Lebanon protests: Understanding the dynamics of social movements in the Middle East

MEHMET FAHRI DANIŞ @fahridanis
Published 25.10.2019 00:05
Lebanon protests: Understanding the dynamics of social movements in the Middle East

Bringing together people from every walk of life under a shared motivation, the protests will go down in the collective memory of the Lebanese and probably come to define Lebanese identity

Recently, there have been developments in Lebanon that brought the inhabitants of Beirut out into the streets and destroyed the legitimacy of the government, which could only be formed with great difficulty and is already in a delicate position. There are many factors behind the protests related to current events: Prime Minister Saad Hariri's declaration of an "economic state of emergency" in early September and the announcement in connection with it of a tax on calls made via WhatsApp and other messaging apps; inaction by authorities to tackle the wildfires in cedar forests, a tree that is deemed so holy by the Lebanese as to be included in the national flag as a motif; and above all else, the fury of the Lebanese people at the typical Lebanese politician who values personal or family interests above everything.

All of these can be used to explain the anti-government protests that set the agenda in Lebanon over the last week. But is it possible to make some inferences regarding the dynamics of social opposition in the Middle East by looking at the roots of all these developments that sparked protests?

The general pattern

A majority of the "civil society-centered" readings in the context of the Middle East point to the lack of a "middle class" in Eastern societies. This is a general pattern, simple examples of which can be found even in the 19th-century Orientalist literature. Indeed, it's true that organizational models in Eastern societies are not conducive to the emergence of a bourgeois class that would act as a link between the government and people, and organize the opposition when needed. But this rhetoric requires revision and, especially within the post-Arab Spring context, diversification.

Before anything else, the 21st century is the age of Generation Y and technology is as important as it was never before in the lifetime of a generation. Although there were many socioeconomic factors triggering the Arab Spring, the importance of masses "organizing through social media without a central control" was great, perhaps because it was a first. In fact, taking this fact into consideration undermines the classical argument that there is no middle class in the Middle East. Those taking to the streets in Cairo and Tunis in 2011, or in Beirut in 2019, joined movements that could arise because social media or WhatsApp entered their lives to varying degrees.

This reveals the internet's capacity to transcend borders and set new boundaries, and how it has changed a world that was woven with the outdated class patterns of the 19th century. The Middle East may lack a middle class, but what lay at the heart of the growing social movements during the last decade is a "class" that follows the world, is somehow familiar with global developments and is tired of the insincerity of their politicians. This class represents neither the bottom nor the ceiling in economic terms.

The power of the Arab Spring lay in showing that the societies portrayed as "lethargic," "indifferent," and "accustomed to despotism" in Western imagination for a long time have a capacity to take to the streets and change the existing situation. Fragile economies not based on production, financial difficulties, corrupt politicians, elites who are nothing more than pawns of Western nations... These are longstanding issues.

Although the Arab Spring stemmed from economic woes, the people taking to the streets had a basic complaint: they did not want their own states to turn their back on them. They wanted honest administrators chosen from among themselves, who could understand them. They did not want to see the authoritarian family "dynasties" that had dominated the political scene for decades.

The success or failure of the Arab Spring and whether it turned into a "winter" are issues that should be separately analyzed for each specific example after some more time passes by. As for Lebanon, where a few small incidents have taken place since 2011 in the form of street protests and such an extensive upheaval is seen for the first time, the recent protests tell us important things.

Lebanon's Spring

The protests began with the introduction of a bill in parliament dubbed the "WhatsApp tax," which aimed to put a $0.20 daily tax on messaging apps. But this was actually the last straw that infuriated the Lebanese. At a time when public debt reached 150% of GDP for the first time in Lebanon's history, people are having difficulty meeting their basic needs. Lebanese people have been occasionally protesting the battered economy with limited street protests for the last year. As it was in the beginning of the Arab Spring, however, the presence of social media and the internet makes it easier for people to mobilize.

The wildfires that have been ravaging the northern regions of the country uncontrolled for nearly a month are also among the reasons that sparked the protests. People cannot see a functioning state at work. That the resulting void left by the state is filled by sectarian organizations draws the ire of the urban "middle classes." This phenomenon also indicates a growing reaction to the practice of "sectarian-based politics," which can be seen as a structural aspect of Lebanese politics. It's obvious that this reductionist pattern, which has been routinely mentioned with reference to Lebanon for years, needs revision as of 2019. Lebanese taking to the streets nowadays do not emphasize their sectarian identities. They do not use any other symbol than the Lebanese flag. The Maronites, Druze and others criticize the existing system in which Lebanese politics is mired and which generates only poverty.

Alhough the government is the main target of protests, criticisms go beyond Hariri. Surely, recent reports in media that Hariri gave $16 million to a South African model, who said they had a relationship, have also triggered protests. But every actor in Lebanese politics, from the President Michel Aoun to Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, from Nabih Berri, parliament speaker and leader of the Shiite Amal movement, to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, which is "more powerful than the state" in Lebanon, received their share of sharp slogans shouted by protesters. In short, Lebanese politics, with all its complex alliance networks, as a whole is being denounced by the protesters. In a "demographic map" recently showing up on social media frequently, colors that represent the sects of Lebanon are replaced by a single color; that of "revolution."

Efforts to form a government that lasted nearly a year have further added to the fury against politicians who are already held in low esteem. The Hariri-led government, which was formed through a hard bargain for nine months, represents a position in which no political power group in the country can monopolize the power.

As ministers resign one after another following the outbreak of recent protests, Hariri is also rumored to possibly choose the same path. Saad Hariri, Samir Geagea, Gebran Bassil and Hassan Nasrallah, all of them influential figures within Lebanese politics, have criticized their rivals in their statements on the protests. With none of them taking on responsibility, it appears that no political institution in Lebanon is deemed honest enough by protesters.

The Saudi-Iran rivalry

But what are the external repercussions of the ongoing incidents? Analyses based on the "Saudi-Iranian rivalry," which has been regularly deployed to explain the situation in Lebanon since the eruption of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, should be revised now. It is already known that Saudis have given up hope on Hariri for a long time now and are seeking another figure to replace him. On the other hand, as the greatest beneficiary of the conflict in Syria,

Hezbollah gains much-needed legitimacy this way. However, it takes myopia to not see that the protesters on streets react against Saudi Arabia and Iran via Hariri and Hezbollah. Indeed, it turned out that Hariri's "visits to secure financial support for Lebanon" to various European nations in recent months, have not helped much and that external support cannot be a solution for Lebanon's ailing economy. While Europe and the U.S. have not made strong remarks about the protests so far, we can assume that they will take a stance according to how the events play out.

While it is too early to make a judgment, it can be said that the ongoing incidents may help Lebanon become a nation-state with all its subgroups. This depends largely on the course of events and the political leadership emerging out of it. When we look at the basic dynamics of the protests that spread from Beirut to various parts of the country, we see that not a certain party, political entity or the government, but the system itself as a whole is criticized.

The Lebanese, who are apparently fed up with external interventions stemming from the sectarian-based sociological model, emphasize the sovereignty of their country and place the Lebanese identity before all the other sub-identities. And we can claim that all these have contributed to the consciousness of collective identity in Lebanon.

Until today, the only figure who can be embraced by the Lebanese as a national symbol, from Christians to Muslims and from all sects, has been the famous singer Fairuz. The only way a community can be called a nation or can feel itself as part of a collective totality is the existence of such figures who can be endorsed by the members of that community and whom they can proudly remember. Without doubt, the so-called "WhatsApp" protests which broke out in October have brought together people from all walks of life with a common motivation for the first time in the history of Lebanon. It is an incident that will go down in the collective memory of the Lebanese and probably define the Lebanese identity.

* Researcher at Atatürk University's Comparative Law Department, Ph.D. candidate in political science at Yıldız Technical University

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