The uprising in Lebanon
Interview with Mohamad Kleit | Amandla! Issue No. 67/68 | December 2019
Amandla interviewed Mohamad Kleit, a Lebanese journalist specialising in international affairs and a socio-political activist seeking proper change in his country.
Photos by: Sid Luckett
Amandla!: 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?
Mohamad Kleit: The uprising began on 17th October at 6:30pm when a small group of people gathered in Riad Soloh square in Downtown Beirut. By 8pm, that small group of around 30 people grew to around 300 protesters. Then a big group joined an hour later, coming from other parts of Beirut, so the number gradually increased until it became around 5,000 by 2am. What triggered this uprising were the taxes the government was planning to implement two months prior to the uprising, and which were to be included in the national budget in 2020. The most notable taxes were new ones on fuel, food products, and strangely enough, WhatsApp calls.
A!: Are there uprisings throughout Lebanon, or is it confined to Beirut?
MK: The protests have covered most areas in Lebanon, such as Beirut, Jounieh, Jbeil (Byblos), Saida, Tyr, Nabatieh, Baalbek, Zahle, Aley, Chouf, Rashaya, Shtoura, Khalde, Ne’me’, Barja, Akkar, Batroun, Jal el Dib, Bint Jbeil, and other smaller areas and towns.
A!: The impression that we get from the Western media, is that the cause of the uprising is corruption by politicians. Is that correct? Or are there other factors?
MK: The causes of the demonstrations go back to the 50s, when the political turmoil started in Lebanon between different political factions, that caused the civil war. This in turn made the country a cake that sectarian militia commanders and political leaders cut for their own benefit and to protect their interests, whether personal or sectarian-based. The system that was formed after the end of the civil war in 1990 was economically corrupt and based on a capitalist economic system. This led to them sucking money out of the people without providing proper services in return, such as electricity, water supply to houses, public transport, fixing roads (5% of roads in Lebanon are fit for driving), and other related issues.
In addition to that, there are the banks, headed by the Central bank which has had the same governor, Riad Salame, since 1993. They have benefited a lot from the political system, and they have made huge profits. And they have increased Lebanon’s national debt to almost $103 billion. This in turn has increased general living expenses, while wages have remained low. (Beirut is one of the most expensive Arab cities). It’s also worth mentioning that the US has put sanctions on some Lebanese individuals and banks that they claim support Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist group. In factm Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a resistance group against the Israeli occupation. They became part of Lebanese politics in 1996.
The economic crisis that started recently has led the government to take austerity measures, while avoiding fighting the corruption of the banks, major businessmen, and politicians (present and former). So, on 17th October, the government put forward the decrees as part of the 2020 national budget. The increased taxes on fuel oil, communication (a tax on WhatsApp calls), and others has caused an outrage amongst the public, who took to the streets to protest against the deteriorating economy, corrupt politicians, and Central Bank policies.
A!: Are there any political and or religious organisations involved in the uprising?
MK: There are several political groups, mainly leftist and liberal movements such as The People’s Movement (left), Communist party (left), Youth Movement for Change (left), and Sabaa party (liberal), in addition to NGOs, youth groups, universities, environmental campaigns, and a few trade unions.
A!: 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?
MK: Of course there is. 15 years of civil war revolved around sectarian political groups and fed sectarian hatred. These sects and political affiliations have been there amongst people since the 50s. The hatred has continued as a psychological and societal aftermath of the war, where people of different sects won’t enter areas inhabited by people from other sects.
The uprising broke some of these barriers amongst people. But politicians and political leaders have used the “fear of returning to the civil war” as a scarecrow to make their supporters hesitate to join the masses in the streets.
A!: People are chanting ‘thawra, thawra’ – revolution, revolution. Are there other popular chants expressing the outrage of the protestors?
MK: One prominent chant was “hela hela hela hela ho” and the protesters would cuss one of the politicians or the Governor of the Central Bank. It’s worth noting that some groups have called it the “hela ho revolution”.
Other chants include “the people want to topple the system”. This is a famous chant that was used in 2010 during the anti-sectarian system protests. It was then heard in Arab countries that witnessed the Arab Spring revolutions.
A!: What are the movements demands? Is it only about political change or does it include economic change? For example, I understand that about 20% of the present population of Lebanon are Syrian refugees. Does the issue of refugees ever feature in the demands of the protestors (in a positive or negative way)?
MK: The issue of refugees has seldom been mentioned during the protests; I recall it was mentioned once by an activist. They chanted against a right-wing political leader and the minister of foreign affairs, Gibran Bassil, because he created an anti-refugee atmosphere. He worked constantly on kicking them out of Lebanon and back to Syria. Now it’s also a demand by the Lebanese in general that the refugees should return to the safe areas in Syria, but not to act in a racist manner towards them.
But the main demands were economic reforms, snap elections based on full proportional representation, formation of a government of experts not political parties, and an unbiased legal system to take the corrupt politicians, businessmen, and bankers to court.
A!: This movement is unique globally in the almost party-like atmosphere of many of the gatherings – music, dancing, picnics. How did this come about?
MK: Well, the Lebanese are known to be life-lovers. We love to party and enjoy ourselves, even in serious situations such as protests and uprisings. Even in times when we have a political problem, we deal with it through joking and memes. It’s a double-edged sword though, it could be beneficial to grab attention and at the same time it could belittle the seriousness of the situation.
A!: What are the forms of communication used by the movement to conscientize ordinary citizens who are not presently committed.
MK: We’ve used direct communication through social media, discussion panels in public spaces, and also word-of-mouth to spread the demands, goals, and activities of the uprising. We, as demonstrators, try always to explain practically and factually why we are protesting in front of the Central Bank, for example.
An indirect form of support to the uprising was, strangely enough, getting attacked and beaten up by political parties’ supporters. This which created a sense of outrage amongst the masses. We have witnessed in several areas more people joining a demonstration or a march after those politically affiliated supporters attacked the protesters.
A!: The uprisings have been ongoing for some time now. What will happen if there is no substantial change? What will you do?
MK: We’ve already figured that the fight with the political stratum won’t be easy or short. The ruling class in Lebanon has been there since the 50s, and Lebanon gained its independence on 21st November 1943. These parties still rule up to today (with some changes and new parties joining in the 80’s and 90’s), so they won’t let go of their personal interests and profits easily.
Now, they’re trying to blame the uprising for the current economic predicament, rather than the real culprits – the banks and their own economic policies. They are also blaming the protesters for the sectarian problems and other issues that Lebanon has been suffering from over the past 30 years.
The protesters are well aware of these facts, and they’re aware that the only thing they can do is to keep the pressure on the banks, government offices, public squares, and economic centers, right where it hurts those in power.
A!: What will the movement do in the face of state repression?
MK: Well, we have faced repression more than once from the riot police and political parties’ supporters in several areas, and once from a former MP’s guards who shot and wounded several protesters in Tripoli in the north. We have been repressed in Beirut four times, Nabatieh, Tyr, Saida, Jal el Dib, and Tripoli.
The outcome: more and more people took to the streets over the following few hours or day. This happened not only in the area where the repression took place, but also in other areas in support of the repressed area.
Now, if mass repression took placein all areas of the uprising, I believe there would be a civil conflict. This is becauseof the existence of some political parties which have been members of the political system since the 50s. They have tried to take control of the uprising as if they were founding members of it. These are parties which were known for their brutality during the civil war and which also have their own militia groups.
In that case, it would be very difficult to predict what the conflict could lead to, but there will definitely be blood, and our demands will be lost beneath the rubble.
A!: 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?
MK: International solidarity that would benefit the Lebanese people is the actual absence of it. Lebanon has been occupied by many countries over a century. Its political parties were and are part of foreign agendas on Lebanese soil, whether it be Saudi, Iranian, American, French, British, Qatari, Syrian, Egyptian, or Iraqi. And that’s starting from the civil war up to today. So, proper solidarity would be that these countries would actually threaten the interests of the corrupt politicians, bankers, and businessmen abroad. One notable proposal that was put forward by an attorney is to send a complaint to the Swiss government demanding that they open the accounts of specified groups suspected of corruption in Lebanon, so that a proper trial could take place here.
A!: whats the role of women, and their lack of rights In the present system
MK: Women and feminist movements are the core of this uprising because of what they have suffered from the corrupt political system. It has supported religious laws that in turn stripped women of some of their civil rights. The feminist movements are pushing towards a civil, secular state where everyone is subject to the same laws, rather than each sect answering to religious laws and being supported by political parties that are based on sectarian groups. One notable example of feminist movements is that of the late Nadine Jouny – one of the most prominent feminists and rights activists in Lebanon. She passed away in a car accident almost two weeks before the uprising. She had demanded for years a nursery for her son after a religious court stripped her of that right on the basis of “sharia law”. Nadine was left to see her child only once a week. In the uprising, you would see her images in some areas of Beirut with the words “my nursery is my right”, as part of the campaign Nadine fully supported.
There was also a woman’s march, during the days of the protests, to support generally women’s socio-economic and political rights which they’ve been striving for in recent years.
Mohamad Kleit is a Lebanese journalist specialised in international affairs and a socio-political activist seeking proper change in his country.