Commentary by Tamer Mallat – 6 September 2015
Lebanon’s micro-uprising has been remarkable in many ways. At first, the “You Stink” movement began as one of modest proportions, interested in the resolution of the extant waste management impasse. Unreasonable repression and governmental indifference, however, unearthed a shared sense of contempt towards a political class deemed by many as corrupt and unable to lead. The movement grew, and with it a debate resounded in Lebanon and abroad. Discussions quickly turned to the workings of our political system and of its sinister dynamics. For some, these protests represent the birth of a Lebanese third way, led by a generation that no longer identifies with the March 14 or March 8 coalitions. The momentum appears to be growing, and yet, the fortress of Lebanese gerontocracy holds steadfast. Notwithstanding institutional resistance, something has changed. This new societal dynamic, while remaining intrinsically rooted in the idiosyncratic nature of the Lebanese political system, may represent a shift of systemic dimensions.
The Lebanese political framework is built on the premise that each group holds shares in the country’s power structure. Past hegemonic ambitions, such as those of the Phalangists or more recently Hezbollah, have demonstrated that no group is powerful enough to suppress others. The atomized nature of power brokerage in the country reinforces the checks and balances that every polity has on another, thereby preserving fragile coexistence between communities.
On the ground, distribution of power is drawn along sectarian and political lines. However, what makes Lebanon so unique is that in the midst of a stark feudal and sectarian reality; in between these invisible lines of demarcation, pockets of freedom were born – a miracle of sorts. In The Ghosts of Martyr’s Square (2010), Michael Young describes the image of a no man’s land or gray zone that came to exist between these imaginary political frontlines. In this no man’s land are those Lebanese who hope to lead a different life, one devoid of dogmatic sectarian, moral, or political affinity. As long as this heterogeneous gray Lebanese society, composed of gays, atheist, or the politically apathetic, amongst others, did not publically infringe on the borders of the majorities, it coexisted in relative peace.
Today, Lebanon’s gray society has become more than just a societal microcosm. In many ways, it has become the newly grafted limb of the Lebanese political reality. From the trenches of no man’s land, this gray society is now a force to be reckoned with.
But the unique architecture of the Lebanese political regime renders this crisis inherently difficult to overcome. Indeed, the developments of the past week, in particular the calls for the resignation of the minister of environment and the occupation of the ministry, have revealed the many hurdles within the system. It is true that constitutionally, the minister of environment is the competent authority that oversees issues at the heart of the present crisis. But the reality of Lebanese politics is different: ministers hold little or no independent power. While institutions are recognized as the relevant authorities in their respective fields de jure, effective authority rests elsewhere. This, of course, is no secret. Ultimately, whether or not the protestors did topple the minister at hand is irrelevant, even if it is possible to be logically drawn to think that such a move could have had some symbolic ramifications.
Moreover, the symbolic course of action adopted by this movement raises other concerns. In the spring of 2011, many Lebanese – inspired by the Arab Spring democratic uprisings – marched in Beirut demanding the establishment of secular rule. The movement, commonly referred to as Laïc Pride, gained considerable momentum. Months after its inception, however, Laïc Pride failed to materialize into a potent political force. Arguably, the “You Stink” campaign is different from Laïc Pride, as it concerns matters far less ideological, and it is globally more in sync with the everyday concerns of the average Lebanese citizen. Laïc Pride was also regarded by a great number of Lebanese as an anti-religious movement, or to phrase things provocatively: Laïc Pride was in many ways Lebanon’s 19th sectarian group.
This movement is more than just a campaign. While the status quo that defines the Lebanese political reality is unlikely to change in the short term, there can be no doubt that the ramifications of the current awakening will continue to be felt at the very foundations of society. In the words of a young French diplomat observing the crisis, “this [movement] is like a silent non-violent process that is taking place in the mind of each citizen. It may now just be simmering, but sooner or later, it will inevitably become cooked.”
Tamer Mallat is the co-founder of ArabsThink.com. He studies at Columbia Law School.