A disastrous speech by President Michel Aoun, the killing of a protester and a burgeoning student uprising have revitalised the revolutionary struggle in Lebanon. Sensing the masses’ energy beginning to wane, the ruling class became overconfident, and seriously miscalculated with a series of provocations that only strengthened the people’s resolve.
On 12 November, Aoun made a nationally televised address. He did so in an already febrile atmosphere, because news had previously spread that a planned parliamentary session, scheduled for the same day, was intended to pass a general amnesty bill that would let all Lebanese politicians off the hook for corruption and misuse of public funds. This caused a wave of anger and calls for a general strike that day, which led the session to be delayed until 19 November.
When Aoun spoke, he rejected the call for a government of specialists, castigated the masses for risking economic “catastrophe” and accused protesters of “stabbing the nation with a dagger”. He further stated: “if people aren’t satisfied with any of the decent leaders, let them immigrate.”
The Lebanese people were justly outraged at this speech, which fully exposed the arrogance and contempt with which the ruling classes regard the masses – not so different from a certain 18th-century monarch’s quip: "let them eat cake." The masses responded by taking to the streets in greater force. Thousands of demonstrators marched to the Presidential Palace in Baabda, only to be blocked by hundreds of soldiers.
Similar protests broke out across the city and spread throughout the country, with an unprecedented slew of road blockages at Qob Elias, Ring Bridge, Dahr el Baidar, Jiyyeh, Nahr el Kalb, Neemeh, Beddawi, Abdeh, Mahmara, Braqil, Madina Riyadiyya, Verdun, Jal el Dib, Hasbaya, the Palma highway, Aley, Cola, Dawra, Sayyfi, Corniche al Mazra and Sassine.
Another turning point came in Khaldeh, south of Beirut, where Alaa Abou Fakher, a member of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, was shot in the head in view of his wife and child by an army officer. He later died in hospital, becoming the first casualty at the hands of the armed forces. The Lebanese Armed Forces Command released a statement claiming that Fakher had been accidentally struck by a “stray bullet” after the soldier responsible fired over the heads of the crowd in an attempt to disperse them. But witnesses dispute this, and claim the killing was deliberate. The army brass announced that the military prosecutor had ordered an investigation into the case.
#Lebanon: Day 29 of the #Revolution against the corrupt political system.— Hasan Shaaban (@hasanshaaban) November 14, 2019
The whole was dedicated to "Alaa"#Funeral of slain #protester "Alaa Abou Fakher" in the town of Chouifat, Mount Lebanon area. Thousands of people came to pay their respects.#photojournalism #لبنان_ينتفض pic.twitter.com/BoqjalxQBO
These events poured petrol on the flames. Vigils were held for Fakher around the country, hundreds attended his funeral in the town of Choueifat and the protest movement ramped up over the next few days. Another activist and protester, Khaldoun Jaber, was then released by the army having been arrested in Baabda, for reasons that are currently unclear. His body was covered in bruises, and he claimed he was held in a secret location, without access to a lawyer and subjected to physical and psychological torture.
This further enraged the movement, partly because of the barbaric treatment endured by Jaber, but also because his story raised questions about the whereabouts and treatment of other protestors currently detained. As a result, dozens gathered outside of Beirut Justice Palace today to demand answers about the location and wellbeing of their friends and family. Far from quelling the revolution, these new acts of brutality have only spurred it forward.
Students and youth have been playing a very prominent role over the past couple of weeks. Revolutions don't have borders—and the youth of Lebanon have taken notice of the inspiring Chilean uprising started by school students, which brought millions of people to the streets in the face of brutal repression.
Young people are severely squeezed in Lebanon, and a 35 percent youth unemployment rate leads thousands of graduates to emigrate every year to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Also, a legal voting age of 21 (and the deeply corrupt, nepotistic and sectarian political system) makes many young people feel powerless to make their voices heard. The youth are now surging onto the scene to express their pent-up frustrations. High school and university students started to coordinate protests and walkouts after classes were supposed to resume on 6 November—not only in Beirut, but from Akkar and Tripoli in the north, to mountain villages like Sofar, to Jounieh and Jbeil on the coast, and Nabatieh and Sidon in the south. Thousands of students up and down the country protested outside of their schools and universities, refusing to return to class until their demands were met.
These varied from place to place, but popular examples include more funding for the Lebanese University, reforms to tuition fees and student finance, better graduate job prospects, an end to nepotism and sectarianism in job hiring, proper healthcare coverage and pension reform.
The students have shown an impressive level of creativity, courage and determination in their struggle. For instance, in Tripoli, students used a cherrypicker to get their peers out of their high school building, after the school administration refused to let them leave to join the protests:
In the northern town of Kfar Qahel, the army was filmed threatening to arrest students if they kept blocking the road by their school, regardless of their age and whether they were boys or girls:
Video being shared showing #Lebanon Army threatening to arrest high school students in northern town Kfar Qahel if they keep blocking road by their school regardless if they're "17 or 15", & that "girls/women won't be spared".— Kareem Chehayeb | كريم (@chehayebk) November 6, 2019
Metadata shows the video was taken 3 hours ago pic.twitter.com/9obEWTBJhQ
Despite this intimidation and repression, the student protests show no sign of abating: the schools and universities are still closed. The young people in these demonstrations feel they have little to lose. Raseel, a 16-year-old student in Sidon who was interviewed for Al Jazeera, summed up the sentiment of the youth protesters:
“We are on the streets to provide ourselves with a better future, because most of us are graduating without any job opportunities and are forced to leave the country… We can resume our education later, because what's the point if there's no future, no jobs and we have to sit at home?”
Change of tactics and economic turmoil
The student struggle gave the movement a boost, and with the road blockages offering diminishing returns, the protesters began to shift their tactics. They began targeting institutions identified with the corrupt and hated state. In Beirut, demonstrators surrounded the ministries of justice, energy, foreign affairs, finance, tourism, communication and labour; and the offices of the main Lebanese electricity provider (Electricite Du Liban) – a source of frustration for its regular outages. Many of these institutions were forced to shut down.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s parlous economic situation is unravelling even further, placing additional pressure on the ailing government. Lebanon is one of the most-indebted countries in the world, and highly dependent on foreign currency (particularly US dollars). The country was already facing an economic crisis when the revolution broke out, with a shortage of dollars due to reduced economic activity and a fall in the amount of money sent home by Lebanese emigres. In response, the Lebanese Central Bank increased interest rates on dollar deposits to bring in more foreign currency.
But this placed additional pressure on the Lebanese pound, which weakened against the dollar by around 19 percent on the black market, pushing up prices in shops and creating fear that people could lose their savings. This was a factor in provoking the revolution to begin with: the political establishment leeching off the state coffers for personal enrichment while ordinary people struggle. The parasitical role of the finance sector in Lebanon has now been fully exposed.
Banks began putting limits on the amount of dollars people could withdraw, to protect their reserves. These dollar-rationing policies threatened to cause price hikes in gasoline, petrol, food, medicine and other necessities, which would have fuelled the revolutionary struggle even further. On 9 November, the head of the Lebanese Syndicate of Hospitals said that medical stocks in the country "will not last more than a month" if the situation continued.
To prevent a run on the banks, they have been closed, which has functionally brought the economic life of the country to a standstill. In these conditions, the revolution is in a potentially very advantageous position. A far-sighted leadership could easily connect the dots and use the weakness of the state and economy to its advantage, deepening and coordinating the strategy of shutting down key state institutions, taking them over, and seizing the banks to alleviate the shortages of essential goods.
Ebbs and flows
For a time, it seemed like the movement was slowing down. The people were not remotely satisfied with or fooled by promises of reforms, minor concessions and political manoeuvring from the political elite. However, the lack of any concrete road forward meant fatigue and disillusionment was starting to set in. Workers can only handle such a disruption (risking their security and livelihoods) for so long without any tangible progress being made.
For instance, last week in Sour, in the South of Lebanon, we asked a woman in her late-30s working at a convenience store what her opinion of the revolution was. "Revolution? What revolution?", she scoffed. "Everything is the same, still the same problems, nothing has changed." Similarly, a 24-year-old Uber driver told us that, while he didn’t support any political party or leader, and was sympathetic to the movement, he was frustrated, admitting: "I don't like the thawra [protests]. I need to work!"
The increasing exhaustion has resulted in some cracks emerging. Hezbollah has played a particularly disgusting role in deepening and exploiting these. Despite his previous ‘anti-corruption’ stance, Nasrallah has been adopting an increasingly critical position towards the revolution, which has targeted him by name as a member of the hated political establishment.
On 1 November, Nasrallah said he feared overthrowing the government would leave a “vacuum” in Lebanon, and implied the protestors were being manipulated by foreign powers. And on several occasions supporters of Hezbollah have attacked protesters. All this goes to show that, now that it has a stake in state power, Hezbollah is opposing the people to protect its privileges.
Hezbollah and the rest of the ruling class is attempting to sow divisions within the movement. For instance, student supporters of the Shia Amal party (a close ally of Hezbollah) moved to protect “their” building from protesters at the public Lebanese University – Hadath campus:
Pro-Amal students are protecting 'their' building from protesters at the public Lebanese University - Hadath campus. It's a good example of how sectarian parties treat public institutions actually. They see them as their private property. https://t.co/nTlpglyHpf #ثورة_الطلاب— ابن بالدوين #لبنان_ينتفض (@joeyayoub) November 7, 2019
Furthermore, state repression has been ramped up, with the armed forces (sections of which have previously shown evidence of sympathy and fraternisation with the revolution) clearing road blockages with volleys of teargas and acting more aggressively towards protestors. All of this was beginning to take its toll.
The way forward
However, a new period has opened up that is demonstrating the resilience and adaptability of the revolution. The arrogance and brutality of the ruling class has served to reawaken many protesters, just as they were beginning to tire. This goes to show that revolutions are not linear processes, but go through periods of ebb and advance. But the working class needs to feel like it is fighting for something concrete and palpable if they are to keep fighting.
Furthermore, there will be all kinds of manoeuvres from the top trying to drive the revolutionary potential into safe channels. Auon, Bassil and co. are currently deep in "meetings" to "discuss solutions". These include the return of Hariri (!) at the head of a new government, or the appointment of Mohammad Safadi as prime minister: the former Finance Minister (and ally of the Saudi Royal Family) who has allegedly been nominated by Lebanon’s three main parties.
Moreover, the burning anger of the Lebanese masses towards the entire political establishment (reflected in their main slogan, “all of them [out] means all of them!”) has fuelled a popular demand for a government made up of qualified “specialists” with no affiliation to Lebanon’s traditional parties or sectarian alliances.
Of course, such a technocratic government, made up of so-called experts drawn from the privileged ranks of the Lebanese middle classes, would be incapable of actually addressing the deep economic and social problems that afflict Lebanese society. Indeed, it would only serve to preserve the status quo. But this demand reflects the fierce hatred that exists towards the political establishment, which is rightly perceived as corrupt and rotten to the core.
This movement erupted precisely because the Lebanese people have no faith in parasitic rulers to fix the mess they created. The government is clearly trying to conduct business as usual, as if it has any mandate or credibility left at all. It wants to appoint a successor that will keep power in its hands. When the revolution loses momentum, it passes initiative and confidence back to the establishment. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The energy and creativity of the revolutionary youth has helped to re-energise the masses. But the revolution can only succeed if students can connect their struggle with that of the working class. Rather than students pulling ahead on their own and taking action in isolation from the mass of workers, a joint struggle must be coordinated and bonds of solidarity forged between the workers and youth.
For all of this to be achieved, the masses require a revolutionary leadership that can organise a general strike for the downfall of the regime. Rather than fighting for the formation of a technocratic government of ‘specialists’, to move forward, what is required is the organisation of neighbourhood, workplace, and soldiers’ committees. These must be coordinated up to a national level to provide a body that can guide and strengthen the movement.
The students too should organise themselves by forming democratic bodies at every school and university, which can link up with the workers’ revolutionary committees. These are the first steps towards workers’ power.
At the same time, the leaders of the movement must raise radical demands and slogans with a clear class perspective, such as nationalisation of the commanding levers of the economy, and expropriation of the capitalists and their wealthy cronies to invest in jobs, decent education, healthcare, housing, electricity and so on.
This is how to give the working class faith in their own power to radically transform society. With such a programme, it would be possible to move beyond the call for a technocratic government and recognise the necessity for a government of the people, elected by the people themselves. Without taking these measures to draw out class questions, there is a danger of emboldening the sectarian elements.
In reality, the people are already demonstrating their ability to run society themselves. Incredible initiatives during the revolution show the superior power and creativity of the people compared to their so-called leaders, with rubbish collection, open-air teaching and shelter all organised spontaneously by the masses in scenes familiar from the Sudanese Revolution, and the community-run social services by protestors right now in Iraq.
One man we spoke with early in the demonstrations told us: “We just want to be treated like human beings. While they live like kings, they treat us like animals. All we want is our humanity.” This is what people are fighting for the world over: their humanity and dignity. The people of Lebanon are tired of enduring poverty and humiliation at the hands of their ruling elites, and are striving to take their destinies into their own hands.
The only way to accomplish this is to mobilise the power of the working class to finish off the rotten Lebanese regime, and lay the basis for a socialist society managed by and for the people.