Is this the end of Lebanon’s thawra or just the beginning?
An art exhibition just closed at the Sursock Museum in Beirut. It opened October 17, the same day the thawra (“revolution”) began as protests erupted on Lebanon’s streets.
“At the Still Point of the Turning World, There is the Dance,” listed among the world’s top 15 exhibitions in 2019 by New York magazine Hyperallergic, focused on painters and poets in 1960s and 1970s Lebanon but it resonated among Lebanese too young to remember those times.
Co-curator Carla Chammas agreed that the show sparked nostalgia but that its echoes are louder. “[In the period covered] intellectuals, thinkers, politicians and artists cohabited and exchanged ideas with a spirit of camaraderie, curiosity and creativity,” she said. “The thawra has brought people together in a similar way.”
Might the exhibition’s closure coincide with the end of thawra? Activities around tents in Beirut and street protests have tailed off and many observers have switched focus to the financial crisis as the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab hosts advisers from the International Monetary Fund and frets over whether to repay a $1.2 billion Eurobond due March 9.
Protesters, who precipitated Saad Hariri’s resignation as prime minister in October, are equally dissatisfied with Diab, who dismissed their demands for early elections. Those cynical about the thawra point out that parliamentary and municipal polls are not due until 2022 and that this is unlikely to change, given that the Diab government has a majority in parliament with support from the two Shia parties, Amal and Hezbollah, and from the Free Patriotic Movement, the Christian party founded by Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
Chibli Mallat, Lebanese law professor and author of the 2015 book “Philosophy of Nonviolence,” said the naysayers miss the point.
“When the garbage crisis took place three summers ago, 4 million Lebanese became experts in rubbish disposal,” he said. “Now, everybody is becoming an expert in banking and on the constitution. The citizen is so directly affected that he or she feels the need to understand the roots of the crisis.”
Mallat pointed to a plethora of lectures, meetings and discussions taking place across the country. Originally impromptu, slowly more organised through social media, these are becoming more settled. Subjects are as diverse as banking, the constitution, gender violence and sectarianism.
Some working in art and culture are organising under the umbrella of a larger group called Professional Women and Men.
“At this stage, we’re discussing and trying to agree on a mission statement,” said a 50-something participant. “We’re communicating, networking, things are evolving but there are already two active subgroups, one working on a reform plan for existing syndicates and the other on media productions to express the group’s views.”
Similar sentiments come from a 30-year-old Lebanese in Europe who joined protests with friends on a recent visit to Lebanon.
“I see a big change in people,” he said. “They no longer endure arbitrary authority, whether in politics or banking, as something they can do nothing about. The fact the current government appears fearless doesn’t mean that fear has not changed sides: that’s just the way these rulers operate.”
Thawra has been imaginative in propaganda of the deed. In December, chants of “Out! Out! Out!” drove former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora from a Christmas concert at the American University of Beirut. Public shaming includes disturbing politicians as they dine at up-market restaurants.
Protesters have highlighted the illegal usurpation of 180km of publicly owned seafront by well-connected developers. In November, picnickers congregated at Zaitunay Bay, a private development in Beirut aimed at wealthy tourists.
Women have been prominent throughout, as have once-obscure demands such as judicial independence. Protesters, even in January’s “week of rage,” have overwhelmingly opted for non-violence. Even a spate of attacks on ATMs in January quickly died out, not just because of extra bank security but due to public revulsion.
Mallat argued thawra is taking up not just the themes of regional protests in 2011-12 but of the Nahda (“Awakening”) of the late 19th century, which arguably began in Beirut when in 1863 Boutros Boustany opened Al-Madrasa Al-Wataniyya (the National School) to foster citizenship regardless of sect.
“We didn’t have the phrase dawla madiniya (“civil government”) during the Nahda,” said Mallat. “It emerged in Egypt in 2011. We don’t want to use the word ‘secular’ because it’s not ours. A ‘civil state’ doesn’t mean anything in classical political theory but the revolution is inventive.”
Mallat argued that Lebanon is part of a wider awakening. “Across the region, there is a process of enlightenment, a search for something different,” he said. “The vibrancy is stunning. Look at Saudi Arabia and the debate between Islamic feminists and the literalists of the Hanbali tradition. If you’re on an Iraqi Whatsapp, you can have 30 or 40 messages before you wake up in the morning.”