The other victims of IS violence

The other victims of IS violence
Comment: One of the casualties of the wave of terrorist attacks unleashed by IS is the anti-sectarian movement galvanised by Lebanon’s summer garbage crisis, writes Bassel Salloukh.
5 min read
18 Nov, 2015
Lebanese citizens fear that last week's attacks are part of a new terrorist wave [Anadolu]

When terror struck a crowded street in Beirut's southern suburbs on 12 November 2015, Lebanon's sectarian political system was undergoing two overlapping crises.

The first is an intra-systemic crisis, manifested in the failure of the sectarian/political elite to agree on the organisation of political power in post-Syria Lebanon.

At the core of this crisis is the collapse of the power-sharing arrangement anchoring the postwar political order, as large sectors of the Christian elite demand a renegotiation of the sectarian balance of power.

The second crisis is an anti-sectarian one, the peaceful demand by a posse of civil society groups for a complete overhaul of the sectarian system and its political-economic foundations.

The first crisis signals the need to recalibrate the postwar sectarian power-sharing arrangement in a manner amenable to the country's Christians; the latter seeks a departure from the politics of sectarianism altogether.

     This systemic crisis was aggravated by the wave of protests challenging the sectarian system's political economy and ideological hegemony

Christian political alienation, and the overlapping domestic/external struggle over post-Syria Lebanon since 2005, has placed the country on political pause ever since the expiry of Michel Suleiman's presidential tenure in May 2014.

This state of political paralysis is rooted in the absence of an inclusive national agenda bridging sectarian divides and in the geopolitical struggles over Syria in which almost all of the country's politicians are deeply invested.

Indeed, that Lebanon's sectarian/political elite have hitherto failed to elect a new president underscores just how much they are beholden to external powers, and just how much Lebanon is organically connected to the grand geopolitical contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia unleashed following the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This systemic crisis was aggravated by the wave of protests challenging the sectarian system's political economy and ideological hegemony. 

While corruption in other public sectors costs Lebanese much more than their overpriced garbage collection industry and waste management dumps, it was the personal humiliation of living in neighbourhoods and walking in streets filled with garbage that ultimately exposed the insouciance of a sectarian/political elite bent on turning the state into a clientelist machine serving their private interests and those of their protégés.

We should not underestimate the resilience of the sectarian system, however. A majority of Lebanese citizens continue to benefit from its in-built clientelism, corruption, disregard for the rule of law, and remain under the spell of its ideological hegemony.

To assume that the sectarian system will collapse is to misjudge its material, institutional, and ideological capabilities. The sectarian/political elite possess a combination of substantial political, economic, and coercive power that can contain or neutralise anti-systemic threats.

This is why the struggle against the sectarian system has necessarily to be a long one. Those looking for quick fixes are only deluding themselves.

But why has the sectarian/political elite reacted so violently against civil society activists engaged in peaceful protests? What is so wrong with demanding accountability and hence the resignation of a minister - in this case the Environment Minister - for failing to fulfil his basic responsibilities?

Why did the sectarian/political elite unleash against protesters the full force of their legal and paralegal coercive machinery?

Perhaps the sectarian/political elite appreciate, more than anyone else, the threat these anti-sectarian groups pose to patterns of political and ideological mobilisation in postwar Lebanon.

Their protests serve to demystify the clientelist core of the sectarian system, one devoid of any semblance of accountability, and expose the everyday violence it practices against Lebanese citizens - across sectarian, class, or regional divides.

Moreover, and despite travelling against the domestic and regional trend, these anti-sectarian groups triggered new fault lines within Lebanese society beyond sectarian identities and modes of political mobilisation.

They demonstrated that sectarian identities and divisions are not the byproduct of an immutable Lebanese essence, but rather the consequence of a set of institutional, clientelist, and discursive elite and non-elite practices aimed at reproducing sectarianism and obviating the emergence of cross- or non-sectarian alternatives.

     This is the true lesson of the recent overlapping crises in Lebanon: that there is nothing inevitable about sectarianism

Demonstrations organised by these activists showed that it does not take much to unleash non-sectarian dynamics, based on ideological, regional, or socioeconomic modes of mobilisation.

Indeed, this is the true lesson of the recent overlapping crises in Lebanon: that there is nothing inevitable about sectarianism in Lebanon, just as there is nothing inevitable about the current sectarian wave spreading its poison across the region.

Sectarian sentiments in Lebanon are the consequences of material, institutional, and discursive practices, and the spread of sectarianism in the region since 2003 has more to do with the sectarianisation of otherwise realist geopolitical contests than immutable primordial hatreds.

Perhaps it is high time we think the unthinkable in Lebanon, of alternatives to the postwar political economic pact that has brought nothing but perpetual instability and socioeconomic misery for large parts of the population.

Maybe there is a need for new institutional arrangements that can open up spaces for the emergence of new political dynamics beyond the straitjacket of sectarianism.

And perhaps we can hope - always against hope nowadays - for a future political pact where sectarian forces can learn to accept and coexist alongside anti-sectarian groups, slowly giving rise to political contestations along ideological rather than sectarian fault lines, thus inventing new modes of political identity and mobilisation.

All this seems like an ephemeral dream since the latest wave of terrorist attacks in Beirut and other capitals.

The sectarian order will probably bounce back under the guise of safeguarding "national unity". Consequently, the activists who once filled the streets with their peaceful but brave protests will have to wait for another day and another round in their long battle against a sectarian system - that is as resilient as it is not so inevitable.

Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67