Can the Light Ever Shine Again? Mobilization, Organizing and Inter-Class Alliance Building in Lebanon

    4 November 2021

“Workers, Farmers, and Students our clock has ticked, and we have started taking a road with no return and victory is near our eyes”
(Ahmed Fouad Nejm)1

Just over two years ago, on 17 October 2019, hundreds of thousands of people from different nationalities, educational, gender, class, sectarian and regional backgrounds took to the streets in protest against a WhatsApp tax imposed by the neoliberal government of Hariri in Lebanon. In the very early days, dispossessed and unemployed youth were at the frontline of the protests. Bou Khater and Majed’s survey (2020) showed that 87% of protesters participated because of dire economic conditions, at a time when unemployment reached 11.4% in 2018. Indeed, the slogans raised by the protesters connected both the political and the economic situation in Lebanon, showing that the two were not separate. “The people want the downfall of the regime;” “all means all;” “our revolution is class-based;” “this country is for the workers down with capital’s power;” and “down with the rule of the banks” were among the slogans that were heard across the country’s streets. In a collaborative project, Bassel Salloukh, Rabih Barakat, Jinan Al Habbal, Shoghig Mikaelian and I explored the resilience and the reproduction of sectarian identities in postwar Lebanon, the results of which have been published in a co-authored volume, The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon, by Pluto Press. But the social class discourse advanced by the protesters compelled me to raise several questions revolving around class mobilization, organizing and alliance-building before and after 2019. I addressed these themes in more detail in a forthcoming article that will appear in a special issue in the journal Globalizations, but in this blog I discuss some of the issues in relation to labor mobilization, organizing and alliances in Lebanon.

In this blog, like in the research that I previously conducted, I draw on political economy, a comparative historical and class-based approach to regime change, as well as analytical induction whereby I discern patterns and theoretical insights from other cases in the Global South (particularly MENA and Latin America), and start observing similar patterns through the case of Lebanon. At the moment of the 2019 revolution, I had just finished my Ph.D. thesis titled: The Challenges to Democratization in the Global South: The Political Economy of Regime Change, Class Struggles, and Class Alliances in Egypt (1952-2016) and Brazil (1930-2016). In my analysis of the two cases, I borrowed from the theoretical framewrok advanced by Dietrich Reuschemeyer, Evelyne H. Stephens and John D. Stephens in their work on Capitalist Development and Democracy. The authors argued that democracy is a class struggle born from the contradictions of capitalism under authoritarian rule. For the authors, democracy is brought into being when the working class develops the necessary organizational strength that allows it to pressure for greater political inclusion in the dominant classes, through labor unions and mass political parties. The authors also argued that under authoritarian capitalism, workers need to forge inter-class alliances with the middle class to shift the balance of class power in favor of the dispossessed, the marginalized and the excluded. In my work, I combined this framework with Karl Polanyi’s and David Harvey’s approach to Marxian economics, to address the class struggles and the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism, both of whom broaden our understanding of the nature of class struggle and class alliances needed to unsettle neoliberal authoritarianism. Both scholars place emphasis on class struggles that occur outside the workplace and are born from the commodification of labor, land and the accumulation of capital by dispossession; or, as framed by David Harvey, the stealing away of rights and privileges. The regional scholarship on the crisis of authoritarian neoliberalism (Adam Hanieh 2013), neoliberal sectarianism (Salloukh et al 2015; Rima Majed 2019; Hannes Baumann 2019; Fawwaz Traboulsi 2014), working-class mobilization, organizing, and alliances in Latin America and South Africa (Samuel J. Valenzuela 1989; Gay W. Seidman 1994), and the Arab world (Michele Penner Angrist 2013; Khalid Medani 2019; Rabab El Mahdi 2011; Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny 2014; Joel Beinin 2016) also shaped my analysis.

The two cases (Brazil and Egypt), showed that the transition to democracy is conditioned and shaped by the strength of labor organizing and the breadth of class alliances. Organizational strength is assessed by a) the rise of alternative unions tied to their base drawing their autonomy from corporate and political powers; b) a national labor movement and social movements that are dense and hence representative of critical sectors of the economy (including the unemployed, the informally employed and peasants); c) a broad and institutionalised cross class alliance (mass parties) that are inclusive of the informal workers (in the rural and urban side); and d) a downwardly mobile middle class. Brazil, under military rule, was hailed as a successful case-study whereby workers did not only establish strong unions but they also created an alternative umbrella federation inclusive of blue collars and white collars, that first redeemed the elite-coopted labor federation and retransformed it into a proponent of labor rights and social justice, such that this labor organizing was also tied to struggles in the rural areas (the landless peasants movement), and the urban poor (the housing movement mediated by the progressive Church). The diversity of working class organizing was wedded to an alliance with a downwardly mobile middle class at a time when Brazil was facing one of the worst economic crises in the world, a devalued currency, and inflation in the four digits. Such cross-class alliances materialized with the rise of the Workers’ Party that played an instrumental role in post-military Brazil in defending labor rights and social justice but also resisting the implementation of neoliberal policies while remaining representative of workers, and their allies from among peasants, informal workers but also women, the LGBTQ community, and Afro-Brazilians.

In Lebanon, the sectarian modes of representation, and mobilization reigned supreme (Salloukh et al. 2015) and sectarian leaders along with their clientelistic networks determined job allocation, promotion, wages and social class mobility (Fawwaz Traboulsi 2014; Michele Scala 2015). Sectarian fragmentation was wedded to neoliberal policies that also kept workers fragmented in their condition. Neoliberalism obliterated the productive sectors and expanded the services sector absorbing 76% of the labor force in 2019, which is also more difficult to organize (Ricardo Antunes 2016). Lebanon is also a case of racial capitalism (Robyn Maynard 2017). Migrant workers and refugees perform precarious and low-paid jobs under abysmal working conditions that amount to forced labor. Such policies were wedded to flexible labor relations; free zones were erected in various regions recruiting temporary workers barred from unionization (Nizar Saghieh 2015), and public sector employees were fragmented over their conditions by introducing contractual work. The private sector, which absorbed the lion’s share of employment, is marked by small enterprises hiring no more than 5 employees, rendering labor organizing difficult to achieve (Léa Bou Khater 2021). While the informally employed – the working poor in the urban and the rural side – constituted 55% of the labor force in 2019, large sectors joined the ranks of the unemployed or were forced to emigrate. The fragmentation of labor by neoliberalism and sectarianism were also met with the emasculation of the GCL (General Confederation of Labor), which played a role until the 1990s as a protagonist of labor rights and social justice in Lebanon. The neoliberal government of Rafiq Hariri turned the GCL into a “shell organization” that entrenched the power of the sectarian leaders, thus facilitating the implementation of neoliberal policies through repression and the colonization of the GCL’s structure by sectarian parties (Léa Bou Khater 2015; Salloukh et al. 2015; Traboulsi 2014).

As the GCL turned into the union arm of the neoliberal sectarian elites in post-war Lebanon, labor mobilization and organizing began to take place outside the GCL. Albeit public school teachers have been mobilizing and organizing even under the Syrian tutelage regime, labor action became more visible in post-Syria Lebanon. According to the Lebanese Labor Watch, there were 150 to 200 labor actions between 2012 and 2018 triggered in various sectors by the former minister of labor’s proposal for a “social wage.” The largest labor action was observed among public sector employees with the Public Secondary School Teachers (SCC) and casual workers in Lebanon’s EDL (Electricité du Liban), responsible for the longest strikes. Employees in the private sector (supermarket chains), and migrant domestic workers have also been at the frontline, declaring the formation of their own unions. In 2019, and immediately before the mass demonstrations, teachers, professors, workers in the health sector and army retirees protested austerity measures. In July 2019, Palestinian workers launched an uprising in the Palestinian camps when the ministry of Labor imposed a work permit or termination of work.

All such actions made explicit the relationship between the political and the economic struggles. As Michele Scala noted, they show that clientelist networks that permeated labor relations in Lebanon were neither fixed nor immutable. However, a blend of heavy-handed sectarian and corporate repression, the colonization of alternative forms of labor organizing by the sectarian cartel and the appropriation of labor demands by the sectarian elites, withered the capacity of these labor struggles to coalesce into a labor movement. Furthermore, while sectarianism divided workers along sectarian lines, neoliberalism fragmented workers in their condition. The demands for better wages amid wage freeze and job security topped the list in most of these struggles, but working-class fragmentation made alliances across work categories difficult to achieve.

In the wake of the 2019 protests, the most effective form of organizing emerged from middle-class professionals, including the health sector, engineers, university professors, lawyers, journalists, artists and NGO workers. The Tagamu Mihaniyin wa Mihaniyat (TMWT, The Collective for Lebanon’s Professionals) saw the light in October 2019. TMWT internalized the lessons at home - such as the failure of the 2015 YouStink campaign to organize politically and the necessity to revitalize the role of unions as agents of socio-political change. It was also inspired by the Sudanese and Tunisian experiences, where labor organizing played an instrumental role in the transition from authoritarian rule (Michelle Angrist 2013; Khalid Medani 2019; Rima Majed 2019). Despite the fact that the TMWT has to overcome important challenges pertaining to decision making processes and representation (Lea Bou Khater 2021), professionals have won important battles winning over the order of lawyers in 2019 and the order of engineers in 2021.

Furthermore, and as a result of the process of accumulation by dispossession under the sectarian regime in Lebanon, a series of protests erupted to demand the departure of the regime and later on morphed onto the “struggles over daily life” that materialized with the 2015 protests, when Lebanon flooded with garbage during a waste mismanagement crisis. While mobilization spread to other regions in 2015, the call for protests in Lebanon revolved around an urban middle class of intellectuals, professionals, university students and mostly NGO activists. Such contention did not lead to alternative organizing due to the strategies of cooptation and repression of the sectarian elites, the refusal among activists to join together in traditional political organizing (Bassel Salloukh and Ibrahim Halawi 2020) and the deep divisions among activists over the quest of reform and structural change (Mona Khneisser 2019).

In 2019, Lebanon witnessed a proliferation of groups and the revitalization of old leftist parties. However, such groups also exhibit deep divisions over the questions of reform and structural change, ideology and strategies, including alliance formation (Nadim El Kak 2021). The dilemmas of the proliferation of small groups, and the refusal to come together in traditional organizing were also present in the USA. Reflecting on the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor raises important questions. She asks “how would the movement go from direct action die-ins, highway closures, and walkouts to ending police brutality without dedicated spaces to meet, strategize, and engage in democratic decision-making considering the demands and vision put forward everything from ending racial profiling to full employment and ending mass incarceration it is impossible to imagine all of this happening only online” (Taylor 2017, 174).

Equally important, Lebanon’s working poor and the unemployed before and after 2019 had no organizations by them and for them. Albeit they mobilized in the first few days of the uprising and continue to protest amid one of the world’s worst economic crises, according to the World Bank, these social classes are on the receiving end of militarization aimed at criminalizing their poverty. While transitions from non-democratic regimes are uncertain, Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens argued that structural conditions are needed to bring about regime change. In Lebanon, such structural conditions entail the formation of a strong and representative labor organizing and the institutionalization of alliances that cut across social classes and other forms of identities. The economic and financial crisis, the global pandemic, the largest non-nuclear explosion on 4 August 2020 that decimated life in Beirut – leaving thousands injured both physically and psychologically and killing more than 230 people – and the constant threats of civil wars by the sectarian militias that terrorize civilians, are all serious impediments for the formation of structural conditions conducive to democratic and social change. For many, the 2019 moment of unity seems to be gone at a time when structural and non-structural forms of violence turned the everyday life in Lebanon into a war. But as the lessons from the Arab world and Latin America suggest, the roads to social justice and human dignity, and hence the shifting of the balance of power away from the powerful political and economic elites in favor of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the excluded and the repressed, are lengthy processes.

In this blogpost, I highlighted some of the issues pertaining to class mobilization, organizing and alliance building. But Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens also argue that an understanding of such structural factors need to take into consideration two other clusters of power that are equally important in the case of Lebanon: the question of state autonomy and the influence of transnational powers on structural arrangements.


Author Bio
Lara Khattab is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Politics and International Relations in Mount Allison University, where she teaches courses in comparative politics and social justice. With Bassel Salloukh, Rabih Barakat, Jinan Al Habbal and Shoghig Mikaelian, she co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon. Her research interests are at the intersection of critical theory, political economy, class analysis, and labor organizing in the Global South. Currently, she is conducting research on the Political Economy of Violence in the Northern Lebanon, Informality and Resistance.

Find Lara on Twitter: @Lara_Khattab

1: This is a poem by Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Nejm (Build your Castles). Sheikh Imam sang the song which reverberated also in the Lebanese streets amid the 2019 protests.