Barriers to solidarity in Lebanon’s 2019 uprising: How should we understand them, and what can be learned from them?
30 May 2023
Anne Kirstine Rønn
Carlsberg Postdoctoral Fellow in the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science
While conducting field research for my PhD dissertation on Lebanon's 2019 October Uprising, I frequently asked my interlocutors what they considered to be the uprising's most important characteristic. One of the common answers I received was "diversity." According to many of the protesters I spoke to, the uprising was remarkable because it united individuals from different walks of life. Street vendors and lawyers suddenly stood side by side and chanted slogans against Lebanon's corrupt sectarian elites that have governed the country since the civil war.
The celebration of diversity, inclusivity and solidarity across societal fault lines was also evident in the news coverage of the uprising, and as studies and survey data confirm, protesters did indeed come from all corners of Lebanon. They were old and young, women and men, and they broke boundaries between regions, sects, and classes.
However, the October Uprising was not solely a display of unity; it also reflected underlying divisions and exclusionary practices that constitute barriers to solidarity between protesters. Like in any other popular protest movement, there were disagreements regarding tactics and political goals. Prejudices and fears also persisted, resulting in negative attitudes and suspicions toward certain segments of the population in the streets and squares of the uprising. Specifically, individuals belonging to marginalized groups in society faced such biases.
I delve into the barriers to solidarity within the Lebanese uprising in my recent article in Middle East Law and Governance, entitled “Promoting Inclusivity in Anti-Sectarian Protests: Understanding the Dilemmas of Organizers in Lebanon's 2019 October Uprising”. The article draws on interviews with twenty-two individuals who represented a diverse range of key organizers in the protests that took place in Beirut. Its objective is to understand the dilemmas faced by these organizers when attempting to address the persistence of negative discourses concerning a particular segment of the lower classes in Lebanon, namely young men from the areas of Dahiyeh and Khandak el Ghamiq.
Dahiyeh and Khandak el Ghamiq are known to be stronghold areas of Hezbollah and Amal Movement, Lebanon's two major Shiite political actors. Dahiyeh, located south of Beirut, has a population of approximately 500,000 people and comprises various impoverished and more affluent neighborhoods predominantly controlled by Hezbollah. Khandak el Ghamiq is a smaller working-class neighborhood in downtown Beirut associated with the Amal Movement.
A general stereotype exists regarding people from these two areas: a man dressed in black, adorned with tattoos, and exhibiting a hypermasculine attitude. He rides a cheap motorbike and is assumed to be a supporter of Hezbollah or Amal. Allegedly brainwashed by the propaganda of these political parties, he is believed to be willing to defend them with violence. Whenever such individuals are present at demonstrations against the Lebanese regime, they are assumed to have ulterior motives, aiming to infiltrate and intimidate the crowds rather than expressing genuine discontent with the political elites.
Early in the uprising, protesters encountered several attacks by people who matched this stereotype and were often identified as individuals from Khandak or Dahiyeh. Although such claims were frequently difficult to substantiate, they led to a general fear and suspicion towards men who appeared to be "infiltrators" from the two areas. Moreover, they perpetuated a negative and reductionist image of Khandak el Ghamiq and Dahiyeh, which had existed for years – an image that disregarded the political agency of people from these areas and ignored the fact that they were among the first to join the demonstrations at the beginning
The organizers interviewed in the study, some of whom lived in or had relatives in Khandak el Ghamiq and Dahiyeh, generally found the stereotype problematic. They wanted to promote an alternative and more holistic image of the areas and wished to advocate for solidarity with the communities, including those who held skeptical attitudes toward the uprising or were deterred from participating.
During my interviews with the organizers, several potential discursive strategies were discussed that could have demonstrated such understanding. However, all of these strategies shared a common problem: they could be interpreted as favoritism toward a particular sectarian group. Implementing them would therefore jeopardize the integrity of the October Uprising as a movement against sectarianism, as argued by the vast majority of organizers in my study.
The article not only sheds light on a sensitive issue within the October Uprising but also highlights broader challenges related to solidarity, and inclusion in popular protests. Firstly, it reminds us that these challenges should be understood through an intersectional lens, which pays attention to the intersections of class, gender, sect, ethnicity, and geography.
This might seem self-evident. However, assessments of inclusivity of popular protests often tend to focus on singular identities. Especially in popular, mediatized narratives, descriptions such as cross-class and cross-sectarian are frequently used. If we examine the October Uprising through such one-dimensional lenses, we might overlook or fail to understand the complex challenges to solidarity.
As the article shows, we can only fully grasp why it was difficult for the uprising to promote discourses of solidarity with the people of Khandak el Ghamiq and Dahiyeh with reference to their combined position as lower-class Shiites (and males) from geographical areas that carry specific historical, cultural, and political connotations.
When a protest movement is described as cross-class, we must therefore remember to ask whether it truly includes all segments of the lower classes. When it is said to have women at the forefront, which specific women are being referred to?
The article also provides lessons about the structural obstacles to protest solidarity in the context of Lebanon. More specifically, it illustrates how the omnipresence of sectarianism limited the discursive and tactical opportunities of organizers in the October Uprising. It is, of course, possible that organizers in potential future Lebanese uprisings may learn from past experiences and find ways to enhance solidarity with the communities of Khandak el Ghamiq and Dahiyeh. However, as I discuss, mass protests in Lebanon, as well as in any other society, are unlikely to promote inclusivity of all groups.
Because of this, I argue we need to pay attention to the smaller-scale and more localized forms of grassroots mobilization. How can such types of mobilization complement and compensate for the limitations of mass uprisings? In the Lebanese case, a main task for future research is to explore whether environmental campaigns, alternative labor unions, and student movements can cultivate solidarity ties that the October Uprising struggled to establish. By engaging with this question, we might reach a better understanding of the prospects for citizens to challenge the country's ingrained political and economic regime.
Anne Kirstine Rønn is a Carlsberg Postdoctoral Fellow in the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research explores opposition movements in ethno-religiously divided societies with a particular focus on Lebanon and Iraq. Her current postdoctoral project focuses on the Lebanese and Iraqi labor movements and examines the potential of labour mobilization as an oppositional forces against the ruling elites of the two countries. Specifically, she investigates the dynamics of trade unions and alternative forms of labour organisations in the aftermath of the 2019 uprisings.