October Revolution has stalled but not failed - GulfToday

October Revolution has stalled but not failed

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Beirut-Explosion-750

The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

Thousands of Lebanese returned to the streets and squares across their country on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the uprising that has begun to reshape their country. Wearing anti-COVID masks, protesters assembled in Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut and marched to the Central Bank headquarters on Hamra Street in the western sector of the capital to make the point that bankruptcy, mismanagement and corruption cannot continue.

The sombre throng moved on to the port where they lit a torch to commemorate victims of the massive blast on August 4th that devastated the seafront and nearby residential neighbourhoods, killed 200, wounded thousands and rendered 300,000 homeless.

By reviving the stalled but not moribund “October Revolution” Lebanese demonstrated once again that they have not given up on their goal of ending the sectarian system of governance imposed by colonial France before independence in 1943.

Like the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the Lebanese protests began small-scale in the centre of the capital. On the evening of Thursday, October 17th, 150 Lebanese activists mounted a roaming demonstration against a series of fresh taxes culminating in a tax on WhatsApp calls, high unemployment, rising poverty and the lack of potable water and electricity.

The next day, Friday, schools and universities shuttered. Youngsters shut down traffic by building barricades and checkpoints on major thoroughfares while others mounted on mopeds toured the city demanding change. The coastal cities of Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon and mountain towns and villages joined in.

On Saturday the 19th, hundreds, then thousands poured down “Bank Street” to Nejmeh Square and spilled into Riyadh Solh Square, launching the Revolution.

Lebanese from all communities and backgrounds came. Men, women and children.

Old and young. Civil servants, doctors, lawyers, shop owners, and housewives. Bare-headed women and their head-scarfed sisters in t-shirts and tight jeans. A glamourous young banker told me, “We know how crooked the politicians are. We see their bank balances. We see how much they send abroad.” She also said that if the situation does not change for the better, embattled graduates of her generation will emigrate because they cannot find decent jobs in their line of work. By Sunday the 20th, the protests had become a country-wide, popular revolt.

The protests were revolutionary because Lebanese of all faiths rejected the sectarian straightjacket their country had been forced to wear for decades by a political elite which has enriched itself while neglecting the country and its people. Although the Lebanese had previously staged mass protests against a variety of issues — including an end to putting religion on identity cards — none had drawn hundreds of thousands demanding “regime change.”

Mass demonstrations which preceded the October Revolution took place following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14th, 2005. Some blamed Damascus, others rejected the allegation, dividing the country between the Shias and a Sunni-Christian alliance. On March 8th, Shia Hizbollah and Amal packed central Beirut with half a million people to show support for Syria’s role in Lebanon. On the 14th, the Sunni-Christian alliance did the same. This prompted the Christian Free Patriotic Movement headed by Michel Aoun to defect. Early in 2006, Aoun formed a Shia-Christian bloc with Hizbollah and Amal, effectively polarising the country.

The anti-sectarian October Revolution has stolen thousands of supporters from these faith-based constituencies. They have formed sometimes cooperating, sometimes duelling blocs which have dominated the scene and are determined to preserve an increasingly untenable status quo.

It is increasingly untenable because the Lebanese economy has tanked, the currency has lost more than 80 per cent of its value, unemployment has risen to 60 per cent, COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll, and the brain drain is gathering pace. While the COVID has halted most demonstrations, the October Revolution has not disappeared. Activists continue to press for their agenda and protests take place from time to time.

Unless the entrenched political class agrees to the formation of a government of “experts” empowered to enact reforms, Lebanon will not receive $21 billion which could rescue the economy from collapse. The politicians have postponed the inevitable for a year, risking Lebanon’s very existence as a state. It remains to be seen how long they can hold on.

The deadly, devastating ammonium nitrate explosion at Beirut’s port has prompted revolutionaries to take on responsibilities the government has failed to assume: organise teams to clear away debris, aid wounded people, comfort families of those killed, and rebuild homes. Instead of protesting in the streets, the revolutionaries are carrying on the campaign for regime change by practical means and winning over more and more Lebanese to their cause.

The October Revolution has stalled but has not failed. The revolutionaries have won victories on several levels. Most Lebanese have learned that if their country is to survive, the mismanaging, corrupt sectarian regime, based on patronage and clientelism, must be uprooted. Last November an independent supporter of the Revolution was elected head of the influential bar association.

The Chamber of Deputies passed two anti-corruption bills and has refused to adopt legislation which would grant amnesty to politicians who have robbed the state. Eight deputies resigned. Four ministers in the current caretaker government stood down. An international audit of the Central Bank is taking place.

And, the World Bank has cancelled a loan to build a dam activists insist would inundate a biodiverse valley. A few opportunistic politicians have tried to hitch their stars to the Revolution by echoing the call for regime change. The revolutionaries have come to understand that overthrowing the sectarian order could take time. Tragically, Lebanon has little time to waste.

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