Vicken Cheterian

Post-Sectarian Revolts

The new protest movement in a radical break with the ideology and methods of struggle that emerged form the 2011 revolts: the protests are young and feminine, and are self-consciously non-violent.

On October 19, already two days into the mass protests in Lebanon, when a huge crowd gathered in the central square in Tripoli – the second city in the country: next to a monument reading “Allah” in Arabic letters, the crowd danced into the tunes of techno music, holding high up the lights of their mobile phones. The video footages instantaneously circulated through the social media, showing thousands of people dancing and shouting, revealing an unusual happy atmosphere. Yet, they were protesting against decades of misery: Tripoli embodies the extreme problems of Lebanon, and may be beyond: youth unemployment of over 50%, basic services absent for example electricity cut several hours a day; water polluted, and garbage that remains on street corners for days or sometimes weeks, before being taken away to be dumped into the street. Tripoli was also for long full of sectarian tensions: the Christian population that once lived in the city has long left and migrated; in-fighting between Bab al-Tabaneh and Ba’l al-Muhsin, a poor Sunni and a poor Alawi neighbourhoods took so many young lives. The statue reading “Allah” expressed Sunni fundamentalist groups that dominated over the city since the 1980’s. 

In conservative, socially deprived, and divided by sectarianism, in such a city to see the population in their thousands dancing to techno music around letters reading “Allah” is a revolution in mentalities. In a matter of few days the city moved fast-forward from the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 to the equivalent of May 68, Tripoli style. Like elsewhere in Lebanon, the protest movement in Tripoli is a radical break with the war in Lebanon (1975-1990) and sectarianism that caused the war. 

Tripoli is not the only town in Lebanon that is continuously witnessing social protests. Since October 17, several towns have seen continuous protests including Beirut the capital, Sour and Nabatiyeh in South Lebanon, and even small towns and villages across the country. The trigger of the widespread protests was a plan by the government to tax communication networks such as WhatsApp in front of a deep financial crisis. Large segments of the population revolted not only for the absurdity of the governments response to the financial crisis, but because they mistrust a deeply corrupt political class notorious for its inefficiency; 30 years after the end of the Lebanese war did not manage to provide basic services, such as 24 hours electricity, or clean water. The popular revolts are possible because the sectarian political system goes hand-in-hand with economic clientalism – the main cause of economic inefficiency and corruption. 

Lebanon is not the only country that is witnessing mass protests: From Hong Kong to Algeria, from Iraq to Chile and Bolivia, the world is in the midst of a wave of global mobilization demanding change and demanding it now. Early this year there were also mass protests in Serbia and France, in Sudan, as well as shorter protests in dozens of countries. What is amazing in the Middle East is that in less than a decade after the Arab Revolts of 2011, which often ended up into a dual between military establishments on the one side, and armed Islamists on the other. The insistent wave of protest reveals the failure of both the military and the Islamist in addressing the social crisis of the Middle East. 

The new protest movement in a radical break with the ideology and methods of struggle that emerged form the 2011 revolts: the protests are young and feminine, and are self-consciously non-violent. They know the change they want comes with non-violence, and that violence is the weapon of their enemies. Surprisingly, the flags of demonstrations are the national flags of Lebanon and Iraq, as a symbol of opposition to sectarian identities. Both Lebanon and Iraq went through traumatizing conflicts that reinforced sectarian identities, tearing those nations apart. The social mobilization we are witnessing is the embodiment of overcoming sectarian divisions. In Lebanon, protestors have raised a clear slogan: “All of them means all of them” without segregating between one sectarian master from another. In Iraq, the protest movement has mainly touched Shiite majority parts of Baghdad, as well as Shiite cities such as Karbala and Basra. It excludes Sunni areas and the Kurdish north. Yet, it is post-sectarian in a different way, as it confronts the social demands of largely Shiite youth with Shiite political and military authorities. Through their protests, youth in Lebanon and Iraq are suggesting that a new political identity is possible. 

Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, religion had become the ideology of protest. The techno party in Tripoli is a cultural break with the tradition established in 1979. This symbolic break is strongly expressed in the Tripoli techno-party-as-protest. In Baghdad, demonstrators also innovated haircutting sessions in public squares as part of their protests. It is a culture of revolt in favour of life, claiming the right of having fun, rather than self-sacrifice of various ideologies. One of the slogans in Iraq is “your keffiyeh and your lipstick make the revolution more beautiful” a reminder that those movements are young and feminine above all. 

The mass protest movement comes in a difficult context: how will the security apparatus of sectarian militias react once the movement threatens their power basis? Those entrenched groups - the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon - are the holders of real power, which they will not surrender easily. Beyond politics, the socio-economic problems are enormous: Iraqi youth have no job opportunities, its cities are destroyed, and the rivers that gave the land its name are drying out and are polluted, while the country is going through demographic explosion: in 2003, when the American armies invaded, Iraq had 25 million inhabitants; in 2017 its population was at 37 million. Lebanon has accumulated public debt of 85 billion USD, and its public-debt as percentage of GDP is over 150%, one of the highest in the world.

The current protest movements might not give answers to all their problems. They might be repressed by force, divided, or simply go home after a while. Yet, they already revealed that a new generation is there that cannot fit in the old political clothes: they are the children of mass education and of mobile communications that are unable to understand the old political classes and their language. In this sense, change already happened.