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One year later: Beirut remembers the uprising

Protesters marked a year since the outbreak of last year’s uprising in Lebanon with a march in Beirut this week

Al-Ahram Weekly , Thursday 22 Oct 2020
Beirut remembers the uprising

Lebanese protesters marked the first anniversary of the 17 October uprising against the country’s post-civil war political system this week, and although the numbers were small, their message reached home.

Hundreds of Lebanese protesters marched in central Beirut on Saturday to mark a year since the nationwide 17 October uprising against the country’s political regime.

“17 October is no memory; it is the story of a confrontation between a corrupt authority and the people,” read one sign carried by protesters waving the Lebanese flag in the capital.

A year ago, massive nationwide protests erupted in Lebanon, initially in response to government plans to impose taxes on free smartphone services such as Whatsapp.

The move triggered an already disillusioned and frustrated public reeling from economic crises, a steep devaluation of the local currency, and decades-old dysfunctional governance to take to the streets in protest, and it quickly exploded into an outcry against Lebanon’s sect-based political system.

The growing trans-sectarian sentiments, unprecedented and unpredictable in themselves, were considered revolutionary, even if the Lebanese people debated among themselves about the labelling, meaning and impact of the protests.

While the largely leaderless protest movement lasted for months, it came to a halt because of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The protests resumed again in August following the Beirut port explosions that killed 200, injured 6,000 and made 30,000 homeless.

The government resigned in response, but little has changed in Lebanon since.

A year since the 17 October protests, only a few hundred showed up to mark the anniversary in a sign, the protesters and observers say, of exhaustion and despair, not of anger subsiding.

The protesters gathered in Martyrs Square in Beirut at noon and marched to the country’s Banks Association, before heading to the Lebanese Central Bank and stoning the building. The march ended at the site of the Beirut port explosions where the protesters chanted against Lebanon’s political leaders and lit candles for the victims.

The sullen scene captured Lebanon’s dilemma: a dysfunctional status quo perpetuated by a system that has no intention of changing even in the face of seething public resentment and limited tools to introduce change.

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri, forced to resign under pressure from the protests a year ago, is now preparing to return to his post.  

The anniversary of the protests nevertheless offered a time of reflection on the protest movement and on Lebanon’s current reality. “The consensus now is that it was inevitable,” wrote Lina Mounzer, a Beirut-based writer for Newslines, an online magazine.

“Whatever the organisational or strategic failures of the thawra [revolution], and there were many, the odds were stacked against us from the start. We were fighting not a single regime or figurehead, but the hydra-headed monster of sectarianism. We were fighting several security apparatuses, those of the state and that of [the Lebanese Shia group] Hizbullah,” she said.

The protest movement has been fighting the Lebanese banks, the economic system and the despair at losing a life’s savings as a result of a drop in the local currency’s value overnight.

“Who has the time or mental energy now to be down in the streets and squares” to protest, Mounzer asked.

Others argue that a year is not enough time for a process seeking change. Nadim Al-Kak, a Lebanese researcher, said that the protest movement had given visibility to the previously unseen politicisation of Lebanon’s youth.

“A post-war generation that had grown to be scared and disconnected from politics is reinvigorated and had gained great maturity,” he wrote on Twitter.

The movement has also seen the expansion of grassroots networks and oppositional organisational structures, new political groups, and alternative labour and professional unions.

According to Al-Kak, it has expanded the introduction of a new set of radical ideas to the lexicon, including ideologies and approaches like intersectional feminism, radical environmentalism, anarchism and queer theory, all of which have been debated over recent months, “with the hopes of them becoming more mainstream,” he noted.

But in the face of this, the regime remains robust, he admitted. “Some parties have lost support, while others have stood firm or even grown. One year is nothing in the grand scheme of things,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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