Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s October 17 Uprising, Three Years Later

Lebanon’s October 17 Uprising
Lebanese protesters rally in downtown Beirut during ongoing demonstrations to demand better living conditions and the ouster of a cast of politicians who have monopolized power and influence for decades, on October 21, 2019. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Dana Hourany

The popular outrage that erupted on Lebanon’s streets three years ago aimed at overthrowing the corrupt ruling establishment that had been usurping power for more than three decades, according to the crowds that took to the streets at the time.

The widespread protests that broke out on October 17, 2019, demanded social and economic rights and stoked the public’s desire for change. But only a few weeks into the uprising, the already precarious value of the local currency relative to the US dollar, started its steep descent, sparking an endless cycle of price hikes and hyperinflation. Banks closed, withholding the hard currency of small-scale depositors, leaving people without access to their funds.

Nevertheless, the early resignation of Saad Hariri’s cabinet gave the Lebanese a sense of success, but it was quickly followed by a series of equally inept replacements. The 2020 coronavirus lockdowns and the August 4 Beirut port explosion that left over 200 people dead, would subsequently leave the populace exhausted, terrified, and disillusioned, putting a stop to the street movements.

Activists and protesters told Fanack that looking back, they could clearly see how the uprising changed their lives and mindsets while also leaving its mark on the collective Lebanese memory. Others are less enthused, asserting that “October 17” has been reduced to a transitory opportunity that political turncoats both orchestrated and coopted.

“Electoral results in May 2021 were an intriguing and glaring outcome of the uprising. It was a welcome development that new faces, many of whom rose to prominence during the demonstrations, were elected to parliament. However, it frustrates me to see certain people misuse the revolution’s name for their personal political gain,” Wissam Moussa, a 31-year-old activist and demonstrator, told Fanack.

Small victories

Following a government proposal to levy taxes on the usage of internet communication applications like WhatsApp, a street movement arose. According to Moussa, the early days were “dream-like.” The streets of downtown Beirut were filled with music, dancing, laughter, and chants, and “for a minute, you believed you had a chance to fight the system that has been hammering you with troubles since the time you were born.”

At the time, the software engineer, who had been unemployed for an entire year and a half, committed to the demonstrations. In addition to giving him the will and grit to battle, he argues that the experience raised public awareness of the political and social state of affairs.

“After October 17, people no longer believed anything that the politicians stated. Even the elected officials themselves have changed their words and speeches. People have begun to ask questions and speak up without fear. It’s a resounding achievement for the movement,” Moussa said.

“Additionally, I do not believe that the uprising failed. We [the demonstrators] knew it was still premature and something bigger needed to follow but progress was hindered by political elites who coopted the movements,” he added.

These included the Lebanese Phalanges group “Kataeb” and the Lebanese Forces, which capitalized on the uprising to improve their political standing and support their “anti-establishment” narrative by participating in the demonstrations, despite having been part of the establishment for decades.

On the other side of the spectrum, Hezbollah and its affiliate Amal Movement assaulted protesters and engaged in many altercations with them in an effort to stifle the demonstrations.

According to Moussa, two or three opposition MPs out of the 13 who were elected in May who have since openly denounced the work done in parliament represent glimmer of optimism in a country notorious for political failure.

“I may be mistaken, and the Change bloc MPs may revert to sectarian realpolitik. But for now, it’s inspiring to watch people challenge figures once deemed untouchable,” Moussa said.

New groups, new goals

Political movements and organizations including Taqaddom, Lana, and Li Haqqi gained momentum as a result of the October 17 Revolution, which also elevated newcomers like Citizens in a State and other independents.

A platform was also provided for activists, economists, and financial specialists to inform the public about the crisis’ developments. These people then founded organizations like the Depositors’ Union, the Association of Depositors, and the Depositors’ Outcry Association to protect depositors’ rights.

These groups employed their leverage to inform the public about the state’s economic intentions and protest legislation or policies they believed would affect depositors.

Dina Abou Zour, an attorney and spokesperson for the Depositors’ Union, claims that before the revolution, people had blind faith in banks and did not scrutinize their methods of operation.

“Now we’ve become a source of information and support for depositors. We give advice, information and organize on-the-ground protests. This was made possible by the uprising that sparked the people’s interest in financial matters,” Abou Zour told Fanack.

Politicians, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have all met with the Depositors Union.

“Social media also played a significant role in the aftermath of the uprising. People are interested in learning about national matters and want to hear from professionals,” added Abou Zour.

“It has enabled global engagement in our regional concerns after the uprising attracted attention worldwide.”

The lawyer emphasizes the significance of gaining ground in the continuous struggle against the establishment by examining political conduct, resisting complacency, and taking part in parliamentary, municipal, and student elections.

Hope, or the lack thereof

The May 2021 elections, which witnessed fissures in sectarian strongholds, are regarded by Abou Zour and Moussa as one of the uprising’s major successes.

Lama Al-Hajj*, a 27-year-old activist and protester whose name has been changed for privacy concerns, vehemently disagrees.

“First off, the 13 Change MPs who serve as the uprising’s representatives in parliament exhibit dubious behavior. Second, the working class that inspired the revolution has been left disillusioned and unrepresented as the term ‘October 17’ has been reduced to a mere notion that any politician may adopt and exploit,” Al-Hajj said.

Politicians and public figures who assert that they were essential to the uprising have exploited populist rhetoric to acquire popularity while creating false expectations in the minds of their followers, she continued.

Al-Hajj claimed that the overuse of terms related to the uprising during electoral campaigns “turned the revolution into a collection of meaningless commercial slogans.”

“I contend that ‘October 17’ was more of an insurrection than a revolt since the political elite exerted great effort to prevent the demonstrators from really succeeding in overthrowing the establishment,” she added.

Al-Hajj maintains that in order to overthrow the system, radical steps must be taken. Similar to this, according to Moussa, another uprising is required in a few years’ time in order for the younger generations to complete the tasks that their predecessors began.

“I have faith in the coming generation. I think there will be a significant shift in the system once they come into power. There are fewer partisans and more anti-establishment people in today’s society,” he said.

“The ideals of responsibility, rights, and equality that the uprising highlighted have been embedded in the Lebanese mindset for years to come,” he continues, “even though politics under the ‘October 17’ label may one day fade away.”

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