by Abïr Ward | Amandla! Magazine | 19 December 2019
Following his trip to Lebanon Sid Luckett conducted an interview with Abir Ward, a lecturer and revolutionary from Lebanon, for Amandla!
SL: When did the uprising in Lebanon begin? I understand that it was spontaneous, is that correct? If it was spontaneous what sparked it? Or put in another way, what was the tipping point?
AW: The revolution, not the uprising, began on October 17, 2019. About a week before that day, many fires erupted around Lebanon eating away at the Lebanese forests and reserves. Government agencies did not mobilize any efforts to put out the fires, so the people had to organized themselves to do the work instead.
Citizens were very angry because a few years ago, the government initiated a process to recruit park rangers around the country. Because the politicians wanted to equally divide these jobs between Christians and Muslims, and because most of those who had passed the examinations were Muslim, Politicians refused to give the bulk of the jobs to the qualified Muslims because of a constitutional provision for sectarian quotas so the entire project was cancelled. These park rangers could have protected the forests and prevented this widespread destruction of fauna and flora.
When the Lebanese citizens got together to deal with this fire crises, the politicians tried to politicize it; Mario Aoun, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement (a political party of the Lebanese President) claimed it was targeting only Christian areas even though the fires were raging through most of forests in the country.
Immediately after the fires were put out by the citizens, the Minister of Telecommunications announced that WhatsApp calls will be taxed approximately $6 a month adding to the already expensive telecom bill. This enraged the people and thousands took to the streets. The groups that were mobilized to deal with the fire crisis shifted to organizing the uprising. At first, the revolution was called the WhatsApp revolution, but the majority of the people refused this name because it was not about, it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Underlying the current Lebanon revolution is the thieving of their politicians who always turn social and economic uprisings into a political/sectarian one that the Lebanese had been suffering from for over three decades.
SL: Is the revolution happening throughout Lebanon, or is it confined to Tripoli & Beirut
AW: Uprisings are taking place all over Lebanon, but the media is only covering what is happening in Beirut and Tripoli. There are movements in Sidon, Tyre, the Bekaa, the Chouf and so many areas around Lebanon.
SL: The impression that we get from the Western media is that the cause of the revolution is corruption by politicians. Is that correct? Or, are there other factors?
AW: Thirty years of thieving, corruption, civil war, and foreign interference is what this revolution is fighting. The people of Lebanon have had enough and want to uproot their politicians and create a new, clean, and civilized country. The Lebanese are smart and resourceful, and they want a country that resembles them.
SL: What are the current legal, social and economic factors that discriminate against women in Lebanon?
AW: The Lebanese constitution is sectarian, accommodating the main religious groupings in Lebanon–both Christian and Muslim. Each sect in Lebanon has its own sectarian court to deal with personal status laws which are the primary discriminatory force against women. Secondly, Lebanese society still holds onto many patriarchal values. These two factors combined deprive women of their most basic human rights.
A woman is not able to pass on her Lebanese citizenship to her children, even if she is divorced and her ex-husband is a foreign national who does not live in Lebanon. Economically, women get paid less than men. A woman cannot purchase a motorcycle if she does not have a special license to drive one whereas men can purchase a motorcycle without them having a special motorcycle driving license. These are but a few examples of the discriminatory laws against women.
SL: It is noticeable from the media photos of the uprisings that women are involved in marches and other activities. What are the roles that women have played in this revolution?
This has been considered a female revolution because women have been as active if not more active than men in steering the revolution: women have been instrumental in every aspect of the revolution from the organization to the execution; they have been at the front-lines and have acted as shields between protestors and the armed forces.
SL: Are there any political and or religious organisations involved, as organistions, in the uprising?
AW: None. Some have tried to infiltrate but were forbidden from joining. One of the demands of the revolution is to create a secular state, and this cannot be done if state and church and mosque are not separated.
SL: Lebanon went through a terrible sectarian war in the period 1975-1990 that resulted in over 120,000 deaths. The scars are still very evident in Tripoli and in some buildings in Beirut. Is sectarianism still a feature of Lebanese life? Is there any danger of the present uprising degenerating into a violent sectarian conflict?
AW: Sectarianism still exists, and the danger is still there, but what this revolution has shown us is that these sectarian sentiments are the residues of what the politicians have instilled in the people to keep them divided so that they (the politicians) can benefit.
On October 17, 2019, the Lebanese people came together in a way never seen before.
The 1975 war had been brewing since 1840, when bitter conflicts between Druzes and Christians erupted and the Lebanon was partitioned by the Ottoman High Commissioner. It was more recently fueled by foreign intervention (involving Israel, Syria, the USA and some European countries). By transcending the sectarian divisions, this revolution has crossed the threshold into the Lebanon we have been dreaming of.
SL: People are chanting ‘thawra, thawra’ – revolution, revolution. Are there other popular chants expressing the outrage of the protestors?
AW: The most popular one is the “Hela Hela, Hela Hela Ho, [fill in the blanks with either a curse directed towards some politician OR a declaration of how beautiful the Lebanese people are].” Another one calls politicians thieves. It goes like this: “Thief! Thief! [name of politician/banker] is a thief.” A third one would be “Revolutionaries! Free! We shall continue the journey.”
SL: What are the movements demands? Is it only about political change or does it include economic change?
AW: The changes that the revolution is demanding and wants to see implemented are constitutional, political, economic, social, and environmental. The Lebanese want so much changed. They want a country that resembles them: An independent, secular country with no thieves, no warlords, no corrupt leaders, and no foreign intervention.
SL: I understand that about 20% of the present population of Lebanon are Syrian refugees and that the issue of refugees seldom, if ever, features in the demands of the protestors. Is this correct? If so how do you feel about it?
AW: The numbers are now close to 40% as far as I know. Not all of them are declared. A decade ago, it was said that Lebanon’s population was at 2.8 million and now it is 6.5 million with 4.5 million Lebanese.
The issue of refugees is one thing, and the demands of the protestors is independent of that. The issue of the refugees is an issue that the politicians keep bringing up especially in summits where they go to beg for money. So much of the money given to Lebanon to deal with the refugee crisis has been stolen by the politicians.
I am sure that many people are sensitive about the refugees and feel that the Lebanese are suffering doubly because of the influx of refugees, but I always remind those close to me that we are one people and we should remain as such, free from the poisons of divisive politics. The Syrians should return back to Syria eventually, and I am sure that they want to because that is their country.
SL: This revolution is unique globally in the almost party-like atmosphere (music, dancing, picnics) of many of the gatherings. How did this come about?
AW: It came about from a desire to peacefully demonstrate in a way that represents us. Lebanon is a beautiful, hospitable country with friendly people, great food, and an amazing sense-of-humour evident in how we deal with crises by cracking jokes and making fun of the situation we are in. This is our coping mechanism. The signs you see around in protest areas and on social media are some of the funniest I have read. Some are serious and righteous, some are sarcastic or ironic, and some are just plain funny.
Lebanon has been voted the number one party destination in the world a few times. We are a fun place, filled with life. We are one people facing one enemy and hoping to build one beautiful country together for us all.
SL: Related to this what are the forms of communication used by the movement to conscientize ordinary citizens who are not presently committed.
AW: Everyone is committed, but the movement is using short videos circulated on Facebook, Instagram, and primarily WhatsApp calling people to engage. Those who have not yet engaged are those affiliated with a political party or feel loyal to their political leaders because they are getting paid or fed by their political leader. Others who have not yet participated are those on the fence because they are afraid of taking risks.
SL: Have there been attempts to break up the activities of the revolution? If so, how have the the ‘revolutionaries’ responded to such incidents?
AW: Very much so! Using violence (teargas and clubs) and other sneaky methods like pretending someone is representing the movement (which has no leader, by the way). Some political parties sent their men to beat up protestors and destroy their tents in Martyr’s Square, but the protestors did not relent. They took all the broken metal bars from all the broken tents and placed them at the foot of an assembled raised arm, a symbol of the revolution
AW: The raised arm, was burned the morning of Independence Day (when the public organized a lovely parade). Historically, on Independence Day, the army would organize a parade and invite the president, prime minister, and head of the parliament to attend. The public was never allowed to take part in these parades. This year was different. The protestors organised a parade, and people cried tears of joy witnessing this lovely coming together of people to organize an event that included hundreds of thousands of people. and it was all pulled together within one week. Speak of teamwork! This is how amazing the people of Lebanon are. So that night, 12 hours after the symbol of the revolution, the raised arm was burned, the makers brought in another one and installed it in place of the burned one.
SL: Do you think that there will be an attempt by the state to repress the revolution, by, for example, declaring a State of Emergency thereby giving the police wide-ranging powers to arrest protestors?
AW: It has already started by using teargas and clubs to disperse the protestors, but nothing will break the spirit of the people. They have shown so much resilience! They are now coming together to help the thousands who were laid off at work. This country has been propped up by NGOs that are more active than ever. We, the Lebanese, are pulling together as a nation to make it past this terrible recession just like we did when the fires raged through the country. We are setting up food banks and funds and clothes donation stations etc. It is unbelievable. You see stores with signs in the windows saying “If you cannot pay for your produce, come in and take what you need.” This is happening all over the country. It is heart-warming and heart-breaking all at once: heart-warming to see kindness all around and heart-breaking to see so many people suffering.
SL: What do you think the protestors will do if that happens?
AW: We will organise a general strike. We will shut the country down. We will freeze it.
SL: Do you have any sense of international solidarity? In what form would you like to see international solidarity? Or do you think that it best that international supporters don’t get involved beyond reporting on the uprising?
AW: Lebanese all over the world have been protesting and supporting us in their countries of residence. However, we are against all forms of international political support. We do not want any form of foreign intervention because this has been crippling the country for hundreds of years. Everyone wants a piece of this place, and no one wants to see it work. This is why we are sceptical about all forms of foreign support and intervention. The funny thing is that politicians have said that such a protest cannot be spontaneous and from the people and that the people must be getting paid by embassies. In response, we created a video showing women and men of all ages saying, one after the other: “I am the one funding the revolution.”
SL: The revolution has been ongoing for some time now. What will happen if there is no substantial change? What will you do?
AW: We will keep on pushing until the end. We are already out of jobs. We are already hungry. We have nothing more to lose. All we need to do is figure out how to freeze these politicians’ assets. We need to find a way to send all these politicians to trial and prosecute them. We are going with this till the end.
Abïr Ward, a Lebanese mother, born in Liberia, is an Academic Writing and Communication Skills lecturer at the American University of Beirut and is currently registered as a PhD student at Indiana University (USA).
*All photographs taken by Sid Luckett