Lebanon’s Protest: Cleaning Up the Streets

Lebanon’s protests are now entering their second week, with the atmosphere changing significantly as grassroots groups organise across the country. In this piece, as a follow up to his earlier piece on the unrest, Edwin Tran speaks to figures involved in the protests and dispels some misconceptions and misreporting around the movement.

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As Lebanon enters its second week of protest, Western media attention has focused on the festive nature of the popular uprising. Reporters at the New York Times highlighted protesters singing Baby Shark, while many others continued to claim that the demonstrations emerged solely as a result of the WhatsApp tax proposed on October 17th. There are a few who have reduced these complex developments as simply being issues of “sectarianism” or of Iranian influence in the country. Such nonchalant – and almost Orientalist – depictions of the protests create an erroneously simplified narrative. When examined more closely, it becomes evident that a wider array of factors and considerations must be kept in mind, key of which are deep-rooted socioeconomic grievances that stem all the way to the end of the Lebanese Civil War. The proliferation of political entities derived from warring factions has coincided with significant youth unemployment, budget and debt crises, and a wildly ineffective government.

This complicated context has resulted in a diversity of grievances and political frustrations. Individuals across sect, class, and upbringing have all joined one another in the Lebanese protests. Yet within this lies an important element that requires attention; underlining much of the activity is a grassroots element that has existed from the beginning. Indeed, as people began to take to the streets, they also began to clean the streets.

From Beirut to Tripoli

Just shortly after the WhatsApp tax was announced, many individuals began to message one another to meet in Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut. The first two days were marked by serious tension, as protesters demanded the government to reconsider its actions. On Friday, tear gas was deployed and riot police descended on protesters, leaving many to wonder if further violence was on the way. As the weekend approached, there was a noticeable shift in atmosphere. The protests became more festive, with lights, dancing, and even a DJ present. Cities across Lebanon, including Tripoli and Nabatieh joined in on the uprising.  

On Sunday, hundreds of Lebanese took to the streets on ad hoc cleaning operations. Trash and debris from the nights prior were collected by volunteers. Those who could not directly participate in the protests began to join in as well. Soon, a variety of other grassroots initiatives were taking shape. Bakeries began to distribute food to protesters free of charge. Activists organised medical support to those that were injured. Universities like the American University of Beirut were initially closed to enable students to participate in the demonstrations, but eventually professors were holding courses at protest sites. Emily Lewis, a reporter for the Daily Star Lebanon, told Encyclopedia Geopolitica that she has “Seen more and more human rights NGOs and others setting up tents every day offering legal support for free to people who have been fired if they protest instead of [work]… or for people who have been mistreated by police.”

All across Lebanon, grassroots operations are becoming an integral part of the protests. Many of the activities listed above continued throughout the week, as social media continued to highlight the ongoing situation. The Twitter account “Lebanon Protests” organised a cleanup of Beirut scheduled for Monday morning, which was joined by hundreds of individuals, and even biker gangs. Other accounts set off to record potential human rights abuses and instances of violence perpetrated by Lebanese riot police. Even services such as portable toilets, food distribution sites, and recycling centres emerged and were all organised by average Lebanese citizens.

Ironically, WhatsApp became one of the most important factors in organising individuals. Many of the initial protests emerged as a result of friends messaging one another via the app. These efforts were expanded upon by civil society organisations, with groups like Liqaa Hay mobilising individuals to the demonstrations as well. Further grassroots activity was bolstered by social media coordination. According to a Lebanese protester we spoke to, many of the grassroots initiatives seen across Lebanon, “are locally organised groups made up of students, spreading the word mostly through social media. This is, of course, other than the small NGOs that have been budding… For instance, the First Aid Stand is small groups of students from different medical schools and some professors banding together. Trash collection in [Riad al-Solh was organised by]… a group of [Saint Joseph University] students… How’d they spread the word? Instagram.”

Other developments were occurring outside of the country. Expatriates from across the world began to organise their own solidarity protests, with demonstrations visible in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Berlin, and other major cities. In line with the grassroots activities in Lebanon, these international communities have also begun to initiate their own programs. One such movement, the NeoLeb Initiative, is a Montreal-based group focused on synchronising efforts of diaspora Lebanese with protesters in the country. According to the organisation’s founder, “The initiative began when I noticed that many people, although excited to see the events unfold, weren’t sure what direction the whole thing was going, and that there was a serious lack of organisation on the ground. Spontaneous protests are great for the people to vent their frustration, but it doesn’t bode well for a long-term plan for structural change.”

The Seeds of Revolution

With this in mind, these protests should not be viewed as an isolated event focused on repealing a single tax. The volume and scale of these demonstrations highlight otherwise. They are instead a reflection of civil perception. To the average individual, Lebanon has faced nearly three decades worth of incompetence and government mismanagement. Basic services from street lighting to public spaces have been poorly implemented by the central government. Meanwhile, political parties employ coercive policies like restricting employment opportunities to supporters in order to maintain loyalty. However, all of these factors merge into a socioeconomic context that has seen a debt crisis, a currency crisis, and a youth unemployment crisis. This is contrasted by the actions of the political establishment, with individuals like Prime Minister Saad Hariri spending $16 million USD on a South African model.

Underlining these problems is a long historical precedence of self-reliance in Lebanon. From the civil war to the present day, many individuals have had to fight their own battles and find their own solutions in light of government gaps. During the civil war, activists in South Lebanon dodged Israeli artillery to dig irrigation canals. In the years following the Taif Agreement, constant blackouts required urban residents to secure their own generators. When trash began to pile on the streets of Beirut, many began to clean the city on their own, which eventually coalesced into the “You Stink” movement of 2016. As fires blazed across Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains a few weeks ago, it was volunteer fire fighters who took initiative in battling the flames.

Deeba Shadnia, a Middle East and North Africa analyst and freelance journalist, views the protests as manifestations of real grievances and anger. This is incredibly apparent in the reactions many had when protesters were able to occupy parts of downtown Beirut. This area was redeveloped by the company Solidere as part of the post-civil war reconstruction effort. However, such an area that was effectively off limits to most because of socioeconomic factors as much of downtown now encompassed luxury shops and high-end apartments. It can seen then that these protests, while supported and aided by civil society, originated from the people. Indeed, Shadnia notes that when the protests emerged, “Real time responses came organically to accommodate the millions of protesters across the country. People needed to organise food, sound systems, medical centres and even scooter services amidst road blocks. When a vacuum of governance is highlighted in such a stark way, it allows people to step in. Lebanese people have dealt with an absence of governance for decades and so have ample experience in organising their communities. This is just the first time we’re seeing it on such a large scale.”

This fact is echoed by Bassil, who explains that, “Communities are rallying themselves as communities tend to do: Colleagues, friends, and students going down together. From my university organising a sub-group on WhatsApp in Beirut, my church’s youth group organising a sub-group in Keserwan, or my friend’s extended family in Tripoli organising a sub-group. It’s incredibly ad-hoc.”

The fact that today’s protests emerged spontaneously should therefore be no surprise. The fact that Lebanese civilians were able to quickly organise medical support and legal assistance should therefore be no surprise. The fact that Lebanese of all sects and classes could come together to transport DJ equipment onto the streets of Tripoli should therefore be no surprise. For thirty years, Lebanon’s citizens have practised the art of self-reliance and action. As another Lebanese protester points out, “People already know how incompetent this government and system is. In Lebanon, we find our own solutions. We are entrepreneurs in working things out. They can sometimes be as protests to show [that] we are capable, but the government is incompetent.”

The Road Forward

The next logical step in the protest movement is the most difficult. While these grassroots developments are encouraging, there is a distinct need for centralisation and goal setting. Violence by Amal and Hezbollah-aligned thugs have begun to increase the potential for a more tense situation. Many are worried that one false move might result in the end of the peaceful protest movement. Others fear that a lack of organisation will result in the protests dissipating into meaninglessness.

This need for a more organised structure is something many recognise, and there are hints that some work is being conducted. Although civil society did not initiate the protest movement, their actions are still seen and felt by many. Such organisations are poised to unite protesters in a more organised fashion. Indeed, protesters that we spoke with agree with such predictions, noting that, “Our civil society has been budding for a decade now, and these people have scored notable victories in the years leading up to today. Their presence in today’s protest is more like existing and working in the background where they’ve been for a while. They’re not at the forefront of this, and they’re not a result or cause of this outburst. What I do expect however, is that when the dust settles these ‘civil society’ organisations to pick up in more popularity.”

Already, some indications of this can be seen through recent developments. On October 22nd, it was reported that civil society organisations and community representatives established a “Revolution Coordination Committee.” Around October 23rd, the website Daleel Thawra emerged in order to provide protesters with more structural organisation and a directory of resources. In their own words, “The first step in unifying our movement, is unifying our efforts.” These steps towards an organised movement will be key as the protests move forward. As of October 24th, President Aoun has called for representatives of the protest movement to meet with him for discussions. What happens next will be determined by whether demonstrators believe in Aoun’s words and to what extent the movement has consolidated.

For the time being, most protesters are continuing to clean the streets as they take to the streets. With dust bins and trash bags in their hand, many individuals are trying to create a country that they can be proud of. Where the government has failed, the people are stepping in with their own efforts. It is no wonder, then, why one protester made an interesting connection, “This is where corrupt lawmakers and ministers in our country belong-in the bin bags.”

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Edwin Tran is an independent analyst focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo: Shahen Araboghlian

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