Rage Against the Sectarian Machine

by Sara Fregonese

29 October 2019

Lebanon’s protesters have looked beyond sectarianism. Now the state is closing its ranks.

On Thursday 17 October, the Lebanese government proposed a new tax of 0.20 USD per day (£4.60 a month) on Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) calls, affecting mostly WhatsApp calls. In a country paying highly for a chronically inadequate and under-invested telecommunication infrastructure, this was not a good move. According to a McKinsey report in January 2019, Lebanon has the 130th slowest internet out of 133 countries. In other words, Lebanon – a country where, officially, war finished in 1990 – has slower internet than a war zone. Moreover, according to the same report, mobile data and voice prices are two or three times higher than regional peers, making it one of the least affordable in the region.

The “Whatsapp tax”, however, is only a detail in a much wider Lebanese landscape, where public infrastructure and the natural resources that partly sustain it are crumbling under inadequate or absent policies, corruption, and environmental and real estate abuse within a voracious neoliberal market logic. Examples of this process include the privatisation of much of the country’s coastline, the illegal quarrying of mountains to nurture the real estate boom, especially after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war (resulting in higher risk of mudslides and flash floods), patchy planning and zoning practices (Bou Akar 2018) , mismanagement of waste services that grew into a nationwide crisis in 2015 and, finally, wild fires that, in the three days preceding the ‘Whatsapp Tax’ idea, wiped out 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of forest, according to expert George Mitri. The fires spread amidst state inertia: three crowdfunded firefighting helicopters sat idle and in disrepair, with the lack of fire rangers due to the stall in appointments the previous year.

“It is local grievances regarding the governing of land, infrastructure and even technology, that are the engines of unrest.”

The traditional interpretation of unrest in Lebanon offered by international relations experts – that of a country suffering chronical flare-ups of sectarian hatred and violence funnelled by wider geopolitical rivalries – becomes limiting in the current conjuncture. Despite Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah hinting that the 2019 protests had been hijacked by external agents and funding, speaking on 25 October, the evidence points towards the corruption and misgovernment that has crippled Lebanon since the end of the civil war, and has now reached a tipping point. Regional geopolitics (the rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the weight of the Syrian conflict, and the influence of Russia and the US, for example) are common lenses to interpret Lebanese affairs, and Lebanon is often seen as a proxy battleground for these bigger battles. In the context of these protests, however, it is local grievances regarding the governing of land, infrastructure and even technology, that are the engines of unrest.

New lines of division and connection

As the fires raged in October 2019, a new line of partition developed across the country. On one side, stood the ineptitude of a state feeding on sectarian loyalties, rivalries, tit-for-tat, gentlemen’s agreements, and widespread corruption since the end of the civil war; on the other side, a local, non-sectarian, mobilized, connected and organized movement. What started to appear was a re-alignment of the axis of political contention: this no longer ran between supporters of political parties co-opting protest movements (as in 2005 after the killing of former PM Rafiq al Hariri) or clashes between different parties’ armed militants (as during the deadly clashes of May 2008). Instead, the nascent protest – soon reaching an unprecedented geographical scale – appeared as a popular and non-sectarian movement lined up against a sectarian sovereign state system that was literally playing with the life and death of its own population.

However, while this re-alignment of political contention is new, the basis of the protest took gradual shape through the last decade at least. Non-sectarian, diverse, activist-led civil movements rallying around pragmatic and material causes like urban space, infrastructure and access to services has been developing since the Independence Intifada (Intifada al –Istiqlal), also known as the  ‘Cedar revolution’ in 2005. From the Laique Pride movement for the legalisation of civil marriage, to the rights groups demanding action about the missing people from the civil war, and the #YouStink movement protesting the mismanagement of the garbage crisis, these new political expressions are focused on locality, political ecology, and right to the city, and they mobilise the urgency of these pragmatic issues to expose and confront a crippling state chauvinism.

Moreover, Lebanon’s protests can be connected to an even wider context of global popular uprising that, since at least 2010, demands basic rights and access to space, services, resources and infrastructures, from Cairo to Baghdad, from Manama to London, from Paris to Santiago. The modalities, solidarity networks and geographies of these protests – like the Arab Spring, Occupy, and Podemos – cut across regions, are urban in nature and demands, and attract violent state repression, including increased militarisation of the police, use of non-lethal toxic weapons like tear gas, states of emergency and, in some cases, the use of anti-terrorism powers against protesters. Lebanon’s protests saw the police and the army clear roadblocks, charge protesters, and – as in Beddawi in the north of the country – use tear gas and fire rubber bullets and live ammunition in the air. As I write, riot police and soldiers have separated Amal and Hezbollah supporters from the protest camp in downtown Beirut, clearing the latter but not before the protest was ransacked. However, videos have also emerged of soldiers bonding with the demonstrators. These are precious moments of connection, tears in the solidity of the politico-sectarian sovereign state.

The former Cinema Metropole (known as the ‘Egg’), downtown Beirut, 20 October 2019
Image credit: Lorenzo Trombetta

Remaking space to change the system

On the evening of 17 October 2019, major traffic arteries in Beirut downtown – such as the tunnel that goes from the neighbourhood of Hamra in the west to Ryad al Solh square, and the “ring” flyover by it – were filled with protesters on foot. These arteries (some of them flyovers, some tunnels) separate the private space of the reconstructed area of Beirut’s city centre – managed by the company Solidere – from the rest of the city. They are not spaces where one walks on foot, unless there is a very important motive to be there en masse.

“While a new type of public open shaming of the political establishment was developing in the  protest chants, new geographies were being written.”

As reports started coming in of protesters gathering in other Lebanese cities on 19 October, news arrived of widespread iconoclasm against the built expressions of power: tearing down political posters depicting party members, attacking the offices of Hezbollah MP for Nabatiyeh Mohammad Raad, shattering an Amal party banner in Nabatiyeh. While a new type of public open shaming of the political establishment was developing in the  protest chants[1], new geographies were being written.  If it is true, as Swyngedouw wrote, that revolutions are ‘an active process of intervention through which (public) space is reconfigured and through which […] a new socio-spatial order is inaugurated’, then this is exactly what Lebanon’s revolution is doing. Spaces like the Beirut-Jounieh highway – normally a forest of billboards and publicity signs – are being used as sit-ins. Buildings in the reconstructed downtown that were shut down by Solidere during the postwar reconstruction have been resuscitated. For the first time since the start of the civil war, people visited the Grand Theatre, the former Metropole Cinema (the Egg), and the decaying Saint Vincent de Paul church. Since then, the Egg has become a hub for university lectures, open mic nights, free rave parties and legal advice – this reminded me of the university tent at the Occupy encampment in St Paul’s square in London in 2011, and of the Nuit Debut protest on Paris’s Place de la Republique in 2016. Beirut’s reconstructed downtown is part of the post-war sectarian machine. Planned and designed through a private/public capital venture managed by Solidere and mediated by the Council for Development and Reconstruction, it aimed to promote a neutral zone in the middle of the city, to represent the new “Lebanon for all”. However, due to skyrocketing property prices, a lack of public space and costly services, it became more similar to a space for no-one. Here, attempts to create spaces for memory and public contemplation about the country’s past were erased by more profitable real estate developments. However, gradually, the city centre became a space of protest since the early 2000s, and especially since the killing of Rafiq al Hariri (Brand and Fregonese 2016 – chapter 5).

During uprising, it becomes particularly clear how cities embody physical and symbolic terrains for socio-political change. By selecting gathering points, tracing demonstration routes, and choosing occupation sites, protesters re-draw the urban geography to confront the existing spatial configurations of power. Current protests in Catalonia, Chile, Hong Kong, and the wave of protests worldwide in 2011, along with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, had one common denominator: the deliberate takeover of space not only as a means of protest, but as a core message and demand. When President Aoun or Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah ask protesters to select leaders and table specific demands, when foreign commentators state that you cannot get rid of sectarianism because that’s the identity of Lebanon, they miss one crucial point: protesters have already made their demands by taking over key spaces and re-purposing them for their vision of a state beyond the sectarian machine.

“Current protests in Catalonia, Chile, Hong Kong, and the wave of protests worldwide in 2011, along with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, had one common denominator: the deliberate takeover of space not only as a means of protest, but as a core message and demand.”

In this sense, Harvey’s words ring true in the context of what the protests are already achieving: a spatial redesign of the status quo:

“[…] the right to the city has to be construed not as a right to that which already exists, but as a right to rebuild and re-create the city as a socialist body-politic in a completely different image – one that eradicates poverty and social inequality, and one that heals the wounds of disastrous environmental degradation.”

Opening roads, closing ranks

Urban space in Lebanon is a product of neoliberal capital accumulation, as depicted by Harvey, and a reflection of the sectarian system of governing that is tightly knitted with neoliberal market practices. When I talk with my students about al-taifiyya (sectarianism) in Lebanon, I represent it like the metasystem of force governing a Foucault pendulum. Even though the pendulum appears to change direction while swinging, what rotates is in fact not the pendulum, but the earth, while the pendulum continues to move along the same axis. What is new during these protests is that the Lebanese have demanded – loudly, and in great numbers – to break out of this system. The weight of this paradigmatic change is potentially earth shattering. The state cannot let this system (nizam) fall. It must react. It closes ranks, and shows its strength. 

Let us not romanticise, though. For as poetic as the images of the protest are, there is not a simple contraposition of an evil monolithic state versus the disenfranchised people. Lebanon is a country of hybrid sovereignties , where the boundaries of the monopoly of political violence are blurry; where state and non-state irregular (often armed) actors merge, collude, coordinate, connect, especially at times of crisis. What we see today is a non-sectarian, leaderless movement that is demanding a state beyond sectarianism, and a sectarian state that is increasingly entrenching itself. But with nuances: sectarianism has translated itself into different and localised arrangements of sovereignty that have crippled the public democratic arena after the civil war.

On one side stand the politicians: closing ranks, consistently aligned in favour of reforms and against the resignation of the government; asking that protesters leave the streets; asking that the protesters select a delegation of leaders to compromise and stage demands; accusing the protests of being under the influence of foreign conspiracies and external funding; pleading to their support base to leave the street; or even threatening political vacuum.

On another side, the army – widely respected, composed of all religious backgrounds – finds itself on the dividing line, having to carry out government orders, but close (even emotionally) to the grievances and nationalist sentiments of the protesters. A soldier cries and is consoled, another hugs a protester, another discretely holds hands with a woman at a sit-in; glitches in the matrix, signals of a change under way in how the Lebanese state wants to see itself.

On a third side, there are thugs. Thugs with flags, thugs with mopeds, thugs pelting protesters with projectiles. Thugs who came out en masse earlier in the week and were confronted by the army, kept at bay by the police. Thugs from which both Hezbollah and Amal dissociated themselves at first, but who, later, reacted directly to a speech by Nasrallah by descending on the protest and attacking it.

Bel nisba la boukra, shou?
[And regarding tomorrow, what?]

Since last Thursday, the unimaginable has happened in Lebanon. Crucial questions remain in the days ahead, as the situation evolves:

  1. How will the behaviour of the army develop?
  2. Will there be spaces for a sectarian co-optation of the protest movement, now that the physical landscapes of political sectarianism are being challenged?
  3. How big is the danger of militia armed presence and even attack?
  4. How will cities outside Beirut – with different bases of political support, different urban histories – shape the evolution of the protest?

But let’s face it. The systematic accumulation by dispossession, tightly knit with sectarianism, that has been crippling natural resources, environment, public space, public services, and infrastructure since the end of the civil war, has taken a massive kick. This regime of accumulation by dispossession has also, gradually in the last 15 years at least, shaped the way the Lebanese population mobilizes: less and less along traditional/sectarian party lines, and increasingly around civil society movements focused on the local, the public, the ecological, and the right to the city.  As the protests have grown enough to look beyond the sectarian machine, the state – traditionally portrayed as ‘lacking sovereignty’ – is closing ranks and showing itself for what it is: a sectarian sovereign system born out of modern western colonialism. This is a necropolitical[2] system whose accumulation by dispossession has exposed its citizens to vulnerability and even death – by fire, floods, ecological disaster, lack of livelihoods, precarity and poverty, exposure and subjugation to the political and (para)military power of sectarianism. Thirteen days (and counting) of speaking back at this system are achieving what is supposed to remain politically unimaginable – but it has now happened.

Dr Sara Fregonese is a Lecturer in Political Geography at the University of Birmingham. She is the author of War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon and co-author of The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarisation Cohesion.


[1] Slogans included not only “the people/want/the fall of the regime” similarly to the Arab Springs in 2011, but also more targeted slogans against Lebanese politicians: “kellon ya3ni kellon” (“all of them, means [really] all of them”) and more desecrating slogans like those rhyming with “hela hela hela ho”.

[2] Necropolitics is a concept introduced by philosopher and political scientist Achille Mbembe, to mean “the subjugation of life to the power of death” exercised by the sovereign state and to account for how contemporary sovereignty deploys weapons to ensure maximum subjugation potential.


Main image credit: Shahen Araboghlian – CC BY-SA 4.0

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