'We will rise again': Lebanon's revolution is on hold but far from over

'We will rise again': Lebanon's revolution is on hold but far from over
The Covid-19 lockdown may have put Lebanon's revolution on hold, but activists are organising despite the crisis and vow to renew the protest movement.
6 min read
01 April, 2020
Lebanon's protests erupted in October after discontent over a slumping economy and austerity budget. [Getty]
People have been taking to the streets in Lebanon on a regular basis since 17 October, 2019 to protest against the political ruling class and demand change. 

Demonstrators have held on despite the lack of political response and strong police repression, but agreed to stay home as of 18 March, 2020, the day Lebanon went into confinement in order to flatten the curve of Covid-19 infections.

From an obligatory confinement supposed to last until 29 March, measures have since strengthened. Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad said on 26 March that the coronavirus lockdown measures would be extended by an additional two weeks and announced the introduction of a curfew between 7pm and 5pm local time.

The last protesters to carry on with their fight, however minimal, were some of the first targets of the curfew, with the police coming at 6:30pm on 27 March to ask activists staying in tents in Downtown Beirut to go home. When people refused to leave, police destroyed the tents.

Without the possibility to have a presence outside, the restrictions have taken their toll on the movement.

"The virus affected the whole revolution's plan and even the people's interests and priorities," Luna Safwan, a journalist for Vice Arabia, told The New Arab.

Read more: Beyond Covid-19: Lebanon's unemployment outbreak 

"With all the current economic and health concerns, the revolution and protests as a whole had to be placed on hold in Lebanon," Safwan added.

"People are very aware that there's no time to bargain on safety now, specifically health safety. It has surely caused a feeling of negativity, as it took Lebanon and the Lebanese years to rise and revolt, it seems as if everything is losing its momentum now. However, people understand, as do we, that this is what a global pandemic causes. Priorities have to temporarily shift for the greater wellbeing of the society."

But this doesn't mean that people have stopped caring for their country. A lot of initiatives have been set up by activists in order to help and support the people most at need - the vulnerable, sick and poor, who are unable to fend for themselves.

A website has even been set up, "Daleel Thawra", to organise all of the existing initiatives. Other people can find out how to help, either by donating money, blood or agreeing on transporting food.

"Activists have been focusing on helping their people," Lucien Bourjeily, writer, director and social activist, told The New Arab.

Just because people are not protesting in the streets it does not mean that the idea of the October revolution is no longer there

"The government is too slow or too late or isn't doing enough. For example, people have also been finding apartments to host the medical staff near the hospital where they work so they don't put their family at risk. Until this global threat is minimised, until we feel safe and gather again, this is what we can mostly do to help our country."

MTV Lebanon's channel has also been doing a "telethon" in order to raise funds, but people are afraid to donate because it goes through a government channel, according to Bourjeily.

Read more: Lebanese security forces tear down Beirut protest camp 

"There is so much mistrust that people preferred to organise local and regional levels of help." The movement might be physically on hold, but is definitely not inactive. 

"Just because people are not protesting in the streets it does not mean that the idea of the October revolution is no longer there, many of the revolution groups are observing how the government and the current cabinet are handling this pandemic in Lebanon, they are also working on documenting directly and indirectly, the failures to absorb and contain this crisis," Safwan said.

Read more: Lebanon Rises: Special coverage of Lebanon's historic anti-corruption uprising

"Activists and groups are also very aware that this critical time might bring many challenges when it comes to freedom of speech in the country, the government might use at a future stage any of the online work to target activists and groups and summon them to investigation, this is why these revolution groups and activists are now more than ever, aware of their rights and sort of more aware of what might be used against them."

Indeed, Lebanese protesters don't seem to be willing to give up the fight so easily, and are just waiting to be able to take to the streets again, armed with more examples of how the government has let them down. 

"This government, like its predecessor, is choosing repression as a main instrument to deal with the economic crisis and now, in the face of a pandemic, it's looking to secure its interests and further entrench long-standing clientelist networks," Lara Bitar, founding editor of The Public Source, a Beirut-based independent media organization, told The New Arab.

"Lebanon's poverty rate now stands at 45 percent and with so many now deprived of any source of income, establishment political parties are capitalising on people's hunger," she said.

Many protesters are certain that demonstrations will not only continue, but grow and return with a vengeance once we overcome the coronavirus
- Lara Bitar, founding editor of The Public Source

"They're using their meager donations the same way they do right before elections, as an opportunity to promote themselves and gain support. We see that through branded donation boxes and promotional material publicising their charitable work. They're sending their supporters a clear message, stick with us or starve."

Clientelism is an established problem in Lebanon, where people support their community instead of their country and where leaders play on corruption instead of doing their best to serve a whole society.

Read more: Lebanese volunteers mobilise to help health workers battle coronavirus  

"At the same time, the state is bankrupt and won't be able to sustain its old tricks for very long, so many protesters are certain that demonstrations will not only continue but grow and return with a vengeance once we overcome the coronavirus," Bitar thinks. Bourjeily also told The New Arab that the situation "is like a cooking pot".

Read more: Anti-coronavirus measures spark fears of
rights rollback across the Middle East

Another scenario is that people would be too vulnerable financially following the lockdown to be able to go back to protest.

"We need to remember that this pandemic is causing a bigger damage to our existing damage here in Lebanon specifically economical wise," Safwan said. 

"So there's also a high chance that once this pandemic is contained, people will return to attend their business as usual to try and work on building back what they personally lost and not what the whole society/communities are losing, because a pandemic usually wakes up the sense of individual urgency and the individual need to survive, before the collective need."

Either way, the image of the Lebanese government has been tarnished yet again, and the plight of the most vulnerable members of society will continue until the country achieves a proper political system that supports all of its members.

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon, where she reports on the region with a focus on the environment, women's issues, refugees and humanitarian initiatives.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena