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As Lebanon’s anti-government protests entered their eighth week, the future of the uprising looked uncertain. Since 17 October 2019, Lebanese have taken over the streets to protest against the crashing economy and a corrupt elite that has been in power for decades. For the first time in the country’s modern history, the population is mobilizing across sectarian lines.
Unlike other protests in recent years, the current movement is not only centred around the capital Beirut. Tripoli, where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, has quickly become one of the hearts of the uprising. In a city that has often made headlines for the rise of Sunni extremism, people have consistently gathered to demand an end to poverty and deprivation. In the mainly Shia southern town of Nabatiyeh, protesters have targeted Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, one of Lebanon’s most powerful politicians, whose Amal Movement controls the area.
The protests have been described as spontaneous and leaderless. “Leaderless is the new watchword, it is the brand of today’s protests in the world,” Joseph Bahout, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Fanack. “It decreases the risk of being targeted and co-opted. People also show distrust towards traditional political organizational methods,” he added. As they manifest suspicion towards politics, protesters fear being entangled in a scheme they reject.
Although no figure has yet emerged to represent their demands, the protesters have demonstrated that crowds can wield power and influence, perhaps as much as individual leaders. Following the first days of the uprising, protesters started forming groups, either physically or on WhatsApp. This helped them coordinate road closures or organize gatherings and demonstrations.
Offline and online coordination has led to common actions, such as bringing people from outside Beirut to the capital to block the streets leading to the parliament, arranging a civil parade on Lebanon’s independence day or establishing a street clean-up initiative with sorting mechanisms on the ground. Collective creativity has led to spectacular actions such as a human chain extending from the south to the north of the country. Recently, a handful of Lebanese anti-government protesters lined up outside the Central Bank to get a free haircut in a symbolic plea to make the rich support the economy financially.
Some citizens coordinate the logistics and are in charge of communications. Others are responsible for fact-checking and debunking ‘fake news’. They can also count on a wide range of online support. Thanks to websites such as Daleel Thawra or Facebook pages such as Akhbar al-Saha, people can stay informed about the dates of demonstrations occurring across the country. Social media have provided information about the needed emergency supplies and assistance to support the movement. Some lawyers have also proposed free legal support for protesters fired from their jobs.
People are transforming their cities into spaces of public debate. Committees have been established to discuss burning political, social and economic issues.
So, although the movement may not have figureheads, there are people who actively contribute to its organization. Suggesting that the uprising lacks leaders is not exactly accurate.
“It sounds nice when we say that the protest has no leaders,” Bahout told Fanack. “But you can’t explain the resilience of the movement over such a long period of time, these impressive organizational capacities and this well-thought-out choreography without any sort of leadership.”
However, if the strategy paid off in the early stages of the uprising, it may soon face crucial issues. ‘Leaderless’ may feed conspiracy theories, for instance. The anonymity of those who are mobilizing day and night to bring about change might raise suspicions around who they are and the genuineness of their commitments to the uprising.
The secretary-general of Hezbollah, the powerful Shia organization, has already seized on this aspect of the movement to state in a nationwide address on 25 October that the ongoing protests are being driven from outside in order to weaken the country. The same type of discourse resonates among the supporters of President Michel Aoun, the founder of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. Many of these supporters believe that the uprising is guided by other political factions such as the Progressive Socialist Party.
However, some commentators argue that the emergence of leaders would be a boon for the current ruling parties. Leaders risk being targeted (intimidated, imprisoned or even killed) by the authorities as a means to instil fear among the protesters and curb their will to change the system, ensuring the ruling parties remain in power.
Another issue that might confront the movement is its lack of ideology. This is one of the reasons why it has managed to attract large segments of Lebanese society, including people from various socio-economic backgrounds. Yet while everyone agrees on the need to fight corruption and change the system, few have a clear idea of what to replace it with. When a movement gathers millions of people, it also gathers different, if not opposing, perspectives about what should come next.
“We are reaching here the limits of the ‘no-programme’ strategy. It is one thing to reject this system, it is another to agree on the next steps,” Bahout observed. “Do we want more taxes to finance public services or fewer taxes? Many are advocating a government of experts without realizing that such a government will implement policies that require sacrifices.”
For now, violence has been sparse compared to the hundreds of deaths in Iraq or the repression in Iran. Yet clashes have regularly erupted between protesters and supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, its Shia rival.
On 24 November 2019, supporters of the two parties threw rocks at the protesters and tried to infiltrate the crowds. Some of them carried sticks and metal bars. A few weeks earlier, supporters destroyed tents belonging to protesters in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square and beat activists who were blocking the Ring Bridge, a major thoroughfare.
Yet even if Hezbollah has the logistical power to crush the revolt, it has so far shown restraint in resorting to violence, betting on the protest’s momentum to wane. According to Bahout, “Hezbollah knows very well that such a movement can falter as its internal contradictions emerge, that people may get tired, that the economic crisis will hit even harder, that some people will lose their jobs and may become less inclined to support the uprising.”
As the crisis deepens, social despair is growing. Several cases of suicide have recently been reported in the media, shedding a tragic light on the growing number of Lebanese who are unable to make ends meet.
Several private sector companies have had to halve salaries, and many employees live with their fear of being fired. According to the restaurant owner syndicate, more than 250 businesses closed down in October alone.
Restrictions on dollar withdrawals have forced people to turn to moneychangers, pushing up the unofficial exchange rate to more than 2,200 Lebanese pounds, which is normally pegged at 1,500 pounds to the dollar.
Inflation is also rising while capital inflows are stagnating. According to experts, Lebanon may soon face a sovereign debt default, and there are fears of an upsurge in criminality.
The government has struggled to find a solution to the crisis since Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister on 29 October. The presidency announced on 4 December that it will hold parliamentary consultations and name the next prime minister on 9 December. The latest frontrunner for the job is Samir Khatib, a businessman is the Executive Vice-President of Khatib & Alami and who has never held political office. His nomination has angered protesters who say he is too close to the establishment.
For now, Lebanon’s political evolution remains unpredictable.