Activism in Lebanon's stormy weather.
The year in Lebanon is starting off on a gloomy note. Predictions of economic catastrophe have everyone on edge, but particularly have the majority of the workforce who are paid in lira on high alert. Retired public school teachers for example receiving their indemnities in Lebanese lira may find themselves broke. Numerous small to medium-size enterprises face the threat of bankruptcy as purchasing power of the average Lebanese decreases exponentially. Whatever remains of foreign aid to refugee settlements could dwindle at the expense of people starving or freezing to death in places like Bekaa and Akkar. Politically we enter the ninth month without a Cabinet, and though that is not new, the reasons causing gridlock may be insurmountable this time. Environmental degradation is now a public health hazard with increased cancer rates and pollution across the nation. And just when we thought 2019 could not appear gloomier, storm Norma has taken everyone by surprise, blocking roads, shutting down schools and flooding homes of countless vulnerable citizens and refugees. Amid this scene and around the holiday season, there have been few attempts at mobilizing people to the streets. An imitation of the "yellow vests" in Paris took place in Martyrs Square a few weeks back and brought together around a thousand people demanding that a Cabinet be formed. Ironically, many activists read this as an anti-system chant that is calling to rebuild the system by creating a new government, to end the country's miseries.
Last week a viral video on WhatsApp and Facebook called for a one-day strike, again to push for the formation of a new Cabinet. The union of business leaders calling for the strike is hardly an impartial entity but rather closely linked to existing political parties, mainly those accused of stalling Cabinet formation and those having a stake in the future Cabinet. The strike was a hoax, with little response, despite attempts at mobilizing businesses across the country.
But when you have a looming economic crisis, striking is hardly an option. And when the cause of such a crisis is political failure and corruption, then forming a Cabinet is hardly the solution. Another group protested at the Public Health Ministry a few weeks back demanding that the government issue health cards and allow access to free hospitalization. Livelihoods were the focus of that tiny protest, or sit-in, and this resounded well to a lot of people on social media, but few showed up in person.
Activism in stormy weather is very tricky. Historically Lebanon has had a vibrant civil society, which was able to mobilize people to the streets to make claims for civil marriage, the fate of the disappeared and women's rights. Most notably the summer protests of 2015 mobilized people from all walks of life to call the waste management crisis a failure of the Lebanese political elite. But civil society's names and faces emerged tarnished and beaten after their engagement in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Major rifts between networks and movements lead to multiple competing lists and depleted resources for the sake of one group or the other. The problem was not only in the lack of any veneer of unity among these groups but also in a faltering wishy-washy discourse that barely touched the surface of Lebanon's problems. People did not vote for an alternative because these groups failed to build a convincing platform and to show an ability to challenge the status quo. Today several of these so-called civil society groups are calling for taking to the streets again to blame the political class for this situation. Them, and what remains from some communist factions within a party that has a certain political ceiling favoring the Syrian regime and its allies in all its discourse and mobilization.
The storm that the activism scene faces in Lebanon emanates from the need to create three main mobilizing factors. We know this from social movement studies around the world, but we also experienced it firsthand.
To mobilize people, activists need a new discourse that addresses the root political and policy causes of the economic situation. It is not just about numbers and rising public debt, which the poor will have to pay for generations to come. It is also about a failed political system that stitches itself up only to continue reaping spoils and maintaining clientelism. To mobilize, activists also need networks that can weather the storm and sustain a long-term change platform that is institutionalized enough to attract support, but not too institutionalized in that it becomes what NGOs have managed to become, mere project contractors.
To mobilize, activists also need credibility with constituents, mainly the youth who will suffer most from this crisis and who remain enthusiastic about politics but with no clear leadership and direction for their enthusiasm. To mobilize, activists need clarity of purpose and clarity of demands that can truly shake the foundations of the system, and not mere lamenting and blaming the entire political class with no clear agenda for accountability.
The latest McKinsey report was the most recent evidence of the vicious cycle of Lebanon's economic system. Of course we knew this, and felt it, but now we have the numbers to prove it and with rising public debt we have the responsibility to address it.
Activism cannot mobilize if it remains haphazard, partisan and lacking in credibility to make a true transformation in people's lives. Activists cannot mobilize by being preachy or picking and choosing certain battles. We need a holistic approach that can trace the result of some parts to the root causes and show their places in the larger picture. A corrupt sectarian system without monopoly over the use of force and with former warlords dressed as ministers, is a system that ushers doom and gloom. It is undoubtedly our responsibility to take on this system, but to do that we need to be clear on what the target is and why we are mobilizing. Otherwise the storm can take over all hope and render the streets empty, for years to come.
Carmen Geha is an activist and assistant professor at the American University of Beirut.
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