The Lebanese revolution is not only about shouting, singing and dancing … and barricading roads!
Sid Luckett | Amandla! Media | 17 January 2020
I recently spent a fortnight in Beirut and Tripoli (my third visit to Lebanon) witnessing and participating in demonstrations in and around the main ‘revolutionary’ squares of these two major Lebanese cities. What I discovered differed considerably from the popular media’s (including Twitter and Facebook) projection of the revolution. The media focuses almost entirely on Beirut making it inevitable that the reader assumes the revolution started in Beirut. Many of the people I spoke to at Martyrs’ in Beirut square reinforce this impression, but the Tripolitans have a different version – for them the revolution started in Tripoli. And for good reason: in 2015 a UN study found that in Tripoli more than half the population live at or below the poverty line and 26 percent suffer extreme poverty.
What is undisputed is that the underlying cause of the revolution is the government’s failure to manage the economic crisis because of endemic corruption (‘State Capture’) by the political elite (which includes all the main parties catered for in an unwieldy constitution), who are shielded by legislation such as banking secrecy. The consequences of this failure are a lack basic services, such as water (fresh water is trucked in to the commercial areas only); while electricity and rubbish collection are no longer supplied by state institutions, even though are charges are levied for this by central government and municipal regions. In addition, there is an almost complete collapse of the banking sector resulting in regular and unpredictable closure of ATMs, cheques not honoured by banks and the sudden collapse of the Lira (within months its value against the dollar halved). Add to this rampant unemployment amongst the youth and a job market where jobs are obtained only through political connections – for even those with highly skilled professional qualifications.
It is also widely agreed that two events triggered the revolution: a planned tax on voice over internet protocol (VOIP) use (a feature used by Whatsapp and Facebook) and the state’s failure to control a runaway fire in the mountains because fire-fighting helicopters were not operational due to cuts in public sector funding.
After an initial outbreak of violent protests – burning of tyres, smashing of windows etc. – the revolution took a more focussed and peaceful turn.
A striking feature of the revolution is the ubiquitous presence of women – as illustrated in the photos below.
My first experience of the revolution was being taken to a picnic sit-in by Abïr & Riana, mother and daughter, at the upmarket Zaitunay Bay marina that houses multi-million dollar yachts. A protest had started there a few days earlier (5th November) to highlight the corruption and illegal acquisition of coastal properties in Lebanon by developers connected to politicians. All along the marina there are high-end bars and restaurants on public property for which the developers pay a mere US$ 1.50 (R22,12 (Exchange rate on 28 Nov 2019)) per square metre per annum! Initially riot police had been deployed to prevent the protestors from entering the area but after negotiations with the protestors, who guaranteed that the protest would be non-violent, the police let them in.
Like many revolutions art plays an important role. Many of the artworks contain the Cedar of Lebanon, the emblem at the centre of the Lebanese national flag. These cedar trees once covered the mountains of Lebanon, rising above Tripoli and Beirut, and were used by the Phoenicians to build their ships. Few westerners are aware that Lebanese settlements predate the establishment of Rome. In the Biblical Old Testament the Lebanese Cedar is often referred to as a symbol of righteousness: “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92:2). This is the Lebanon that existed long before the birth of the Christian and Islamic religions. The long and bitter Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) fought largely between Christian and Muslim sects is one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century. One of the hallmarks of the current Lebanese revolution is that it transcends these sectarian divides.
Tamara, like many of the protestors I met was disturbed by what she felt was the violent content of the revolutionary murals. To counter this, she painted this girl symbol with two heart-tears beneath closed eyes, hoping to instil a more peace-loving consciousness into the revolutionary mural art. She told me she has been influenced by a Mexican film-maker and by Tai-Chi (which she practices). She had been mocked by some protestors for painting this figure, but I witnessed a few like-minded souls attracted to her cause – two men who had been to Nepal and a young student, who sat quietly in a corner with her head buried in a Buddhist book.
Counselling & Caring
This revolution is without doubt the most welcoming and hospitable I’ve ever encountered. Whenever I visited Martyrs square in Beirut or the al-Nour Square in Tripoli, I was warmly welcomed with cups of coffee, water, delicious Lebanese pancakes and chairs and cushions in the small tents set up by protestors.
In Tripoli a special tent has been set up for anybody wanting counselling (by qualified psycho-social personnel) or simply to talk or drop-in for some quiet and rest.
Only once was I verbally attacked. Fortunately it was in Arabic, so I didn’t understand a word. I was later told by a young woman that the attackers were uneducated school drop-outs who could not tell an American from a South African! The four men who verbally attacked me calmed down after she objected and invited a Lebanese BBC reporter into the tent to interview them. They valued the recognition and chance to tell their stories.
Both centres had child-care facilities that operated well into the night.
Both centres had well managed medical and legal support facilities.
Talking, talking, talking …
Day and night one comes across small gatherings and large groups talking about the revolution; thinking, brainstorming, strategizing and addressing daily needs.
Night-time open air discussion in Tripoli
There is also singing and dancing and chanting..
“Tripoli’s nightly rallies, which resemble an electronic music festival, have become a ritual for the roughly 500,000 residents of the mainly Sunni Muslim city” (Eric Knecht & Yara Nader for Reuters) .
Al-Nour Square at night. The centre for Tripoli’s activities
In Beirut the singing and chanting mainly takes place outside government buildings.
The singing is not only a repeat of well-known popular resistance songs. New songs are regularly developed and practised.
The revolution has already scored two important victories: the resignation of the prime minister and the appointment of a legal activist as head of the Lebanese Law Society – he won a decisive victory against an establishment figure.
In spite of the recent killing of Alaa, a widely respected revolutionary and attempts to derail the revolution by elements from Amal and Hezbollah (two contending conservative Shi’ite political parties), the revolutionaries did not respond with violence, although it would have been tempting to do so. In the latter case there was a danger that sectarianism would rear its ugly head amongst the revolutionaries themselves. Instead they responded peacefully by hanging up posters of Alaa and by a demonstration led by women (Christian and Shi’ite), which was widely tweeted.
One of the questions I posed to all whom I engaged in conversation was, ‘will the revolution achieve the goals that you want?’
One response from a young woman, sitting quietly watching Tamara painting her mural (A Syrian’s Mural), was this: ‘It might not, but at least I will have been transformed – I have learnt more in the last month than all the years that I spent at university.’
Sid Luckett is a social and environmental justice activist and researcher. During the height of the Apartheid era he was a leader in the mass democratic movement. After 1990 his focus turned to research on human/ecological systems (mainly in KwaZulu-Natal). In more recent years his on-going concern for the environment and social justice, together with a passion for documentary photography, has frequently taken him to Lebanon and the Kurdish region of Turkey.