Drawing lessons for Lebanon

June 21, 2016

The revolts that shook the Middle East and North Africa starting in 2011 inspired the world and raised hopes for a democratic alternative to the despotic rule of the Middle East's authoritarian states. Since then, the revolutions have been turned back through repression and the stoking of sectarianism by the region's ruling classes, Islamist organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and imperial powers like the U.S. and Russia. The effects on the region have been catastrophic--from the massive refugee and humanitarian crisis in Syria, to the re-establishment of an even more repressive security regime in Egypt, to the growing dominance of the logic of sectarian conflict.

In Lebanon, there has been a revival of struggle starting last year with anti-government protests against corruption, focused around the issue of garbage collection. This year, that discontent was harnessed by a political movement known as Beirut Madinati, which gave expression to the anger at rival factions of the political elite--both the March 8 Alliance, that includes the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, and the pro-U.S. March 14 Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

In the second installment of a two-part interview (read part one here), Farah Kobaissy and Elia El Khazen of the Socialist Forum in Lebanon talk with Wael Elasady about the fallout in Lebanon from the Syrian civil war, the impact of the region's counterrevolutions on political consciousness in Lebanon, and prospects for the region's revolutionaries to provide an alternative vision for political mobilization based on class solidarity.

HAVE THERE been any spillover effects in Lebanon from the civil war in Syria?

Elia: As we always say when we sit together, we live in counterrevolutionary times. This counterrevolution is not only a physical struggle; it's not only about arms, weapons, barrel bombs, Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], the Assad regime and Egypt's Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi seizing power and cracking down on activists. There's also an ideological component: Do you want to end up like Syria?

This plays out in Lebanon because every time there is some kind of political or social movement, the media starts in with its speculation: Will Daesh infiltrate this movement? Will it become something other than what it looks like? Are these activists linked to another country? Are they being funded by Qatar?

The media and ruling class regularly use this rhetoric to "warn" that events in Syria might radiate into neighboring countries. The ruling class uses this to undermine social movements and to undercut the revolutionary current in the Arab world that burst forth in 2011, but has now experienced defeats.

A mass demonstration at the height of the You Stink movement
A mass demonstration at the height of the You Stink movement

Both political factions in Lebanon use this counterrevolutionary rhetoric to suggest that it's "dangerous" to demand your rights through protests or by running candidates against the main political parties. So they point to Syria to terrify people in Lebanon, saying that if you continue to protest and challenge the status quo, that however bad it may be now, it could get a lot worse if you continue down this path.

Farah: It's the same rhetoric in Egypt. The Egyptian strongman Sisi says the country will end up like Iraq or Syria if you protest against me. These ruling elites just learned from each other, and they use the same terminology and discourse.

Elia: Hezbollah is also using very interesting rhetoric. They say if you are voting against Hezbollah, you are voting against the resistance, against the martyrs who died in Syria, against all of the struggles that have gotten us this far.

The Hariri camp's rhetoric on the other hand is: Yes, we understand that there is discontent, but you need to keep supporting us because Hezbollah is intervening in Syria in a dangerous way, and we need to pull things together here because we don't want to end up being attacked or dragged into the civil war as a result of Hezbollah's actions.

Farah: But they all united in the elections together, against independents, which has demonstrated the nature of the ruling political forces and the interlinked interests they share. They would mobilize the people against each other, but then whenever the mobilization goes against them, they will get united to defend each other's interests. This is very interesting to see.

ACROSS SECTIONS of the Arab world, Hezbollah lost its esteemed position as a popular nationalist resistance force because of its willingness to assist the Assad regime in the repression of the Syrian people. Has that affected its popularity inside Lebanon itself?

Elia: We are now hearing about discontent among families of martyred people, but you only hear rumors because it's very hush-hush, and Hezbollah makes sure that it stays that way. I think there Hezbollah has shifted its focus to concentrate more on Saudi Arabia, rather than Israel, as the main enemy. So, yes, there is talk about discontent among families asking more questions, but we can't know for sure to be honest.

Farah: I don't know how much we can generalize out of the municipal elections regarding the overall political climate in southern Lebanon. But we can ask why do we have a lot of independents running in the south against the Amal Movement and Hezbollah? Is this linked to the years after 2006 when Hezbollah wasn't fighting against Israel but focusing on Syria?

I have no hard conclusion to offer, but I'm really curious to know. These are questions that we need to ask ourselves, but I think the municipal elections are telling. We need to investigate more.

Elia: What's important is to make a comparison between what happened in the post-2006 era and what's happening now after Hezbollah's involvement in Syria. I think the ability of Hezbollah to mobilize people based on martyrdom and lives lost in Syria is far less than they could mobilize based on its resistance against Israel. This is, I think, affecting their base, which is being reflected in a challenge in the municipal elections.

This is also why I think they are concentrating so much on political gains right now and postponing the presidential elections and parliamentary elections until they know for sure that they could, even if they have a lesser base or less mobilized base, maintain their privileges.

YOU DESCRIBED how the ruling classes use the counterrevolution and the destruction in Syria as a way to discourage any challenge to their power. Can you talk more about what lessons activists or people in the streets are drawing in Lebanon about the rise and defeat of the Arab revolts of 2011?

Elia: It's a mix. There is despair because of what has happened to most revolutions in the area. It looked for a moment as if we could hope that the revolts across the region would eventually result in change here in Lebanon--because everyone knows how the Lebanese political regime is intrinsically linked to the Syria regime, and in many ways is its mirror and now increasingly linked with the Saudi regime. The problem is that these revolutions ended up defeated and transformed into counterrevolutions.

This despair at the regional situation has caused many people to start looking internally into Lebanon, and now in some ways, it's having a positive effect more than a negative one because people in Lebanon are saying these revolutions are not going to save us, let alone save ourselves. So what we thought of as revolutionary leftists as counterrevolutionary negative despair is turning out to be something that is pushing people to create alternatives against the ruling classes.

I think this is the essence of what Beirut Madinati is. They are saying that if these revolutions didn't succeed in bringing change, let us now create our own alternative. The bad side is that they say that the alternative shouldn't be revolutionary, because it will ultimately be crushed, but the good side is that people are saying we are not going to wait and hope for the revolution to spread. We are going to find ways to do it ourselves.

Farah: The defeat of the revolution showed the need for the creation of organized political forces or fronts. We can't leave it to spontaneity alone. Here in Lebanon, one of the main problems in our movements is that we lack organized political parties, we lack organized trade unions. So in other words, we lack the forces to provide a sustainable and powerful base for a movement.

One of the main conclusions we have drawn is the need for the creation of solid organized political forces, but also student movements, unions, and all of this. So this is one of the most important things, because if you draw a comparison between Tunisia and Syria, for example, one of the reasons that the revolution was bloody in Syria was the lack of any kind of organized bodies of trade unions or political parties, because of the history of repression.

In Tunisia, you had very powerful political forces, student movements and trade unions that played important roles in organizing strikes. And they also forged platforms that were able to provide some political understanding and context to what was happening.

We lack these kinds of organized forces in Lebanon, due to years of neoliberal reforms and sectarian policies. Our trade unions were totally dismantled or controlled or co-opted by the political forces in power. Our student movements were also dismantled through years of privatization of education and sectarian policies. So we need to recreate all of this, and we need organized forces. This is one of the most important lessons we have to learn.

Elia: Another way in which the conditions in Syria have affected Lebanon is that more than 50 percent of the workforce is composed of migrant workers, who aren't legally allowed to organize and must live in the most precarious way imaginable. Syria refugees now make up a highly exploited section of the workforce. This ruling class has extended to refugees the sponsorship system, which is for domestic or migrant workers. This sponsorship system links migrant workers or a Syrian refugee to a property-owning Lebanese person.

So you can't enter the country if you are not linked to this system, and this creates a pool of workers that can be drawn from and exploited through the sponsorship system. Employers use this pool to frighten Lebanese workers into accepting less. Bosses say to their Lebanese workers, "If you don't want to work or have a problem, I can replace you with a Syrian worker who will accept half of your salary."

So this pits two working classes against each other and helps the ruling class exploit both even more. The refugee crisis in Lebanon couldn't have come at a better time for the ruling class in Lebanon, because after what happened in 2008 with the economic crisis and the revolution in 2011, the flow of refugees provided a rescue package for the capitalists. I think they are using it very smartly by extending this sponsorship system to the refugees.

THE REFUGEE crisis came as a cover and allowed the ruling classes to the scapegoating of refugees to cover their failures. Has the case for solidarity with refugees provided a way to push back?

Farah: Alongside other activists and students, this is one of the main things we have been working on as the Socialist Forum--both in terms of organizing solidarity with revolutions and revolutionaries in Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt and in terms of challenging racist practices, policies and discourses of the ruling class and the counterrevolution. We have been organizing around these issues since 2011, but even more so in the past two years.

We've also been mobilizing people to challenge the prejudice and hostility against migrant workers and encouraging migrant workers to organize in trade unions. Last May Day, we participated in supporting migrant workers rallies in Beirut, and we held a forum about organizing migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

We've been raising these issues a lot recently, whether by writing on this question or mobilizing in the streets. Now more and more people are taking up these issues. Within some mobilizations, including You Stink, the question of refugees and of discrimination within the movement has been raised because there has been a lot of nationalist discourse about how we want Lebanon for the Lebanese. So we raised the question of what about the refugees? Our movements should be inclusive of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

More and more, we are seeing that our ideas are gaining ground among activists, but not throughout society as a whole.

CAN YOU describe in general terms for our readers the nature of Lebanon's political system? It's often referred to by socialists as a sectarian political regime.

Farah: The political system in Lebanon is organized around sectarianism. Sectarian politics shapes life at the most basic level, such as the family, all the way up to parliament, the ministerial cabinet and the presidency.

At the level of the family, for instance, each sect has its own personal status law, and control over this is given to the church or the mosque or other religious institutions to regulate family life, including divorce, marriage and inheritance based on religious laws. Each sect, therefore, has its own stipulations regarding personal status law. This gives a lot of power to religious institutions over our lives.

At the level of election law, seats in parliament are divided up along sectarian lines. The president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister has to be a Sunni, the head of parliament has to be a Shia, and the seats in parliament are also divided among sects. This is the way in which sectarianism is organized in society and at the level of the political apparatus.

The various ruling elites use sectarianism and try to extend their base among their respective sects. So Hezbollah builds its base among Shia, Hariri among Sunnis, the Lebanese forces and Michel Aoun among Christians and so on. Sectarianism is thus propagated through everyday discourse as well as the way in which society itself and political life are organized.

Of course, for a long time, there has also been resistance against the sectarian system--whether from the left, the democratic forces or the nationalists. By the way, it's important not to confuse sectarianism with religion, because sectarianism is not a system based on religion. We are not being ruled by the church or by a priest, by a sheik or by a religious person. It's actually a civil system, which uses sectarianism as a political tool to mobilize and divide people.

Elia: Farah is right. Sectarianism is very modern in nature. It's a misconception that it's a continuation of old rivalries between Shia and Sunni or Muslims and Christians. It is linked to the formation of the nation state and the rise of capitalism in Lebanon and in the Arab world.

Farah: The main purpose of sectarianism is to hide class divisions in society, to organize vertical cross-class alliances and to create fear among different communities. Sometimes it's a justified fear, and sometimes it is an illusionary fear to sow divisions between people in order to frustrate the potential for unity.

This is the most important part of our discussion: how to build up solidarity from below among working-class people belonging to different communities and sects. We are trying to build horizontal solidarity, to overcome the divisions among sects.

What unites a working-class Shia with the Shia bourgeoisie leadership, for instance? Chiefly, a manufactured feeling that the Shia should fear the Sunni, who will come and kill the Shia or who knows what. So sectarianism is always instigating or playing off fears among different communities. This is what we must strive to break.

In Lebanon, it's critical to take a clear position against sectarianism and for secularism. But we want a secularism that is truly democratic and inclusive, and not sectarian in its own way, like, for example, in Europe where there's discrimination against Muslims. Or like the secular sectarianism in the Arab world, such as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. They always claim to be secular even as they mobilize sectarianism in different ways to maintain their rule.

And you have a lot of secular elites in the Arab region who support dictatorship because of the fear from Islamists and Salafists.

So we need to embrace secularism as a democratic idea, which is a bedrock of revolution and liberation, especially in the region and for the working class in Lebanon, which has been divided along sectarian lines in order to maintain the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in power.

This is very important for us as socialists in Lebanon, and we need to put it forward as a demand. We need to serve as an example in our social movements and for all leftist forces in the Arab region that were hesitant about this in Egypt or Syria or Iraq.

Right now in Syria, for example, Lebanon is being held up as a model for other Arab countries because the sectarian system here is supposedly working--so it should be implemented in Syria in the same way it was tried in Iraq before. Please, no! The sectarian system is not working for us, and we want to challenge it, and we want to build a movement that is anti-sectarian and secular, but based on a real secularism that can serve as a building block for class unity.

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