In Lebanon, Sect Vs. Sect Turns Into People Vs. Politicians
The protests rippling across Lebanon over the past weeks have had a range of emotions. One minute, there is anger: A video of a woman kicking a bodyguard of the minister of education who had been shooting in the air to scare away crowds in Beirut went viral. The next moment, there is humor and the next, nightclub-like celebration, with public squares filled with dancers and waving lights.
To try to capture the wide span of what is happening, Al-Fanar Media editors are collecting here photographs, interviews, videos, and short sketches of what is happening on the streets of Beirut, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, and other areas. We will update this report as the protests continue.
Violence, Fires and Shootings
The protests are not without pain: Some protesters are engaging in random vandalism and at least some people have died, including two Syrian workers who were trapped in a building that was set on fire in downtown Beirut. In Tripoli, the country’s second-largest city, at least eight people were injured when a politician’s bodyguards fired on demonstrators. Dozens of protesters are reported on television to have been injured in southern cities and towns, such as Nabatieh, where Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, both Shia Muslim-affiliated sects, dominate. Reports from the South suggest local police under the control of those sects are trying to end protests for fear the sects will lose political control.
As of this writing, many Lebanese schools, universities, banks, and roads are closed. (See a related article, “Professors Start a School of the Rioters.”) Public institutions are subject to a political tug of war, with demonstrators wanting them to be closed to keep protest momentum going, and supporters of the existing system wanting them to open.
Some Lebanese are calling the protests the “beginning of the end of the civil war.” The conflict that ended in 1990 left in place a political system elaborately divided by sects that was intended as a form of power sharing. But the public has slowly come to view those in power are as having a voracious appetite for corruption, in a country with the third worst public debt load in the world. One analysis found that 1 percent of Lebanon’s population collects 25 percent of the national income. Lebanon ranks 138 out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Sect leaders largely control civil service jobs according to a patronage system. Public services, such as garbage collection, electricity, and clean water don’t reach a large proportion of the population, when they function at all.
The last major protests in Lebanon, in 2015–16, were in fact over the government’s failure to solve a waste disposal crisis. This time around, though, it seems that no single issue—health care, unemployment, education or other government services—is the focus of protesters’ anger. Instead, they say they are done with their government—the president, the parliament, and cabinet—completely. They are demanding the prosecution of politicians, including former politicians, and chanting the slogan “Kellon Yani Kellon” which translates to: “All of them means All of them,” a chant that has been used in other Arab countries.
The civil war between sects has turned into a war between the ruling class and the rest of Lebanon, in the view of many protesters. An image circulating on social media takes a map of the sects and turns it into a united Lebanon. To its people, the joke that Lebanon proves that a country cannot exist without a government isn’t funny anymore.
Photo Gallery: In Tripoli’s al-Nour Square, Protesters Are High Energy
At least eight protesters were injured in Tripoli’s al-Nour Square last week when an ex-member of parliament visited, hoping to curry favor with the protesters and get back into office. The protesters would have none of it. His bodyguards first shot into the air to scare away protesters, then shot directly at demonstrators. That incident, says one woman, was the “trigger for the North,” and protesters began coming to the square in even larger numbers and late into the night.
Among the photos in the gallery above, a nighttime view of al-Nour Square from the 10th floor of a neighboring building; three women sharing a video call with a relative to tell her about the protests; young men in a circle taking a break from revolutionary chants to sing folk songs; and men holding up their phones as a disc jockey plays music over the square (Photos: Tharaa Captan Bchennaty).
Reaching Out Across the Sectarian Divide
“I was sitting on the street on the Ring Bridge [in Beirut] and my friend was sleeping on the asphalt. I took a photo of him. Our clothes were dirty and our faces were black from smoke and dirt. A woman approached me and asked: How long have you been in the street? “Since Thursday.” She asked, Where do you live? “In Dahiyeh” [the southern district of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim area]. She says: My house is in Achrafieh [a Christian majority area] and I have a car. If you want to sleep on a bed and take a shower my house is open for you. She gave me a bag of Manakish [dough with toppings] and said: “Please eat, stay healthy, the whole country is counting on you.” Wednesday, October 23 (Story and photo: Ashraf Alamin).
Photo Gallery: The Streets Become a Debate Forum
Video: Saturday Night Protest Takes on a Nightclub Atmosphere
After a politician’s bodyguards fired on demonstrators in Tripoli last week, many of the activists who were protesting discussed how they could bring people back to the streets and make them feel safe. They talked about activities such as face painting, bringing musical bands, choirs or a disc jockey. On Saturday, October 19, a DJ set up on a balcony overlooking a central square with speakers. The protest turned into a rave. The common joke was that the protesters had solved the problem that Tripoli doesn’t have anything to do at night. A video that captured the spirit of the event went viral globally (Video source: Unknown).
Distributing Food as a Political Statement
Individual efforts to distribute free snacks and drinks to protesters are happening daily. Along with wanting to feed hungry protesters, these efforts are intended to counter the view that the protesters are acting as a proxy for any foreign country. “It is impressive to see how people are reacting to this initiative, donating food and money to sustain it,” explains Amjad Ramadan, the person behind the effort shown in the photo above, near Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, in Beirut, on Thursday, October 24, where he handed out local brands of juice, cakes, and chocolate. “People coming together and supporting each other in solidarity with the movement is the most hopeful thing we have witnessed in a very long time.”
Photo Gallery: Hatching a Revolution in a Building Called ‘The Egg’
A building known as the Egg, an architectural relic of an earlier time in Beirut, has turned into a protest hotspot with a strongly educational flavor.
Construction of the modernist building, a theater with a curved roofline that gave it its name, began in the mid 1960s. The creation of the complex surrounding the building was halted by the civil war, in 1975. In recent years, the building has been boarded up, but a few days ago, anti-government protestors broke in.
Now the building is serving as discussion space. The walls are decorated with graffiti, many of them calling for LGBTQ+ rights, which are one of the protesters’ official demands. Professors from the universities that are closed across the country in honor of the protests are holding daily teach-ins.
A Facebook group, which has more than 1,600 participants, has been created under the title of “Eggupation,” and serves as an online venue for all those who are interested in the cultural and educational activities held at the Egg.
“The Egg is the place from which the new social order is hatched,” reads the Facebook group’s description. “More modestly, perhaps, it can be one of those places to imagine a new beginning. The Egg is on the streets, yet provides a space for concentrated thinking and debate. Our motivation is critical pedagogy as a political practice, one that aims at a critique of the existing social order and thinks of the means of its transformation.”
In addition to daily teach-ins and lectures, the Egg holds open microphone sessions, where protestors can express their opinions.
“One of the most important parts of this revolution is that it is educational. Having experts from different fields come together in public spaces and give talks about so many different things regarding the current situations is very important,” says Yara Banna, an activist. “There are things that we don’t learn in classrooms. These things were offered to us in different spaces under this revolution. We now understand press, economics, laws, and so much more. The revolution is not only a space for change, but also a space to learn and grow.”
This item was reported by Dana Abed.
Video: After Two Weeks, Protesters Still Press On
This compilation of video clips shows scenes from protests in Beirut and Tripoli.
Video compiled and edited by Rym Zawk.