Novel practices in Lebanon but dim prospects of change

Novel practices in Lebanon but dim prospects of change
Comment: New forms of expression in Beirut have transformed the recent protests into something more inclusive and powerful. Yet, international consensus on Lebanon's status quo appears unchanged.
4 min read
25 Sep, 2015
Sectarian parties are trying to diffuse and co-opt the anti-sectarian movement [AFP]
Protests in downtown Beirut have retained some of its momentum as thousands take to the streets against sectarianism and corruption.

Having begun with traditional demonstrations, the recent protests have taken new shape with, for example, the success of the "Abu Rakhoussa" market on Saturday, a budget street market organised in the capital's downtown (usually exclusive to the upper class).

At the same time, the movement has been under attack from several threads of discourse in the hope this will be sufficient incentive to end opposition to the government.

This has emerged through a series of allegations made against the participants, including the possibility of infiltration by the Islamic State group.

But apart from this specious reasoning, the movement faces a more challenging obstacle that may render it incapable of achieving any of its goals: an international consensus among world and regional powers that Lebanon is immune from any turbulence that could result in a security vacuum.

Innovative protests

The emergence of new and innovative forms of protest show a continued transformation from an unorganised presence in the street to a far-reaching movement that is being legitimised at multiple societal levels.

"Abu Rakhousa" market (it means the father of cheap things), was announced in response to a state policy that has turned downtown Beirut into an area only accessible to the upper class and the Gulf tourists.

Though this was only established for a few hours, it is still significant for at least two reasons.

First, the introduction of the market has allowed for a more inclusive movement. The demonstrations thus far, though significant, have been criticised for alienating large fragments of the community by virtue of attacking the entire ruling class.

The introduction of a public market in an area targeting the upper class has served to direct attention again to the main problems at hand through a class-based narrative that is more legitimate and outreaching.

The issue, then, cannot be reduced to the trash crisis, as it also entails the general question of public spaces in Lebanon, the most obvious one being downtown Beirut.

The market has allowed public space to be reclaimed at least for a few hours and rendered accessible to the public in the face of the rampant classism that has been operating for about two decades.

Second, through the introduction of different kinds of initiatives, the movement has functioned as a representative of a significant segment of the population that has been largely deprived of everyday needs due to decades of government failure.

These activities have thus served the purpose of making their voices heard, thus doubling representation in order not to reduce it to the ruling groups taking part in the national dialogue.

This includes confronting the reductive demand of presidential elections in order to emphasise that meeting this request would not resolve any of the problems plaguing the country.

Stability as an obstacle to reform
     Change can only result as a product of a regional package.

Yet, though the protests have presented a high level of innovation, their efficacy is still a matter of question. In the midst of all the turmoil that has engulfed this region, Lebanese politics suffer from stagnation for internal structural reasons. 

One main obstacle in the face of change is that politics in Lebanon entails remnants of a never-realised democracy. Having a state that is far less oppressive than its counterparts in the region has rendered it essential in its current form as a breathing space.

Accordingly, any threat that could affect the status quo is extinguished. With this in mind, Lebanese citizens' concerns have been relegated to a secondary status pending the resolution of the Syrian crisis and the elimination of violent fundamentalism.

Change can only result as a product of a regional package.

Consequently, the government does not feel under pressure for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is backed up by the clear international decision to purge any threat. Therefore, the state is raised to the status of a dictator that is immune from being held responsible.

Accountability is eliminated first and foremost by declaring parliamentary elections far-fetched in the absence of any consensus on an electoral law.

Second, the people's commitment to the same political groups for more than two decades now without any clear revision in their political agendas renders an imminent change difficult to achieve.

Reform becomes at the mercy of regional dynamics. It is rejected under the pretext that IS could make use of any chance of chaos and under the assertion that the region needs a minimally stable state.

Finally, it is rejected under the claim that the ruling groups are in fact needed by the people to guarantee their safety. Accompanied by a pervasive sectarian discourse, the roles are reversed.

For whereas democracy intended to eliminate the status of the sovereign as untouchable through ensuring that rulers are held accountable by the people, Lebanon's consociational "democracy" guarantees that the people are at the mercy of the rulers through instilling fear and thus rendering reform beyond reach.

Karim Barakat is an instructor of philosophy in the American University of Beirut. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.