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April 01, 2021
What Are the Main Challenges and Opportunities Lying Ahead for the October 17 Movement?

 
The multiplicity of crises facing Lebanon, namely the economic collapse, the pandemic and the August 4th explosion, constitute central challenges for the October 17 movement. Those come on top of the ordinary challenges that any revolutionary movement must face. To put things into perspective, no other uprising in the region has had to grapple with similar challenges all at once. Paradoxically, as the system crumbles, these multiple crises can also present an opportunity for real political change, since they have delegitimized and destabilized the entrenched ruling elite in unprecedented ways.
 
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 revolution and the path forward. We asked all contributors the same questions, which center around the top accomplishments, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the August 4 explosion on mobilization, as well as challenges and opportunities ahead. Their answers to each question are released in a series of articles. In this piece, we present our contributors’ reflections on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the revolution.
 
This roundtable series was co-organized with social psychologist and LCPS fellow Dr. Rim Saab and was conducted in October 2020. The first four articles addressed (1) the key accomplishments of the revolution, (2) why street mobilization witnessed a regression in numbers even prior to the pandemic, (3) how the COVID-19 pandemic further affected the October revolution, and (4) the effects of the August 4 explosion on the revolution
 
Note that the interviews were conducted in October 2020.
 
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
 
Full biographies appear at the very end.
 
What do you consider to be the main challenges lying ahead for the revolution?
 
Lyna Comaty:
Today, the revolution is facing three challenges. The first is to constitute a leadership structure, which was not possible in October 2019 but has definitely become a need, one year on. The fact that the revolution is so transversal and is truly representative of the whole population across regions, confessions, generations, educational levels, professional domains, and cultural or social referents is a paradox of our unity. We are not in a classical left versus right struggle, where a moderate center can rise and constitute a coherent body. In this revolution, we show a united stance against the bad practices of the political regime, but we are an eclectic mix from the far right to the far left, economically, socially, and in our geopolitical views. Thus, gathering all these citizens today considering the conditions we are in is a very challenging task. But that is not to say that it cannot be done. It will be done.
 
Secondly, the revolution needs to propose a credible alternative project that will rally the majority of the Lebanese behind it. The birth of the project is very close, in view of constituting the leadership, but also of preparing for the upcoming elections. Organized movements and parties of the revolution have a credible project and a concrete implementation strategy on how to transform Lebanon into a prosperous, green, and fair country. We will then let the citizens choose between the mainstream proposal of the current regime and this alternative project.
 
With these two challenges in mind, we need to overcome the third one: Standing the test of time. Our revolution is fighting an aged system and a political class that has been shamelessly ruling the country for more than three decades—we cannot expect success in a few months. Change will take a couple of years and that is really the biggest test. We need to continue believing in it, as it is our only way out of the tunnel.
 
Carmen Geha
The challenge is violent oppression and outright assassinations of people or their livelihoods. The country’s politicians use the system to scare people and limit their voices. After the explosion, their names and pictures are known to all and the fact that they knew about the explosives means that they will retaliate against people identifying them as culprits. The regime is at a crossroads and will use all its resources, foreign allies, money, and power to keep a tight grip over the state. The challenges ahead are to keep focusing on demands for accountability and justice, while also catering to the micro issues and drawing the world’s attention to how their negligence and incompetence destroyed the schools, the primary healthcare centers, and sewage systems, to just name a few. The challenge is to be able to do all this while staying sane and safe.
 
Mona Fawaz
It is not new that the shift from mobilization to organization is difficult. You can go back to the civil rights movement and the war on poverty in the United States and read Fox Piven to understand all the things that stand in the way of building organizations. So, fast forward to 2020, amidst a pandemic and the worst financial and economic crises Lebanon has faced, throw in an explosion in the mix, and imagine all the normal challenges compounded with this perfect storm. People are now talking of food security and hunger, they are basically talking of survival. A foreseeable scenario is for middle and upper-middle classes to emigrate if they can, or recede home if not, because they will become the target of those who are hungry and angry. The movement will be reduced to simple survival aspirations. I think at least some of the members of the political class are aware of this likelihood and are capitalizing on it.
 
Meanwhile, the geopolitical dimension of the national conflict is also intensifying. This is also reducing the possibility of a unified national demand. Historically, sanctions and external pressures in the form of sanctions the United States exerts on countries do not generate democratic governments. They weaken populations and reduce their capacity to mobilize. They also entrench divisions within population groups. You can see it now in Lebanon. There are deep divisions in society and they are exponentially exacerbated by the sanctions. They often take the flavor of sectarianism, which is one of the main forms in which violence materializes socially in Lebanon. This is why the main challenge, in my opinion, is to create a language and form of secularism, proper to us, informed by our failures, that can bring us together if we are going to coalesce as citizens in one state. It doesn’t need to resemble the secularism of Europe, but it needs to remove the current mediation of citizenship from the sectarian organization of society that has been exploited by external forces for the past 180 years.
 
Thinking further about the current US influence, I think that there are a lot of parallels with what the US interventions have triggered in Latin America in terms of undemocratic regimes and what we see here in Lebanon. I am completely opposed to the Iranian regional agenda and find the oppressive mode of governing repulsive, but it will not make me optimistic about Western intentions. After all, it was the successive Paris conferences that fueled a lot of the corruption for which we are paying the price today. It was also, and continues to be, Western interests in Israel that destabilize the region and oppress Palestinians, the US selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, the rise of ISIS, and so on. All these factors will continue to brew and we are a very small pebble being tossed all around amidst these big players. This is why I go back to secularism. Our only hope as people living in this country is to articulate a narrative that can bring us together, that recognizes our mutual fears, that respects them and provides sufficient security for us to trust moving forward together. When I think retrospectively of some of the things that were said and done last year, I feel that we fell short of generating this language.
 
Another challenge is that the young and hopeful organizers of the October 17 movements have to recognize that they have been too inwardly looking, too focused on each other, too ideological in destroying other movements, hypercritical, and discouraging the formation of real coalitions. The “Cancel Culture” is rampant and hurtful. There are beautiful initiatives and some of the analysis produced is very impressive but there has also been a lot of mutually destructive energy. There is no realistic theory of change. Ironically, the only democratic process that has been described is elections, which are run by/under the rules set by the same political class they wish to replace. It is not convincing.
 
I could think of more challenges but honestly, it’s already depressing as it is. I prefer to stop.
 
Nizar Hassan
The main challenge is finding a way to bring together a coalition of active grassroots movements across the country to lead the popular resistance against unfair fiscal and financial policies, as well as against repression.
 
I focus on the grassroots for reasons related to my perspective on social change, but it is very relevant here because reactionary forces are doing whatever they can to restore their dominance over the local social fabric, and monopolize politics on that level. The main engine in that push will be the sectarian clientelist networks. The depreciation of the Lebanese pound’s value means more political loyalty can be bought for cheaper than ever if you have access to dollars, which most political forces do thanks to foreign sponsorship and the accumulated wealth of politicians. This is perhaps the most existential challenge for the revolution. How do we prevent the establishment from achieving social domination again without being able to stop their clientelism, or compete with it?
 
Another challenge is related to convincing people that the act of protest today is a valid choice, and that despite the depressing time we are living through, it is so important to get organized today. I can’t emphasize how much this is the case, as the oligarchs have been waging a full on top-down class war that we need to fight back against. But to tell you the truth, I do not think public psychology is an area where we can succeed anytime in the short term.
 
These are challenges related to organizing, but on the level of political consciousness and polarization, perhaps the biggest challenge is how to approach the issue of Hezbollah as a military and political force in the country. The sense of desperation, as well as Hezbollahs leading role in the counterrevolution, have left many feeling that there is no change possible in Lebanon as long as Hezbollah’s militia exists. It is honestly hard to argue with that feeling, and Hezbollah’s political behavior makes it harder. The polarization around this issue will only give legitimacy to the parties building their agenda around it, especially the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah itself. These two opposing parties will be our main opponents in the future, after most of the current establishment dissolves into insignificance.
 
Rania Masri
Let us examine the challenges for political mobilizations amidst the current challenges and threats of the country at large. We are in the midst of the largest economic crisis this country has faced. Our society is also threatened with mass emigration. And there are possibilities of civil chaos and violent strife. This country is in a transition. This country is changing. Will we watch it change, or will we try to steer the change toward a constructive pathway?
 
The situation is no longer about highlighting demands, since demands cannot be made to a political authority that has proven itself to be incapable of taking decisions, and incapable of leading the country anywhere but into destructive chaos. The issue is not one of organizing for the alleged elections in 2022, since, not only are elections recognized more and more as a theater, but waiting for the elections—if held at all—would fail to address the critical urgency facing us today and would offer political legitimacy to a political system that can offer only destruction and defeat. No policy action was—and remains—even thinkable from sectarian chiefs who exist on the basis of mutual fear between sects and of redistribution of benefits to maintain loyalties, lazily called corruption.
 
Amidst this context, our first challenge as organizers in Lebanon is to break through the false narrative that the country can only be a sectarian, divisive state seeking alms, charities, and support from various outside forces. We need to direct the change toward something positive—in other words, statehood, transforming our economy, and protecting our society—rather than continue to be passive spectators to the ruin of our country. We need to break through the increasing sense of despair and hopelessness that all too many people feel, and break through a destructive narrative that lulls people into believing that there is no other alternative but this broken, divisive, and incompetent political authority. And we need to do this amidst increasing emigration and intensifying economic deterioration.
 
It begins with clarity, with recognizing political reality while reinvigorating political imagination, banding together to create a strong political and strategic coalition united around a clear political program, or offering clear, holistic political projects for discussion.
 
What are some of the opportunities that the revolution could capitalize on going forward?
 
Lyna Comaty
The biggest opportunity facing the revolution today is the unprecedented series of crises we are living. In a regime collapse, everything crumbles and we find ourselves standing on ruins. As nature hates void, the collapse will result in the rise of a new system, and this is the opportunity we have to seize. Since October 2019, the National Bloc and other political movements of the revolution proposed a number of solutions to salvage the nation: A detailed government plan to stop the bleeding and enact reforms, at least three teams of independent experts who can serve in an effective government, a new electoral law, a platform for citizen engagement, a political program centered on public policies, and a proposal to rally the revolution around a concrete alternative project. As soon as it constitutes a leadership structure, the revolution has the opportunity to become the alternative interlocutor in all efforts to resolve the crisis, and even form a government.
 
Another major opportunity we have is in the upcoming elections. It is our chance to access power and change the system from within. Our primary target today should be entering parliament with a good 20 seats in hand, and to grow exponentially for the next mandate. In the meantime, there is so much to do, which brings us back to the challenges facing the revolution today: Constitute a credible alternative and present a leadership structure to move our fight to the next level.
 
Carmen Geha
I don’t like the word opportunities as we are using it after the explosion, we are not done counting our dead. But there is a clear entry point: There was a mass crime committed on August 4, the revolution has to rise up to the moment and demand accountability. Elections are the only way forward to vote a new leadership in, but between now and then, if there is no accountability then the same warlords will run and will succeed in a sweeping victory. There can be no political competition between David and Goliath—only justice can ensure that the next elections are free and fair. The revolution’s main task is to continue pressing for accountability, discrediting the political elite’s every word, and gaining momentum and support from people through networks of solidarity and showcasing that our problems are solvable, it’s just that those in power have no interest or competence to solve them.
 
Mona Fawaz
I am going to sound arrogant but I do not think there is a revolution”. There are a handful of social movements, more or less organized, that are maintaining the tone of demands for political reform. I am not convinced that, as a coalition under the label of revolution” they can capitalize on specific assets and move forward, as they have so far worked.
 
I hope that at least the more mature and organized movements can make breakthroughs if they learn to engage and earn the support of the mobilized youth. The opportunity can come if an organization can capitalize on the creativity, the positive energy, and the determination of the men and women who demonstrated so much motivation and positive values during the October revolution. At least one of the movements has a very clear agenda of secularism and a lot of substance in its propositions. It is unable yet to impose itself as an alternative, but I see their mobilization as hopeful.
 
I have always been a believer that the Lebanese people need to be reconciled with the idea of the collective, the public good, and that one can trust in this shared interest. This is why most of my involvement has been in urban issues where I find it easier to engage people on shared interests that are demonstrably common to people, such as clean air or public space that everyone misses, or the right to housing, among many other things. It may well be that the forthcoming municipal elections in 2022 can offer this opportunity again to reinitiate bottom-up movements where geopolitics can be displaced a little and we can re-engage collectivities on their dismal living conditions.
 
Nizar Hassan
It is difficult to imagine opportunities in these times of desperation, especially when any valid analysis seems to lead to the conclusion that no positive changes are possible on the short term. Despite that, we have to remember that we are in one of the most interesting times for Lebanon, where the public is vastly aware of the presence of an establishment that is preventing change. There is a historically low level of trust in politicians across the spectrum, and it has become more difficult for politicians from mainstream parties to make their case. This environment is definitely an opportunity for new political movements, as long as there is a strong narrative to fight cynicism and the anti-political sentiments, and bring people together on their real common interests, from the bottom-up.
 
The opening up of revolutionary spaces (in the form of tents, usually in main city/town squares) across most areas during the uprising, and the normalizing of that phenomenon, is a parallel opportunity that might support this historical process of movement building. These spaces have helped spread knowledge, make collective decisions, politicize youths, and allow residents to proudly express their dissent collectively.
 
Here lies the second opportunity, which is the one presented by the resurfacing of economic affairs and class differences to public discourse, after arguably decades of its exclusion from mainstream public discourse. The dominant discourse today seems more focused on class, or at least more sensitive to it. For so long, class differences were eclipsed in Lebanon by the sectarian discourse of the ruling class, and by the corruption-focused reformist discourse of the NGO-centered civil society. The situation today is quite different. While self-identifying as a leftist might still be rejected in many communities, the progressive discourse that we carry seems quite popular across backgrounds. There might indeed be an advantage today that was not there back in 1975 ahead of the civil war; the fact that leftist discourse is not associated strictly with Muslim/Druze movements, but rather a natural reaction to the current reality. It doesn’t really matter to me whether its put under an ideological label or not, as long as the narrative about social justice is endorsed by the various communities and provides a solid basis for organizing.
 
I would also make a final note that austerity policies, which weaken some of the clientelist networks that rely heavily on state resources, might also be an opportunity in a way. While private welfare networks might become even more relevant in the future, I think the fallen promise of stable employment in the state is not a detail. In many areas, jobs in state institutions, especially security forces and the education sector, form virtually the only opportunity for formal employment. If this tool is off the table, it should theoretically be a blow to clientelism. At the same time, we should keep an eye on how clientelism will infiltrate into the assistance schemes (both by the government and international financial institutions, among others) that will most likely form the only available "safety net” for those sliding into extreme poverty. In that sense, the validity of this hypothesis—that austerity might be a political opportunity—depends on many contingent factors, and in many ways, austerity might actually empower those at the top.
 
Rania Masri
Tragically and yet luckily, we are more and more united under a broken economic system. The political authority—those six leading sectarian chiefs—are weaker and their façade is more apparent. Some of those who have always supported them are starting to break off from them. Even those adhering to them are afraid for their futures. There are no longer benefits to be distributed as before to maintain clientelistic loyalty, and by the very design of the sectarian system, they are unable to distribute the losses. With every passing day, the shortages of food, medication, fuel, and daily bankruptcies are a testament to the need for a political leadership that can distribute the losses in a fair and purposeful manner.
 
These are critical opportunities that require an organized political force to capitalize upon to take the country forward. The opportunities we have are their weakness and inability to govern, and our ability to develop a clear and viable political alternative in their place. People are recognizing that the system we have lived under for decades can no longer survive. We will see more and more people leave the sectarian political parties, and we need to provide them with an umbrella under which we can organize together to build a real state that represents all its citizens.
 
This is a critical opportunity to rally different components of society who seemingly have different interests but are all affected by the crisis, under one political project that would bring about effective change and protect all society.
 
All those in positions of opposition should recognize that this is a political opposition, and not a technocratic or technical one. It is not necessary for everyone to be in agreement, but it is vital, critically vital, to have political projects and political alternatives presented so that protestors can translate their anxiety into support toward something clear. We, as Citizens in a State, presented our political project in November 2019 and we also published a book by the party’s Secretary General, Charbel Nahas, of our political-economic proposal for the current situation in Lebanon. I say “political-economic” because economic decisions are political decisions and not technocratic ones.
 
What we all know, without doubt, is that this political sectarian system can only bring destruction, bankruptcy, explosions, unrestrained forest fires, and, with this farce of the border negotiations, possibly even a loss in our land and maritime rights as a country. The clarity of the problem leads us to the clarity, and urgency, of a solution: The building of a civil state to protect our society and transform our economy.
 
We need to work together to put pressure on the sectarian chiefs to negotiate toward a peaceful transition for a government, with exceptional legislative powers, to build the pathway toward a civil state, a cohesive society, and a productive economy.
 
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.
 







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