Lebanese abroad look for ways to get involved in protest movement

Many Lebanese living abroad confess they feel guilt, shame or fear of missing out in the protests.
Sunday 17/11/2019
People shout slogans and wave Lebanese national flags as they take part in a rally in Paris to support Lebanon’s protests, October 20. (DPA)
A watershed moment. People shout slogans and wave Lebanese national flags as they take part in a rally in Paris to support Lebanon’s protests, October 20. (DPA)

PARIS - As Lebanon marks one month of protests, activists and demonstrators are charting their next steps in the effort to remove what they say is a corrupt political system. The Lebanese diaspora, which faces a different set of struggles, is finding ways to get involved in the movement.

When the protests began, many Lebanese outside the country experienced a whirlwind of emotions. There was pride in compatriots standing up to the long-entrenched government but also some uneasiness about not being present to support them.

This was not the first time Lebanese have had a protest effort aimed at revolutionising the political system but previous setbacks made many lose hope.

In 2005, massive demonstrations led to the expulsion of occupying Syrian forces but the following ten years were punctuated by social and economic crises. In 2015, a waste-disposal crisis led Lebanese to again protest in mass but that movement broke down because of internal divisions and the political class’s efforts to keep them at bay.

“I really lost heart after the (2015) ‘You Stink’ (protests),” said Drew Mikhael, a Belfast-based academic who said he visits Lebanon around eight times each year. Mikhael said that, after the collapse of the 2015 protests, he stopped keeping up with Lebanese news.

This time, however, something feels different, protesters said.

“The united nature crosses sect, class, gender. It’s inclusive of the LGBT community and it has reignited hope,” Mikhael said, adding that the new social contract forged by Lebanese across the country appears to be a watershed moment in casting off sectarian divisions.

The Lebanese diaspora is re-energised. Weekly protests have taken place in New York, Paris, London and elsewhere since mid-October. There has been a significant backlash to Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s suggestions that Lebanese unhappy with their government can simply emigrate. That struck a particularly harsh note with the diaspora, many of whom left because of a lack of opportunity at home.

Many Lebanese living abroad confess they feel guilt, shame or fear of missing out in the protests. It isn’t helped that they are sometimes stigmatised by other Lebanese for having left their country, whether or not by choice.

Nasri Atallah said he was at a protest in London, where he lives, and heard people chanting how they wish to live and work in Lebanon. While he doesn’t disagree, he said his personal situation is different.

“I thought about how, even if things in Lebanon were ideal, I would probably leave anyway because my ambitions are matched in a place like London or New York,” Atallah said.

When the protests broke out, Atallah said he considered returning to Beirut but he felt uneasy. “I felt it would be conflict tourism to go to my own country as an expat under these circumstances and I thought about how I could be of better use in my own city,” he said.

Since then, he’s been talking to others in the diaspora about how to help and build a network that can help find opportunities for young Lebanese artists or professionals, similar to networks used by the Armenian or Chinese

communities abroad.

There is a stark dichotomy between the lives of Lebanese diaspora members and Lebanese at home, many pointed out. A meme on social media during the first days of the protest movement showed a drawn figurine of an expat woman watching developments on her laptop surrounded by trinkets and dishes that reminded her of Lebanon.

“For the first week, I was glued to (Lebanese news channel) MTV and I’d be at my job and listening to all the latest developments at the same time,” said Micha Maalouf, who lives in New York. “I told everyone at my office what was happening and why this was so important.”

She was not the only Lebanese living abroad eagerly keeping up with the news but while expatriates used social media to stay informed, they sometimes struggled to manage their daily lives. Maalouf admitted she’s had to shut off the news so her work performance didn’t suffer.

Many diaspora members observed a strange dichotomy between following developments in Lebanon and staying connected to local happenings. Some found it surreal to flip through memes of their friends and family supporting the protests, only to be interrupted by an Instagram story featuring a plate of food posted by a non-Lebanese colleague.

“It felt like a moral obligation at first,” Youssef Mallat, a Lebanese living in Paris, said about focusing solely on “the revolution.” “When I’d see posts not about the revolution it made me a bit angry because I felt it wasn’t time to talk about other things and we have bigger problems but as an expat what do you do? At some point, your life is still going,” he said.

The divide reminds the Lebanese diaspora of the duality of their lives. Many left Lebanon for the chance at a more stable life but their hearts are with protesters on the streets of Lebanon chanting “thawra, thawra, thawra!”