What happened in Lebanon on August 22, 2015, at the You Stink Anti-Government protests was a radical restructuring of the political landscape and, with it, the revival of Lebanese politics as class struggle. Following a garbage crisis which swept the country, poor and commercial areas alike, protesters staged demonstrations in major cities across the country, including in the capital Beirut. For weeks, the ruling class were letting rotting garbage accumulate in the streets, while pondering, without haste, over how to divide the task amongst bidding private waste-disposal companies (with which they share affiliations). Those in charge refused to implement practical solutions proposed by activists and government critics. Rather, they have advocated for the reopening of landfills that are environmentally hazardous and pose a serious threat to people’s health. Ultimately, this was too much for the people to swallow, and demands for an end to the garbage crisis were replaced by slogans demanding for the “overturn [of] the regime” and “Secularism, Equality, Social Justice”.
Politics proper, according to the Slovenian pop-philosopher Slavoj Zizek, always involves a kind of destabilisation of the “natural functional order of relations in the social body”. In other words, when the continuity of what we consider to be given, universal, and natural is ruptured, politics comes into being. This is exactly what happened on August 22 and what continues to happen in the streets of Beirut. From the occupation of the Lebanese Ministry of Environment, to vandalisations of recently installed parking metres, to occupation of Zeytouna Bay with public lunches, and the teardown of a fence severing the city from its only public beach, Delyet Al Rawshe, politics in Lebanon has come into being. These gestures are a counter-breach to the larger, ongoing breaches of the Lebanese state drawn out by colonial powers and the early gentry, whose wealth continues to manifest itself in the sky-high heart of the city.
Protesters and their actions have disrupted the unyielding Lebanese myth that sectarian divisions between Lebanon’s eighteen ethno-religious sects, as any divisions for that matter, are an insurmountable element of the country’s politics. Between electricity and water cuts, rising rates of unemployment, exponentially rising levels of poverty, administrative corruption, political nepotism, low wages, gender inequalities, political instability, and extremely high prices for basic goods, it was time the Lebanese population realised that, perhaps, the deviant “other” is not another sect, but consists of those in power. Demonstrators have proven with their unity that sectarianism is no more than an instrumentalised fable of the post, or rather neo-colonial ruling class that emerged victoriously from Lebanon’s independence from French colonialism.
In a tentative gesture meant to indicate support, individual political figures sided briefly with the “righteous demands” of the movement, but warned against “politicising” it. In other words, they cautioned protesters against making the government, its individual tentacles, and their loyal bourgeois supporters the target of the protest movement: limit your demands to garbage, and let us take care of it. The Lebanese security forces, on the other hand, bewildered and confused, were ready to respond to August 22 with violence, perhaps thinking they could instill fear in the protesters and keep them from more radical actions. Many things have stood as hindrances in the face of the current movement. State violence is not one of them.
In fact, cracks initially came from within the movement. Centrists who distanced themselves from the politics of poor and angry protesters described them as “impostors provoking the security forces”. Their stance changed, however, when non-violent sit-ins at the Ministry of Environment were instantly shoved out and beaten by the wardens of the state.
Prior to September 20, neither socialism nor communism were mentioned. Our demands, at their most radical, would have been considered moderate even for 1980’s social democrats. Today, however, the most basic demands for better living standards, minimal redistribution of wealth, and social security are de facto radical. Hence, the president of Beirut’s Merchants Association, Nicolas Chammas, and the like were quick to denounce the current protests and warn against the “economic frauds, the communists” deviating the movement from its otherwise righteous, liberal path. His speech eventually evolved into a gyrating homage to the former neoliberal Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri who left the Lebanese economy indebted to an oversized banking sector which, today, virtually runs the country.
The environment that the ruling classes are attempting to create is one of hostility towards the Left and those holding the government accountable, more generally. We are depicted as anarchy-loving maniacs carrying the relics of failed and dated manifestos, eager to bring about the collapse of stability, however absent. At this point, there is no way to predict what is going to happen next. However, one thing is clear. Ruling classes, in Lebanon and elsewhere, are incapable of addressing the economic, social and political disasters they have produced.
The August 22 movement can no longer shy away from politics. It has, inevitably, become a significant player in the political game and is facing an entire edifice of perfectly organised, heavily funded, internationally and regionally backed parties and individuals. The movement must be taken to its natural next stage, be it through the formation of new parties, as some believe, or through non-partisan action, through unions, organisations, universities and so on – or else it risks being strangled like any other movement.
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Nasser Elamine is a Lebanese political activist, writer, and editor at Al Akhbar. He can be found on Twitter @NasserElamine
This article was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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