Mass protests re-emerge in Lebanon as government paralysis continues

Protesters blocking access to the Ring bridge in Beirut, Lebanon, October 26, 2019 (Photo: Nadim Kobeissi/Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last week, protests have re-emerged onto the streets of Lebanon. The increasing collapse of society impels the masses to challenge the continuing misrule of the sectarian establishment.

Blockades of roads with burning tires (a tactic used by Palestinian protesters during the first Intifada, and more recently against Egypt’s blockade of the Gaza border) have taken place in a number of towns and cities across the country. In Tripoli, a city in the north of Lebanon where protests have continued even during the lockdown, a one-metre high brick wall had been built to block a road.

As the currency has plummeted over the last year, price inflation has soared, provoking a social tragedy, as we have detailed in previous articles. Protests recommenced after the Lebanese lira hit a new low last week of 10,750 to the US dollar. It has since slid to 12,400 to the dollar – far below the 1,500 to the dollar it is supposed to be pegged at.

The latest reflection of this crisis is the beginnings of the collapse of some of the institutions of the state. For example, the caretaker education minister announced a one-week shut down of Lebanese schools due to the lack of funds. With soaring rates of Covid, as in other countries, teaching has moved online. But with half the population below the poverty line, purchasing laptops or other devices to access such teaching, combined with repeated power cuts, have made this almost impossible to deliver.

On Thursday, the caretaker energy minister announced that the country could be plunged “into darkness” at the end of the month if funds were not provided to buy more fuel for electricity production.

Meanwhile, morale is at a low level within the armed forces. Inflation has eaten away at the real value of soldiers’ salaries. Last month the French embassy provided food parcels to the Lebanese military. This has been reflected in how ineffective the military has been, so far, in clearing the road blockades. It has been reported that blockades are back up within hours of them being removed by the army.

The army chief, Joseph Aoun, gave a widely reported interview on the situation on 8th March, commenting: “Soldiers are going hungry like the people”. He went on to warn the sectarian political leaders, “Do you want the army to stay on its feet or not?”

Similarly, the caretaker interior minister said when recently interviewed: “Security forces are being drained daily, we have reached rock bottom… I am talking about 90% of our duties, we are no longer able to perform them to protect the people and the nation.”

Yet there is no easy way out for the Lebanese capitalist class from this crisis. The foreign aid they need to restabilize the economy, on a capitalist basis, is conditional on the formation of a government that implements the same (or probably worse) severe austerity. Such cuts saw Saad Hariri’s government fall in 2019.  Hariri is the same person currently tasked with forming a new government.

Despite the best attempts of French imperialism and others to help the process along, including several visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, the impasse in forming such a government lies in the patronage networks controlled by various ministries. These have been in the gift of various sectarian parties, which Hariri sees necessary to end if he is to carry through the reforms demanded by imperialism.

What sort of alternative is necessary?

Even if Hariri forms a government, an event which seems unlikely without a new sectarian carve-up that would seriously escalate sectarian tensions, this offers no solution to the Lebanese masses. They will be expected to suffer further for the stabilisation of the profits of the Lebanese capitalists and imperialism.

Some left groups have pointed to the independent, anti-sectarian lists which have grown in recent years, winning gains in local elections and students elections, as pointing a way forward. An article by Al Jazeera (18/11/20) reports that whilst student elections had previously been dominated by the main sectarian parties, this years’ elections included independents winning 80 of 101 seats at the American University of Beirut (AUB), 14 of 30 seats at the Beirut and Jbeil campuses of the Lebanese American University, and 4 out of 9 seats at Rafik Hariri University in Damour, the same support as the list from the Future Movement, founded by Hariri dynasty. Eighty-five out of one hundred and one seats at the Saint Joseph University were also won by independents.

At AUB, there were two independent lists – one run by the Secular Club, called ‘Campus Choice’ which eschewed anyone seen to be politically affiliated to the established parties which won 42 seats on a platform of reforms, including tuition fee reductions, enhancements to accommodation etc., whilst the ‘Change Starts Here’ list included former supporters of the established parties and won 38 seats, and describes itself as ‘politically moderate’. Both groups are currently involved in a battle over tuition fees, which have led to a partial tuition fees strike against an effective 160% hike in fees due to currency depreciation and changing to payment in dollars.

There have also been developments of independent forces in local elections, such as technocratic independent list, Beirut Madinati list (Beirut My City), put forward in the 2016 municipal election in Beirut and winning around 30% of the city-wide vote, and similar lists subsequently in some other cities such as Tripoli. The Al Jazeera article on the student elections goes on to report on the development of some new political forces on both the right and left. These include the left-wing Li-Haqqi (For My Rights), which initiated some of the protests in October 2019 and the call for a general strike.  Al Jazeera states: “These groups aim to come together under a single nationwide opposition front in 2022, allowing for political differences to play out in the composition of lists in various districts.”

Such ‘fronts’, which are an amalgam of different political forces, with different programmes, may gain some support given the dead-end offered by the sectarian parties. But even if they won an election in a municipality, or elsewhere, they would be paralysed by the contending class forces involved. For example, one new party, Ana Khat Ahmar, primarily made up of private-sector employers, wants to cut state jobs and are attacking the rights and pay of their own employers.

Moreover, the desperate situation facing the masses of Lebanon cannot wait until those elections, as the tuition fees struggle, and the re-emergence of street protests show. What is required is not just a non-sectarian party but one rooted in the working-class, which will be independent of all pro-capitalist bodies and interests. Such a party would need to discuss and draw up an action plan to deal with the rebuilding of lives and infrastructure following the catastrophe, linked to a programme of socialist demands to genuinely and completely transform society.

However, the working class is yet to put its stamp on the situation, with many of the protests over the most recent period seem to have involved some of the most downtrodden layers of society, those surviving on day labouring and other insecure work. But there are signs such layers are beginning to organise. Day labourers working as energy bill collectors have been blockading the entrance to the offices of Electricite du Liban, demanding the implementation of legislation passed, last July, giving them the security of tenure.

Such an organisation of struggle in the workplaces may be weak in Lebanon but is crucial to the transformation of the situation given the vital role of the working class in society. The official trade union movement, which was an active force before the civil war and immediately afterwards, was hijacked by sectarian forces based on many sectarian splinter unions. They were allowed equal representation, regardless of size, in the official General Confederation of Lebanese Workers.

However, a number of new unions have developed in recent years, such as the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) amongst public sector workers and teachers. A new University Professors association has been established, with part-time staff in the AUB Part-Time Faculty Alliance withholding grades in December 2020 to force the university to provide a support package for them as they had done for full-time staff. The Mobile Operators Syndicate went on strike in November 2019, and again in June 2020, over pay and working conditions. A one-day pharmacists strike took place in October 2020, while elections for some of the professional associations have seen challenges by independents, such as amongst engineers, and the victory of an independent in the Beirut Bar Association presidential election.

Re-forging the workers’ movement

These developments show the potential for a re-forging of the workers’ movement in Lebanon, a question that will become increasingly vital as the capitalist sectarian parties seek a way out for capitalism on the backs of workers and the poor.

Those layers moving into struggle need to organise action committees, democratically electing them immediately in all communities and workplaces, so that they can link together to organise support and solidarity actions, supervise aid, food and shelter to all those affected and discuss the way forward.

One of the crucial demands would need to be for a revolutionary constituent assembly, with delegates from working people. The working class needs to replace the entire present political system with a new government consisting of delegates from workplaces and local communities, accountable to those who elect them and subject to recall, at any time, by the votes of those who elect them. A workers’ government would set about re-organising the economy on a socialist basis, which would act as a beacon to the working class and oppressed across the region.

On this basis, a way out of the multiple overlapping crises facing the Lebanese masses can be found. The alternative is the further descent into the nightmare of collapse brought on by the free play of the forces of the capitalist market and the protection of the privileges of the sectarian capitalist elites.


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March 2021