“We are here!”: a new wave of anti-sectarian mobilizations in Lebanon

With this political praxis based on subjectivity, experience and prefigurative politics the activists attempt to embody their transformative visions in their everyday practices. 

Alexandra Kassir
12 October 2015
open Movements

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Copyright Dar al Mussawir.

Copyright Dar al Mussawir.“You’re studying fiction!” This reaction dates back to 2012, when I first started my research exploring anti-sectarian mobilizations in post-war Lebanon. It exemplifies the extent to which these grassroots efforts have gone unnoticed. They were largely perceived as marginal and doomed to failure in a context of political instability and regional turmoil. Yet, three years later, in August 2015, fiction became ‘reality’. These unheard voices have started making headlines in Lebanese mainstream media.

On August 29, over 70,000 people gathered in Beirut’s iconic Martyrs’ square in an unprecedented non-partisan civic mobilization, against a corrupt ruling class and a dysfunctional sectarian system. With two words,“you stink!” the protesters expressed the sources of their resentment; the uncollected piles of rotting garbage in the streets and the numerous endemic problems of an equally “rotten system”.

Before becoming the protesters’ rallying cry, “you stink!” began as a grassroots movement triggered by the government’s failure to resolve the garbage crisis and galvanized by the imminent health and environmental risks. The city’s overflowing main landfill had closed in July and coincided with the ending of the waste management company’s contract with the government. The collective was created to advocate for an eco-friendly sustainable solution, pushing for nationwide recycling and the devolution of the waste management service to the legally in charge municipal councils. A series of relatively small protests were organized, the last of which ended with the police rapidly detaining four of the core activists and using force to disperse the peaceful protest.

Three days later, on August 22, as thousands peacefully protested outside the Grand Serail (the government seat), the Lebanese security forces retaliated with violence (tear gas canisters, water cannon, rubber bullets and live ammunition were fired in the air). This unprecedented use of force against a peaceful protest in the country was denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which called for an immediate investigation.

Since then, the movement has started gathering momentum. It brought together a number of existing civil society organizations, student movements, leftist groups and newly formed collectives (such as “To the Streets” and “We Want Accountability”). Simultaneously, a growing number of men and women from various age groups and socio-economic backgrounds spontaneously took to the streets, without being summoned by any political party. The diaspora also expressed its solidarity, and protests were organized in various cities (London, Paris, New York City, etc.). 

Immediately, the demands expanded beyond the garbage crisis. Under the broad banner of a dysfunctional and corrupt system, they ranged from the implementation of an environmentally sustainable waste management plan, the resignation of both the ministers of environment and interior, the accountability for the violence against the protesters, the running of the long overdue parliamentary and presidential elections and the abolition of the sectarian regime. 

This was accompanied by an escalation of state violence against the protesters. A concrete wall was built in front of the Government seat. It was soon turned into a canvas by Lebanese artists who drew people with their mouths shut with tape bearing the names of the political parties; and dismantled by the authorities within 24 hours. Dozens of activists were arbitrarily arrested, and many injured after clashes with the police. Moreover, a few hours after their nonviolent occupation of the ministry of environment and after a forced media blackout, the riot police brutally expelled the activists. This was followed by a hunger strike in front of the ministry. At the time of this writing, protests continue to be held.

As the movement grew, it prompted an outpouring of analysis ranging from the rosy pictures of a long-awaited citizen awakening, to attempts at decoding hidden agendas. Yet, attention to its unanticipated scope largely overlooked the long ‘silent’ struggle of a new generation of activists that paved its way.

To appreciate the significance of these efforts, one needs to look behind the scenes of conventional politics and examine these new modes of politicization with different lenses, without belittling or exaggerating them. Indeed, refocusing attention on these grassroots efforts is critical today, amid the plethora of prognoses, in order to shed light on the nature of this movement, capture its ongoing dynamics and reflect on its capacity to open breaches in a social and political order that has been so resistant to change.

Activism on the move

The new ‘anti-sectarian’ wave refers to the burgeoning in the post-civil war (1975-1990) era of a plurality of groups and grassroots efforts (self-funded collectives, NGOs, students groups, leftist movements, etc.)  sharing a common struggle against the deeply-rooted confessionalism endemic to Lebanon’s governance. The multifaceted power-sharing system entails both the distribution of government and administrative posts among the various confessions and the relinquishing of personal status jurisdictions to the religious courts.

The emergence of the anti-sectarian wave marks the return of an old struggle now carried on by new actors. While the Lebanese left was its main proponent in the 1960s-1970s, it is today a youth-led movement operating outside the realm of conventional politics. The activists, predominantly from the post-war generation (either born after or towards the end of the civil war) are between 18 and 35 years old, from different socio-economic backgrounds and most of them are highly educated.

Since its birth, the movement has pursued a meandering path, punctuated by periods of intense protest, months of stagnation and others of scattered mobilization. Its beginning can be effectively traced back to the “first conference of the seculars in Lebanon” in 2006 which brought together the various collectives promoting secularism at the time (though the first post-war mobilization for civil marriage dates back to 1998). Yet it is not until 2008-2009 that the movement started to expand, with the emergence of various anti-sectarian collectives. It reached its peak with the first “Laïque Pride” in 2010 and then spread few months later into a series of rallies echoing the Arab uprisings and calling for the “bringing down of the sectarian regime”. In August 2012, a new wave of mobilizations emerged, first to prepare for the legislative elections (“take back parliament”) and then “against the extension” (as the MPs renewed their mandate twice).

Fluidity and mobility are two defining features of this new form of political engagement. The activists’ trajectories reveal how the movement is constantly revived. The militants easily circulate among the different anti-sectarian collectives and between the physical and virtual spaces of mobilization (the streets, the universities, the cafés. the blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Most of them are also prone to be active in other causes (women's rights, LGBT rights, environment, anti-racism, and so forth). Moreover, if the university years typically constitute the peak of their activism, the anti-sectarian engagement does not usually end afterwards, although it often takes a different route. Many tend to emigrate after graduation, yet most of them remain active through social networks. Also a reorientation of activism is observed; through some of the career choices these young people make in NGOs, the media or academia.

A subjective experience

“I burst with joy! After all this silence I expressed myself. I felt it was me, it was what I longed for”. These are the words of a nineteen year old student recalling her first “Laïque Pride.” They embody these activists’ struggle for subjectivity.

For the activists, participating in the mobilizations is more than a political stance. It is an affirmation of the self against a system interfering in the most intimate aspects of their daily lives. To account for the reasons why they first joined the mobilizations, most activists highlight their personal quest leading to the rejection of the ascribed sectarian identities. “It all started with one question, who am I?” summarizes one of the activists. “I might be born like that but am not like that” voice many others; pointing how being born and raised in a given community does not necessarily mean embracing its belief system, cultural practices or adhering to its corresponding political party.

This struggle for personal freedom is also asserted in the activists’ conception of religion as a personal and a free choice. The anti-sectarian struggle is not an anti-religious one.  If some activists proclaim their atheism, it is mainly to counter the stigma associated with it; yet, religion (or its absence) largely remains a “private affair”, a strictly “personal relation with God”. The believers among them stress that their faith is not an imposed cultural heritage but the product of a very personal spiritual journey; most of them remain indeed very critical towards the religious institutions. Hence, by taking the “subjectivity path”, the activists manage to overcome the potential obstacles linked to the recognition of religious particularisms in a plural and divided society and construct a collective action articulating both universal values and a religious diversity.

On the other hand, it is through personal, daily acts of resistance in the ‘here’ and ‘now’ that the activists confront the system and attempt to master the course of their existence in a context of permanent political instability. They strive to practice the values they endorse; such as planning or undertaking civil marriage or refusing to mention their sects (both in daily conversations and on their civil registry) despite potential risks. A senior law student explains, “Everything is linked here, if I don’t put forward that I am Shia, for example they might not hire me... well, it’s a bit scary, but I don’t care! You either hire me for my skills or you don’t!”  Indeed, the making of “a culture to fight the system" is central. The activists build alternative spaces to "live [their] ideas out loud and not in silence". Indeed, it is through the construction of these "spaces of experience" understood “as places sufficiently autonomous and distanced from capitalist society and power relations”[1] that the activists “find a shelter” to “escape the dominations of the system”, “the grip of the sects”  and express their subjectivity.

Democracy in the making

The “Lebanese consensual dictatorship” or “the tyranny of the eighteen” (in reference to the eighteen communities) are expressions often used by the anti-sectarian activists to denounce the “empty democracy” of the current system.

For them, democracy cannot be reduced to a set of institutional guarantees against authoritarianism but rather needs to be embodied in the effective defense of civil liberties. It is first and foremost a political culture they strive to build through their actions. Hence, the movement not only advocates for legislative and electoral reforms but seeks to “produce democracy from below”, implementing forms of prefigurative action and a culture of “alter-activism” shared by young activists worldwide[2].

With this political praxis based on subjectivity, experience and prefigurative politics the activists attempt to embody their transformative visions in their everyday practices. This effort is very much articulated in the internal organization of the movement; a leaderless, horizontal structure based on participatory decision- making techniques.

These shared aspirations, values and practices underlying the new wave of anti-sectarian mobilizations are not translated into a unified political agenda but articulated around a plurality of (not mutually exclusive)projects, all of which seek to reconnect the political sphere with the citizens. Indeed, by rendering the citizen-state relation largely mediated by the sects and their affiliated political parties, the confessional system very much hinders the various attempts towards building a more democratic system. Amid the mixture of tendencies and influences permeating the movement, the broad lines of two projects, can be distinguished; one putting forward the struggle for recognition (civic rights) and the second the struggle for redistribution (social rights) to open breaches in the multifaceted sectarian system

Across their differences and despite the internal cleavages, the anti-sectarian activists are nonetheless challenging the old ways and forging “another” politics through their struggle. Yet, the “subjectivity path” they take simultaneously brings them closer and away from achieving their democratic aspirations.

Their shared mistrust in institutional politics, their commitment to ensure a means-ends consistency and their determination not to “get their hands dirty” and be corrupted by power are among the many challenges for their effective impact in the realm of conventional politics.

Yet, the fragility of this mode of engagement is simultaneously its strength, particularly in this state of political instability. Indeed, in a country “where one lives one day at a time", it constitutes an effective path to overcome the political deadlocks and actively produce democracy in the “here” and “now”.

If the construction of “alternative spaces” is necessary for the activists to live and experience democracy; the construction of these “spaces to breathe”, could paradoxically also be “suffocating” for the movement, leading to its fragmentation in confined spaces. Getting out of these “comfort zones” remains challenging amid the many structural constraints of the system. Nevertheless, the recent wave of mobilizations has taken a step forward in this direction. The activists not only took to the streets, but called for their right to the city. They denounced the shrinking of the public space usurped by the ruling authorities, and they have organized various events to reconnect with their city, whether reclaiming “an occupied downtown” or “a stolen seaside”.

 “Learning by doing”

The picture presented here is still in the making and many questions are still the object of ongoing investigations. Yet, if the future of the movement remains uncertain, and if at the time of this writing it is surely too early to anticipate its last chapter - its path so far clearly reveals a new roadmap for social transformation in post-war Lebanon.

This “generation that dares to dream”, to use one of the activist’s words, might remain far from achieving its aspired transformations in terms of reforms and policies, yet its attempts at “living its ideals” is in itself a transformative experience.

Moreover, if the amorphous nature of this “movement of movements” and “movement in movement” often conveys an impression of “messiness” and “amateurism”, it is precisely in its “learning by doing” approach and in its commitment to remaining critical and reflexive that its power lies. Despite its own limitations and the many questions it still needs to resolve, the new anti-sectarian wave, by actively seeking to avoid dogmatism, is paving the way for a more democratic state. The obstacles are massive and the path promises to be rocky, but these efforts remain, despite their fragility, critical building blocks for opening breaches in a system designed to resist change.

[1]  Pleyers G., 2010, Alter-Globalization Becoming Actors in a Global Age, Cambridge, Polity Press

[2]  Ibid.

How to cite:
Kassir. A. (2015) «“We are here!”: a new wave of anti-sectarian mobilizations in Lebanon», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 12 October. https://opendemocracy.net/alexandra-kassir/we-are-here-new-wave-of-anti-sectarian-mobilizations-in-lebanon


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