Unpacking the Dynamics of Contentious Mobilisations in Lebanon: Between Continuity and Evolution

Dossier: 
Conflict Analysis Project
Author(s): Stephanie Daher
Abstract: 

This paper will first explore the witnessed recurrent mobilisation cycles since 2019 through the lens of accumulated emerging movements over the last decade. Then, it will highlight the dynamics of collective mobilisations from October 2019 onwards based on the data mappings of collective actions produced by Lebanon Support (Lebanon Support, Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon), tracing its own evolution since its start up until today: Are the modes of action adopted by protestors the same since October 17, 2019? Have the advanced causes and grievances evolved? Do we observe any continuity in its decentralised spread and non-sectarian character? The paper will explore the dynamics and characteristics of this social movement such as the main mobilising actors, the modes of action, and the causes and grievances of mobilisations and their evolution across three time-periods from October 2019 until May 2021. The first time-period extends from October 2019 to February 2020, the second starts from the imposed-lockdown measures in March 2020 to October 2020 marking the first-year anniversary of the Uprising, and the third from November 2020 up until May 2021. 

Keywords: Social Movements, Civil Society, October Protests, Civic Space, Lebanon

To cite this paper: Stephanie Daher,"Unpacking the Dynamics of Contentious Mobilisations in Lebanon: Between Continuity and Evolution ", Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support, 2021-08-01 00:00:00. doi: 10.28943/CSKC.002.90001

[ONLINE]: https://civilsociety-centre.org/ar/paper/unpacking-dynamics-contentious-mobilisations-lebanon-between-continuity-and-evolution
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Protesters wave Lebanese national flags near a giant sign of a fist with the slogan “revolution” on it in Arabic in Martyrs’ Square, Beirut, during continuing anti-government protests on Nov. 10. 2019. Amir Makar/AFP. Link:https://theintercept.co

Introduction

Since October 17th, 2019, Lebanon witnessed widespread mobilisations in what came to be known as the “October Revolution”. These protests were driven by years of neglect, rampant corruption and clientelism, austerity measures, rising public debt, growing inflation, and deteriorating living conditions. Since then, the convergence of a financial crisis marked with a depreciation of the local currency, a deterioration socio-economic situation and skyrocketing prices, followed by the spread of COVID-19, and most recently the explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4th, 2020, have continued to feed social contention in the country. Nevertheless, the “October Revolution” did not emerge out of a vacuum but rather stems from the gradual build-up of contentious mobilisations witnessed over the past years. Accordingly, analysing the “October Revolution” as a single event and subsequently positioning it on the success-failure binary platform falls short of capturing the continuities and changes with both previous and successive streams of contention in Lebanon. 

Thus, this paper will first explore the witnessed recurrent mobilisation cycles since 2019 through the lens of accumulated emerging movements over the last decade. Then, it will highlight the dynamics of collective mobilisations from October 2019 onwards based on the data mappings of collective actions produced by Lebanon Support (Lebanon Support, Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon), tracing its own evolution since its start up until today: Are the modes of action adopted by protestors the same since October 17, 2019? Have the advanced causes and grievances evolved? Do we observe any continuity in its decentralised spread and non-sectarian character? The paper will explore the dynamics and characteristics of this social movement such as the main mobilising actors, the modes of action, and the causes and grievances of mobilisations and their evolution across three time-periods from October 2019 until May 2021. The first time-period extends from October 2019 to February 2020, the second starts from the imposed-lockdown measures in March 2020 to October 2020 marking the first-year anniversary of the Uprising, and the third from November 2020 up until May 2021. 

Mobilisation Chronicles 

The denunciation of the consociational system has been crosscutting in previous mobilisation cycles (AbiYaghi and Yammine, 2020). The “Laique Pride” (Secular Pride) in 2010 is considered as an important milestone of anti-system and anti-sectarian mobilisation cycles in post-war Lebanon.  The movement challenged the confessional system, based on a sectarian distribution of power on several institutional levels, through the advancement of problematic issues such as the reform of the electoral law and the law for a civil personal status1. The movement also targeted the system of governance in itself by voicing their interest in the promotion of social justice and of the struggle against corruption (Meier, 2015).

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, and in continuation of the “Laïque Pride” (Secular Pride) movement, leftist parties and collectives launched the isqat an-nizam at-ta’ifi campaign. Several successful demonstrations were organised between February and December 2011 in Beirut, as well as in other cities such as Sidon and Tripoli. Despite garnering remarkable support as an anti-sectarian post-war movement, these protests remained fragmented and had not mobilised large sections of the population (Fakhoury, 2011). Internal dissent with regards to the framing of the movement very quickly led to its disintegration (AbiYaghi and Catusse, 2014). 

In 2015, another wave of demonstrations known as the “You Stink” movement was sparked by the failure of the Lebanese government, stalled by cross-vetoing and “Not In My BackYard” (NIMBY) politics, to find a solution to the garbage crisis (Mazzucotelli, 2020). The garbage crisis emerged when landfill sites were closed and consequently piles of unsorted garbage started accumulating in the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. As all the alternative proposals had been rejected on the basis of petty parochial arguments with sectarian overtones, protestors denounced the collusion of private interests (in this case, waste management companies) and the government of Lebanon, lack of transparency and accountability, and the asphyxiating role played by sectarian political parties (AbiYaghi, Catusse and Younes, 2017).

Decrying the politics of sectarianism and the government’s politics of corruption, youth activists and youth-based grassroots organisations have been pivotal orchestrators of these Lebanon’s post war “iconic protest movements” (Fakhoury, 2016). However, earlier forms of anti-sectarian activism have been challenged by deeply entrenched sectarian discourses and practices in post-war politics, the obscuration of gross social and economic inequality, pervasive forms of securitisation that framed political dissent as a threat to domestic peace, the lack of a shared definition of secularism, and the risk that any project to abolish the sectarian system might be appropriated by one of the sectarian political parties (Mazzucotelli, 2020). The narrative of framing political dissent as a threat to domestic peace and the practice of appropriation and co-optation was likewise endorsed by the political establishment and the Lebanese Zu’ama in October 2019 as well. 

Nonetheless, albeit partially, the changes were perceivable in the 2016 municipal elections. Beirut Madinati (Beirut is My City), an independent and non-partisan list, which stemmed from the “You Stink” movement, garnered a historic vote – the highest share of votes of any opposition movement since 1998: 32% of the votes with an average of 29,000 votes (Chaaban, Haidar, Ismail, Khoury, and Shidrawi, 2016). In the following weeks, the rise of similar albeit small-scale electoral lists was observed in other districts, such as Baalbek Madinati, taking its name from the Beirut municipal campaign (Fawaz, 2019). Consecutively, it also inspired the formation of anti-sectarian independent lists during the 2018 parliamentary elections with Li-Baladi (For My Country) which ran in the Beirut 1 district2 and Li-Haqqi (For My Right) in Chouf-Aley district as some examples. 

A year later, an unprecedented wave of contentious collective actions, in terms of geographical spread, mobilising against the sectarian system unfolded in October 2019 in what has since been dubbed as the “October Revolution”. In many ways, the protests in the summer of 2015 foreshadowed October 2019 protests (Mazzucotelli, 2020). They reiterated some of the arguments of the anti-sectarian, mostly left-wing mobilisation of 2011 that echoed some slogans of the wider Arab uprisings and campaigned for the “downfall of the sectarian regime” (Mazzucotelli, 2020). This time, sectarian divides could not contain the underlying frustration and anger of the population. 

The “October Revolution”: Unfolding of Continuous Mobilisations 

(October 2019 - February 2020) 

On 17 October 2019, Lebanese, mostly low-income youth, took to the streets to express their long-term frustration at the political elite, failing economic policies, widespread corruption, deteriorating living conditions, and rising inequality (Al-Masri, Abla, and Hassan, 2020). This emerging social movement was quickly labelled as the“whatsapp protests”, as it was supposedly triggered by the cabinet’s decision to tax Voice Over Internet Protocol calls such as Whatsapp, Viber, and Messenger calls. However, in fact, the deteriorating living conditions: from the absence of public services, a collapsing health care system, political corruption, growing inflation, unemployment, and increasing inequalities, have all led to ongoing forms of protests leading to the “October Revolution”.

Between October 2019 and February 2020, as per the data mapping of Lebanon Support, the country witnessed nationwide collective actions in several urban cities extending from Beirut to Jounieh, Tripoli, Tyre, Aley, Nabatieh, Sidon, Batroun, Barja, and Jiyeh reaching its peak in November 2019 with 912 reported collective actions across the country. The first table below shows the number of collective actions mapped between October 2019 and May 2021. The second table shows the number of collective actions from a geographical standpoint between October 2019 and February 2021.

Period

October 2019 - February 2020

March 2020- July 2020

August 2020- December 2020

January 2021- May 2021

Number of collective actions

2,430

1,285

519

748

Source: Lebanon Support; Country Overview of Collective Actions in Lebanon from October 2019 to February2020. 

While the data collected covers the past years, it does not provide an exhaustive dataset nor pretends to draw general conclusions on collective actions in Lebanon but rather highlights the main trends. The mapping shows notably that the first five months of the “October Revolution” witnessed the highest number of mobilisations. The latter have dropped between the following months, due to the outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic and lockdown which started early March 2020. However, data show that a new cycle of mobilisations started in 2021, amid the acute deterioration of the socio-economic situation.    

 

Beirut

Keserwen

Tripoli

Tyre

Mount Lebanon

Baalbek

Sidon

Nabatieh

October 2019

153

65

56

16

29

9

29

32

November 2019

270

18

105

14

28

20

66

33

December 2019

141

5

113

12

3

7

38

19

January 2020

165

19

76

14

6

11

45

13

February 2020

102

11

27

5

0

4

20

5

Source: Lebanon Support; Total number of collective actions across several urban cities from October 2019 to February2020. 

Looking at the locations of the collective actions, data shows that, in contrast to preceding post-war movements, the “October Revolution” took place in an unprecedented geographic spread, beyond Beirut and its peripheries. The Northern capital, Tripoli, witnessed a large share of protests with the peak of mobilisations reported during November and December 2020. Likewise, the South also witnessed relatively numerous demonstrations with the majority taking place in Sidon and Nabatieh.  

In this context and since the start of the protests, analysts such as Fakhoury (2019) and Elston-Weidinger (2020) have sought to underline the distinctive dynamics of the movement to preceding grassroots mobilisation cycles. Hodges (2019) noted how the 2019 protests “bridged entrenched sectarian and class divides where cities and villages across the country have participated, something that past efforts never managed to achieve”. Indeed, one of the main outcomes and breakthroughs of this latest social movement is that it has contributed to breaking the boundaries of clientelistic and patronage relations with traditional sectarian and political zu’ama, notably in the regions (Tripoli and Tyre, for example). 

In addition, between October 2019 and February 2020, protesters mainly resorted to demonstrations, sit-ins, and road blockade as a mode of action. 136 road blockades were mapped in October 2019 alone by collective/informal groups, followed by 121 demonstrations in conjunction with road blockades and tire burning. While protestors have been often criticised for using roadblocks, this mode of action is not new and had been recurrently used by protesters in past cycles of mobilisations and protests. Data shows that road blockades increased considerably in November 2019 with an overall of 186, followed by 112 held marches and sit-ins, and 63 demonstrations. In addition, for the first time, emblematic spaces, squares, roundabouts, privatised coasts, and abandoned urban buildings, were occupied by protestors who have been reclaiming them as public spaces. (Lebanon Support, 2019a). These spaces were used to practice direct political dialogue on many squares and streets (Sleiman, 2019). Finally, protestors have been also publicly shaming politicians and public figures by, for instance, forcing them to leave restaurants or other places. These public shaming can be seen as a new mode of action, in an attempt by protestors to voice their anger but also to hold politicians accountable. In a context of absence of an independent judiciary, recourse to public shaming can also be read as a redefinition by protestors of processes of justice. 

Regarding the grievances,  the mapping shows a high prevalence of demands focused on access to socio-economic rights, corruption, and policy grievances (1956) followed by injustice/perceived injustice (96). Protesters called notably for economic reforms, access to social protection, access to public services, access to affordable housing, gender equality, and justice and accountability (Lebanon Support, What Mobilises Lebanon? Focus on Socio-economic Demands).What has also starkly set apart this movement from its preceding ones is its unprecedented challenging of the current political establishment, traditional political parties and sectarian institutions. Along this line, some scholars highlighted how “the ruling elite were identified as enemies of the people and as corrupt warlords who have destroyed not only our economy but our natural environment and the air we breathe” (Geha, 2020).

Since October 2019, the movement has been met with increasing repression by security forces taking the forms of excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and detention of activists, restrictions on freedom of expression, access to information and on freedom of association (Lebanon Support, Shrinking Space in Lebanon: A look at the repression of the social movement between 17 October 2019 to 30 October 2020). Violent repression reached its peak in January 2020 with anti-riot police using excessive and unlawful force against protesters particularly on January 14th and 15th, subjecting scores of protesters to brutal beatings and carrying out waves of arbitrary arrests (Amnesty International, 2020a). The confrontations escalated on January 19th when more than 220 protesters were injured after violent clashes took place between the riot police and demonstrators (Lebanon Support Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon, 2020a). Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired to disperse the protesters in Nejmeh Square who attempted to surpass the metal barricades that blocked the entrance to the Parliament. In Tripoli, thirty-year old Omar Taibi was killed when security forces fired shots as he was taking part in the protests (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Violence exerted on protesters extended as well to political party supporters across several cities, who, on several occasions have attacked protestors. 

Imposed Covid-19 Lockdown Measures and the Beirut's blast

(February 2020 – September 2020) 

In a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19, the Lebanese government initiated several measures among which the closure of various public spaces as well as educational institutions. It also implemented a differential traffic system and curfews (Diwan, Abi-Rached, 2020). Already facing a critical economic crisis and rising inflation, the imposed Covid-19 lockdown measures have exacerbated the existing gridlock in the country. However, despite the reduced intensities, the protests did not stop – least of all in the city of Tripoli, where the dire socio-economic situation pushed inhabitants to take to the streets despite the risk of contagion (Di Peri, 2020). 

Between March 2020 and September 2020, as shown by the data mappings of Lebanon Support, the mobilisations remained decentralised. All nine governorates (muhafazat) from North to South to Bekaa witnessed recurrent collective actions with the peak recorded in June 2020 with 442 collective actions. Urban areas were the focal point of demonstrations with Beirut (771), Tripoli (274) and Sidon (175) accounting for approximately more than 50% of all collective actions recorded between March 2020 and September 2020 (Lebanon Support, Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon). The data for this time period reveals that the main  mobilising actors were collective and informal groups (1078) followed by civil society organisations (216) organising marches demanding the advancement of concrete solutions and reforms amid the dire socio-economic crisis. Some informal groups also organised motorcycle and car convoys as an alternative way of protesting against worsening socio-economic conditions (Lebanon Support Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon, 2020c). 

 

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

June 2020

July 2020

August 2020

September 2020

Demonstration

29

56

97

54

23

25

3

Road Blockade

67

44

29

177

82

15

16

March

65

4

49

25

29

10

4

Sit-in

97

88

127

121

142

34

39

Online Campaign

8

1

4

1

0

20

0

Source: Lebanon Support; Primary “Mode of Action” adopted by protesters between February 2020 to September 2020. 

Moreover, a diversification of the modes of actions was observed across this time period. 31% of the total mapped collective actions in these months (1677) were sit-ins, 22% road blockades, 8% demonstrations, 6% road blockades in conjunction with tire burning, 2% online campaigns in addition to various strikes and civil disobedience. Online campaigns started to gain prominence during this period and more so after the Beirut explosion. Civil society groups and informal collectives held online campaigns to fundraise and provide services and assistance to the people in need and affected by the blast (Daleel Thawra, 2020).

Setting a precedent, protesters started mobilising increasingly in front of banks, state and financial institutions, in addition to politicians’ houses calling for accountability and recovery of the stolen funds (Lebanon Support Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon, 2020c). This time, contestation moved beyond the public squares and streets to reach targeted symbols and/or representatives by the protesters deemed as harbouring corruption or reflecting it. In this, the movement was able to publicly name, challenge and confront the symbols of corruption and their affiliated political parties, the zu’ama. 

In contrast to the largely peaceful character of the October’s uprising, demonstrations in April turned into a violent expression of rage, leaving a trail of charred cars, smashed ATMs, and burning tires (The Washington Post, 2020). An intensification of the targeting of Lebanese banks by infuriated demonstrators gained momentum (Mappings of Collective Action in Lebanon, 2020d). Indeed, commercial banks have been imposing increased restrictions and unregulated capital controls on account holders, mainly affecting depositors of small and medium accounts. This, coupled with the depreciation of the Lebanese Pound, and the rising inflation on consumer goods and services, has fuelled people’s fears for their mere survival as well as anger against the banking sector and its collusion of interest with the establishment parties.

In terms of demands, a striking high percentage of 47% of mapped mobilisations focused on access to socio-economic rights, corruption, and policy grievances and 19% on injustice/perceived injustice. As such, protesters organised several sit-ins in front of the Justice Palaces, and courts, demanding the removal of criminal sanctions for libel, defamation and criticism of public officials and symbols, and the release of arbitrary detained activists (Lebanon Support, What Mobilises Lebanon? A look at the repression of the social movement between 17 October 2019 to 30 October 2020). Other organised marches to denounce the poor financial and economic policies of successive governments and prevailing corruption in the country (Ibid). 

Violence was prevalent during this period particularly on April 28th, coined as “The Night of the Molotov” (Azhari, 2020a) with banks set on fire, a day after a twenty-six-year-old Tripolitan protester was killed. 32 demonstrations were reported in a single day from North to South, distributed as such: 12 in Tripoli, 12 in Beirut and 7 in Sidon where the majority were met with repression from security forces with the firing of tear gas, rubber bullets and the arrest of several protesters (Lebanon Support, Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon). 

Violent repression by the security forces reached unprecedented levels after the Beirut explosion and were documented by several activists, journalists and human rights associations. The Beirut port explosion on August 4th was caused by 2,750 kg of ammonium nitrate being stored in one of the port’s warehouses without any basic safety measures. It led to the death of over 200 people, wounded thousands more, and caused about US$4.6 billion worth of damage (Assi, 2020). Corruption and the recklessness of the political class were blamed for the disaster (Middle East Monitor, 2020). In the following days, in addition to activists, civil society, and workers groups mobilising in solidarity with the victims (Lebanon Support, 2021e), and bringing relief support to those affected, collective and informal groups demonstrated and occupied different ministries buildings in addition to the Association of Banks in Saife, calling for an end to the corruption, the resignation of the political class, and demanding justice and accountability for the victims (Lebanon Support, 2021e). During the protest on August 8th, 230 people were injured when the ISF fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pump action pellets into crowds in addition to the arrest of at least 20 protesters on suspicion of rioting and drug use as declared by the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters (Amnesty International, 2020b). 

Surge of Collective Actions in 2021

The first quarter of 2021 witnessed a resurgence of mobilisation movements after a period of reduced demonstrations, with the highest peak reported during March 2021 with 373 collective actions across several Lebanese cities (Lebanon Support, Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon). The worsening of the economic conditions due to the devaluation of the Lebanese Pound hitting record low, coupled with increasing power outages, led demonstrators to resort to road blockades and burning tires. As such, marches and strikes occupy the lowest numbers of collective actions in March 2021 while road blockades and tire burning constitute a high number as seen in the table below.

Mode of Action

Demonstration

March

Sit-in

Road blockade

and tire burning

Strike

Collective Action

10%

9%

16%

28%

3%

Source: Lebanon Support; Percentage of primary “Mode of Action” adopted by protesters in from January 2021 to June 2021. 

The geographical dispersion of the collective actions was even more salient during 2021. In addition to urban areas, peripheral and internal areas witnessed an increased number of mobilisations. Non-exhaustive examples include: Arida, Halba, Kfar Aabida, Bchamoun, Baakleen, Mazboud, Ghaziyeh and Aalma El Chaeb (Lebanon Support, Mapping of Collective Actions in Lebanon). 

 

Actors

Mode of Action

Cause/Grievances

Collective/Informal Group

Workers Group

Political Party

Road blockade & tire burning

Demonstration

Sit-in

Access to socio-economic rights & policy grievances

Injustice

/Perceived injustice

795

122

40

298

105

166

611

105

Total

1054

Source: Lebanon Support; Primary “Actors”, “Mode of Action” and “Cause/Grievances” from January 2021 to May 2021. 

With the parliament not yet approving a loan for fuel imports, power outages have increased in frequency and duration over the last few months severely limiting electricity provision countrywide (ReliefWeb, 2021). Subsequently, the unfolding social consequences are continuously mirrored in the streets with causes, grievances and demands predominantly focusing on access to socio-economic rights and policy grievances. Access to efficient and proper public services such as 24/7 electricity and regular water supply have been a constant struggle for populations that have been mobilising for years over electricity and water shortages (Lebanon Support, What Mobilises Lebanon? Focus on socio-economic demands). 

Conclusion 

Unpacking the dynamics of contentious mobilisations in Lebanon allows us to understand the gradual build-up and continuity of these movements against the entrenched sectarian political system. In addition to understanding how the previous emerging anti-sectarian movements have paved the way for the crystallisation of the “October Revolution” in 2019, the article has traced its evolution until today relying on a data mapping of collective actions in Lebanon. As such, the paper has moved away from framing the successes and/or failures of the “October Revolution” and aimed instead to highlight the dynamics, characteristics, challenges, and objectives of collective actions from October 2019 until June 2021. It shows that the geographic spread and decentralisation of the movement has remained since the start of the protests, while modes of actions have evolved throughout the analysed periods. In addition, it shows that grievances were mainly focused on access to socio-economic rights amid the deterioration of the socio-economic crises. 

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  • 1. The Lebanese Constitution acknowledges the power of sects on personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) leaving its prerogatives to religious authorities of each sectarian community.
  • 2. Li Baladi was part of a national coalition, known as “Kulluna Watani” (We Are All Our Nation) composed of 66 candidates from 11 independent civil society groups which challenged for the first time the hegemony of traditional sectarian parties.
About the author(s):
Stephanie Daher:

Stephanie Daher is a Research Fellow and a researcher in Contentious Politics - MENA at Lebanon Support. In addition to working currently at the University of Turin on the TOMidEast Summer School, Stephanie is also the EU Project Manager of the Local Police of Turin, where she works on Horizon EU-financed research projects on security studies, counter-radicalization efforts, and social inclusion policies. Stephanie has conducted extensive fieldwork in, both, Lebanon and Tunisia, in addition to visiting research periods at the Institute of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University (UK) and Centre d'ÉtudesD'Etudes Maghrébines in Tunisia.

She holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from the Sant’Anna Advanced School of Studies in Italy, where she specialised in contentious politics and protest movements in the Middle East and North Africa. She also has an MA in World Politics and International Relations from the University of Pavia (Italy) and a Degree in Law from the Lebanese University.