It’s a question I get asked a lot lately, most recently during a radio interview I did this morning. With so much that’s happened this year in Lebanon–and the world–it’s easy to forget how massive the crowds once were, as seen in these protest tours we did in downtown Beirut late last year.
The occupation of public spaces (and privately owned parking lots) was unprecedented, not just in Beirut but across the country. Although there have been many protests here before, what was different this time is that they were not organized by political parties, but largely by civil society groups and activist organizations that set up their own tents to discuss the country’s future.
It felt like a true agora of democracy, people finally taking power into their own hands after so many years of oppression and dysfunction. I was so excited, I could barely contain myself. We shot more videos:
Having covered and participated in activism in Lebanon for almost a decade, I had seen many movements come and go and a few small, but significant victories had been made. Now these efforts were coming together and snowballing into one revolutionary movement or “Thawra.” It felt like we were finally on a path toward developing an alternative political structure, something I had been researching for some time. I tried to trace the long trajectory of this changing political culture in a piece I wrote for Al Jazeera: A New Politics is Rising in Lebanon.
But it wasn’t just new voices and young people, as many analysts tend to assume. I also wrote about the changes taking place in mainstream media, which had traditionally been beholden to political elites. Now many TV channels were showing serious signs of change: filming rallies for hours on end, giving far more air time–and legitimacy–to activists than ever before. At the same time, the country’s leading politicians were nowhere to be seen. Not only was there change in the streets but also what I felt was An Open Mic Revolution on the airwaves.
In both pieces, I always maintained that these were not just unprecedented events for Lebanon or the Middle East, but actually very rare in any political system. Even in the world’s supposedly most democratic states, rarely do we see main streets and mainstream airwaves handed over to average people saying very subversive things about those in power, demanding the downfall of ruling parties and entire legislatures. But this comparison was rarely made. Arab societies are different, we are often told. I believe this exoticism would come back to haunt us.
Eventually, to the thrill of everyone in the streets, the government fell, and demonstrating the continuous power of the protestors, two successive candidates for prime minister were rejected. The third candidate a virtual unknown college administrator, was finally elected earlier this year. The move was criticized by many of the protestors, because the man, Hassan Diab served briefly in a previous governments and didn’t seem to have achieved much. Others, perhaps exhausted by months of marching, decided to give him a chance.
The large rallies shrunk from hundreds of thousands to several hundreds as only the most committed chose to remain in the streets. Attacks, often very violent ones, continued from pro-government groups and the demonstrations began to turn into riots. It seemed the honeymoon phase was over: disagreements began to emerge over the strategy going forward, the power in numbers had been reduced drastically. For me, a disconnect began to emerge between the focus on tangible changes we needed to see and the emotional, angry outpouring that had evolved. Although breaking things is a completely natural and expected outcome of frustration, I wondered if it would really set the country on a path to a brighter future. There appeared to be diminishing return despite the progress made: A Limit of Rage, as I outlined in another piece.
Fast forward a few months to early summer, and as of this writing, Lebanon is in one of the worst states it has ever been, and this tiny country has seen a lot. Lebanon is now in the very rare position of facing a triple economic crisis: a banking crisis, a currency crisis and a debt crisis. All this comes in addition to the ongoing (and seemingly never ending) political crisis and the covid19 outbreak. Meanwhile the protest tents we documented in the videos above, and that seemed to be a metaphor for so much hope, have been abandoned or destroyed.
As the currency continues to plummet, prices skyrocket and almost half the country slips below the poverty line, many are asking what went wrong and who or what is to blame. Of course everyone has their favorites: the politicians, the banks, the ruling parties, corruption, sectarianism. While each of these factors undoubtedly plays a role, our analysis of the problem tends to be overly moralistic. Bad behavior, bad guys, bad systems, etc. If only we could get the right people in charge “the clean, decent folks,” this would make it all go away.
However I would argue that economic prosperity and nation-building has a lot less to do with good morals than many of us might assume. And there are important reasons behind this attitude and its paralyzing simplicity. I try to unpack this idea in my latest piece “Who is to blame for Lebanon’s crisis?”
All this is not to say hope has been lost. We are still in uncharted territory and many people, new organizations and even some old ones are asking more questions than ever before, still pushing boundaries, empowered by the culture of Thawra. Thinking critically, creatively and asking good questions could not be more important at this time. The answers will never be as simple as we may expect or as some desire them to be.