Amid protests unfolding since Oct. 17 across Lebanon against corruption, poor economic conditions and shrinking basic public services, protestors are embracing inclusivity to resist divisive sectarian rhetoric. The demographics of the protestors are hard to pinpoint because there are people from all backgrounds on the streets.
“It is a horizontal movement that is leaderless,” said Lea Bou Khater, a lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut.
However, there are specific groups whose participation is noteworthy such as women, refugees and foreign domestic workers, according to Serage Amatoury, a Knight Hennessey scholar at Standford University. Unlike the latter two, women’s participation in protests in Lebanon is certainly not a new or rare occurrence, but it is the first time that their presence has been acknowledged.
“I personally have been to countless rallies, and they were almost all exclusively lead by women on their megaphones,” said Elia El Haber, co-host of the Beirut Banyan, a Lebanese podcast. “Women have always participated, but I can’t remember them being so represented in leading protests, negotiating with soldiers on the ground to curb unnecessary violence and active in disseminating news on social media (before these protests).” El Haber has been participating in and covering the protests daily since their eruption.
The participation of refugees and domestic workers is also of major significance, said Amatoury, who is studying international policy, specializing in Middle East politics, human rights and corruption.
Refugees have faced hate rhetoric induced by Lebanese minister of foreign affairs and emigrants Gebran Bassil’s controversial statements. Domestic workers, namely from Ethiopia and Bangladesh, have faced horrible work conditions and low pay; as a result, they are marching with Lebanese citizens and taking part in this uprising.
“It is historic and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chant in one voice,” said Amatoury. “This is a revolution that is intersectional and inclusive,” said Amatoury. “These are two very important things because they were lacking in Lebanon before the 2019 protests.”
Despite their differences, the protesters unite under one phrase – the uprising’s main slogan, "kelloun yaani kelloun," meaning “all of them means all of them.” It is directed at the political elites whom the protestors believe should all be held accountable for the country’s turmoiled state, he said.
“This slogan can be easily applied to the protestors on the street right now. All of them are on the street, the whole population,” Amatoury said. This is helping the protestors raise their voices louder and louder. “We are destroying the notion of the other, it is this very notion of the other that mobilizes people to go to the streets and revolt against the other,” Amatoury added.
The protests were sparked by new proposed taxes on WhatsApp voice calls coupled with the government's struggle to contain wildfires only a few days earlier. However, the actual reasons for the protests are vast and have been accumulating for the past 30 years. As El Haber suggested, the sectarian political system, which has kept the same men who had led active factions in the civil war in power since 1990, was a key problem.
“(This is) a system according to which people are hailed as members of religious sects instead of being constructed as predominantly members of a political community whose members enjoy equal rights and obligations,” explained Paul Tabar, a sociology and anthropology professor at the Lebanese American University, in an email.
It was a system that best served both the economic and political interests of the oligarchs and the elite class of each sect, Tabar said. Other problems include the government's failure to provide basic public services such as water, electricity, garbage disposal, and lack of sound infrastructure that reaches beyond Beirut. Economic turmoil such as an overall unemployment rate of 25% and a national debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of slightly more than 157%, among the highest in the world, are other factors that outraged many citizens.
Identifying the protestors demands is challenging.
“It is a movement that does not have well-announced demands,” Bou Khater said.
However, looking at the problems and conditions that the people have protested against, it is clear that the people of Lebanon are yearning for their basic rights and dreaming of freeing the rule from the hands of political leaders that are drenched in corruption, said El Haber. Bou Khater explained that the protests were initiated as a cry for socioeconomic justice but shifted to a more political narrative that is rejecting all political leaders after the first few days.
The next expectations
Projecting the future of Lebanon post-uprising is difficult, as there is a lot of uncertainty. However, people have already started to fight this uncertainty by taking initiative. According to El Haber, many protesters are hosting daily seminars across various squares to engage in discussions about law and economics, and to address the concerns of what options they will have after the uprising. Tabar said he predicts the country will have to embark on a long and complex but gradual process of political, social, economic and cultural reforms.
Regardless of what the future holds for Lebanon, the country will surely not be left unchanged after the uprising, said Amatoury. But that might not happen anytime soon because the people are not ready to leave the streets just yet. “Now that we have the microphone and that the people have power, we are going to exploit this opportunity and speak up for everyone’s rights,” Amatoury said.
*Freelance op-ed contributor, M.A. journalism student