Activists-in-Becoming: Lebanon’s October 17 Revolution and Its Afterlives

From the Series: Global Protest Movements in 2019: What Do They Teach Us?

Photo by Jonathan van Smit, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

October 20, 2019, Martyrs’ Square, Beirut. That day, hundreds of thousands (an estimated one million protesters all around Lebanon) gathered to protest against the political regime and growing impoverishment. Photo by Rana Sukarieh, PhD candidate in sociology, York University.

In October 2019, a series of events rendered the corruption of their government starkly visible to many Lebanese: sizeable wildfires were not controlled for days, tax increases were proposed on a number of daily items, and a cabinet minister’s bodyguard fired into the air while responding to a small group of protesters. Beginning on October 17, these events triggered the largest mass protests in Lebanon since 2005, drawing nearly two million people from diverse backgrounds into the streets, in a country with an estimated population of six million. Taking to the streets became irresistible for many for whom poverty had already become a daily felt experience as Lebanon’s economic crisis worsened during 2019, one that created chronic shortages in daily necessities such as bread and fuel. Uniting previously polarized groups around the shared experiences of impoverishment, anger toward government, and a sense of emergency, the protests brought together more and more discontented individuals who decided to take part in the spontaneous and rapidly growing massive protests that came to be called the October 17 Revolution. I will first discuss how the October 17 Revolution generated new political imaginations and solidarities despite growing political fragmentation. Then, I will explore the afterlives of the protests as the economic crisis in Lebanon deepened in the first half of 2020 and following the port explosion in August 2020. In trying to unpack the temporal and affective complexities of the Lebanese protests, I trace the question of how solidarity might be possible given the complexity of disagreements among activists.

Lebanon has a rich history of protests and activism. There were various political struggles and uprisings under Ottoman rule in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and during the French Mandate in the 1920s and 1930s (Thompson 2000). Vibrant activism for the Palestinian cause during the 1960s and 1970s (Bardawil 2020) rendered Lebanon a significant hub for the leftists of the global South. Leftist movements declined following the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 and activism in the post–civil war period has been increasingly dominated by middle-class led civil society, primarily funded by Western donors (Nagel and Staeheli 2015). Relying mainly on NGOs, middle-class led civil society has mobilized and politicized university students and urban professionals in Lebanon for the struggle against the system. Even though workers' unions, teachers' unions, human rights groups, women's rights groups, and several other precarious groups have frequently organized small-scale protests since the civil war, they have not elicited much public attention compared to middle-class civil society activism. Similarly, during the October 17 Revolution, middle-class civil society activists in Lebanon were strikingly more visible in prestigious global media outlets due to their fluency in English, French, and globalized human rights discourses. Their vague criticism of the system and demands for change, however, did little to address the worsening economic crisis or the concerns of the dramatically expanding class of “the poor.”

Yet, in October 2019 and afterward, hundreds of thousands of precarious groups in different parts of Lebanon took to streets and fiercely voiced their impoverishment. The October 17 Revolution witnessed a sizeable activism within the broader society, and weakened the distinction between “activists” and “ordinary people.” Many poor Lebanese citizens, refugees, and migrant workers from low-income communities, who had been acutely experiencing dispossession and precarity, participated in protests across Lebanon. During my fieldwork between 2012 and 2015 on cross-sectarian publics and emergent nationalisms, I observed increasing political engagement in Lebanon, especially among educated low-income young Lebanese. Yet, during earlier mass protests such as the Garbage Protests in 2015, many were reluctant to go out, either out of cynicism regarding the possibility of change or the fear that “some political groups are controlling the protests.” The October 17 Revolution was the first time that all of my young Lebanese informants and friends from diverse class backgrounds and competing political positions participated in mass protests. In October 2019, going to protests was an active practice of going beyond the overwhelming sense of cynicism embedded in the pervasive public narrative that “nothing will change in Lebanon.” Many Lebanese participated in at times festive protests with euphoria, expressing hope, joy, and solidarity in their demands for change. In the context of shared impoverishment and daily felt precarity, the urgency of change was articulated more than ever, even though answering the question of “how” was not easy.

Mass protests since October 2019 expanded many participants’ political imaginations. Despite the implementation of various neoliberal policies in Lebanon, particularly neoliberal urbanism (Fawaz 2009), the majority of the middle-class civil society activists did not specifically target neoliberalism. Instead, with few exceptions, they articulated Lebanon’s problems since the 1990s primarily in terms of sectarianism—the confessional political system, in which citizenship was registered and governed through sect in ways that shaped many aspects of everyday life (Nucho 2016). The previous mass protests were structured around a vague anti-sectarian rhetoric which overlooked how sectarianism was connected to global structures of inequality. During the October 17 Revolution, many protesters explicitly articulated concerns over social justice and economic inequality. Demands for universal health care and calls for the improvement of public education, concerns that were not commonly raised in previous mass protests, became more pervasive. Transnational solidarities were more noticeable, perhaps thanks to the simultaneity of global protests happening during October 2019. Some of the activists expressed solidarity with and appropriated tactics from protesters in Chile, Hong Kong, and Iraq, and vice versa.

As part of the expansion of political imaginations, significantly larger number of protesting groups criticized multiple systems of oppression that were not reducible to sectarian political structures. Many protesters carried banners for the abolition of the kafala system—a sponsorship system that led to the widespread abuse of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, the majority of whom were from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal, and Sudan. Days of protests enabled the growth of public awareness of racial and gender inequalities, and of the activities of anti-racist, feminist, and queer groups in Lebanon that focused on these issues. There was also a growing advocacy for, and solidarity with, refugees and prisoners, though those demands were not as widely expressed. Hence the expanding political space following the October 17 Revolution also saw both the increasing power of leftist and feminist groups and growing awareness for multiple forms of oppression. More lives became “grievable” (Butler 2016) and by a larger number of people.

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Yet, belief in the idea of a unified people slowly faded away as more and more of the initial protesters began expressing skepticism of killon ya’ni killon (all of them means all of them)—the most popular chant during the October protests, which demanded the ouster of all of the existing political leaders. Lebanese protesters who had unanimously demanded change to a corrupt system in the first weeks of protests had to confront profound disagreements over what “change” actually meant once the goal of overthrowing the existing government was accomplished with the resignation of that government on October 29, 2020, only two weeks into the mass protests. As one of my protesting Lebanese friends eloquently expressed: “We mostly agree on what we do not want, but we do not agree on what we want.”

Disagreements among protesters had multiple layers of tension. Some were worried that the revolution was leaderless and without a direction. Their major concern was that the potential chaos caused by prolonged disagreement among protesting groups would damage the country more than a corrupt government. Some felt that none of the existing political groups, including the alternative social movements, represented their own political positions. Some others were uncomfortable with criticisms of “the resistance” represented by Hezbullah and its political allies, arguing that “the resistance” was the only force capable of protecting Lebanon against threats posed by Israel. There was also disagreement about the causes of, and possible solutions for, Lebanon’s growing economic crisis. Some of the leftist protesters complained that the narrative of Lebanese politicians being corrupt downplayed the role of many outside actors such as France, the United States, the Gulf States, and Turkey in shaping Lebanon’s current crisis. More liberal or centrist commentators asserted that threats of invaders or outside forces had long been used by Lebanese politicians to divert attention from local corruption and injustice. Some of the protesters expressed more class-based concerns. For example, some of the working-class protesters felt alienated by “festive” activities at the protests such as yoga classes and weddings, and accused the middle classes of depoliticizing the protests.

What is a revolution if “the people” is an “empty signifier” that cannot be “sutured” by the “articulatory practices” (Laclau and Mouffe 2001) of diverse protesting actors? Given that the nation is inevitably “a space that is internally marked by cultural difference and the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities, and tense cultural locations” (Bhabha 1990, 299, emphasis in original), how can its members build meaningful alliances and solidarities? I suggest that a processual theorization of protesters as activists-in-becoming can capture both the disagreements among activists and the evolving political positionalities within multiple affective and temporal registers. I draw on João Biehl and Peter Locke’s (2017, x) idea of becoming, which emphasizes the “unfinished” nature of both the “stories” that are told and the “storytelling” of “lifeworlds” and “collective efforts.” Activists-in-becoming describe hundreds of thousands of (non)citizens in Lebanon who were (re)mobilized and (re)enchanted in the course of the demonstrations in October, and have continued to work toward the ideas of change and revolution since then. Both “revolutionary consciousness” and “revolutionary struggle” have gained new momentum since October 2019, as many Lebanese joining street protests found purpose and joy in political mobilization regardless of the consequences of their actions. As the unbearability of the present moment meant the deferral of dreams into the future was no longer an option for many, participating in protests and working for a revolution became a necessity.

The idea of becoming emphasizes that political mobilization for many was not a linear process, and political engagements took place in a constantly shifting terrain of affects and temporalities. The revolutionary hope had its ups and downs, but was never completely lost. Since January 2020, many Lebanese protesters and activists expressed frustration due to the lack of concrete change. When the government that was elected in January 2020 could not deliver on its promises and faced one of the largest economic and financial crises in the history of the country, protests continued across Lebanon, although on smaller scales. Hundreds of poor Lebanese expressed their anger about widespread poverty and hunger by clashing with the security forces in violent demonstrations. Hundreds of migrant domestic workers were unpaid and abandoned by their employers outside of their consulates and embassies. Refugee communities experienced more poverty and hardship. The economy and the banking system collapsed further as Lebanon’s currency lost more than 70 percent of its value in June 2020. During the same period, unemployment rates rose to more than 40 percent in the face of mass layoffs, and nearly half of the population was living below the poverty line. Depicting the desperateness of the situation, many activists made statements on social media such as, “Hunger will kill us before coronavirus.”

Especially after May 2020, many activists and protesters focused their efforts on addressing rising food insecurity, which impacted more than half of the population. Some of my middle-class and low-income Lebanese informants who had previously volunteered for local NGOs to distribute food to Syrian refugees told me that they never thought that they would be on the receiving end of food donations one day. All parts of Lebanon have witnessed a strong increase in grassroots networks and “people-to-people work” (Naguib 2017) in which food distribution became the center of both caring and solidarity. Many Lebanese participated in local NGOs and grassroots networks, and dozens of new small aid groups were formed. Thus, a particular “ethics of immediacy” (Mittermaier 2014) weaved together care, solidarity, togetherness, sociality, and community. This ethics maintained the struggles for justice taking place in mass protests within everyday spaces against Lebanon’s inequality and impoverishment. Growing networks of local and transnational aid were limited in their capacity to address this scale of impoverishment, but they did contribute to the daily sustenance of many Lebanese, and, perhaps more importantly, kept the spirit of solidarity intact. One of the unemployed young activists who lived in a poor neighborhood of Beirut and spent most of his time in volunteering for food distribution eloquently expressed this sentiment: “I am always an activist in everything I do.”

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The afterlives of the October 17 Revolution took new directions since I completed the first draft of this piece in May 2020 with a focus on what happened in October 2019 and subsequent conversations among activists and protesters. Even though I was not in Lebanon in October 2019, many of my informants and friends living there generously shared their experiences in October virtually and updated me regularly. A shared sense of crisis and desperation was pervasive even before the momentous Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020, in which the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been unsafely stored at the Beirut port killed more than two hundred people and injured around six thousand. The destruction of the port and thousands of buildings nearby were roughly estimated to displace more than 300,000 residents. It is too early to have a thorough analysis of the dynamic political landscape in the aftermath of this historic event. However, it was clear that rage against the government, the political elite, and the system was expressed more intensely in the aftermath of the explosion than in October 2019. Thousands of angry and grieving protesters filled the streets, leading to the resignation of the government on August 10, 2020. However, this did little to quell the increasing political unrest. There were conflicting narratives over who was responsible for the explosion. Though almost all politicians agreed that the system in Lebanon was thoroughly corrupt, hardly any political actor claimed any responsibility for the production or perpetuation of that corruption. Even though one would hear almost all Lebanese calling the politicians “criminals,” “thieves,” and “mafia,” diverse groups offered competing proposals on how to change the system.

As I was adding these final paragraphs in mid-August 2020, protests were continuing, and activists-in-becoming were involved in rebuilding Beirut in various capacities. The disruption in the supply chains following the destruction of the port aggravated food insecurity and caused dire shortages in bread and other basic commodities. Aid networks, both local and transnational, were more vibrant than ever, and grassroots communities and local volunteer groups were undertaking enormous efforts to clean up the demolished physical spaces and provide emergency relief to those who were directly impacted by the explosion. Shock, confusion, desperation, anger, and grief were some of the feelings expressed by many Lebanese who resisted defeatism by solidifying their networks of care and solidarity. Some participated in protests, some volunteered to repair broken communities, and others did both. People-to-people work, once again, was much more than a simple “band-aid.” Despite its limitation to offer often only provisional solutions, people-to-people work both revealed the horrific neglect and incompetence of the state institutions and helped build stronger solidarity across class and confessional boundaries.

Despite its limitation to offer often only provisional solutions, people-to-people work both revealed the horrific neglect and incompetence of the state institutions and helped build stronger solidarity across class and confessional boundaries.

In the immediate aftermath of the Beirut explosion, many of my non-Lebanese friends who had no prior connection to or interest in Lebanon reached out to me to ask for a reliable organization to donate to. New fundraising campaigns and donation efforts joined hundreds of others that had been founded since the October 17 Revolution. Transnational care and solidarity networks flourished in the same space in which Lebanon’s political actors continued to confront each other with competing narratives on Lebanon’s problems and their solutions. In recognition of both solidarity and conflict as social facts, it is important to remember that Lebanon’s corruption and other problems were not “exceptional,” and were situated within global networks of corruption (Khalili 2020). But this does not mean that Lebanon is helpless in the complex game of geopolitical negotiations. Every political moment is a new beginning for the activists-in-becoming. As Hannah Arendt’s (1968, 170) idea of “new beginnings” reminds us, coming together and building solidarities in the public space, solidarities that "look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable," hold the potential for building meaningful local and global responses. Perhaps people-to-people work, which currently focuses on immediate daily needs, might also create productive sites for addressing disagreements among activists and protesters in their search for a common agenda for change. Activists-in-becoming viewed revolution as an ongoing event; thus, coming together and practicing radical self-reflexivity and willingness to sacrifice individual and collective commitments hold unique potential. Change and peoplehood could be imagined through new political articulations that address differences among activists instead of presuming an already existing unity against the political establishment.


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