Beirut is a city that vibrates with political culture and is defined by a history of social justice struggles. Currently, Lebanon is undergoing massive political changes, sparked by street protests following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February and the subsequent withdrawal of approximately 15,000 Syrian troops and intelligence officials last April.
The future for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in refugee camps throughout Lebanon is also central to current political discussions in the region, as refugees continue to demand their right to return to occupied Palestine.
In this context, I travelled to Lebanon this summer as an independent journalist and social justice activist to network with political movements and to report on current events in the country and the region. My voyage was rooted in a growing effort among political organizers in Montreal to build long-term links with media activists and grassroots struggles in Lebanon. Specifically, I have focused on securing links with political organizers pushing for secularism and direct democracy in Lebanon by challenging existing political power structures.
Politics of poverty
Since the end of the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990, Syria, through its military presence, has maintained enormous influence over the country’s politics. Hariri’s assassination has been widely blamed on Syria both within Lebanon and internationally, although there remains no proof of its involvement.
Hariri was a soft critic of Syrian influence in Lebanon, especially concerning the direction of Lebanon’s economic and political policies. One central point of dispute between the Syrian regime and Hariri was his support for Western-style neo-liberal economics, which have forced open Lebanon’s markets to international investment and paved the way for membership into the World Trade Organization. Hariri’s economic policies were deeply opposed by many Lebanese while he held power and continue to have devastating impacts on the country today.
“He was a symbol of the global capitalist infrastructure,” says Samah Idriss, editor of Al-Adab, a Lebanese arts and politics magazine. “After his death, no one wants to remember that Hariri was the person who instituted economic policies which have left 30 per cent of the country in poverty and a national debt of $40-billion (U.S.).”
Despite the widespread unpopularity of Hariri’s economic policies, his assassination sparked a series of massive street demonstrations in Beirut and calls for major political change in the country. Demonstrators called for Syria’s withdrawal, but also questioned the sectarian nature of the Lebanese political system, in which Hariri was a key player. Lebanon’s 128 parliamentary seats are equally divided between religious communities, which by default defines official political life on sectarian lines.
The demonstrations, along with international pressure, mainly from the U.S. and France, forced Syria’s withdrawal. Despite this, widespread skepticism or outright rejection of Western interference in Lebanese internal affairs persists.
Standing up for the Secular
Lebanon’s June elections took place in the shadow of the Syrian withdrawal and amid calls for national unity across religious lines. They brought a deeper sense of anxiety to the country, rooted in an uncertainty over its political future. Tension trickled down to daily life, into speeding taxi drivers engaging passengers on politics, and in heated debate on Beirut’s smoggy streets. Election signs still line the streets today, pasted alongside posters of assassinated politicians. Beirut has been aptly described as a city of ghosts, as politics are equally defined by the living and the dead.
In the end, Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, led a coalition of political parities fuelled by energy from the popular street demonstrations into a parliamentary majority with 78 seats. The coalition grouped together parties from opposite sides of the Lebanese political spectrum, including the Progressive Socialist Party, representing Lebanon’s Druze community, former representatives of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Phalangists - responsible for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians from Sabra and Shatila refugee camps - and also the newly-formed, left-leaning Democratic Left Movement (DLM).
“The first thing which we called for is a democratic Lebanon, with no hegemony from anyone, regardless if it’s Syrians, Americans or the French,” says Mirna Shidrawi, a DLM organizer. “We want a free Lebanon. When you find that someone has been in your country for 30 years, running your country as if it’s their backyard, definitely, if you are leftist or not a leftist, it’s something that will touch you.”
During the recent elections, a political campaign emerged called Hayya Bina! (Arabic for “Let’s Go!”), rooted in a struggle for a secular political system in Lebanon. Hayya Bina! organized a mass direct action in which thousands of people cast spoiled ballots for the elections, an illegal act in Lebanon.
“We had a lot of reservations concerning the way the opposition seemed to manage the recent elections,” says Lokaman Sleem, a Hayya Bina! organizer. “We called on people to vote by using spoiled ballots that were printed with a slogan that’s very easy to understand in the Lebanese context, which was ‘64 plus 64 equals zero.” Lebanon’s electoral law splits the parliament’s 128 seats between Christians and Muslims.
“Saad Hariri is the son of Rafik but also the son of a sectarian political system, which has failed Lebanon until today,” says Sleem. “He will bring no real change, as he represents a political culture rooted in religious and social divisions.”
Independent Media Power
In Lebanon I have also been working closely with the Independent Media Centre (IMC) of Beirut, a collective of media activists with progressive perspectives on current events in the country. During the recent elections, IMC Beirut focused on covering the struggle for a secular political system in the country.
IMC Beirut operates with the participation of a diverse representation of Lebanese society, including Palestinian refugees, queer activists and media organizers. “Activists in Lebanon need a space to illustrate what they stand for and their struggles, which the mainstream media chooses to neglect because it’s so heavily controlled by the political and social powers of the country,” says Mohammed Shublaq, a Palestinian anarchist with the Beirut IMC.
Today, many grassroots activist organizations like IMC Beirut argue that street demonstrations sparked by Rafik Hariri’s death were co-opted by the electoral “opposition,” as the loose political coalition Saad Hariri leads is known.
“We need to change Lebanon’s electoral law and make it based on relative representation,” says Afamia Kaddour, an IMC Beirut activist. “This would give political voice to people who don’t have the same power or money to run against people like Saad Hariri. I don’t think that this change can happen overnight, because there is little will to change the political system from those in power, as it is beneficial to them. So the people who can force real change are outside of the equation of institutional politics.”
Stefan Christoff is currently in Lebanon as Electronic Intifada’s Special Correspondent, reporting on present-day struggles for social justice. Stefan is a member of the International Solidarity Movement and also is active with Indymedia Beirut. You can contact Stefan at: christoff(at)resist.ca.