Is change impossible in Lebanon?

Friday 12/02/2016

Eight months ago, Lebanon witnessed a quasi-revolution spurred by a garbage crisis that sent thou­sands of protesters to the street, bringing together the country’s youth from across the sectarian spectrum to denounce a dysfunctional government and rampant corruption in the ruling class. Lebanese have been suffering chronic power outages, water shortages and poor public services. The garbage crisis was the spark that enflamed an already frustrated population.

The anti-corruption youth move­ment “You Stink” has lost momen­tum even though no solution has been found to the waste manage­ment problem. The same corrupt politicians are holding the reins of power and fighting over basically every decision to be made, and cor­ruption is still tearing apart virtu­ally every public department.

However, to claim that nothing was achieved by the movement that sparked an unprecedented level of enthusiasm not seen since the Cedar revolution — the popular uprising that forced the Syrian Army out of Lebanon following former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005 — is a clear understatement.

“We would not have known about the garbage crisis’s tricky details if not for the movement. We would not have seen so much proof of corruption in many institutions,” said Fadia Kiwan, founder of the Institute of Political Science at St Joseph University in Beirut.

“The movement did not fail,” said Assaad Thebian, a lead figure in the “You Stink” campaign, which organised most of the major ac­tions. “We succeeded in establish­ing the principles of accountability and people’s right to oversee the government’s work.”

But security incidents and po­litical manipulation have almost aborted the movement, forcing thousands of enthusiastic young men and women who had occu­pied the Martyrs’ and Riad al-Solh squares in Beirut for several weeks to go home for a long break.

It has become clear that politi­cians whose influence is excessively branched into the country’s sectar­ian system and institutions see any reform attempt as an existential threat.

“The political class has attacked the movement in all possible ways, be it through police violence or sending thugs to attack the protest­ers,” Thebian said to explain why the movement lost its momentum. “It scared away many people who would have wanted to participate.”

However, many activists and ana­lysts blame the movement’s setback on the ramifications of its demands and the lack of coordination among activist groups, with each attempt­ing to shape it according to its own vision and ideas. From a spontane­ous protest pressing for a solution to the garbage crisis, the movement diverted its demands to overthrow­ing the country’s sectarian system.

For Kiwan, the movement’s slip­pery move into a radical political discourse was a major setback.

“What could have been more effective,” Kiwan argued, “is adopt­ing one goal (a transparent and environmentally friendly solution to the waste crisis), achieving a victory and then moving to other causes.”

For others, the lack of a common vision was a main weakness.

“You cannot carry out such a large-scale movement without first drawing an all-encompassing strategy, and this was not done,” said Mohammad Ayoub, executive director of the civil society organi­sation NAHNOO. “You have to make sure you are speaking the language of the people… and focusing on what the people think is a top prior­ity.”

But anyone familiar with Lebanon’s modern history knows that there are chronic obstacles hindering any movement aiming for drastic change. Lebanese tend to follow their (sectarian) political leaders blindly because of the ben­efits they get by voting for them as public services are ineffective and partisan-driven.

“Party officials get salaries and are promised positions and prestige while a larger circle of followers benefit from scholarships and other welfare services affiliated with the political groups,” Kiwan explained.

In her book Compassionate Com­munalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon, Harvard’s Melani Cam­mett explored how sectarian politi­cal parties use their welfare services to influence voters, mobilise com­munities and, when needed, recruit combatants.

She said political activism in Lebanon is largely associated with “higher levels of aid, including food baskets and financial assistance for medical and educational costs.”

While sectarianism has its roots in welfare, its main implication is the preservation of the status quo. Seeing the large crowds taking the streets in the recent movement, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said: “If not for sectarianism, people would have revolted… a long time ago.”

One can only conclude that the political establishment’s main weapon for preventing revolt is controlling Lebanese households’ means of subsistence. And if the segregated culture of sectarianism is to be fought, the battle should be focused on its roots. In other words, the movement should be centred not on ideals and abstract motives but rather on the material condi­tions of the masses.