Lebanon rising


'For the first time in the republic’s history, the highest percentage of Lebanese (inside and abroad) are shouting out for the same basic needs. Being treated as human beings with dignity, each citizen receiving basic rights and being treated equally without any political patronage. People are sick of ‘kissing hands’ and begging for their rights,' wrote Lamia Masri, civil society activist on the 8th day of massive protests in Lebanon.

Women on the front line in the current protests. Photo: Nicolas Tawk
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Women on the front line in the current protests. Photo: Nicolas Tawk

When the protests began on October 17, it looked like it was going to be a repetition of the 2015 You stink! demonstrations, when people took to the streets to protest the garbage crisis. Soon however it became clear that this was something bigger, much more powerful: Protests erupted all over the country, across all sects and faith lines.

Initially, the protests came as a reaction to massive wildfires that ravaged the mountainous areas of the country. Since the equipment and human resources were either non-existent or ill-maintained, the government was unable to respond adequately. Then, to add insult to injury, the government announced a plan to tax Whatsapp calls, thereby targeting the main means of communication. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back and drove people to the streets in large numbers.

Sects, Sects, Sects

Prior to the current uprising, the major marker of identity that underlined conversations, relationships and careers was the individual’s belonging to a sect. Lebanon has a whopping 18 of them, and the country is divided amongst them. Anything that relates to public life is regulated not through a unified state but through the elders and leaders of one’s sect. If you wish to open a shop, find a better job or indeed find a partner to marry, you are forced to rely on the sectarian structures. Many Lebanese people are frustrated with such ordeals. They yearn to be able to live a life regardless of these old rules.

Of course, it is unlikely for this entrenched system to be abolished by protests alone. The power structures run deep and their beneficiaries will defend them by the skin of their teeth. But the prevailing notion that has emerged over the past days is that people yearn to be more than Christian, Shiite, Sunni or Druze – they yearn to be Lebanese. They yearn to feel solidarity and a sense of unity that has evaded them for decades. The joint efforts of all sects in these protests have been a unique development that has captivated the whole country.

For the first time, people are protesting in areas that have hitherto been contained by one party or movement – and they show solidarity across sectarian divides. When peaceful protestors of Nabatiyeh, a stronghold of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements in southern Lebanon, were violently attacked, Lebanese from all sides quickly proclaimed support, calling them “the heart of the revolution”. Human rights activist Bissan Fakih thus rejoiced: 'A lot of relationships have changed in the past week of revolution in Lebanon. Towns, sects and ruling classes.'

Female and fierce

Another incredibly significant development of the recent protests is the massive participation and leadership by women. The fact that Lebanon has a fierce feminist movement is often overlooked, as the movement has in fact a strong base among and beyond academics and activists. For example, during the international women’s day in March, Lebanese women joined forces with female domestic workers, members of the LGBTI community and refugee women.

Feminists are also actively involved in organizing the current protests and spreading demands. Lebanese women know what they are fighting for, because they still do not have access to full and equal rights. As such, they are being fetishized by different sides, even from abroad. The son of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Alaa, shared a picture of Lebanese women protesters with the caption: “If people like these had come out here on 25 January, Alaa and Gamal themselves would have gone to the square and chanted against their father.” This sexist rhetoric has also been perpetuated in the media. A Saudi magazine pejoratively called female protestors 'babes', for example.

In light of all this, feminist activist Maya Ammar said: 'Revolutions make you romanticize and glamorize almost everything, including sexism and masculinist forms of anger because at the end of the day, they indeed constitute the language of the streets, which happen to be men’s territory. Some still see public spaces in the eyes of those, but never in the eyes of the girls who so wanted to share those streets with them.'

Everything shall come to light

As these protests span across different sects, ages, sexes and walks of life, many issues that have been boiling under the surface finally break into the public discourse. This presents a formidable challenge to the patriarchal order as well as religious and sectarian power structures.

For example, Lebanese women cannot pass their citizenship to their children, which means that children born to women who are married to a non-Lebanese cannot obtain citizenship. If they stay in Lebanon, these children do not have access to services and rights. In light of this, the campaign Lebanese Women's Right to Nationality and Full Citizenship has been collecting signs from protests inside and outside Lebanon showing the pain families feel about this lack of a basic right. One of the signs, held by a boy in Washington DC, reads: 'Deprived of mama’s citizenship, I stand with Lebanon nonetheless'.

Another prominent issue concerns marriage across sects. Until today, people from different sects cannot marry in Lebanon. If they do wish to live together, they are forced to form a civil union in places like Cyprus. This has led to much heartbreak, especially for the younger generation. Civil unions are frequently looked down upon and some families flat-out refuse to accept a partner from another sect. Concerning those difficulties to find that significant other, one protestor wrote: 'In this country, I cannot marry you, but I can love you.'

The situation was teetering on turning violent close to Beirut. On Wednesday, the army was deployed to break up the roadblocks on the main highway that civilians set up in order to paralyze the country and force the government to act. But as soon as it became clear that the army had orders to use force, many people flooded the highway. Remarkably, the first line of protestors facing the soldiers was largely made up of women who were as resolute as they were peaceful. They formed a line between the soldiers and the male protestors in order to prevent more violence.

Thus, whatever the next step may be, one thing about the current protests is certain: many of the social taboos of the post-civil war climate have been broken. As evidence, many images circulating on social media and on Whatsapp declare the civil war finally over. Now, it is essential to cement the social achievements of the past few days for the future of the country and its people. This is what makes the current situation unique, but we are in uncharted waters from here on out.

This article was first published on dis:orient blog.