There is something historical taking place in Lebanon. Everyone agrees on this. Strength and a3fyeh to organizers and activists. The following is written with camaraderie and respect. Apologies for this English - the Arabic of this activist suffers from diaspora. She grew up outside, but lives in this place on its edges, suspiciously connected through “being Lebanese”.
One – Victories and arrogance
So far the Movement has achieved certain tentative victories: Forcing urgency among elements of the government, forcing the garbage back to the baladiyet and away from privatization, improvement among male activists in the recognition of women’s struggles, ongoing focus on people arrested and hurt in the movement, withdrawal of the parking meters on Raouche and the success of “difference” as a philosophy of the movement in the way the various groups are coordinating with each other.
The most important victory is the presence of momentum for change (and despite the arrogance of the Aou3neyeh in trying to assert their dominance over the actual concept of political ta7arouk).
But this is a partial victory and humility is necessary: it is the filth and insult of the garbage which finally handed over the opportunity for momentum. Keeping this awareness at the center of activist work may help reduce the guarded, but obvious arrogance or supremacy of some activists.
Two: The danger of the spectacle
Protests “pop up” everyday and many people rush home from work to see the latest. The movement is in danger of being dominated by its alter-ego: the television spectacle. It is becoming another product of entertainment, isolated from “material” life and slipped into television air time enjoyed with an evening argyle. Strangely dramatized even when it doesn’t deserve it: bordered, predictable, made for consumption not revolution.
This is exactly how the elite (economic and political) are hoping the movement will be defeated: its death as a spectacle. We cannot cancel media (at times it also protects the movement), but how can we interfere in the regime of the spectacle with its symbolic violence and social control? Note:Could we avoid” staged poses” at protests and media instructions at marches to stop and be filmed.
The dominance of spectacle also means we should never assume anybody cares if we are beaten up or hurt. They may care for drama or action, but it does not mean their “care” is sustainable. We live in times where “care” has been drained out of us, image by image, war by war.
The attempt of some public activists to seek sympathy or understanding for their work and suffering feeds the spectacle and works against the movement. Not because of “weakness” (we have the right to feel sad and treat our wounds), but because it further turns the “sha3b” into audience.
Three: The centrality of street protests is killing the momentum
Protests alone will not achieve the demands of a movement: especially with a small population. The automatic tendency to make protests and sit-ins dominant has to be challenged. Protests can be considered one strategy for particular times and places: the dominance of protests as a strategy is suffocating other possibilities for action.
Even millions of people in a street protest cannot be considered a success anymore. Bloated numbers of riot police and riot gear all over the world is evidence that the elite are prepared. The power of protests as a political strategy has passed. “Free speech,”here and in the western world is deception.
Crowd control and the ability to kill en-masse have developed together. They both speak hegemonic arrogance. The elite do not care what we think or how many we are. When they seem to listen, it isonly for a moment. It does not mean they are prepared to act against the structures that maintain their own privilege.
Only violent protests that destroy private property of elite institutions can make any effect. But the movement wishes to stay “peaceful” and this is the best strategy in current times. Perhaps protests can be more militant: not violent, but intense. We may find that many people may not feel the need to throw rocks if they are engaged in a militantly organized protest. Many people in the past could be heard ridiculing the “fun” of the protests and sometimes they were right.
Protests cannot be taken as a sign of a protestor’s commitment, especially when some of the protests have resembled festivals or a Saturday night out. Too much fun at protests mystifies political activity and divides the “sha3b” as non serious and the activists as serious.
And many people will never protest, ever: but they support. Shouting or trying to shame them on television to attend is useless. And if you watch NEW TV and LBC you “feel” you learn more than if you go: ten cameras and journalists will surely tell you more than your own body.
And now it seems we have arrived at the predictable situation where mostly the same “inner “circle of people are maintaining the protests. The movement is starting to talk to itself, rather than to the “sha3b” in whose name it is always speaking.
Movements burn out because they lose momentum, carried by fewer and fewer people. How can the movement be protected: open to a wider group of people and turned into a series of principles and a way of life, as opposed to a series of protests?
Four: Decentralization and protecting the movement
People who support the movement need to be offered ways to get involved without having to go to protests. Some groups are considering this. The momentum of the time needs to be a tool activists use to reach out beyond themselves: to encourage involvement in political and civil activities which also improve lives and work against the feeling of being helpless or hopeless in the face of power.
Decentralization, so that larger parts of the population are taking part in other activities can protect the more militant parts of the movement, giving it new dimensions and making it difficult to dismiss as one group of people. It can also make it more difficult for the movement to be sabotaged by the elite because it gets more embedded inside the everyday life of people.
Such momentum can be used to begin to change ideas: in this case, about garbage and environment. This is as important as bringing down a government, and pushes the point that revolution is private and public, inside my home and on the street, in my heart and against the government.
Can we start change without waiting on the state? This is a strength of many in Lebanon who since the civil war have become natural trouble-shooters and problem solvers: even if their solutions often create more problems. Such activities mean the movement is shifting reality from the beginning, not waiting till after. It means the movement is not satisfied with making demands, but struggles to put those demands into action. The parking meters activity is an example.
A “political design” approach to political activity: to consider activities (local or national) to include and mobilize people and put pressure on the state and its institutions within the momentum of the time. Protests and sit-ins can happen as part of an overall design, rather than being the main point.
Five: Examples of Political and Civil campaigns
The following are flawed examples. They aim to demonstrate concepts and invite discussion. Such grassroots campaigns have to be guided by people who understand the Lebanese governmental and judicial system thoroughly. Many of these ideas are floating in the air in discussions at protests.
· A call out for people to register a complaint against a violation or a request: at a particular wezara or government department. What mechanisms exist to allow people to do this legally? Yes, these are usually useless, but en-masse may pressure and encourage action to build the movement
· Collective lawsuits against a wezara or an economic institution or a company: Example: a cement company that is literally killing people off. These have happened before, but now is different
· Campaign asks people to argue with banks or complain about the fees taken from their accounts
· A general strike of some sort or a local strike that targets particular institutions: public or private
· Flooding a website at a particular time
· Refusal to pay electricity bills
· Organizers call on people to coordinate their buildings to recycle and give information on how: where it can be taken, recycling companies etc. These campaigns should consider the poor who currently earn an income from collecting garbage. The Campaign can provide a template or framework for people to use to organize their buildings and to include the garbage collectors
· Organizers call on people to use less: plastic bags, paper, less of everything. There is much talk of recycling, but not much talk about cutting down what goes into garbage circulation and the nasty consumption of how we live
At the same time the slogan of recycling has to be critiqued as a humanist and bourgeois solution easy for the privileged to digest. It is the huge corporate polluters of the air, land and sea and the businesses (hospitals) that generate the most pollution (the most toxic). It would be good to break this slogan down to show how it masks and hides bigger social and economic structural problems.
Perhaps the momentum of the time can help to transform these “humanist” or “humanitarian” activities into acts of everyday struggle: that make us think about how we live, and how we live with each other (instead of throwing our shit from one balcony down to the next). The momentum can also help stop such activities from becoming NGO AID, with its dirty band aids full of holes.
Obviously lots of people will ignore such ideas, but many people won’t. Even many inside political parties may take these things up. The suggestion of such campaigns also builds legitimacy for the movement.
The elite will reply to create pressure and de-legitimize the movement. Example: The greedy vomit coming out of Shammas’ mouth or blocking roads excessively to increase traffic and turn “the sha3b” against the movement and the activists. The Campaign has to think of counter tactics: not in words, but activities and actions that expose and put pressure and responsibility back on the economic and political structures and elite, not on individuals, who will always rally to protect each other.
Six: Other Concepts
Slogans, Stupidity and Patronizing “the Sha3b”
There is arrogance in reducing political movements to a “mousalsal” of slogans. This is increasingly happening and cancels out more intelligent or analytical talk. The same things are repeated over and over again, even on different malafet. Most of the time the talk is numbingly simplistic, without complexity or analysis or even any information. It is better to challenge those listening than to patronize them. It is also best not to assume that “the sha3b” will not understand: they are often the ones who “overstand”.
It is clear that certain groups are trying to widen issues of concern past the garbage. Again, constant protesting will change nothing and kill the movement. Could political pamphlets or internet sites that analyze and give information about the problem be more powerful and speak more to people outside each group. At the moment the only pamphlets one receives at a protest is to advertise the next protest, featuring the name of a group and its logo. This is “dumb” politics.
Note: September 20 we broke through police lines, only to advance a few meters. Many felt cheated. As we waited, dedicated to push more, the people on the microphones repeated the same simplistic patronizing speeches, slogans and songs. Nothing new was said to us or to the security forces. No thought, no analysis, no attempt to consider what could be said that would further the qadeyeh after the “victory” of a few meters and the police brutality of Wednesday 16 September, or weaken the ranks of the security forces. A wasted opportunity: and an opportunistic violation of the bravery and goodwill of protestors ready to be beaten to turn a slogan of “kol el sa7et...” into a militant reality.
Racism and Xenophobia
The overt nationalism of the protests and the movement sometimes borders on fascism: it has come from protestors and some activists. Obviously, many other peoples live in this country and suffer its problems without the back up of family, clan or the law and they are often the ones who clean up our shit and wipe our children’s asses. Many Syrians and Palestinians are also attending protests: at a much greater risk of police violence and arrest than a Lebanese.
How can organizers include awareness of Lebanese racism more? The idea is not to include refugee or immigrant issues directly, but to keep Lebanese racism in mind when writing interviews, chants and speeches. To minimize the tendency among people to use xenophobia to assert their own identities - in this case their identities as “Lebanese revolutionaries”. Some groups are already doing this.
There is a general problem of imitation. Example: taking slogans from other movements or using the same way of naming groups. Imitation works against the specificities of the Lebanese situation, this place and this time. Even though government methods can be described as totalitarian, Lebanon is not a dictatorship: a “freer” media, a wide NGO sector, unions and some “democratic” institutions.
Yes, these are often controlled by sectarian and class regimes, but still have “cracks” that can be used.
The particularities of Lebanon have to be thought about intensely. Organizing of the lawyers is one example, but a standard activist move. What else is there in our specific system that can be used?
Imitation weakens the movement, encouraging laziness in thinking and sometimes a “superstar”mentality among activists. It also exposes the movement to being ridiculed or defamed as leading to war or backed by foreigners.
We are fighting a global system and not just government
The only type of economy Lebanon has been allowed to have since the end of the war is one mainly based on “service industries”. Local manufacturing and development is hindered (unless it is funded by USAid) and traditional industries have been killed by neo-liberal puppet governments. The use of local products is also discouraged by the myth that “foreign is better”. We are to remain a captive market that consumes the products of those in power: a favorite tactic of occupying armies.
Can we make more reference to huge capitalist institutions behind this government and most others in this world: weapons, pharmaceuticals, insurance, banking and security? Working as a security guard has become a common job for poor men all over the world, educated or not. “Security” is the destiny of many of those currently crossing borders into Europe. There are escalating “third words” within the “first world” of America and Europe where the same neo-liberal economic system is attacking swelling the numbers of “working-poor” and the “unemployable” under-classes.
Could some reference to these facts challenge common statements by protestors: that they want Lebanon to be like other countries? Can it help re-imagine the movement as more connected to the world? It may seem to make the struggle more difficult, but can also widen our thinking and provide a larger set of targets, beyond the individuals of this government who are only a speck of dirt in the global system.