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The Struggle of Nation and Religion in Lebanon

"What happens once the protests are over, after people go home, and find that their expectations were cut short? Will it be another thirty years before they muster the courage to rise up again?"

Lebanese demonstrators dance to music by DJs as the protest movement takes over the country. (Photo: Al Jazeera/Twitter)

More than three weeks have passed since the start of the protests in Lebanon, and things are beginning to show signs of change on the ground. The protestors are more organized (in general), more goal-oriented. They are protesting in areas known to be dens of corruption, in the neighborhoods of corrupt officials, banks, ministries, etc…

However, after weeks of chanting “revolution”, people have come to expect just that. They expect that by the time this is over (however long this would take) the corrupt would be brought to justice, tried, and given their just sentences. But what if this doesn’t happen? What if this isn’t a revolution?

It is no secret that all Lebanese (except for the financial elites) have suffered under this system. In this country, if you’re not connected, not affiliated with political parties, poor and honest, then it will be extremely hard for you to get anywhere (especially if you’re from the “wrong” religion in some cases), unless you manage to travel abroad for work. But what happens once the protests are over, after people go home, and find that their expectations were cut short? Will it be another thirty years before they muster the courage to rise up again?

There is a need to get one thing out of the way. This is not a revolution. There’s no need to dive into the numbers game, because not everyone has the luxury to protest every day, and in any case, numbers aren’t a necessary indicator of a revolution. But revolutions in general do have common characteristics: extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo, the guiding role played by the revolution’s leadership/s, the spread of new ideals (thoughts, philosophies), of revolutionary zeal, popular participation, violence and lawlessness, and finally, a change in paradigms encompassing social, political, cultural and economic structures.

Some of the characteristics naturally apply to Lebanon (since when were mass protests not an indicator of extreme and widespread dissatisfaction?). Some may argue that these happenings themselves are indicators of the spread of new ideals, with people wishing to do away with the old paradigm of sectarian identity politics, but the fact of the matter is that the most powerful players on the scene are still the same powers. Although people from all walks of life, with different religious and political affiliations, are taking part in the protests, and popular pressure can indeed exert great support, but in this case it is not enough to overturn a ruling system when a great deal of the popular base (an armed one at that) still operates by that system.

There have been limited instances of violence since the beginning of the protests. However, revolutions require revolutionaries to be prepared to sacrifice lives in order to overturn a violent ruling system.

Now by system, you have to keep in mind that this is Lebanon, a country whose very inception revolved around a policy of preserving sectarian balance at times, and inciting sectarian tension at others in the interest of achieving political goals. The same political leaders that fought one another during the Civil War split their shares in draining the country in the post-Civil War era. The only thing that’s changed now is that sectarian tension has been transformed into inter-party tension. That being said, keep in mind that the Lebanese identity is a very fragile one. People’s religious identities have been so politicized that in most instances people’s religious/group (party) identities will take precedence over their national identities (except possibly when living abroad, curiously enough; is it something in the water?).

This begs the question: have the Lebanese suffered so much under this paradigm to replace a strongly politicized religious identity in favor of a more fragile national identity? So far, they have been able to, but the ruling parties have refrained from inciting deep sectarian/political hatred, that is to say these two identities have not yet clashed. Of course, there have been instances when the Resistance (meaning the Shia component) was targeted in the beginning, but this has died down to a large extent. Some people are still adamant on pursuing this agenda of antagonizing the Resistance, and will not think twice about going down that road if they sense they might be the target of future protests.

One rule of thumb to follow in intifadas/revolutions, is that acquiescing to popular demands in the interest of calming the public in fact has the opposite effect, as the public will opt to raise the roof of their demands. The most important popular demand in this instance is that all corrupt officials be tried and given their just sentences, but these leaders aren’t about to throw themselves or high-ranking officials under the bus, because they realize full well that sacrificing one of their own will only make protestors come after them in the future. Former Prime Minister Foad Siniora, largely known for $11 billion being unaccounted for (disappearing) during his premiership between 2005-2009, was questioned in order to answer to these charges. It is quite likely, given the nature of such proceedings in Lebanon, that this will be somehow “arranged” in order to appease all parties.

It is noteworthy that Hezbollah had previously given dossiers on this very case to judicial authorities back in February, only to have them “remain in the drawers”, as the popular Lebanese saying goes (meaning that nothing was done about it). This is why the protests will not reach their full potential. Not only are the demands not in tune (not yet anyway) with the political atmosphere in Lebanon, but the ruling elites are still too powerful to acquiesce to public demands that will end up dethroning them. Worst case scenario, we’d have another Civil War on our hands.

However, I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture. The protests must undoubtably go on, and that is because they have and still can accomplish a lot. The government’s resignation was not in their favor, especially since Lebanon is on a tight schedule to enact reforms before it becomes financially incapacitated and bankrupt. Any government formed within the coming days will have a very limited timeline, wherein it can enact anti-corruption laws, introduce economic and legislative reforms, review shady deals, and try corrupt low-ranking officials who will be left without any political backing in the interest of preserving higher-ranking officials.

Lebanon’s protests will not introduce a paradigm shift, but they stand to accomplish what years of efforts could not: meaningful change!

Karim Sharara

Karim Sharara

Karim Sharara is a Lebanese PhD student who has been living in Iran since 2013, majoring in Iranian Affairs at Tehran University.

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