Lebanon's Revolution Started a Year Ago, and It's Not Over Yet

Despite government resignations, systemic failures in governance are yet to be addressed.
October 19, 2020, 3:00pm
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A protester in Beirut demonstrating to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution. Photos: Matthew Kynaston

Rawane and Karim are climbing a set of rusty metal steps, sending the flimsy staircase shaking with every step, as the ground falls away far below.

“Eyes up!” Rawane shouts. A few nervous moments later, the activists are standing atop a brutalist concrete dome on the roof of an abandoned cinema known as “The Egg”.

They look down over the protesters gathered in Beirut’s Azarieh car park, between The Egg and the impressive Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, to mark the anniversary of Lebanon’s October Revolution.

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Exactly one year ago, on the 17th of October, 2019, an estimated 1 million people across Lebanon – roughly 20 percent of the population – spilled out onto the streets in protest, burning tyres, blocking roads and chanting anti-government slogans. Triggered by the announcement of a tax on WhatsApp, the demonstrators were united in demanding an end to systemic corruption and the removal of a sectarian political class that has ruled over the country for the past 30 years.

“It was massive, a huge surprise, and it was everywhere,” Aline, an engineer and political organiser, tells VICE News as she breaks from leading the chants to adjust the huge Lebanese flag hoisted from her hip. She is one of thousands of demonstrators moving along a planned route through the city.

“We were used to only having demonstrations in Beirut,” she adds. “People in other regions were out on the streets. Those areas are very oppressed, they don’t express freely what they say because of the political parties there. Having the revolution gave us all strength.”

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Aline (centre) leads protests through Beirut.

Aline was one of the core group of organisers who occupied the Azarieh car park in the days that followed the October uprising. She helped build a large wooden tent to shelter protesters through the winter and provide a space for activists to come together and strategise. In the months that followed, the space became the epicentre of the revolution, with The Egg utilised as a space for talks and exhibitions.

“On Mondays, for example, we talked about the economy. On Tuesdays, we talked about tools for changing the system,” Aline remembers. “We had experts talking about economics – everything that is happening, from garbage collection to voting laws… everything.”

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The tents which housed the occupation stayed up for five months, before the army cleared them away when the government declared a medical emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. A demonstrator attempted to set themselves on fire in protest of the clearing.

“It was the biggest disappointment for me,” Aline says. “It was my second home, my actual home. These people were my family.”

The army are patrolling both ahead and behind of today’s procession, armed with assault rifles, prepared for clashes that look unlikely at this stage. The military and internal security forces have grown increasingly aggressive towards protesters this year, often responding with tear gas, rubber bullets and occasionally firing live rounds of ammunition.

The military can be seen from the top of The Egg, strategically positioned downtown. Karim takes out a handful of flyers, with a plan to shower them dramatically over the group of protesters on the ground. He tries, but the wind is coming in from the sea and blows the flyers back across the grey, graffitied rooftop.

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Karim throws flyers over protesters.

Making the best of the failed stunt, he throws several more loads into the air, as Rawane documents their efforts on camera, likely to be used later for the group’s social media. They collect what they can of what’s strewn across the rooftop, and make their way back down through the steel and concrete.

Like so many bullet hole-ridden buildings in Beirut, The Egg is a remnant of the bloody civil war that plagued the country between 1975 and 1990, claiming the lives of 120,000 people and displacing tens of thousands more. The Egg stands on what was the frontline between the Christian east and Muslim west sides of the city.

When peace was brokered between the different religious groups at the end of the war, leaders signed an agreement that constitutionally divided and bound different ministries and government roles to the different religious groups. For example, the president is required to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the House a Shia Muslim. Although the “Taif Agreement” worked as a means to broker peace, it was not fully realised.

“Most clauses were not implemented,” Karim Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut, tells VICE News. “The Taif Agreement was supposed to create a senate, where Lebanese communities would be represented, and eventually abolish sectarianism. None of that was put in place. It became a vetocracy, sectarianism became more entrenched. Communal leaders saw their powers unchecked.”

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Protesters sign message boards remembering those killed in the Beirut blast.

This past year, the Lebanese people have been pounded with a barrage of government ineptitude. Many of the activists here today believe this comes from an unaccountable sectarian state; from failing to tackle the blazing forest fires that were left to burn a year ago, through to the total mismanagement of the financial sector, which has seen banks withhold customers’ money, causing both inflation and unemployment to soar. Now, over 50 percent of Lebanon has fallen into poverty.

And then, of course, there was the blast. Another fire, this time in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut, which detonated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate which had been left there for six years, killing 202 people and injuring over 6,000.

Yet, despite all of these failures, several government resignations and mounting pressure from the international community, the systems of power remain unchanged. This begs the question: has the revolution failed?

“The revolution has not failed,” says Nizar Hassan, a political researcher and co-host of the Lebanon Politics Podcast. “It is a historical process that will eventually succeed. The uprising couldn’t force the ruling class into any kind of serious reform or structural change. And therefore momentum was lost, people became disappointed, the pandemic and financial crisis has made people much more worried about themselves.”

Physical support for the revolution has waned as times have become harder. Socially and economically, the situation for the Lebanese has severely deteriorated. Many are struggling to see a way through the multiple crises that currently grip the country. A recent Arab Youth Survey found that 77 percent of young people plan to leave the country, with reports that more people are now attempting to cross the Mediterranean by boat.

So, what did the revolution achieve?

“I think we achieved breaking the fear,” Rawane says. “We now know our rights, have more legal contacts and knowledge. We are more prepared for the confrontation. It’s going to be long and slow now.”

Bitar agrees: “We could say that a few psychological barriers have fallen today, even if it might seem anecdotal. Many political leaders are afraid to go for dinner in a restaurant. They have been delegitimised. The system has been completely challenged.”

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Protesters sign message boards remembering those killed in the Beirut blast.

Aline and the other demonstrators continue their march on to the site of the port explosion. They observe a minute’s silence and then hold a torchlit vigil at 6:07PM, the time of the blast.

“The revolution is a path of many steps, it will rise again,” Aline insists.