Lebanon burns with hope and fury

Lebanon burns with hope and fury
Comment: A week of wildfires and angry protest has brought out the very worst in Lebanese politics, and the very best in its people, writes Nizar Hassan.
6 min read
18 Oct, 2019
'Beirut looked like it was 2015 all over again' writes Hassan [AFP]
I am writing this at 6am in Beirut, just home after 12 hours of continuous protest against the government, which drew thousands to Beirut's central district within a few hours of the call to action. 

Indeed, it was only around 4pm that the political group, LiHaqqi* and other individuals started calling for street actions against the new regressive tax measures announced by the council of ministers, which included a highly problematic tax on WhatsApp calls, taxes on gasoline and tobacco, and an increase in VAT.

Less than five hours later, Beirut looked like it was 2015 all over again; thousands marching, streets ablaze with massive burning objects and the whole country shut down by roadblocks. The protest movement is expected to continue until the resignation of the prime minister, or at least until the protesters' substantive demands have been met.

These demonstrations are a remarkable silver lining to a general ambiance of hopelessness and desperation. People who had given up on change in Lebanon are suddenly asking about the logistics and strategy of the movement, and an overwhelming sense of empowerment kept people of all ages and backgrounds out on the streets until after midnight on Thursday.

But to understand this sudden momentum against the establishment, it's worth reflecting on a week of developments which have shown more clearly than ever the ugliness of Lebanese politics.

Just a few days ago, the country was wrecked by numerous wildfires as a dry heat wave arrived, and around the flames danced the silhouettes of political ugliness and government incompetence.

The extent of mismanagement and unpreparedness of the Lebanese state in the face of the crisis was shocking. After the scale of the wildfires became clear, we discovered that the country's three best fire-extinguishing helicopters - offered as a gift back in 2009 - had been grounded for years due to the lack of maintenance.

Around the flames danced the silhouettes of political ugliness and government incompetence

How were officials preparing for as ordinary a risk as wildfire, you might ask? Well, they simply weren't.

To make the situation more embarrassing, the country's fire-fighting civil defence volunteers - who have demanded for years that the state employs them as full time staff - were left without basic support such as food and water while fighting the wildfires for long days and nights without breaks.

Beyond the governance scandals, the political dynamics during the wildfires also revealed how ugly Lebanese politics has become.

The fires started in the Chouf district of Mount Lebanon, an area where politics has, since the last parliamentary election in 2018, been a battle between two foes: Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), popular among the Druze community, and the mostly Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

Political tensions, fuelled by sectarian incitement, led to the surfacing of a conspiracy theory that the fires were targeting Christian villages as a means of achieving demographic change, as the fires were engulfing the majority Christian villages of Damour and Mechref in the coastal part of Chouf.

An FPM representative in parliament, Mario Aoun, even supported this conspiracy theory on national television, saying he could not but wonder why the fires were targeting "mostly Christian villages". Setting aside that the facts indisputably contradicted this theory, it shows the extent to which the FPM, and the Lebanese political class in general, is normalising sectarian incitement in public discourse.

The PSP, on the other hand, used the wildfires as an opportunity to flex its muscles, with its leader Jumblatt calling on members to help volunteering, and some of its members bragging about the party being the most "present" in the area to support in extinguishing and relief. This serves as a good reminder of how geographical dominance is a key component of sectarian politics.

On social media platforms, another set of conspiracy theories arose, with Lebanese citizens circulating unfounded rumours about Syrian refugees or workers intentionally starting the wildfires, suggesting they entered houses evacuated during the fires to steal valuable objects.

While clearly repelling, this is far from surprising, as it comes after years of scapegoating and anti-migrant mobilisation by the FPM and other political groups who have consistently blamed refugees and migrants for the country's miseries.

In this bleak and frustrating situation, however, another silver lining emerged.

When it became clear that the wildfires are widespread and growing, volunteers from different backgrounds and affiliations came together to support the victims, and the people trying to extinguish them.

Many WhatsApp groups for volunteers were set up, with one growing to maximum capacity - over 250 participants - within the hour. A major operation centre was spontaneously set up in Damour, with an overwhelming amount of support. Within a few hours, we had too much water, food and medication to send. It was a moment where it suddenly felt good to be human. As a friend told me, it was the moment "that brought back hope".

The political class' nastiness, incompetence and top-down class warfare was made crystal clear

Palestinians from Lebanon's refugee camps also extended an inspiring act of solidarity. Three Palestinian Civil Defence teams travelled to Chouf from their camps to support the firefighters starting before dawn on Tuesday, and Palestinian volunteers from various organisations and scouts supported in the distribution of aid.

Such an act, coming after months of unanswered protests by Palestinians demanding better civil and socio-economic rights, was beyond heart-warming. 

In fact, it was exactly what we needed facing racial incitement: an indisputable act of pure solidarity.

Artist Jana Traboulsi pointedly said in a cartoon: "They said the Syrian created the fire because the Palestinian was extinguishing [it]." Indeed, the far-right agenda requires an enemy, and this enemy needs to be the 'foreigner' or the marginalised, or in this case, the intersection of both.

But today, we cross fingers and believe that solidarity proved more powerful than hate in this instance. This, we hope, will have a more lasting stamp on people's memories of the week.

It has been an intense time indeed, and one that shows the opposing forces at play in Lebanon today. The political class' nastiness, incompetence and top-down class warfare was made crystal clear, from the unreadiness for wildfires to the sectarian and racist incitement and the regressive tax policies.

Instead of taxing the extremely wealthy banks that have been accumulating profits from the state's public debt, and paying as little as 17 percent in taxes, or taxing real estate speculation that has caused extreme gentrification and exaggeration of much-needed house prices, the government proposed to take 6$ from the pocket of every WhatsApp user.

The unprecedented proposal - which was subsequently withdrawn - would have contradicted the company's own rules, and amounted to perhaps the most regressive tax imaginable, as Lebanon's poor rely heavily on Whatsapp calls in the absence of affordable telecom services.

On the other hand, the mobilisation for solidarity and political change this week cannot but restore hope.

It is in these grassroots and bottom-up initiatives that we can form a coalition to defeat the agenda of social division and economic oppression, and restore our collective hope in building a better future for every human in this country. 

Nizar is a Lebanese organiser, researcher and podcaster based in Beirut. He is a co-founder of the progressive political movement LiHaqqi, he researches workers rights and social movements, and co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast.