The October 2019 Protests in Lebanon: Between Contention and Reproduction

Dossier: 
Civil Society Observatory
Author(s): Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghiLéa Yammine
Abstract: 

The Lebanese power sharing consociational system has structurally engendered recurring protest cycles: student mobilisations, labour and union mobilising, left-wing collectives, as well as a more routinised associative sector. In a long temporality, and looking at these movements in a longitudinal approach, changes they appear to be seeking appear to be marginal or quite limited, which may lead to the observation that contentious movements play the role of mere relief outlet within the system they are challenging, hence, contributing to the permanence of the social and political structures they are challenging. 
The past year has witnessed the emergence of a mobilisation cycle in the country that displays a continuity with previous forms of organising, although unprecedented in terms of its geographical spread over the territory. 
To understand how this current protest cycle unfolds, its dynamics, and limits, we propose to consider how social actors “move” in a contested, competitive, ever-shifting and evolving arena, rather than a homogeneous one. We rely on a three-fold conceptual approach that focuses on the analysis of the interactions and dynamics between actors, and the strategies they employ: persuasion, coercion, and retribution.

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

To cite this paper: Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi, Léa Yammine,"The October 2019 Protests in Lebanon: Between Contention and Reproduction", Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support, 2020-07-01 00:00:00. doi:

[ONLINE]: https://civilsociety-centre.org/paper/october-2019-protests-lebanon-between-contention-and-reproduction
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Introduction
The Lebanese power sharing consociational system has structurally engendered recurring protest cycles: student mobilisations, labour and union mobilising, left-wing collectives, as well as a more routinised associative sector. In a long temporality, and looking at these movements in a longitudinal approach, changes they appear to be seeking appear to be marginal or quite limited, which may lead to the observation that contentious movements play the role of mere relief outlet within the system they are challenging, hence, contributing to the permanence of the social and political structures they are challenging. 
The past year has witnessed the emergence of a mobilisation cycle in the country that displays a continuity with previous forms of organising, although unprecedented in terms of its geographical spread over the territory. 
To understand how this current protest cycle unfolds, its dynamics, and limits, we propose to consider how social actors “move” in a contested, competitive, ever-shifting and evolving arena, rather than a homogeneous one. We rely on a three-fold conceptual approach that focuses on the analysis of the interactions and dynamics between actors, and the strategies they employ: persuasion, coercion, and retribution.

A. Genealogy of the contemporary social movement: a longitudinal look at the October protests 
The student movement has spearheaded social movements in the 70s notably around the Lebanese University (Favier, 2004). However, it disintegrated during the civil war (1975-1990). The end of the civil conflict witnessed a revival of campuses as protest spaces, with the creation of the “independent leftist collectives” (al-Majmuʻât al-yasâriyya al-mustakilat) in the 1990s such as Bila hudûd / « No Frontiers » at the American University of Beirut (AUB), « Pablo Neruda » at the Lebanese American University (LAU), « Direct Action » (al-‘Amal al-mubâchar) at the Balamand University, « Tanios Chahine » at the Saint-Joseph university (AbiYaghi, 2013). These collectives positioned themselves in the political landscape of post-war Lebanon as opposing the main two hegemonic political axes which consisted of a securitised approach supported by the Syrian occupation on the one hand, and on the other, neo-liberal economic policies championed by Rafic Hariri. It is within these collectives that a generation of activists was incubated and socialised on political and social activism (AbiYaghi, 2013).  
Another space for the incubation for generations of activists, has been the civil society sector. This sector, which dates back to the Nahda era (Karam, 2006) and which encompasses a wide array of actors, saw its mission being realigned towards relief, and services during the civil war. While the post civil war era saw the emergence of expert and advocacy NGOs, their positioning as either service or expertise providers for state actors, has led them to downplay the contentious positioning and role they could play (McAdam Doug, Tarrow Sydney, Tilly Charles 2001, Dynamics of contention, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 5.; AbiYaghi 2010, p. 71-75.) Civil Society in Lebanon is thought to operate in a rather liberal setting compared to other countries in the region, given the rather lenient legal framework governing the creation of non-governmental organisations. However, that does not take into consideration the various restrictions that can be encountered in practice, whether in the granting of registration approval forms, the scrutiny over the work of NGOs for state bodies and banks, and the limitations of local organisations operating in the global aid economy1. In spite of operating in confined “molds” (AbiYaghi, Yammine, and Jagharnathsing, 2019), the associative sector has still contributed to nurturing a space for the socialisation of individuals, acquainting them with activist modes of action.
These various avenues of activism have contributed to a period of activism “effervescence” in the late 1990s in the country (AbiYaghi, 2013) and to the emergence and crystallization of “new” leftist collectives. The latter, being more political collectives, have mobilised around contentious issues in Lebanon, but also around more global issues, echoing international movements against neolibral globalisation. This period witnessed the emergence of a nebula consisting of various groups, such as independent leftists collectives (Tullâb chuyu’iyûn  expliquer); alternative media collective such as Indymedia, al-Tajamuʻ al-chuyuʻi al-thawri, al-Tajamu’ al yasâri min ajl al-taghyîr), al-Khatt al-mubashar,  al-Jam’iya al-lubnânîyya min ajl ‘awlama badîla Attac Lebanon, among others. 

Indymedia poster in 2004. 

Those groups positioned themselves on opposing lines to traditional and establishment party structures. While some among them embarked on a journey to create an alternative partisan left leaning structure (the Democratic Left Party - Harakat al-yasâr al-dimucrâtî), this process also saw new lines of contention between activists (those closer to the communist youth -  Tullâb chuyu’iyûn) and other collectives). 
The year 2005 was indeed a pivotal moment in Lebanon’s recent history, as the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14 galvanized crowds in two main axes, named after the dates of their respective massive protests: 

- March 14, the culmination of mobilisations by a diversity of groups on the right and left sides of the political spectrum against the Syrian occupation, starting in 1990 and that gathered namely Future Party, Free Patriotic Movement, the Phalangist Party, Lebanese Forces, Democratic Left Party, and other left leaning collectives and groups; 

-and March 8, which articulated on opposing lines and that expressed support for Syria and which included mainly Amal Movement, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Communist Party. 

The two axes later saw ruptures and reformations, but they structure, till this day, the political landscape. 

In parallel, we can also look at the women’s rights and feminist movements that started early last century and took more shape in the 70s and 80s, concomitantly with the global debate and international conferences on human rights and women’s rights. Up until the mid nineties, these movements fought for expanded political rights, although they were still aligned with establishment political parties ideologies. Thus, women’s organisations failed to translate values they defended into their own discourse, which was still structured conforming to a sectarian system2. After the nineties, the trend was to institutionalise, in what is known as “NGOisation.” This impacted their structure but also the content of their discourses, which adopted a more global aspect, more in line with INGOs and donor organisations. This, however, led to continuous dependency on donor funding, and shaped local actors’ agendas and priorities (Mitri, 2015), a trend that is apparent with all CSOs work and not just limited to the gender sector. Since the 2000s, in parallel to the continuous development of NGOs, activist collectives on bodily and sexual rights came about, and distinguished themselves from previous activists by adopting a clearly political discourse, and emphasised intersectionality and identity politics.

From this perspective, a generation of social and political activists has been socialised to engagement and organising at the intersection of the three fields: student activism, civil society organisations, and political collectives. 

B. In search of a “localised” frame of contention 
Research on collective action showed how in the 1990s, collectives and activists mobilised around three main overarching causes: the denunciation of neoliberalism (that crystallized in the early 2000s in alternative or antiglobalisation stances), anti-imperialism, and anticonfessionalism (AbiYaghi, 2013). This frame alignment has been prevalent among these collectives and activist circles during the past two decades, and is still prevalent to certain extent today. 
These causes have notably been illustrated in mobilisation against the lebanese civil war in support to families of victims of enforced disappearances, as well as the refusal of the imposed post war amnesia (“Tendhaqar ta mâ ten’âd” campaign in 1997 for example), the war on Iraq in 2003 (the no war no dictatorship, (lâ lil-harb, lâ lil-dictaturiyyât), and in 2006 during and in the aftermath of the 33 days Israeli war on Lebanon. 
From campaigning and lobbying to relief coordination, notably during the Nahr el Bared conflict in 2007 that witnessed limited mobilisation, but rather consecrated another shift in the modes of actions of activists towards a role of coordination of aid, and of relief provision3

In parallel, the contestation of the economic system has also been prevalent in various cycles of mobilisation, with activists denouncing the privatisation of public services, for example the Lubnân mech lal-bay’ (Lebanon is not for sale) campaign in 2006-7, and the Dawla aw ichtirâq (in reference to state-provided and private generator electricity) campaign in 2008-9. 
Lastly, the denunciation of the consociational system has been crosscutting in previous mobilisation cycles, such as the Laique Pride (masîrat al-‘almâniyîn) in 2009-2010, and the subsequent movement demanding the downfall of the sectarian regime in 2011, in the vein of the Arab revolutions.