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March 22, 2021
In What Ways Has the Pandemic Affected the Revolution?

 
 
Introduction
Rim Saab
 
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Lebanon in February 2020, around 10 days after Hassan Diab’s government won a vote of confidence in parliament, despite thousands of people clashing with security forces to try to block the parliamentary session. In March, Lebanon started its first full lockdown, giving way to empty streets and protest squares, which few months prior had witnessed the start of an unprecedented popular uprising against the ruling class, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and blocking roads for weeks on end. We have been in and out of lockdown ever since.
 
On October 17 2020, LCPS launched the first of a series of pieces asking social scientists with leading or active roles in the uprising to take stock of the October 17 revolution and the path ahead. We asked all contributors the same questions, which center around the revolution’s key accomplishments, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the August 4 explosion on mobilization, as well as challenges and opportunities ahead. Their written answers to each question are released in a series of articles.
 
Our first piece addressed the key accomplishments of the revolution. Our second piece focused on why street mobilization witnessed a regression in numbers even prior to the pandemic, because it is important to acknowledge that demobilization had already begun. However, the pandemic compounded the difficulties of organizing and complicated the mobilization context. Accordingly, our third piece focuses on contributors’ insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic has further affected the October 17 revolution. This project is co-organized with social psychologist and LCPS fellow Dr. Rim Saab, who offers a synthesis at the end of the piece.
 
Note that the interviews were conducted in October 2020 and this piece was written shortly thereafter. As such, the present article is a reflection on how the pandemic affected the revolution in earlier stages rather than more recently.
 
Contributor list (in order of appearance)
Lyna Comaty, development studies specialist and active member of the National Bloc
Carmen Geha, political studies and public administration scholar and activist
Mona Fawaz, urban studies and planning professor, previously active member of Beirut Madinati
Nizar Hassan, political researcher and commentator, co-host of the Lebanese Politics Podcast and member of LiHaqqi
Rania Masri, environmental scientist, activist, and elected representative of Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla
Sana Tannoury-Karam, Middle East history scholar and activist
 
Full biographies appear at the very end.
 
In What Ways Has the Pandemic Affected the Revolution?
 
Lyna Comaty
The direct effect of the pandemic was a net decrease in the numbers of people protesting in the streets. Seen from this angle, the pandemic has benefited government, as it had a direct effect on the control of the street; it stopped the regrouping of people and thus all types of protests for a few months. More so, the pandemic was an opportunity for the ruling class to increase repression and regain lost control over public space. But again, a decrease in intensity of street mobilizations is not an indicator of weakened support for the revolution as street mobilizations are not a key indicator of success.
 
In all cases, the pandemic has not differentiated between north and south, left and right, or pro and anti-regime—it thus had no direct effect on the revolution per se. By affecting us all, the main effect of the coronavirus was a steep exacerbation of the economic and social crises and an acceleration of the collapse of the country. There could not have been a worse year for a pandemic to hit Lebanon.
 
With this in mind, in the past months, the government has shown a lack of coherence and coordination in the national strategy to curb the propagation of the virus. Through their weak policies and in their incapacity to implement them, they are showing a real absence in governance and are exacerbating the suffering of citizens. In this sense, the pandemic has intensified our will to change the system and oust this political class once and for all.
 
Carmen Geha
The pandemic and the government’s response to it empowered the revolution, even though it slowed down mobilization on the street. For starters, it revealed how a privatization of our healthcare system was a purposeful post-war strategy to keep primary health care centers as tools to secure loyalties and buy votes. Political parties even gave out face masks with party logos on them, a blatant act of clientelism, while hospitals remained under-staffed and without enough ventilators and hospital beds. Second, it also solidified the social networks that the protestors had built among themselves enabling the showing of solidarity and support. The pandemic also highlighted leading voices in the revolution who have expertise in community health and the actual coronavirus. Leadership is not only on the streets but also in times of crises and critical junctures. Politicians emerged as incompetent and fragmented, the actual minister of public health carried on shoulders amidst huge crowds with few masks worn around him. The pandemic further revealed the rift between peoples’ needs and the prevalent political discourse of the 97% achievements championed by the Diab government. Coupled with the collapse of the Lebanese Lira, the lockdown and its aftermath made people lose even more trust in the state. Politicians depleted state institutions from data, resources, people, and capacity, all so that they could empower themselves and bestow charity upon citizens. The weaker the politicians get, the more violently they respond, the stronger people’s revolt against them. Leadership is finding solutions and rewriting our own narrative, it is not only protesting. Plenty of literature on social movements shows that, in fact, when movements are dormant, it is then that leadership and trust among leaders is built. The pandemic and its aftermath was our moment of abeyance which only strengthened peoples’ resolve to revolt.
 
Mona Fawaz
To be realistic, the pandemic cannot be blamed for protests slowing down. The protests were largely disbanded by the time the pandemic started. The latter allowed the government to use the hygiene card, historically more effective as a public cover than security concerns, to break down the last visible elements of the protests, such as tents, and to impose curfews that it could not justify on security grounds. Meanwhile, political parties used the pandemic to reaffirm their authority over divided constituencies, to organize COVID-19 responses (such as testing, cleaning, and setting up isolation spaces) within their respective territories, to distribute food for their supporters, and even channel some of the public subsidies. Research conducted at the Beirut Urban Lab (and led by Mona Harb) at the American University of Beirut showed that the parties rebuilt an infrastructure of support, being given the chance to emerge as the heroes, with each protecting its territories. This was quite interesting because it unraveled the revived territorialization of the country and its division very much along what used to be once the territories of Lebanon’s civil war.
 
The pandemic also exacerbated the financial crisis, slowed down the influx of dollars, and reduced consumption. Banks were able to close with a health justification. It also widened the class gap. For the middle and upper classes, the pandemic brought a moment of transition in which they could adjust to the increasing prices by reducing their consumption to food items: You could no longer go out, consume, or shop. They could also work from home. When school started, their children went online safely. Meanwhile, for the working classes, the pandemic meant intensified hunger and poverty, loss of the last sources of incomes, and consequently an intensified demand for adjustments of the costs of living and/or some social protection measures.
 
Ultimately, I think the pandemic has strengthened the political system considerably. The parties emerged as the actors supplying the “protection”, while securing health and food.
 
Nizar Hassan
What pandemics do is that they create a sense of urgency for one priority that was not there before, which is protection from the virus. Similarly to financial anxiety, this concern is also highly private, as the required response from ordinary people is one related to individual behavior: Stay at home, wear a mask, wash your hands, and stop hosting and attending social gatherings, among other things. The pandemic also put political organizers in a difficult position: Should we call for street action and risk contributing to the spread of COVID-19? Or should we stay home and risk leaving the political scene to the ruling political forces? It is not an easy dilemma, and it has certainly made many of us think twice before calling for a protest.
 
When thinking of the pandemic, we should also remember that its biggest impact has been an economic one. Like in most other countries, the government’s response through lockdown measures has had a grave economic cost. The pandemic has severely accelerated the social crisis, increasing anxiety about personal finances and prompting many grassroots organizers to turn their efforts from anti-establishment mobilization to charity and solidarity initiatives.
 
In relation to demands, one can also argue that the pandemic helped marginalize the demand for the resignation of Hassan Diab’s government, as the public’s expectation from this cabinet was to show a prompt and strong response to the crises, including the financial collapse and the pandemic. The clearly political demand of resignation was sidelined in favor of expectations to deal with urgent needs and fear. If not for the port explosion, there was not enough anti-establishment power to overthrow Diab’s government, despite its obvious incapacity with making real decisions and its gross mismanagement of the situation.
 
Rania Masri
The pandemic came after a decline in protests. It did exacerbate the financial crisis and thus forced many to scramble to earn whatever money they can to make ends meet. The pandemic may also have worsened morale and increased the general feeling of hopelessness, particularly since there was a real anxiety over the coronavirus. Combined with the country’s closure, these consequences definitely had an impact in impeding people’s ability and willingness to mobilize. In addition, the sectarian political authority took advantage of the lockdown and one of their first actions was the unnecessary removal of the tents in downtown Beirut.
 
For some, the pandemic highlighted numerous inadequacies of the government. For example, it failed to conduct a census, which is the first step any authority would need to undertake in the event of a pandemic. The government failed to follow-through on its promises of financial assistance during the closures. For others, though, the pandemic gave a brief window of glory to the current government due to its ability to control the number of cases, an achievement that proved to be illusory with the wave the country went through.
 
On the other hand, the closure, while limiting participation in the streets and public spaces, created a need for other spaces. And, so, virtual spaces were created where individuals and organizers communicated online, whether in closed meeting spaces or in open, such as Facebook-live discussions.
 
Sana Tannoury-Karam*
Of course, pandemics affect mobilization and therefore social movements at their core. The act of being “mobile” in a pandemic is not only dangerous but also impossible in cases where borders of states, cities, and even towns are closed. However, pandemics have hit human societies at very different historical stages, with only a few spreading during the modern period where social movements in the modern sense of the term exist, the largest being the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1919) and the AIDS/HIV pandemic (1980s-present).
 
Historically, pandemics have been used by the establishment to control populations and curb contestation. Some religious authorities had historically framed pandemics as divine wrath against people’s sin, and therefore used the disease to increase control over people’s lives. Unfortunately, this rhetoric reemerged during COVID-19, along with extreme securitization and militarization of states to discipline and control their populations. However, this pandemic has exposed, more than ever before, the interconnectivity of the world and all of its inhabitants. It has revealed the absurdity of borders and nation-states, just like it has uncovered the weaknesses of international organizations such as the World Health Organization and its parent institution the United Nations. The pandemic has furthermore revealed the failures of states to provide for their citizens and these states’ calls for reopening of markets often at the expense of public health. It has notably spread unequally along racial, gender, and class lines, laying bare the persistent inequalities that plague our societies, and therefore, one can argue, leading to more social movements against unjust systems of power.
 
The AIDS pandemic that hit in the latter decades of the 20th century has caused several movements to emerge around the world, most notably among the LGBTQ+ communities, as a result of the unjust and discriminatory management of this pandemic by states. Some uprisings have also erupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably the antiracist uprising against a long history of police killings, persistent brutality, and institutionalized racism toward Black Americans in the United States that erupted in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. This uprising has since spread across almost all major US cities and erupted in some European cities—an affirmation to the resilience of social justice movements even during a pandemic.
 
*Note that Dr. Tannoury-Karam was asked a variation of the original question which focuses on a historical perspective of how pandemics affect mobilization.
 
Synthesis
In the present analysis, I synthesize the perceived effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mobilization in the context of the October 17 revolution, as seen by our contributors. As in previous analyses in this series, the aim is to get a picture of the different perceived effects, without necessarily seeking to draw any shared narrative across the contributions. As such, I discuss the effects here regardless of how many contributors mentioned them, while also adding some personal reflections.
 
Effect of the Pandemic on Grievances
Popular mobilization against ruling elites requires, among other ingredients, a perception that they are unjust, unfair, and directly responsible for the current state of affairs. While this sentiment was pervasive following the October 17 uprising, the pandemic gave way to a somewhat more ambivalent stance toward the ruling elite.
 
In the initial stages, the pandemic reduced popular pressure against the government and increased dependency on the ruling elite. According to one contributor, demands for resignation took a back seat in favor of increased expectations of the state to help manage the pandemic and the economic crisis. Another contributor pointed out that the pandemic momentarily improved perceptions of the government because it managed to control the first wave of the virus. Political parties also used the pandemic to restore control over their geographical “territories” and emerge as indispensable rulers by organizing regional responses and distributing aid, thus reinforcing clientelistic relations, which are at the basis of their rule.
 
The global nature of the pandemic and the global dimension of the economic recession may have also reduced pressure on the ruling elite because the economic suffering that Lebanon was enduring was no longer as unique; some of it was seemingly shared across the globe. Additionally, the direct responsibility for the deterioration of economic affairs was no longer as straightforwardly attributed to the ruling elite and the oligarchy, for various reasons. First, the caretaker government’s handling of the pandemic came to serve as a convenient façade for political parties, diffusing their responsibility of the current state of affairs. Second the blame for economic losses around the globe could now be conveniently construed as an intangible external enemy (the virus), rather than an unfair and exploitative local and global economic system. The reasons attributable to the global pandemic began to recede with the accelerated devaluation of the Lebanese pound, witnessed starting in late 2020.
 
Inevitably, the pandemic increased popular grievances against the state over time. By reducing both the influx of dollars to the country as well as overall consumption, the pandemic had drastic economic consequences, as stressed by several contributors, resulting in increased unemployment and reduced incomes, thus exacerbating the economic crisis. One contributor also reflected some of the differential class effects of the pandemic: The pandemic decreased consumption at a time where the economic crisis was also restricting purchasing power; hence, for middle and upper classes, the pandemic may have ironically helped buffer the detrimental impact of the economic crisis on lifestyle change. By contrast, the pandemic intensified hunger and poverty among low-income classes who depend on daily wages. Authorities continue to fail to take the necessary measures to assist people financially in order to sustain themselves against the economic losses brought about by the pandemic and the lockdown, compounded by the economic crisis. Contributors lamented the clearly inadequate social protection policies put in place in this regard, and the absence of a coherent national strategy to respond to the pandemic. In sum, the pandemic has once again exposed the Lebanese state’s failure to provide for its citizens, further fueling discontent.
 
Effect of the Pandemic on Capacity to Mobilize
While mobilization certainly requires the fueling of popular discontent, it also requires the capacity to mobilize. How to mobilize during the current pandemic is indeed a big challenge worldwide. Let us not forget that in the first few weeks of the first lockdown, many people had to quickly adjust to a completely new environment, with some unable to go to work and others having to work from home or have children be schooled from home. There was little in the way of organizing that one could realistically do as they focused their energy on adjusting to a completely unfamiliar and unpredictable phase.
 
Even when one could begin to think of resuming organizational activities on a local level, suddenly, the usual street mobilization tactics such as protests and roadblocks which require face-to-face contact, involve large groups of people. These were most adopted at the start of the revolution but became more difficult to organize given the requirements for social isolation, fears of catching the virus, as well as the intermittent lockdown measures which increased uncertainty and unpredictability. With fewer numbers joining and minimal road traffic, protests and road closures lost their disruptive potential. Additionally, the emotional toll of the pandemic must not be overlooked. One contributor pointed out that the pandemic affected not only the practical capacity to organize but also the motivation to mobilize, by increasing hopelessness, worsening morale, and further contributing to the public’s burnout and fatigue.
 
Importantly, the lockdown allowed the political authorities to conveniently take measures to crack down on protests through greater control over public space, such as the removal of tents in downtown Beirut under the pretext of health concerns, in addition to the imposition of curfews. According to one contributor, increased security measures by authorities historically constitute one of the classical effects of pandemics. This limitation on public space organizing led some to view such decisions as driven by political motivations aimed at undermining the October 17 movement.
 
Given that the pandemic negatively impacted the capacity to organize in the usual ways, this resulted in a partial shift in mobilization tactics. One such shift according to one contributor was toward more charity and solidarity initiatives rather than anti-establishment mobilization. One should add, however, that while such initiatives are necessary and vital due to the failure of the state to provide a proper social safety net, these activities cannot produce the radical social change needed in economic policies. Another shift in tactic that was mentioned was the turn toward the creation of virtual spaces for online political discussions and organizing. Here, too, one could add that, while this online format can certainly facilitate safe meetings between protesters in different geographical areas, online discussions are no substitute for the community-building that face-to-face discussions make possible, where conversations between audience members happen organically and people participate more freely. In terms of protest tactics, it is worth remembering that some attempts were made to create alternative tactics such as protests in car convoys. Perhaps unsurprisingly, tactics that rely on fewer numbers and are attention-grabbing such as riots and roadblocks also saw a re-emergence. Overall, after the shock of the initial lockdown and the necessary time people needed to grow accustomed to the new lifestyle, we witnessed a re-emergence of protests, albeit obviously in smaller numbers and at lower frequency. Additionally, since the pandemic introduced new grievances pertaining to the mishandling of health concerns (e.g. prisoners’ situation) and the pandemic’s economic repercussions, some mobilizations have taken on new demands and new forms, such as collective opposition to and defiance of the lockdown measures.
 
Effect of the Pandemic on Social Networks and Unity
One of the important ingredients that allow individuals to mobilize is to be embedded in the social networks of protest groups. In this regard, the pandemic seems to have affected social networks in both beneficial and detrimental ways. On the one hand, as one contributor pointed out, the pandemic strengthened some of the social networks created by protesters during the revolution, transforming them into sources of much needed support and solidarity. On the other hand, the pandemic simultaneously stifled the development and growth of social networks through social isolation measures. The result has been reduced meetings and encounters, more limits on communication and political discussions but also more restrictions on the types of possible social interactions where encounters with new people, for example, become more difficult. These types of interactions are key for the creation, maintenance, and growth of protest networks. As mentioned by one contributor, the pandemic also increased fear, mistrust, and divisions among citizens through the creation or revival of borders and checkpoints, encouraged by political authorities, thus impacting the sense of national unity and the breaking of social divisions which characterized the revolution.
 
Conclusion
Protester numbers on the streets had started regressing prior to the pandemic, a point we discussed in our previous piece. The pandemic is seen to have fueled further discontent toward authorities in various ways, only increasing the resolve to oust the ruling elite, but it simultaneously also increased dependency on authorities, restricted the capacity to organize and limited the capacity for social and protest networks to grow as they would in normal times. The initial and continuing uncertainty in terms of when the pandemic would come under control has also further complicated the picture for social movement organizing. Meanwhile, the urgency for organizing is increasing as political authorities continue to grossly mismanage the multiple crises we have been facing, with much of the population sinking into the poverty as a result. The challenge is to develop a creative and effective mobilization strategy that can help attend to the most pressing economic concerns while adapting to the constraints of the present context.
 
Biographies (in alphabetical order)
 
Lyna Comaty
Dr. Lyna Comaty is an active member of the National Bloc. During the first six months of the revolution, she was in charge of launching and implementing a citizen engagement platform for the party. She holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, and is author of “Post-Conflict Transition in Lebanon: The Disappeared of the Civil War” published with Routledge in 2019. Lyna lectures at the university level and regularly consults with local and international organizations. She is a founding member of the NGO Act for the Disappeared.
 
 
 
Carmen Geha
Dr. Carmen Geha is an Associate Professor of Public Administration, Leadership, and Organizational Development at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Her research expertise is in political institutions, power-sharing, women’s representation, civil society, and protest movements. She is also a Co-Founder and Research Associate at the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women, a trans-disciplinary regional force for advancing inclusive employer policies across the Arab MENA region. Carmen was Founding Director for “Education for Leadership in Crisis” scholarship program for Afghan women at AUB. Carmen is an activist working toward gender-equality, refugee protection, and freedom of expression. During the revolution, she was a protestor and took part in mobilizing, analyzing, and strategizing with several movements and political groups.
 
Mona Fawaz
Dr. Mona Fawaz is a Professor of Urban Studies and Planning and a Lead Researcher at the Beirut Urban Lab, both at the American University of Beirut. Between October and December 2019, she participated daily in the uprising by giving and hosting teach-ins, learning by listening and exchanging with many people, organizing and participating in protests, conceiving/messaging informational content, and trying to coordinate and bring together movements to align positions and help build a coalition. She did so as a member of Beirut Madinati (she resigned since then) as well as a researcher investigating the incestuous intersections between real estate and finance and their negative impacts on people's lives.
 
Nizar Hassan
Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese researcher, political organizer, and commentator. He co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast, and has published articles and opinion pieces on Lebanon with several Arab news outlets. He is a member of the progressive grassroots political organization LiHaqqi, where he has served on the Public Affairs Committee. Nizar conducts socio-economic research with the Arab NGO Network for Development, and has previously worked as a Policy Researcher at LCPS. He holds a B.A. in Political Studies and a Diploma in Media Communications from the American University of Beirut, and a Master's degree in Labor, Social Movements and Development from SOAS in London; where he wrote his dissertation on the 2015 protest movement in Lebanon.
 
Rania Masri
As an elected representative of the political movement (Citizens in a State), Dr. Masri was organizing the movement’s presence and open political discussions in their tent in Al-Azarieh from the start of the October revolution. Since the closure of the tents, she has been meeting and coordinating various activities with other organized political groups in the revolution, as well as writing articles, and building the movement’s internal capacity.
 
Rim Saab
Rim Saab is an Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at the American University of Beirut. Her research expertise is in intergroup relations and political attitudes, with a particular focus on the social psychological factors that push people to engage in collective political action. Over the course of the revolution, she was a protester, an active member of the Association of Independent University Professors and a co-founder of a public teach-in initiative called Bedna Nthour Bedna Na3ref.
 
Sana Tannoury-Karam
Sana Tannoury-Karam is a writer and a historian of the modern Middle East, working on a book on the cultural and intellectual history of the Lebanese left during the French mandate period. She is currently a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Her work has appeared in a range of publications including the Journal of World History, Jadaliyya, Megaphone, and Trafo Blog. Dr. Tannoury-Karam was active among university professors and professionals during and following the Lebanese October Revolution.







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