Need to build an independent workers’ movement to confront terror, sectarianism and poverty
On Thursday 15 August what was expected happened; another car, loaded with about 80 kilograms of explosives, exploded during rush hour in the southern suburb of Beirut in a densely populated neighborhood. An estimated 25 were killed and more than 300 wounded. Many political parties rushed to accuse Israel for the outrage, in attempt to say that this was not an anti-Shiite attack by a Sunni group and to defuse sectarian tensions which are growing day by day.
This terrible bombing and targeting of civilians in a popular market came as a series of attacks on the southern suburbs, an area under the influence of Shia-based Hezbollah movement. Three months ago, three rockets from an unknown source fell on the suburb of the Shiite majority which has prominent offices and institutions affiliated with Hezbollah. These rockets were a clear message to Hezbollah, as they were fired after the announcement by the secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, that they were fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria. And on July 9, a car bomb in the suburb injured 50 people. Today there is fear among local residents and the dominating feeling is that more terrorist operations will inevitably happen.
On 16 August, during a speech on the seventh anniversary of the end of the last war with Israel, Nasrallah announced that Takfiri groups (groups who accuse others of blasphemy) stand behind these terrorist bombings, using the same techniques as in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and that these attacks will “only make us more determined in our fighting in Syria”. Nasrallah declared war on the Takfiri groups saying: “Just like we won over Israel, we will also win over the Takfiris.”
These terrorist attacks come in one of the most complex situations experienced in society in Lebanon and societies in the region, both at the political and economic levels. The effect of the bloodbath in Syria is felt at large and there are divisions among the ruling classes, which exploit sectarianism divisions to maintain their influence and power. Both parties to the conflict in Lebanon are involved in the war in Syria due to their links with regional and international powers. In the midst of the preoccupation of the regimes in the region with internal problems, the war in Syria and rapid developments in Egypt, it is unlikely that a settlement will be struck by the ruling class in Lebanon in the near future. And all indications suggest that the coming days and weeks will be very intense and costly for the Lebanon’s working class and the poor masses.
Without a government for six months
Lebanon has been without a government for six months. It is argued by the ruling class that this is due to the deterioration of the security situation (as if they have nothing to do with the situation being the same ruling elite for decades!). They say this justifies the extension of the House of Representatives for another two years.
There has been an alarming rise in unemployment rates, especially among young people who face unemployment at a rate of more than 40%. The increasing numbers of Syrian refugees have exceeded, according to some recent reports, one million. This is equal to a quarter of the population of Lebanon. There is a complete absence of plans to accommodate such a large number of Syrian refugees, as it has been and still is the case for the million and a half Palestinians also now living in Lebanon. Lebanon’s political parties scapegoat Syrians to cover their failure in securing jobs, electricity and social services. By doing so, they are reinforcing racism against refugees and sectarianism between everyone.
In some villages and small towns, where the number of refugees has exceeded the local population, some municipalities have been whipping up racism under the pretext of "security measures". They base this on reports indicating that crime rates have risen dramatically, including theft, robbery, murder and sexual harassment. But the high crimes have social and economic roots. Many of these crimes are carried out by Lebanese people as a result of unemployment, poverty, corruption, chaos, oppression and exploitation of women. Those responsible for the conditions that give rise to crime are the ruling capitalist class. Those paying the highest price for these crimes are workers, the poor and refugees.
A recession has hit Lebanon, at all levels. Tourism is facing losses due to a lack of security and political instability. This has led to the sacking of many workers from tourist-based companies, such as hotels and restaurants. The industrial and agricultural sectors are also facing a decline. They were already weakened from the neo-liberal policies of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (1992 –2004). As well as privatizations, Hariri allowed the Lebanese economy to be heavily influenced by his real estate companies. This increased poverty and unemployment rates in rural areas and cities outside the capital. Media companies are also facing a crisis. They are dependent on funding from different countries which do not find Lebanon holding the same importance today and have began to cut their financial support leading to mass redundancies.
The current ‘caretaker’ government, in power until the formation of a new government, refuses to issue the new salary ranks for the public sector (which needs to be sent to the House of Representatives to be passed). The ministers all argue that this is due to a lack of funding sources, despite the fact that the Trade Union Coordinating Body (independent unions) provided a complete plan on how to finance the cost of salary increases through progressive taxation on real estate companies, banks and harbors. But the government bowed to the so-called "economic entities", which are a gathering of owners of capital, with a significant influence on the regime.
A large section of the working class, youth and the poor looked with anticipation towards a strike of the public sector, last spring, as it was an escalation in unions’ struggles, unprecedented since the end of civil war in 1990. This strike would have been possible to win and to force the government to retreat had the coordinating body played a leading political role for the working class. The leadership could have called for the building of a united workers’ movement against corruption and sectarianism. Instead they confined their demands to the wages of public sector workers and teachers rather than appealing to all workers and young people, especially the unemployed.
Last spring was an opportunity to attract young people away from the sectarian-based parties and to build a class movement. This was a missed opportunity that led to the cooling down of the movement and to a large number of young people and workers distancing themselves from the Coordinating Body. Today the Coordinating Body is collecting one million signatures in a petition of their demands, and has threatened to turn these one million signatures into a million demonstrators. But this petition is not being used as a campaign to take to the streets to prepare for such move and there is pessimism about their ability to lead the struggle after having been defeated in an open-ended strike. However, independent unions are still able to play a significant role if they develop and expand their demands to build an independent political alternative for the working class, to stand in the face of sectarianism and break with corrupt capitalism.
There is no substitute for the building of a united workers’ movement to challenge the ruling class. There is an urgent need to build a movement that is led by independent trade unions and youth – Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians – under a democratic socialist programme. This is the only option ahead of the working class in Lebanon and the region if the growth of sectarian and national conflict is to be cut across. Such a movement, if built, will be the only alternative to the rotten and barbaric system of capitalism, and would appeal to all workers in the region to unite for the eradication of poverty, occupation and wars.