Lebanon’s autumn spring

Abdel-Moneim Said, Tuesday 22 Oct 2019

What started as a revolt against new government taxes in Lebanon has quickly escalated to challenge the foundations of the denominational system of government, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

You’ll always find that straw that broke the camel’s back where things boil over and people’s hearts turn to daggers. It looks like a situation of this sort has struck Lebanon, or at least a portion of the Lebanese people — young people in their twenties and under who have poured out into the streets in thousands across Lebanon, but mostly in Beirut as one would expect. It’s a familiar scene. We’ve seen the film before a dozen times. It appears that there are a few months left in the second decade of the 21st century for yet another Arab country to experience a hot and tempestuous “spring”, even in autumn. 

It began 17 October, after 6:00 pm, as per Lebanese fashion. The Lebanese don’t do demonstrations on holidays or after Friday prayers. They start their marches after working hours and during evening recreational times. Long ago it was said that for demonstrations and strikes to have their best in effect in Paris, they had to happen on New Year’s Eve. In Beirut, the optimum time is after sunset, once the time for whispered conversations, now the time for chants, marches and angry audio-visual effects near the Grand Serail (Government Palace) and in Riad Al-Solh Square. The immediate cause for the demonstration — the straw that broke the camel’s back — was the government’s decision to tax “WhatsApp” calls. Now, I personally am mystified as to how it would even be possible to tax that amazing communications application. But our Lebanese brothers and sisters never cease to amaze. They just ignited a revolution that took its place in world headlines alongside the Turkish invasion of Syria, the US plea with Turkey not for a ceasefire but a pause in the fire and, moreover, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU over Brexit.

The new tax was not the actual cause of the demonstrations. If it had been, the telecommunications minister’s announcement that he’d revoked the tax would have been sufficient to send those youth home. But instead of going home, they said that their protests would continue, because the people had a more important aim which was to “down the regime”, the call first sounded in Tunisia and Cairo at the outset of this decade. This year brought a new wave of “Arab Springs” from Algeria to Sudan and from Iraq to Lebanon, today. While we’re at it, similar phenomena are happening in Ecuador, Catalonia and Hong Kong where angry youth are crying out against rising prices and corruption or, in some cases, for the right to self-determination, and in all cases for change.

What draws us to Lebanon, here, is not just that it is a fellow Arab nation, or that we love it when Fairuz sings “I love you, Lebanon,” but because that sudden outpouring after nightfall was a declaration that the “Arab Spring” isn’t over yet. It is still with us, whether visibly in the streets or lurking in the shadows like ghosts waiting for their moment to pounce. Regardless of whether these ghosts are a “revolution” calling for sweeping change or a “conspiracy” to destroy the nation state, the era that we term the Arab Spring is characterised by massive grassroots movements — milyoniyas, million-strong marches, we called them — that proclaimed that the political or economic circumstances that had prevailed for decades were no longer acceptable and that the time had come to usher in a new age. As for the nature, boundaries or horizons of that new age, they were never clear. What mattered was that it was “new”. The “revolutionaries” did not define a new system of government, the shape of the economy or the mechanisms for handling a host of social problems. In short, they did not define the nature of the state they wanted to build on top of the ruins of the state they wanted to destroy. Furthermore, they had no particular leadership. There were innumerable TV and website generals, with no soldiers to command. In the end, that period was about the ability of youth (who became the masses and then “the people”) to generate an uprising strong enough to make thrones tremble and governments fall. 

Whether or not what happened last week may ultimately prove to be another Lebanese wild night on the town, there remains the dimension that puts the country to a major test. Either it will lead to a revision of the historical consensus on which the current denominational system of government is based and from there to a transition to a modern citizen state in which all people are equal regardless of sectarian affiliation, or it will lead to a new civil war. And the Lebanese have certainly had their share of civil wars, the last one having lasted for 16 years. As far as the Lebanese youth are concerned, the question is quite simple. The Lebanese state that was shaped by the consensus achieved in 1946 is no longer capable of performing its functions. There was a time when Lebanon vaunted its superiority over other Arab countries because of its free market, freedom of opinion, liberal banking system, and “live and let live” mentality, and because “its strength was in its weakness” which is what made it the Switzerland of the Middle East. But that time is gone and that Lebanon no longer exists. 

Lebanese youth, today, say that the revolution is against the political elites of tribal, clan and sectarian leaders who divvy up power, wealth and foreign aid among themselves and hand these gains and privileges down to their children and relatives. There is no difference in this regard between Sunnis and Shias, Druzes, Maronites, Roman Catholics or Greek Orthodox. They say, secondly, that corruption among these political elites is legion, that they jointly conspire in the abuse of public moneys and this is what led to the huge deficit that the government wants to offset with new taxes. Thirdly, the government, which is sharing the power to make major security, political and economic decisions with a political/military entity that has established a state within the state, lacks one of the most important characteristics of a modern state: a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Hizbullah not only gets Lebanon involved in wars that have nothing to do with Lebanon, the movement’s designation as a terrorist organisation incurs sanctions on the country the consequences of which neither young people nor old can accept or bear. Fourthly, migration, long the Lebanese people’s refuge in times of economic hardship and civil war, is no longer an option. The doors and windows to distant Mediterranean shores are closed. 

Recent events were only the first scene. The first cry. We don’t know yet how traditional political forces will respond. Some ministers have reduced the whole problem to a handful of economic reforms. Perhaps they failed to hear what the youth were saying. Perhaps they believe that the foundations of the system, as backwards as it is, are strong enough to weather the shocks. Or, maybe they think that that game in Lebanon is not a Lebanese one, but an Iranian, Syrian and Israeli one. Whatever the case, the current Lebanese spring (or autumn, if you will) has only just begun. 

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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