Becoming Ungovernable: Strategies and Modes of Dissent in Lebanon’s Uprising

Published

Years of state and non-state actors economically suffocating policies have given rise to a series of massive revolts in Lebanon. Arguing against the myth of Lebanese resilience, Bassem Saad and Edwin Nasr give account of how protesters found common ground to forge efficient alliances.

Article published in The Funambulist 28 (March-April 2020) Our Battles. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Popular uprisings are rarely ever “happy accidents,” and yet, efforts at locating a set of factors for their occurrence often blow the whistle on their spontaneity. Whether a supposed alignment of agency and material conditions can account for the particular juncture at which hundreds of thousands of people in Lebanon revolted, or that the revolutionary fervor witnessed and experienced across Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria had finally spilled over, remains to be seen. For now, the popular uprising is still ongoing, and with it, articulations of dissent consistently mutate as the state continues to violently enforce business-as-usual. 

On October 17, 2019, the Lebanese “national unity” government, headed by Saad Hariri, agreed on the implementation of austerity measures that would include a tax on internet calls. Then, the country was on the brink of financial collapse due to an impending dollar shortage crisis, and Hariri’s ministers were concocting measures in response to a contract of trust it had signed with the international community (through the Paris-hosted CEDRE conference) that would ensure the provision of loans and grants. These measures, while undeniably mortifying, also came at the most inopportune of times; the government demonstrated, only mere days earlier, its complete inadequacy to respond to a scenario of catastrophe after wildfires had ravaged 3,700 acres of productive forests across the country. Thousands of angry demonstrators thronged to the streets of Beirut’s downtown area, though no political parties or unions had instructed them to so. Soon enough, the protests spread to most of the country’s towns and cities — Tripoli in the North, Saida and Nabatieh in the South, and the Chouf district and Jal el Dib in Mount Lebanon. Within a week, more than two million inhabitants of Lebanon would participate in mass street protests, then encouraged by general strikes affecting both the public and the private sectors. Some of the more reformist demands, advanced primarily by civil society actors and organizations, ranged from the resignation of the Hariri government — and the subsequent formation of an “independent” technocratic one — to the recovery of stolen state assets and the provision of basic social services such as water, electricity, and healthcare. 

But the general mood was distinctively radical in its disillusionment with the postwar neoliberal order as well as in its refusal to concede to legitimizing schemes and power-sharing arrangements by the sectarian-clientelist regime. The Hariri government’s resignation, on October 29, did little to appease popular rage. Instead, the uprising adopted a spatio-temporality characterized by geographical decentralization and an indefinite duration, and succeeded at rendering the country ungovernable. The reliance on mass participation and filling out public squares had waned over time. Instead, the task at hand involved devising insurrectionary activities that could confound the security apparatus of the state and its militias in order to effectively target the circulation process of capital in the country. Ever since the emergence of neoliberal governance in the 1990s, most workers’ unions in the country have been co-opted by traditional sectarian parties, making it tremendously difficult to call for effective general strikes and organize targeted actions. Moreover, in the past three decades or so, there’s been a near halt on the formation of reformist parties able to integrate the electoral arena or claim a significant constituency. Without these structures to take advantage of or operate from, the uprising has imaginatively resorted to autonomous forms of organizing, allowing it to extend itself through geographical space and strategic time. These have included nationwide mutual aid task forces, volunteer-run media platforms, and anonymized coordination committees, all of which were implemented to counter state-sponsored disinformation and conditions of insecurity, as well as increased precarization resulting from the ongoing financial crisis.