded the same sort of bargain. With over half the population living below the poverty line and infrastructure crumbling, the city exemplifies state neglect and indifference, despite possessing some of the wealthiest political representatives in the country. This city also became infamous for political violence and recruitment into extremist organizations, due in part to the impact of the Syrian conflict. Naturally, the call to rise on October 17th reverberated strongest with citizens of Tripoli.

The bargain is broken

Consequently, social grievances and the absence of strong institutions or an independent judiciary were highlighted frequently throughout the demands of the protest movement in and beyond Tripoli. With the economy on the verge of collapse, no one individual outside the core political elite can run or hide from the disruption of basic routines by unbridled corruption. One interviewee went so far to say that this sort of bargain between the Zaim and the citizen illustrates an abusive relationship with the state. The polity endures the abuse because it is convinced of the need for its partner to protect them. The state or political elite act as this protector, all the while extracting and exploiting more and more. At a certain point, this dynamic becomes so unbalanced that the abused—the people—snap in defiance demanding their dignity and humanity. In the discourse regarding the movement, corruption was discussed and perceived as part and parcel of the economic system and vice versa. As a result, a common reverberation of anger over these forces led to the empowerment of the individual, but also mass mobilization. The individualization of political agency and the mobilization of society mark a rearrangement of trust in individual leaders or political parties to trust in a more widespread and diffused social community, but also in stronger institutions in the future. Though increasingly compelling for only certain segments and classes in society, for those galvanized to enter into the streets, the fear of consequences associated with such calls had virtually disappeared. Renouncing the tax and state policies in recent months and years, consequently, symbolizes the delegitimization of the system and the status quo that is unable or refuses to ensure basic rights to its citizens./IFIMES

*About the author:
Marie-Christine Ghreichi is a recent graduate of Sciences Po, Paris specialized in International Security with a focus on Diplomacy and the Middle East Region. After completing her studies in the United States where she supported a transitional justice research collaborative, she worked with Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, Lebanon before then coming to Paris to pursue her master’s degree. She is passionate about international conflict resolution, human rights, accountable governance, gender rights and the Middle East.

Ljubljana/Paris, 20 October 2020