Commentary by Muhannad Hariri – 28 August 2015
Last weekend Beirut witnessed one of its largest independent protests over two consecutive days. These came at the end of a string of steadily growing demonstrations organized by the #YouStink movement, an independent collective that began by demanding an ecologically responsible solution to the current Lebanese trash crisis. Centering on the issue of garbage disposal ensured that the group received widespread support and legitimacy, eventually ensuring massive participation at their first major rally last Saturday August 22nd. To be sure, by that point many other, predominantly left-wing groups had joined in and the stage was set for widespread civil intervention. But with the inclusion of so disparate a collection of Lebanese citizens, it was only a matter of time before garbage took its place beside many other pressing issues that naturally came to the fore.
The government’s heavy-handed reaction to these largely peaceful protests galvanized others to join, and the important turnout on that day was nearly doubled on the next. People went home on Saturday vowing to return more determined the next day. Yet, despite the massive and notably angry showing on Sunday, a large proportion of protestors left early and the popular movement was effectively split in half after accusations were made about infiltrators [‘mondasin’] inciting violence at the gathering on behalf of members of the ruling class. In response, many expressed outrage at what they considered to be a blind rejection, abandonment and outright betrayal of an oppressed working class that was guilty of nothing but expressing its discontent in ways that were unpalatable to the upper middle class. Those that remained after the masses fled on Sunday night were consequently exposed to more severe treatment. Needless to say, the discussion over the next few days turned toward a bitter argument that highlighted class issues, with some going so far as to claim that the current rebellion is about nothing if not about class.
Be that as it may, if the last week in Beirut has made anything clear it is that no single party, group, or individual has a claim on the current Lebanese rebellion, that the desperate state of the nation has granted equal rights to every belief and ambition. A flurry of debate and opinion has cluttered social media forums, television outlets, private and public meetings and, of course, the streets. It appears that the only rule currently agreed upon is that there are no rules, and that in the face of entrenched corruption and unremitting oppression the task today is to demand change, no matter what the cost may be.
Yet I claim that, for all its nebulousness, the current anarchic climate of opinion remains coherent, and that for this coherence it relies on an opposition to what has quite suddenly been portrayed as a bygone way of thinking, a way that grows out of and relies on the confessional arrangement of Lebanese politics. The mood in Beirut seems to be that so long as you are not on the streets endorsing a member of our current governing class, you are welcome to demonstrate, protest, or even riot in the name of whatever you hold dear. Testaments to this have been the nightly marches, protests and riots all over Beirut throughout this week; but as more and more are beaten, imprisoned and otherwise abused, it becomes imperative that we answer the question of what it is that brings us together in the current phase of rebellion.
I am, in other words, asking what might constitute the crux of the current climate of opinion. If its coherence relies on a rejection of the state’s confessional structure, then to what form of unity might protesters turn to in order to solidify and strengthen further action on the street? As I see it, there are two extreme positions to be taken on this matter between which, no doubt, falls a variegated spectrum. In what follows I would like to outline these two positions and describe their inevitable collision, a collision that could cause the current rebellion to implode. With that as background, I will end with some remarks about what I – personally – take to be a plausible form of unity that can be assumed by the current state of unrest.
To put it briefly for now, the current battle is not so much a class struggle so much as it is “wake-up call” from the depths of apathy; this is the case for the simple reason that members of every class stand to gain from the elimination of governmental corruption, but only if a shared goal of ending widespread corruption is realized at every socio-economic level, and not at only one or some of them. In many ways, an analogy could be made to Kant’s What is Enlightenment. Lebanese society, riding the back seat of Kant’s Gangen wagen (a wagon of sorts) to nowhere and in complete ignorance of its fate, was suddenly thrown off (by the trash) and forced to become conscious of its existence. The Lebanese had no other choice but to take matters into their own hands.
Returning to Sunday’s collapsed protest, I want to examine the reactions of those that pulled out for fear of having had their efforts hijacked by politically motivated infiltrators [‘mundassun’]. Doing so fairly requires that one resist accusations of disgust with the poor, which is merely a psychological fact; for, if anyone held these attitudes they are surely reprehensible, but their position does not warrant critique and examination, only censure. Besides, what motivated an ending of the protest that night by organizers and (reasonably unprejudiced) others, was a genuine – whether factually informed or not – concern that infiltrators had entered the protest on behalf of the Parliamentary Speaker, Nabih Berri. As such, the goal was to distance themselves from what was seen as a media spectacle orchestrated in order to delegitimize the #YouStink movement. The decision to leave, therefore, was strategic (which is not to deny the existence of concealed prejudices, but that is another issue). We need, for the sake of the movement, to believe that people acted according to what they thought would preserve the interests of the protest.
Now, while the classism cited by countless critics generally focused on the supposed subjective and psychological attitudes of the protesters, it may be preferable to address the socio-economical structures that made such a belief possible in the first place. This will reveal a major weak point in the rebellion as a whole. Those supposedly sent on behalf of Nabih Berri would presumably be of a class far removed from the day-to-day of many of – but not all – of those that attended the protests on Saturday and Sunday. This is because from the perspective of an upper-middle class citizen on the verge of at least nominally breaking free from sectarian dependencies, it remains somehow conceivable that the wretchedly poor would be slower to break such allegiances; prejudiced or not, these are the opinions afforded by one’s position in contemporary Beirut. The upshot of this structural positioning is that, whether there were infiltrators or not, the protest seemed an easy target for the very forces it sought to eliminate: in a moment, revolutionary fervor dissipated and the police had a field day with whoever stayed.
The importance of isolating this structural positioning is manifold. Those that view themselves as somehow capable of exiting the sectarian mess of Lebanon due to their education and income fall into the danger of succumbing to its insidious traps. I realized this whilst chanting the slogan “You stink” [‘tol’et rehetkon’], when I noticed that it was I who stank, that it was my apathy that was part and parcel of the mess that the country currently found itself in. It is a danger to be fooled by one’s socio-economic perspective: one is not external to the chaos they inhabit merely because they can point it out. To some extent, we are all responsible for the mess this country is in. Proof of this is that the protesters were sitting ducks due to their unavoidable belief that there are those unlike them living in their city that cannot resist the call of their leaders. Again, whether or not infiltrators made it to the protest, they were “there”, populating our ideological inheritance. That fear is evidence of the upper class’s residual dependence on our sectarian system. It has not been weeded out so easily.
A conclusion I would like to draw from this is that in many ways the panic that occurred on Sunday night was necessitated by the internal divisions of Lebanese society, a structure that is part and parcel of the corrupted government everyone is seeking to replace; as such, inflaming this division between the rich and poor merely empowers those that stand – and have always stood – to gain from them. Certain parties in this country are predicated on their alleged commitment to protecting the interests of the poor. Half of what I argue in this essay, therefore, is that the poor must demand from the rich acknowledgement of their equal potential for liberation if the current state of corruption and paralysis is to be overcome. The other half, which I turn to next, is that the rich need show the poor that they have a legitimate dissatisfaction with the current state of things if the demands of the Lebanese as a whole are to be met one day.
Returning once more to Sunday’s collapsed protest, I will examine two other types of reactions. On the one hand, there are those that rejected the very possibility of infiltrators tout court. Let us call their view hard solidarity. On the other hand, there are those that accepted the possibility of infiltrators, but that refused to generalize the term over the presence of all those representing the working class. Let us refer to their view as soft solidarity.
Of particular interest is the rhetoric of class struggle that skyrocketed overnight, leading to a total reinterpretation of the meaning of the protests by Monday morning. While class is surely an important issue in contemporary Lebanon, it cannot, as I just argued, be the central topic now lest we turn to conflicts that merely serve the status quo.
Nevertheless, the emphasis of class struggle quickly became the default mode of many of the left-leaning groups that had joined the protests. This is of course natural, and to a certain extent just. These socially conscious citizens were appalled by structural prejudice; many holding the hard solidarity view argued that ‘infiltrator’ was being used as a synonym for poor, and that the upper classes wished to monopolize the revolution by rejecting anyone else’s claim to revolution. In some cases, these attitudes were even turned against #YouStink itself. As a result, inflammatory calls were made by some to identify all those that remained on Sunday, and continued to attend smaller rallies during the week, as themselves infiltrators, if that meant breaking with the interest of the richer classes.
Conspiracies aside, I have already acknowledged the truth to be found in this view. What interests me now is the demonstrations and riots that took place after Sunday throughout the week as a result. Despite calls on and from the government to cease attacking protesters, fierce brutality persisted, coupled now with countless arrests and systematic intimidation such as drug tests. Part of the reason for this was the escalated means of protest undertaken throughout this week, but, more importantly, the significantly smaller number of protesters present on the streets. And just as I pointed a finger earlier at those that deemed themselves external to the current problems of the country merely because they can point them out, I once more point a finger at those that acted as though they themselves were the last hope of the nation, standing at the fringes of pragmatic procedure.
To this fault I can only advise that closer communication amongst fringe groups and #YouStink might have saved many a lot of trouble during this week. My point here is that strength is in numbers, which had been garnered by #YouStink, and not in radical fringe groups. The only explanation, therefore, to the persistence of small-scale street action in the face of police brutality was a refusal to align with the mainstream movement; and this refusal in turn can be linked back to a refusal to see in one’s own actions the recipe of social catastrophe. To be clear, in my mind, such a decision to avoid the mainstream would not have been taken by so many had the discourse of rich versus poor not taken center stage; the effect of this was to immediately interpret alignment with the mainstream as giving in to a new leader. That this is exactly what happened bespeaks a reflective gap in our current thought about the Lebanese political crisis. Just as some failed to recognize that their social situation fools them into believing that they are somehow external to the problems this country faces, others fail to realize that their knee-jerk discourse serves to decimate real political transformation.
At any rate, while panic swept away a massive number of protesters on Sunday night, leaving people to face the police in smaller numbers, the default attitude was to portray this as a class conspiracy. Coupled with the rage of having been beaten and humiliated that night, it is no wonder that people took to the streets the very next day and for the rest of the week, facing police brutality on a nearly nightly basis. In a way, an inflammation of social divisions merely led to an exaggeration of the current situation––to the detriment, as always, of the poor.
So what would have been the better way?
To answer this I turn to proponents of soft solidarity, those that accepted that some infiltrating force may have been present. This flexibility in thought allowed for an appreciation of nuance in the way the word infiltrator was being used; rather than viewing it as a derogatory synonym for poor and thereby raising accusations of class conspiracy, it was seen for what it was: a label for a negative influence, real or imagined, but nevertheless reasonable. In my mind, those that thought this way occupy the sweet and reasonable center of class ideology in Lebanon today. Sweet and reasonable not because necessarily correct, but because capable of arbitrating between desirable and undesirable courses of action. It is really quite simple: the capacity for appreciating this nuanced possibility is an immediate resistance to the bane of class struggle. Had this view taken center stage, discussions revolving around the term “infiltrator” may have taken up a more productive and circumspect tone; but it did not. What won out in the end were the extreme views of neglecting the agency of lower classes (as shown above) and of class conspiracy (as now demonstrated).
There cannot be a revolution unless the lower – and upper-middle class (and their defenders) recognize the agency of the working class –, and if the working class (and their defenders) recognize the genuine urgency in the call for upheaval of the current situation by the lower, and upper, middle classes.
The protest scheduled for Saturday the 29th of August is forecasted to be messy and likely to be open to many debilitating forces. I can only hope that these reflections contribute in some small, yet productive way, to the manner in which tomorrow’s massive demonstration is approached by all.
Muhannad Hariri is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at University College of Dublin. He was an active member of the faculty in the department of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut. He is from Lebanon.