“Beirut Madinati” and the Absenting of Politics from Political Action
The uprising challenges authority
Two months have passed since the popular uprising started in Lebanon on October 17, 2019; the Lebanese political and economic system, based on quotas between sects, was no longer able to sustain itself. There are many reasons that led to this uprising, and they can neither be limited to the tax on phone calls via WhatsApp, nor the decision adopted by the caretaker government to fill the deficit of the system accumulated over the last 30 years. Coupled with the state’s failure to deal with the wildfires that broke out in more than 100 regions in Lebanon in October, the economic crisis that affected many in Lebanon was embodied by the decline in purchasing power due to the high prices of commodities, the (unofficial) dollar exchange rate at the cashiers, the shortage of many basic items such as bread, fuel, and medical supplies, and the government's decision to impose new taxes. Together, they sparked the October 17 uprising.
People protested in the North, in the South, in the Bekaa valley; they carried many slogans, the most prominent of which was “all means all” (killun yaane killun), meaning all parties in power. People took to the streets to demand the most basic of their livelihood rights; they refused the imposition of new taxes, and demanded the toppling of this system in all its components, from political parties to banks.
The authority in power initially countered the uprising with multiple speeches, and with a reform package presented by then Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who subsequently resigned under popular pressure. The street rejected the reforms presented by the Council of Ministers on October 22, 2019, that is, 5 days after the uprising began. As a response, the protests intensified and people returned to blocking roads again, in a clear expression of their rejection of the political class’ reformist plans to whom they gave a vote of no-confidence, citing its sectarian and consumerist ideologies since the Taif 30 years ago. No longer convinced with any reformist propositions, the revolutionaries also noted that did not meet the demands of the uprising in any way. After Hariri’s resignation, many people in the streets and squares express their anger with and rejection of the reform package on live TV, widely spreading the slogan “No Confidence” in the squares.
The authority asked the rebels to choose representatives to negotiate with, according President Michel Aoun’s speech on October 24, which, coincidentally, was his first public speech since the beginning of the uprising. The president, appointed via a settlement on October 31, 2016, is the head of the largest parliamentary bloc (28 deputies) and alliances with other blocs. He asked people to help him fight corruption, and stressed on the importance of the reform plan presented by the outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He then addressed the rebels, saying: “I am ready to meet with your representatives who would transmit your concerns, and listen to your demands. In return you listen to our fears of economic collapse, and what we must do together in order to achieve your goals without causing a crash and chaos, and to open a constructive dialogue.” Nasrallah, in turn, praised the importance of the reform plan, and endorsed the idea of selecting uprising representatives to visit the president of the republic with a list of demands. On the other hand, he bashed the protestors, pointing to the insults that emerged from the street, accused them of aggravating the crisis by blocking roads, and held them responsible for the outcomes of the outcome of the economic situation. He also accused them of being funded by foreign embassies that do not have Lebanon’s interest at heart. Mainstream media played a major role in promoting the superficial scenarios that demonize the uprising and accuse it of foreign funding.
The opposition to the uprising was not limited to speeches: the authorities used their security bodies and militias to attack, intimidate, and arrest demonstrators, who were detained by security forces and army intelligence. In many areas, such as Tyre, Chouf, and Beirut, party militias threatened demonstrators, breaking their tents or burning them in plain sight of the security forces. Concurrently, the army opened roads by force, assaulting peaceful protesters who.
Other parties attempted to “co-opt” the intifada, namely, the Lebanese Forces and Phalanges, both right-wing parties that participated in the civil war. They highlighted the importance of the uprising’s demands encouraged them, also presenting themselves as adhering to them. This was used as proof of a “conspiracy” behind the uprising, as framed by Hezbollah, the Strong Lebanon bloc, and the remainder of the political forces. It is worth noting that all the parties have met in successive governments, legislating laws and policies that serve the economic and political interests of their leaders.
In light of these speeches and calls for dialogue with the authority, the sit-in squares across Lebanon overshadowed the slogan “the people demand and do not negotiate” with an emphasis on the slogan “all means all,” which rejects the authority in all its components, including those who try claim the revolution as theirs. The demonstrators went to the houses of the deputies and the ministers for the sit-ins, as well as the public administrations, the TVA department, and the ministries, to express their rejection of the taxes and corruption prevalent in the ministries. They also protested against the banks to express their rejection of the economic policies of the Central Bank of Lebanon that consist in protecting the ruling oligarchy. They rejected the restrictions that commercial banks, which are part of this economic system, placed on workers’ money and small depositors by setting a ceiling for withdrawals on current accounts and withholding people’s money. Consequently, offering negotiation and choosing leaders from the uprising is a systematic method of power to thwart the uprising, as it is unrealistic to expect of a popular uprising to come up with a political organization while it is in its first weeks.
Civil or military?
“Civil society”1, a term that was largely picked up during the “civil movement” of 2015 to confront the waste crisis, comes to indicate all political parties and groups that did not fight in the civil war (1975-1990) and organized in a post-war period through non-governmental organizations, rather than through affiliation with sectarian parties. Many of the new alliances and parties, such as the Sabaa (Seven), have employed this term during the 2018 parliamentary elections, to stand out as lists representing the opposition. Perhaps the most prominent of these groups is “Lihaqi” (For My Right), which has popularity in the Chouf-Aley region, “Mowatinun wa Muwatinat fi Dawla” (Male and Female Citizens in a Country) headed by former Minister Charbel Nahhas, and “Li Baladi” (For my Country), which represents to a large extent the Beirut Madinati group that fought the 2016 municipal elections against the authorities.
Considered an “active” group in the political scene, “Beirut Madinati” was put on the spotlight after a delegation headed by Walid Alami visited the army commander on November 18 to negotiate with the “military establishment” on the use of violence against the protestors. It is worth noting that the Lebanese security services have used excessive violence since the early days of the uprising to open roads or to separate the rebels. Additionally, the army and security forces arrested many rebels who were detained for a whole day, thus violating the law that gives the detainees the right to contact a lawyer or his/her family immediately after his/her arrest. Many of them were tortured in the cellars of the investigation as well. The visit would have been confidential, had it not been for the campaign that asked “Beirut Madinati” to clarify the purpose of its visit to the military institution. An initial statement from the group justified the visit, stressing that “the army institution is the institution of the people.” The statement was later deleted from their account on Twitter. A second statement issued an apology and explained that the visit was “an individual initiative” and that the actor, i.e. Alamy and whomever accompanied him, will be held accountable. It also stressed on the principle of “the people demanding and not negotiating,” indicating that they do not aspire to participate in any government portfolio.
There are many problematics with the visit and the statements that followed, considering the emergence of a group such as “Beirut Madinati” and its activity in public affairs. Perhaps the first question mark is that the group would not have come out with a second statement of apology, had it not been pressured to clarify its visit and their justification of it. It therefore apologized under the pressure of the same street that refuses any negotiation with the authority. The two statements are contradictory; while the first one justified the visit, the second apologized for it on the grounds that it was “an individual initiative taken from outside the decision-making channels,” knowing that the photograph taken of the meeting was removed from the Lebanese army’s website after the statement of apology was issued.
Whatever the goal of the visit was, the two contradictory statements indicate a clear flaw in “Beirut Madinati’s” discourse: if the visit was indeed an “individual initiative” undertaken by a member, and if the group found itself obliged to justify his mistake, then this indicates a clear lack of political position and planning. And if the group wants to hold this member accountable, protestors have the right to know the details of the accountability mechanism, in accordance with the principle of transparency advocated by the group itself.
Therein lies the second problem: a discourse devoid of any clear political position in light of the crisis and the uprising’s demands in the streets, such as economic policies and taxes affecting workers and the poor dramatically, and many other demands such as work opportunities, and free medical care and education. It is not expected that the group comes out with a discourse on class, but the absence of a firm position on popular demands is, if anything, complicity with the authority and not an opposition to it. And in the absence of this political discourse, rather than demanding fundamental changes in the active political and economic system, another popular demand, the group adopts a civil “human rights” legal discourse, knowing that the law protects this political class.
Since its emergence, “Beirut Madinati” contented itself with development and reform proposals for the city and the right of everyone to live in it, in addition to a political plan and electoral program similar that, in accordance with most development proposals, do not address how these projects will be implemented and under which economic philosophy. The civil neoliberal group turned civil society confronted the sectarian power forces in the municipal elections under a reformist umbrella. Therefore, it contributed to increasing the separation between what is popular and what is civil, presenting itself as a group of skilled professionals in their fields of specialization, which distinguishes them from any other proposition or popular demand. This civic discourse is not limited to “Beirut Madinati;” it is applicable to all non-governmental organizations dealing with political issues, such as associations related to women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, and whose discourse is consistent with the agendas of donors and funding sources. These organizations, that base their work on services, development, and advocacy for the rights of individuals, ended up favoring clientelism over political positions.
This gap in the political discourse was felt in the 2018 parliamentary elections, as “Beirut Madinati” was largely represented in the list of “Li Baladi,” within the “Kulluna Watani” coalition. According to the mist3ideen2 group, which arose during the run-up to the parliamentary elections, and which conducted an evaluation of the candidates on the civil society lists, the “Kulluna Watani” coalition missed the unified program so that the allied groups were satisfied with the smallest common denominators. The alliance had many inconsistencies, most notably working with the “Sah” (correct) group led by Ziad Aabs, who persevered in his racist and sectarian discourse, vestige of his time as a member the Free Patriotic Movement, or their alliance with the “Sabaa” party, a group of businessmen who spent electoral funds during the parliamentary elections, like the authority’s parties would do.
Many of these groups, including Ziad Aabs’, “Beirut Madinati,” and “Sabaa,” participated in the popular uprising as part of the “popular opposition” that filled the squares on October 17. They are thus subject to street accountability, just like any civil society association or party that is active on the streets. From this standpoint, the visit of “Beirut Madinati” to the army commander, whatever its justifications were, means the absence of any political vision in the group’s dynamics and its discourse, its presentation, and its decision-making mechanism. Instead, the group and its team of professionals favored the approach that absents politics from political work and actions.
The practices of “Beirut Madinati” and other non-governmental organizations show a clear absence of the political, and reduced the political opposition to the regime to “civil society.” This classification dominated discourse when discussing protestors and the uprising, framing it as “civil society” confronting authority. It is worth noting, however, that it is this “civil society” that took advantage of the movements in 2015 to derive its legitimacy as an anti-authority power with a non-radical reformist discourse. In light of a popular uprising characterized by a clear radical discourse that calls for the toppling of the current regime, the insistence of these groups on a civil-reformist discourse will lead to their own demise. Their lack of clear positioning comes in contrast with those of the street, where political discourses and popular demands keep emerging on a daily basis.
What the uprising needs now is political groups and organizations with clear political demands and goals, which we are starting to witness through the formation of workers’ unions in certain sectors, such as the alternative press union and the gathering of workers in NGOs, to name a few. These groupings and organizations would include many of the rebels under unified and clear demands. The street also needs to be organized around societal and cooperative initiatives that offer an alternative participatory economic model, such as the “Habak” movement in Tripoli, a new agricultural pilot project aimed at creating economic alternatives in light of the economic crisis Lebanon is going through.
Therefore, the popular uprising prepares the ground for political organizations under clear political goals and demands. The people today demand a firm and strict political stance on the issues affecting them in their daily lives and livelihoods. As such, any discourse that does not take a clear position on these issues, pledging to combat and fight this system from its roots, denotes a clear gap that has no standing in the popular political discourse of the uprising.