Social IssuesSep 21, 2021
Has the October 17 Revolution Accomplished Anything At All?
One year on from the start of the October 17 uprising, LCPS asks social scientists with leading or active roles in the uprising to take stock of the October 17 revolution and the path ahead. We asked all contributors the same questions, which center around the top accomplishments, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the August 4 explosion on mobilization, as well as challenges and opportunities ahead. Their answers to each question are released in a series of articles. Today’s piece focuses on what they consider to be the top accomplishments of the revolution. This project is co-organized with social psychologist and LCPS fellow Dr. Rim Saab, who begins by introducing the contributions and offers a synthesis at the end of the piece.
Contributor list (in order of appearance)
Lyna Comaty, development studies specialist and active member of the National Bloc
Mona Fawaz, urban studies and planning professor, previously active member of Beirut Madinati
Ogarit Younan, sociologist, non-violence strategist and trainer, and founder of the Academic University of Nonviolence and Human Rights
Rania Masri, environmental scientist, activist, and elected representative of Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla
Nizar Hassan, political researcher and commentator, co-host of the Lebanese Politics Podcast and member of LiHaqqi
Sana Tannoury-Karam, Middle East history scholar and activist
Carmen Geha, political studies and public administration scholar and activist
Full biographies appear at the very end.
Today we commemorate the start of the October 17th uprising a year ago. On this day, prompted by newly imposed taxation laws and a looming economic collapse, groups of citizens, many from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, took to the streets in Beirut and beyond to demonstrate against the economic deterioration of their conditions and the corruption of the ruling political class. These initial protests would quickly and organically grow into an unprecedented popular uprising in Lebanon’s recent history. Regardless how one chooses to refer to the October 17th movement, what is undeniable is that calls for outright revolution were made on this very day a year ago, and they gained unparalleled momentum, with hundreds of thousands of people across Lebanon and across sectarian and class lines taking to the streets over the days and weeks that followed, demanding an end to corruption, the ousting of the ruling elite and the fall of the current regime. It felt like the long-awaited awakening was finally happening, and through people power, an alternative dream-like Lebanon began to feel closer than ever before. This unforgettable and magical experience of the power collectives can achieve was accompanied by collective euphoria and for many, a deep certainty that the change we aspire for is not utopic but possible, real and near.
As the year progressed, however, this revolutionary people’s movement had to grapple not only with the ordinary realities and difficulties of achieving political change in Lebanon, such as internal organizational difficulties, an already-polarized political leadership that threatens us with civil war, and a powerfully entrenched and increasingly repressive political system, backed up by predatory regional and international powers, in a politically unstable neighborhood characterized by occupation, wars and autocratic systems. In addition to all this, the revolution had to grapple with catastrophes of epic and unimaginable proportions: an unfolding ruthless economic collapse – the revolution’s own raison d’être – along with a global pandemic and lockdown of historic dimensions that caused an international economic, social and political shock, and the largest non-nuclear explosion of the 21st century in Beirut’s port. A year later, our reality seems closer to a dystopia than ever before. We are a society in deep flux and unrest, struggling with a massive social, psychological and economic shock.
In recognition of the crises the October 17th revolution has had to face and to better understand where we are at today, we launch the first of a series of articles that ask a group of social scientists and activists to take stock of the October 17th revolution one year later, and to reflect on the path ahead. While it may still be early days for scholarly empirical data to emerge around the revolution, the answers provided draw on the insights of the contributors as social scientists, some of whom specialize in the study of social movements and collective action, but all of whom have played and continue to play leading or active roles in the uprising. In that sense, our contributors themselves are living proof of the continuation of the October 17th political project, and today is a chance to hear from them directly. Each article will focus on a different aspect of the revolution. One year on from the start of the October 17th revolution, we ask our contributors what they consider to be the top accomplishments of the revolution. At the end, we follow this up with a synthesis that highlights the most important themes emerging from their answers.
One year on from the start of the October 17 revolution, what do you consider to be the top accomplishments of the revolution?
There is no doubt that the October 17 revolution is a major milestone in the history of our country. The confessional political regime as we have known it since Taif is now collapsing and living its last days. Essentially, this revolution marks the beginning of the end of the civil war. It is a true revolution in the hearts and minds of us all. With the unmasking of the political class, the major accomplishment of our revolution is the breaking of barriers. Which ones?
Another major accomplishment is more of a tactical level, where the Lebanese citizen has now imposed her/himself as a central actor of Lebanese politics. There is a general ambience of revolt in the country today. The political class does not take a decision without “taking the pulse” of the street before.
Last but not least, we have achieved smaller and noticeable wins worthy to be mentioned, at the risk of letting them drown in the ocean of work we have ahead of us. In October 2019, Saad Hariri’s first response to our protests was a 5-point reform plan, which he would have never presented had we not been on the streets. We later forced him to resign and did the same with Hassane Diab in August of this year. We saved the Bisri Dam and the Nahr el Kalb valley from blatant environmental and cultural destruction. We brought Melhem Khalaf to power, and with him a new generation of defenders of the revolution, and last week the independents won the LAU student elections on both campuses. This is just the beginning, as so much more is making its way.
There are several important achievements. Here are a five. The first is developing and empowering the practice of organizing collectively across national territories and expanding the protests typically confined in Beirut to other cities and towns where it was clear that discontent was brewing. The second is generating new conversations across social groups (albeit with red lines), particularly Lebanese youth, and generating a consensus on some (but not all) the national challenges. Third is educating many of us about some of the national challenges, particularly economic and financial ones. The fourth is demonstrating that even within the communities of supporters to the political class, there is a recognition of corruption and discontent brewing, albeit cautiously. Fifth is desacralizing all political leaders/members of the political elite and allowing for their public shaming, even if some of them remain more “protected” by the threat of physical (and electronic) violence.
The Lebanon we know has long been in need of a revolution and nothing less than that. Since its inception using a particular political-sectarian-economic formula (“”) that was established for it, the country saw the emergence of a conflict around that very formula, with two different conceptions of Lebanon, one approving of this formula out of conviction or opportunism and another rejecting it – whether with or without an alternative project. Importantly, however, the conflict between these two visions has not yet been settled, hence the existential need for a civil revolution that builds a different Lebanon than the one we know.
It is not my intention to go through all the happenings or even the most major ones, thus I opted to restrict my answer to three themes.
Desire for revolution
What happened since October 17, 2019 onwards over months falls under a “desire for revolution” or a “will for a revolution”. Such a desire is a driver of change in the course of history, even when a clear alternative or a pre-organized strategy is absent in the first stage. It is not only those who took to the streets that have expressed such desire. Instead, wherever one goes one can hear the Lebanese expressing a desire for a different Lebanon and see them revolting “remotely” in a multitude of ways and places.
Any society that sees the emergence of a desire or will for revolution which prompts it to take to the streets, whether spontaneously or in a pre-planned way, is a society that has a real sense of hope. That is exactly what people felt and it was powerful.
Leaving aside any analysis or evaluation, what happened at the beginning was beautiful, especially the deep and simply joy that people experienced. However, it is important to be accurate; what happened was like a “massive upheaval, the beginning of an uprising,” which was termed “revolution” (and this is okay), as it really stemmed from a dire need for revolution.
A new generation reconciling with politics
In a short period of time, it became obvious that a wide range of groups from the younger generation (inside and outside Lebanon) had a real desire for taking part in political activism and in discussions geared toward radical change. This was in contrast to general accusations of indifference among youths, alienation, or engagement with trivial and sometimes superficial matters, particularly the prevailing notion that they have turned away from politics. People from various regions were so impressed by the squares’ ambience that some could not resist joining and even dared to oppose their "communities" and “leaders." While it remains true that most of the younger generation needs to build up a political culture and accumulate experience that goes beyond expression through the streets, their participation in all this is a striking indicator regardless of any critique and regardless of the outcome. It is accordingly unfortunate that the difficult times that followed the first few months resulted in many youths developing a sense of hopelessness and giving in to harmful influences and polarization.
I understand the popular usage of the word, but since this is a question posed by academics and to be published by a policy institute, then please allow for a discussion of the word ‘revolution'. For something to be considered a revolution it must imply a significant change in the underlying conditions of a particular sphere of life. In essence, a revolution is either a fundamental change in political power caused by a popular uprising and leading to a political regime being overthrown in an extra-constitutional fashion, or a great, radical change in society. One can also define revolution in a looser sense as an effort, through mass mobilizations, to transform political institutions and political authority in society. Are any of these definitions applicable for the protests that began on October 17, 2019? There wasn’t a fundamental, extra-constitutional change in political power, nor was there a call for one. There also wasn’t a unified effort to transform political institutions. While all expressed outrage at the dire economic situation, some, with their revolutionary spirit, declared a strong rejection of the political system, while others would have been satisfied with a change in the individuals and not a transformational change to the political system itself.
One of the clear accomplishments was a change in the conversation among activist groups. In the initial months of the protests, there were calls from the protest organizers for early elections, for an independent judiciary, and for the return of the stolen funds. Now, the primary slogan raised by different organizers is the need to build a civil state, and the call for a transitional government with exceptional legislative authority as the pathway towards that state. The slogans today have converged to our proposal (Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat Fi Dawla), made in November 2019. However, this has come at a very high price — at the cost of the passing of time.
The protests themselves cannot be expected to achieve something without political clarity. Thus, what is the responsibility of those organized political groups, who were present in the street, in presenting a clear, vibrant political proposal and political alternative? We (Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat Fi Dawla) presented such an alternative after one month, and we encouraged all those who disagreed with our proposal to present their vision.
Recognizing the cursed legacy of bankruptcy and the foundational incompetence of a sectarian system, we want a government able to take responsibility and to pilot through this transitional phase. For the government to be able to succeed, it needs to be endowed with exceptional legislative prerogatives for a period of eighteen months to build the pathway towards a different economy, a cohesive society, and a civil state. Naturally, this government would need to be comprised of individuals not beholden to sects or to foreign interests, and equipped with courage, moral strength, and experience, and united in sharing this clear political vision. The alternative exists, and that alternative is the building of a capable, just State, and, it can be no other than a civil State.
What could have been achieved had the righteous anger that expressed itself in the first months of the protests of October 17 been greeted with a clear political proposal, or, even, a variety of different political proposals from which the protestors could choose, so that they would have something to stand for, and not just something against which to stand? Although precious time has been lost, constructive change is still possible.
It is evident that the overall sentiment among those who took part in the October 2019 uprising is despair and disappointment. At the peak of the uprising, the moment was so overwhelmingly accommodating of hope that we dared to dream the impossible and even demand it. Right now, the counterrevolution has been so fierce that it makes one wonder whether we achieved anything at all through the uprising.
I do not subscribe to the idea that we achieved a lot, because I think reality is what matters most; and reality is much worse today than it was on October 16. The economic and financial situation have deteriorated dramatically, and now the central bank is running out of foreign currency reserves to use for social purposes. Poverty and unemployment are probably as high as they have ever been in modern Lebanon, and what was once the middle class is on a spiral of downward mobility. The COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming the health system, and we have now seen more than half the total number of COVID-19 cases reported in the whole of China. On the political level, sectarianism seems to have seen a revival, and dangerous polarization around the ruling class’ agendas is probably at its highest since 2008. The ruling class has crossed all boundaries in its rudeness and disregard for our demands and aspirations, waging a cold top-down class war and conducting the worst possible management of the economic crisis and the August 4 explosion’s aftermath. The peripheries of the media and political establishment are falling back in line, dumping in our ears a discourse that legitimizes ruling class politicians who have been discredited by their own actions and by the people’s uprising.
In concrete terms, we have not accomplished anything on the level of institutional politics and policy. The only sphere where I see accomplishments is that of discourse and collective consciousness. The uprising entrenched an anti-establishment discourse that imagines all major politicians and parties as one class that is committing crimes against the people. Ironically, the ruling class keeps empowering this discourse through its despicable mismanagement and its continuous bickering over shares in political institutions. And with this phenomenon comes another improvement, which is the de-sanctification of political figures, including the most untouchable of them. The scene of all these politicians’ heads hanged in martyrs’ square in the protests following the port blast was quite symbolic. In a way, a major section of the population is now truly radicalized against the ruling class, and is more willing than ever to resist. This discourse, while weaker than one year ago, remains quite strong across most backgrounds. Another positive is the mainstreaming of the notion that the current stage requires “upgrading” from spontaneous street action to organized political mobilization. Despite the general sentiment of desperation, I think an increasing chunk of the population is now speaking the language of political change that activists had been putting forward for a few years. This is very important for medium and long term change, which will only come through organized grassroots political action.
In full disclosure, I am not a fan of using the one-year mark to measure accomplishments, especially with events such as revolutions; however, there are a few noteworthy changes that have occurred this year that we might want to consider.
First, this year has created new ways in which public discourse has been democratized and laid claim to by a wide range of people. Not only do we see more people talk about political issues, which has been a staple of Lebanese society for years now, but more importantly, certain issues that were deemed personal or apolitical have been politicized. I am thinking for instance of the way people now understand and debate the banking and financial systems, feminists’ issues surrounding the body and control over it, and public spaces and their usage by the people.
Second, what the revolution has made possible is the establishment of a collective experience of mobilization and certain temporal and spatial reference points that will live on in people’s memories. These markers are essential for the development and the growth of political and social consciousness in Lebanese society upon which future collective action can be built. Part of this collective experience is also the breaking of the barrier of fear, which is a crucial component in revolutions.
Third, and probably the most important ‘achievement’, if one could call it such, is activists’ realization of the need for political and social organization. In other words, waking up to the fact that without proper political organization – whether through political parties, unions, fronts, collectives or any other means of organization – there can be no real change. I believe the crime committed by the state against its people on August 4 has exacerbated this latter awakening, as activists realized in its aftermath the lack of organization through which to channel political action, including holding the perpetrators accountable for their crime.
It is impossible to detach my role as an activist and protester, from a scholar who has worked on social movements for a long time now. To answer this question, I use evidence from personal experience that is also grounded in the literature about Lebanon and the region to make three claims about the impact of the revolution. First, as a historical juncture the revolution broke taboos that the Lebanese psyche had stored so deeply from the civil war and its aftermath. The "kellon yaaneh kellon" becoming a mainstream slogan and approach to holding politicians accountable altogether is a sign of social transformation unlike any other in our history. Second, the intensity, longevity, and decentralized nature of the revolution showed that it is not only urban elite and "civil society" in and around the Beirut area who wanted to confront the system and zu'ama but that there was a national outcry and demand for new political leadership. The movement was also savvy in that it attacked parliament, banks, politicians' homes – bringing out salient corruption patterns in the public education system, media freedoms, health, environment but mainly corruption that uses violence to silence and burn down. Third, the revolution created solid social networks of solidarity, mobilization, and even new friendships which sustain beyond the streets. Even if the street enters a time of abeyance, we see new social networks emerging to address different grievances using the same logic of "kellon yaaneh kellon."
In this section, LCPS fellow Rim Saab summarizes and comments on the most important themes emerging from our contributors’ responses.
Is this a revolution?
In reflecting on the top accomplishments of the revolution, one cannot but note that all our contributors recognize, implicitly or explicitly, that the current moment evidently falls short of the initial political aspirations of the October 17th protests. Some lament the missed opportunities or point to the accomplishments of the counter-revolution as a reality check. Unsurprisingly, some of our contributors question the terminology used to refer to the October 17th movement as a revolution, with one of them noting that it has not resulted in the transformation of political institutions nor is it necessarily based in a shared intention for radical political change to begin with. Importantly, however, this skepticism is countered by others who insist on the revolutionary intention of the movement, pointing to an expressed popular desire, need, and will for a revolution, in other words, a revolutionary mindset. Despite the apparent darkness of the current historical moment, there is a unanimous, reassuring and refreshing recognition of the potential for positive social change. Change may be slower and harder than desired or expected, but there is a prevailing view that the current downturn is a temporary one in the overall journey towards social change. Some term this a moment of abeyance, others acknowledge the huge amount of work that needs to be done but view the current movement only as a beginning. One of our contributors, who is a historian, wisely reminds us of the arbitrariness of using the one-year mark, particularly for judging the achievements of a revolution.
How do we assess the success of the revolution?
This brings up the important question of when and how one is to assess the accomplishments of a protest movement. There are two criteria that can be used in this instance. The first is the political efficacy of the movement, which can be defined as the political change accomplished at the level of institutions, political system or policy. On this level, the record may seem meager. However, if we adopt the perspective of a revolution as an ongoing and unfolding process where radical change takes time, prospects for such political change remain evidently possible, particularly in light of the social transformations the revolution has started.
With this long-term perspective for change in mind, the second possible criterion for assessing the efficacy of the revolution is to examine the extent to which it has strengthened and consolidated the position of the secular anti-establishment movement, which basically predates October 17th and which has mobilized on multiple occasions before, such as in the 2015 garbage crisis as well as the last municipal and parliamentary elections. Here, one can look at the extent to which this movement has built capacity and resources to continue its struggle for more radical political change. And it is this angle which our contributors have mainly focused on today. What, then, seem to be the main accomplishments on this front? Note that these are not necessarily listed in terms of importance.
Top accomplishments of the revolution
In concluding, taking all these accomplishments into account, the October 17th revolution has seemingly produced changes with transformative power, the effects of which will be materializing more evidently in the medium and long-term. To some of our contributors, it is not a matter of whether the current political system will change, but a matter of when and how, and this downfall has seemingly begun. Amidst these gigantic obstacles facing the revolution, the heroic struggle continues and one may even say, miraculously so. The revolutionary spirit lives on, against all odds, simultaneously exhausted and invigorated by the very same political and economic forces that seek to destroy it. Today, October 17th does not seem to be a mere memory, but an ongoing and a continuously developing political project adjusting to the difficulties of the present times, a testimony to the eternal resistance of the human will against oppression.
Rim Saab is an Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at the American University of Beirut. Her research expertise is in intergroup relations and political attitudes, with a particular focus on the social psychological factors that push people to engage in collective political action. Over the course of the revolution, she was a protester, an active member of the Association of Independent University Professors and a co-founder of a public teach-in initiative called Bedna Nthour Bedna Na3ref.
Lyna Comaty is an active member of the National Bloc. During the first six months of the revolution, she was in charge of launching and implementing a citizen engagement platform for the party. She holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, and is author of “Post-Conflict Transition in Lebanon: The Disappeared of the Civil War” published with Routledge in 2019. Lyna lectures at the university level and regularly consults with local and international organizations. She is a founding member of the NGO Act for the Disappeared.
I am a professor of Urban Studies and Planning and a Lead Researcher at the Beirut Urban Lab, both at the American University of Beirut. Between October and December 2019, I participated daily in the Uprising by giving/hosting teach-ins, learning by listening and exchanging with many people, organizing and participating in protests, conceiving/messaging informational content, and trying to coordinate and bring together movements to align positions and help build a coalition. I did so as a Member of Beirut Madinati (I resigned since then) as well as a researcher investigating the incestuous intersections between real-estate and finance and their negative impacts on people's lives.
A pioneer intellectual and advocate of the Non-Violence education and action in Lebanon and the Arab world, she is the founder of the Academic University for Nonviolent and Human Rights (AUNOHR). Ogarit is a sociologist, researcher and writer in human rights. Initiator of the interactive modern training in Lebanon, she developed specific concepts and a specific method in social, educational, and political training
As an elected representative of the political movement (Citizens in a State), I was organizing our presence and open political discussions in our tent in Al-Azarieh from the start of the Intifada. Since the closure of the tents, I have been meeting and coordinating various activities with other organized political groups in the Intifada, as well as writing articles, and building our own internal capacity
Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese researcher, political organizer, and commentator. He co-hosts the Lebanese Politics Podcast, and has published articles and opinion pieces on Lebanon with several Arab news outlets. He is a member of the progressive grassroots political organization LiHaqqi, where he has served on the Public Affairs Committee. Nizar conducts socio-economic research with the Arab NGO Network for Development, and has previously worked as a Policy Researcher at LCPS. He holds a B.A. in Political Studies and a Diploma in Media Communications from the American University of Beirut, and a Master's degree in Labor, Social Movements, and Development from SOAS in London, where he wrote his dissertation on the 2015 protest movement in Lebanon.
Sana Tannoury-Karam is a writer and a historian of the modern Middle East, working on a book on the cultural and intellectual history of the Lebanese left during the Mandate period. She is currently a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Her work has appeared in a range of publications including the Journal of World History, Jadaliyya, Megaphone, and Trafo Blog. Tannoury-Karam was active among university professors and professionals during and following the Lebanese October Revolution.
Carmen Geha is an Associate Professor of Public Administration, Leadership, and Organizational Development at AUB. Her research expertise is in political institutions, power-sharing, women’s representation, civil society and protest movements. She is also a Co-Founder and Research Associate at the Center for Inclusive Business & Leadership (CIBL) for Women, a trans-disciplinary regional force for advancing inclusive employer policies across the Arab MENA. Carmen was Founding Director for “Education for Leadership in Crisis” scholarship program for Afghan women at AUB. Carmen is an activist working towards gender-equality, refugee protection, and freedom of expression. During the revolution, she was a protestor and took part in mobilizing, analyzing, and strategizing with several movements and political groups.