I’m hearing a lot of people say street protests are dying out in Beirut, though there are more demonstrations planned this week. Whatever the case and with so much going on, it’s easy to forget that street action is not the only contribution activist movements make. They also produce new avenues for expressing opinion and new opportunities for asking questions and discussing problems in personalized ways that can become amplified with technology. For example, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is largely seen as defunct, but some argue that the language it employed such as “the 99 percent” helped introduce new questions, accessible vocabulary and increased consciousness about financial power that may have an impact for years to come. In Lebanon over recent months, we have seen a number of memes and events that also question power in innovative ways. I look at one of these instances in my column for last month’s issue of Bold Magazine.
Abou Rakhousa and the politics of poverty
Bold Magazine, October 2015
By Habib Battah
Like many young men from his town, my father felt compelled to leave his family behind and board a ship bound for South America. He was 18 years old, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had only three dollars in his pocket. It was all the money his father, an electrician, could afford to give his son, although he helped build the first national power grid to serve North Lebanon. The family of seven slept on the floor in a one-room apartment in Tripoli. They rarely ate meat and owned no refrigerator or oven so my grandmother would send her dough to the local baker, who took one out of every five baked loaves as a commission. Their story is not unique.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled their country in the 1950s and the decades that followed just to survive. The Western media fantasy of Lebanon as “The Paris of the Middle East” with high rollers in casinos and European models waterskiing on the Bay of Saint Georges was not shared by most living outside of the capital or even within it. Most Lebanese then and today live poorly with an unemployment rates of 24 percent and a minimum wage of less than $500. Meanwhile bank assets owned largely by elite businessmen and their political cronies are soaring past $200 billion or around four times Lebanon’s negligible GDP.
It was within this context that one of the country’s elite businessman criticized anti-corruption demonstrators for holding rallies in downtown. Nicolas Chammas, Channel distributor and head of the Beirut Traders’ Association, complained in a press conference that the rallies occupying public squares were hurting posh businesses in the central district. He said downtown, which hosted the country’s ‘finest and most respectable’ banks, hotels and shops should not be a place for “Abu Rakhousa,” a colloquial term implying cheap or discount stores. Chammas was reacting perhaps to the sandwich carts usually banned by police, but that have sprouted up at rallies to serve protesters. Chammas also took aim at what he described as the “Communist and Marxist” elements among the crowd whose ideas he said were “more dangerous” than violent rioters. “They are trying to start a class war and this is rejected” he exclaimed to a few claps from a small audience of businessmen. “We are the ones that have held the liberal Lebanese economy on our shoulders for 100 years and we won’t let anyone destroy that!”
But what about all hundreds of thousands of Lebanese that have fled their homes over the same century? Are they not victims of a type of class war where the rich get richer and the poor have to find work in other countries? Today, less than 0.3 percent of Lebanese control half the country’s wealth, according to an Executive magazine analysis of a 2013 Credit Suisse study, which noted that Lebanon was one of the world’s most unequal countries in terms of wealth distribution.
With many of the same families and businesses in power for generations, that wealth also doesn’t seem to change hands very much. A study produced last month by AUB professor Jad Chaaban showed that individuals tied to politicians control 43 percent of bank assets and 18 out of 20 banks have major shareholders linked to political elites. Is this the type of free and “liberal economy” Mr. Chammas was talking about? One in which there are few jobs and very little upward mobility? An economy where citizens pay exorbitant amounts for basic public services that barely function with virtually no efforts to improve them? According to Professor Chaaban, 36 percent of the government’s earnings are sucked back into paying the national debt, which in turn goes back into the pocket of bankers and politicians who have loaned the money.
Much of the debt was incurred during post war spending sprees on “reconstruction” projects compounded by related revenue losses such as the selling of the entire downtown Beirut for a bargain to a private company known as Solidere. Founded by the late billionaire prime minister Rafik Hariri and a group of high wealth associates, Solidere was given generous tax breaks and incentives to transform the once gritty city center into a shiny luxury district inhabitable only by those few that could afford its newly-laid cobblestone streets and multi-million dollar apartments. At the same time, many citizens across the rest of the city and country lacked water, electricity and garbage collection–the same problems that plague Lebanon 20 years later.
Of course questions about spending priorities and who profits from them often go unanswered because the country’s business and political elite are largely not answerable or accountable to anyone. But that could be changing.
Hours after Mr. Chammas’s accusations, #abourakhousa began trending on Twitter and memes and cartoons mocking the powerful businessman’s claims went viral on Facebook. Days later, activists had organized an entire #abourakhousa flea market in the heart of downtown Beirut, in defiance of its elite zoning laws and Mr. Chammas’s warnings. There were pop-up dollar shops, juice stands, even a barber stand offering haircuts for 60 cents. One table sold a pile of discount books about Marxism and Communism, just to spite the elite businessmen’s worst fears of “dangerous ideas.”
By evening, hundreds had entered the square and the TV crews were ubiquitous. There was free music, singing, dancing and reminiscing about old Beirut, which had been a melting pot of all income levels. Some old shopkeepers told cameras that their modest shops had been stolen by the state, a claim heard often from the thousands that were given small payouts for their properties to make way for luxury buildings. Many were overjoyed at the atmosphere and cheap eats, noting that today a falafel sandwich or any traditional affordable food can barely be found among the gilded streets. Activists claimed a victory in reclaiming the city center, even if only for a day, from the most powerful real estate interests in the country, who largely stood back and watched.
Sparked by a garbage crisis, the protests that have been gaining steam over the last few weeks have expanded to challenge the dynastic economic system that has underpinned political power in Lebanon for decades. Whether it is in the form of #abourakhousa market or sit-ins at government offices, there is a new air of defiance in how citizens are reacting to authority.
Millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora will be watching closely. Many are excited by a glimmer of accountability that may help prevent future generations from facing the same self-exile that they did. Not only did that exodus tear apart families, but it also drained the country of its human resources, innovative minds and potential leaders, alleviating any challenge to a system which allows a few to live comfortably at the expense of the majority.