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Nadim El-Kak, freelance policy consultant and former Researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS).


April 2021
Alternative Labor Unions in Lebanon: Comparative Reflections and Lessons

After more than a year since the emergence of the October 17 uprising, it may be useful to recall some of the movement’s most defining characteristics. First, its scale: Protesters filled streets and squares by the hundreds of thousands during the movement’s peak. Second, its decentralized nature: While past mobilizations were primarily in urban areas, particularly in the capital, this mobilization spanned across different geographies, encompassing regions that had previously been perceived as loyal to the sectarian political establishment. Third, and most relevant here, its class-based character: The conditions driving people to mobilize were directly tied to worsening socioeconomic conditions resulting from decades of policies catering to the interests of a political and business oligarchy that have bred one of the worst economic and financial crises in the world currently.
 
Since it undermines the political elite’s sectarianization efforts both materially and ideologically, class-based organizing has posed a threat to the Lebanese oligarchy throughout the country’s modern history.[1] Until the turn of the century, labor unions were the main vehicle through which this opposition to the establishment was waged. In the pre-civil war period, particularly the early 1970s, industrial and agricultural workers were well organized and politicized, engaging in multiple mobilizations against owners of capital.[2] During the 1990s, the General Labor Confederation (CGTL) was the key player opposing neoliberal policies and the growing rentier economy dependent on corruption and clientelism.[3]
 
Ever since formal unions were co-opted in the late 1990s, they have lacked independence from political parties, needed to make them effective. As recently as 2011-2015, a teachers-led movement sought to reinvigorate the labor movement, only to be defeated by the sectarian establishment through co-optation and repression yet again.[4] With that historical context in mind, and recognizing the need to rebuild labor networks for the success of the uprising and beyond, various actors in 2019 took advantage of the revolutionary momentum in order to mobilize workers across sectors and found alternative unions.[5] These include non-registered associations of teachers, doctors, engineers and architects, media workers, NGO employees, artists, and others.
 
This article aims to uncover the contexts and dynamics that inspired the Lebanese Association of Professionals (LAP) to form in October 2019. It begins by looking at the conditions and culture of “professionalization” that drove workers away from labor-based organizing. It then examines the impact of the Sudanese revolution in encouraging the LAP to form, before discussing challenges and opportunities for labor-based organizing going forward.
 
The Neoliberal Age and the Invisibilization of Labor
The story of the labor movement cannot solely be understood through the attacks by the sectarian establishment against workers, or the internal dynamics within unions that helped undermine the struggle. The story of labor is also that of the Lebanese state—one that systemically opposed and overturned welfare mechanisms. Following the political crisis of 1958, a Social Welfare Authority was founded by then-President Fouad Chehab in order to address issues of poverty, in line with “the state’s intention to interfere in social policy and to end its traditional neutrality.”[6] Sectarian authorities—both political and religious—immediately resisted this push toward involving the state in social issues, in fear of losing the webs of clientelism that guaranteed their hegemony.[7] Whatever promises and hopes the 1960s brought in developing a dependable welfare state were quickly crushed by the advent of the civil war. Political parties, through their militias, controlled service distribution and expanded their patronage network during the postwar period by setting the stage for further neoliberalization.
 
Neoliberalism is often inaccurately thought of as the retreat of the state when, at its very core, it seeks to redeploy states and global institutions to protect markets and corporate interests from demands for social justice and political change.[8] The Hariri-led policies of the 1990s and 2000s prioritized deregulation, financialization, privatization, wage repression, and other rent-creating mechanisms at the expense of the already-struggling local productive sectors.[9] The state’s ensuing repression of unions and move toward an economy exclusively driven by a tertiary sector, namely the financial sector and the service industry, created a culture of “professionalization” wherein people stopped thinking of themselves as “workers” in the traditional sense.[10] Indeed, this rentier type of economy does not fit the traditional ‘exploited vs. exploiter’ relationship that dominated the 20th century. While non-blue collar workers also suffer from capitalism’s extractive dynamics, they rarely interact with capital owners directly.
 
This push toward invisibilizing class dynamics and surplus value extraction is another tool of neoliberalism. By developing increasingly pervasive hierarchies within corporate organizational structures, neoliberalism manages here to pit workers against one another and blurs perceptions of the true exploiter. People who were already reluctant to organize politically, because of their negative perception of parties as a result of the war, were thus further dissuaded from engaging in class-based mobilization.
 
However, as neoliberal logics spreads further across the globe, cracks within this system are becoming increasingly visible, recurrent, and interconnected.[11] As a result, radical counter-movements emerged from these cracks. Grassroots-based groups that provide microcosms of an alternative social order are already manifold, yet are invisible to most because they do not receive media coverage. The Zapatista’s self-governed territories in Chiapas Mexico, the workers’ co-operative in Recoleta Chile, the triumph of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, or the temporary effectiveness of local councils in Syria are only some of the various examples scattered around the world.[12] The emergence of political alternatives to the elitist status-quo are inevitable manifestations under present-day realities. Histories of class-based organizing, and the potential they represent, serve as constant reminders and blueprints to build on. With that in mind, it is far from surprising that the Lebanese Association of Professionals (LAP) found inspiration in the Sudanese Association of Professionals (SAP). How did the LAP precisely come about from the streets of the Lebanese revolution? What are the challenges it faces? And what can it learn from the SAP and previous anti-establishment initiatives in Lebanon?
 
Lebanese Unions in Conversation with Sudan
During the first week of the Lebanese protests, precisely on October 22, 2019, a professor from the public Lebanese University (LU) and another from the American University of Beirut (AUB) called for all faculty, students, and staff to participate in the protests in downtown Beirut the following day. Many responded to the call, which led Rima Majed—an Assistant Professor of Sociology at AUB—to gauge interest in forming an association of professionals for politically-independent university professors.[13] By the end of the day, hundreds had joined a WhatsApp group in support of the initiative, and the Association of Independent University Professors (AIUP) was formed.
 
Many other similar initiatives emerged across the country and sectors. These groups recognized their overlapping interests and decided to join forces under the umbrella of the Lebanese Association of Professionals (LAP).[14] They included professionals in the health sector (medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy), engineers and architects, lawyers, social workers, journalists, economists, writers, and artists, in addition to university professors. They issued a joint statement on October 28 in support of the Lebanese revolution and expressed their opposition to the ruling establishment. It also called for professionals to join the LAP and take part in protests, while urging all existing unions and associations to support the movement.
 
Beyond the important need to reignite the labor struggle and fill the void left by the co-optation of formal unions, various members of the LAP have noted that a main inspiration behind the formation of the group was the role played by the Sudanese Association of Professionals and the Tunisian General Union of Labor in their respective revolutions.[15] As Majed stated during an interview: “The only two revolutions [in the region] that were able to create some sort of transition were Tunisia and Sudan. It was clear that this was because of the presence of organized and independent unions.”[16] Indeed, while the leaderless character of the October revolution was rightfully touted as a strength in the beginning, it became evidently clear in the period that followed that the movement was in dire need of pressure groups that can represent the interests of different subgroups within the ranks of protesters. This was the role that unions successfully played during the revolutions of Tunisia and Sudan. Taking a closer look at the experience of the SAP will show some relevant contextual and organizational overlaps with the LAP.
 
The Sudanese Association of Professionals initially emerged as a small underground organization in October 2012,[17] but was formerly established four years later through an alliance between three of the largest professional unions at the time: The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, the Sudanese Journalists Network, and the Democratic Lawyers’ Association.[18] By 2018, the association was comprised of 17 groups and became a key player in mobilizations, while it amassed “broad appeal and demonstrated a know-how of protests, drawing from a fresh and dynamic repertoire that is applied within the movement across the country.”[19] Ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown in April 2019 after months of collective actions, even labeled the group as the “ghost battalion.”[20] Today, the SAP acts as a pressure group that oversees the work of the transitional government, and is represented in the Sovereignty Council—a collective body acting as head of state during Sudan’s transitional period until democratic elections are held in 2022.[21]
 
It is essential to note that the SAP did not lead the revolution as the sole grassroots-based organizational structure. It was also part of a wider political coalition named the Forces of Freedom and Change, which included numerous women’s rights groups, youth groups, and dozens of other civil society organizations, rebel groups, and political parties belonging to the opposition. Yet, the most important ally of the SAP may have been the resistance committees, also known as neighborhood committees, an alliance of grassroots councils “born out of necessity for protestors to organize in their daily confrontations with the security apparatus during the peak of the protest movement in early 2019.”[22] These groups distinguished themselves through their democratic structures that prioritized participatory decision-making, allowing them to evolve into a “novel form of political authority challenging and often displacing the micro-organs of state power.”[23] Indeed, the resistance committees overtook Bashir’s Popular Committees as the bodies representing the people at the local levels of government, which penetrated the everyday life of citizens. Just like the SAP, the resistance committees reaffirms the importance and power of class-based and decentralized organizing.
 
The Future of Grassroots Organizing
Today, the LAP is facing various internal structural issues that are proving to be divisive, yet one must recognize that it took years for the SAP to develop into the substantive and sizeable organizational structure it eventually became. One must also consider the historical role of trade associations in overthrowing dictatorial regimes in Sudan, which surely helped entrench a strong culture of unionization in Sudanese society.[24] Indeed, various challenges await the LAP in the months and years to come. Some of these challenges are internal. For instance, labor movements scholar Lea Bou Khater raises one of those organizational challenges: “How can the employees, self-employed, freelancers, and employers organize under one association?”[25]
 
Inclusivity challenges also emerge with regards to the LAP’s relationship with non-professionalized workers and unions. As a result of the economic situation, a massive portion of the working class has become unemployed. This population also needs to be included in organizing efforts. All these questions are important and difficult ones. The LAP surely cannot assume all of those roles, and it does not have to: Various other political groups emerged or participated in the Lebanese uprising. Once each individual entity escalates its organizing efforts on the ground, then a broader coalition, like the Sudanese Forces of Freedom and Change, can eventually come together.
 
A key lesson to be derived from anti-establishment initiatives in past years is that most have failed to appeal to the masses and include them in their structures.[26] In order to secure broader support in a time of mounting poverty and crisis, organizing ought to center the grassroots level. As discussed above, the Sudanese experience confirms this claim: Community-led initiatives and neighborhood-level organizations that were class-based are what allowed revolutionary momentum to be sustainable and successful. Regardless of whether the LAP overcomes its current and upcoming challenges, more justice-driven initiatives like it ought to emerge and can grow to become foundational pieces in a stronger oppositionist front of revolutionary actors.

[1] Majed, R. 2017. “The Political (or Social) Economy of Sectarianism in Lebanon.” Middle East Institute.
[2] Traboulsi, F. 2007. A History of Modern Lebanon. London: Pluto, 244; Lust, E. 2017. The Middle East, 14th Edition. CQ Press.
[3] Baumann, H. 2018. “Social Protest and the Political Economy of Sectarianism in Lebanon.” In Sectarianism in the Contemporary Middle East. London: Routledge.
[4] Bou Khater, L. 2015. “Public Sector Mobilization Despite a Dormant Workers’ Movement.” Confluences Méditerranée, L’Harmattan, No.92.
[5] Sewell, A. 2019. “Push for Independent Syndicates Emerges from Protest Movement.” The Daily Star, November 14, 2019.
[6] Karameh, L. 2020. “Manufacturing Poverty in Lebanon.” Legal Agenda.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Slobodian, Q. 2018. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Harvard University Press.
[9] Baumann, H. 2016. Citizen Hariri: Lebanon’s Neo-Liberal Reconstruction, Oxford University Press.
[10] Krinsky, J. 2017. “Constructing Workers: Working-Class Formation under Neoliberalism”. Qualitative Sociology: 30, 343–360.
[11] Fahnbulleh, M. 2020. “The Neoliberal Collapse: Markets Are Not the Answer.” Foreign Affairs.
[12] Angel, J. 2020. “7 Steps to Build a Democratic Economy: The Future is Public Conference Report.” Transnational Institute.
[13] Arab Reform Initiative. 2019. “The Lebanese Professionals Association: Meeting with Rima Majed.”
[14] Ibid.
[15] Al Hajj, F. “tajamo’ mihaniyat wa mihaniyin: al-mataleb al-ijtima’iya madkhalan lil-taghyir al-siyassi.” (The Lebanese Association of Professionals: Social Demands as a Gateway to Political Change), Al-Akhbar, November 18, 2019; Atallah, N. “Lebanese Protests: The Missing Trade Unions.” Le Commerce du Levant, February 21, 2020.
[16] An interview by Shireen Akram-Boshar with Rima Majed: “The Lebanese Uprising Continues.” Jacobin Magazine, February 17, 2020.
[17] The Sudanese Professionals Association initially began as a non-registered underground organization to avoid repression from Bashir’s regime.
[18] Official website of the SAP: https://www.sudaneseprofessionals.org/en/about-us/
[19] Majdoub, S. 2019. “Sudan Professional Association: The ‘Ghost Battalion’ at the Centre of the Revolution.” Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Since this article was written, a number of developments have occurred within the Sudanese political arena, which fall outside the scope of this article.
[22] El Gizouli, M. 2020. “Mobilization and Resistance in Sudan’s Uprising: From Neighborhood Committees to Zanig Queens.” Rift Valley Institute Briefing Paper.
[23] Ibid.
[24] The Revolutionary Committees Front of October 1964 and the Trade Union Assembly in 1985 both managed to topple regimes, but were followed by military coup d’états that prevented the uprisings from turning into successful revolutions.
[25] Bou Khater, L. 2020. “Did Someone Say Workers? (Part 2/2).” The Public Source.
[26] Khneisser, M. 2019. “The Specter of ‘Politics’ and Ghosts of ‘Alternatives’ Past: Lebanese ‘Civil Society’ and the Antinomies of Contemporary Politics.” Sage Journals; El Kak, N. 2019. “A Path for Political Change in Lebanon? Lessons and Narratives from the 2018 Elections.” Bawader, Arab Reform Initiative.








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