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Carmen Geha, Assistant Professor of Public Administration, Leadership, and Organizational Development at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

July 2020
Politics of Hope and Survival

The Lebanese politicians who have governed and exploited this country since the civil war will not simply wake up one day with their hearts and minds converted. They will not apologize or take responsibility for destroying the lives of their people and stealing every resource in this country. Power does not get passed on without a confrontation and a real fight.

For many years now, Lebanese activists and political groups have challenged and confronted the system, the institutions, and the people behind them. But since 2015, there has been an emergence of organized groups with aspirations to either run for office or transform the social and constitutional fabric that protects sectarian politics and corrupt warlords. The truth of the matter is simple: A group of armed men who killed communities across the country during a 15 year war, granted themselves amnesty, put on suits, and divided the spoils of the state among them. We have, ever since, been gasping for survival. Most recently, people started asking for more than survival. We started having hope that we may have a voice and a seat at the table.

I move in this essay between “we” and “them” because I stand in the middle. As a scholar activist, I have participated in building political groups as much as I have spent time thinking and writing about political strategies and social movements. We are seeking the emergence of a new politics of hope for change, but hope is tricky because it takes a long time to come along and once it is gone, it takes forever to bring back.

Who Are These Groups And What Do They Want?

Political groups here are the organized or informal groups working to challenge the pillars of the political system so enshrined after the civil war. Such groups fall along a spectrum of ways and mechanisms that challenge the sectarian, corrupt, and patriarchal politics that shape our lives. They range from organized or semi-organized political gatherings, which participated or plan to participate in electoral lists seeking to take over parliament as a means of gaining power.

They are not the only ones challenging the system: Others include recently organized alternative unions that seek to address structural inequalities and mobilize workers to reclaim basic rights and have a seat at the negotiation table. Another set of organizations is the one choosing strategic litigation and opening legal investigation into specific files or acts of violence and corruption. Other groups see the system with a gendered lens and seek to make sure that women have a say in the politics that will shape their lives. Other groups are led by students and young citizens targeting public education which politicians have co-opted and stolen from them for decades. Others created new media platforms focusing on freedom of speech and critique as the entry point for political awareness and public engagement. There are many others but in general these groups are political in the sense that they have political demands that shake the pillars of the system. Should they succeed in either—or all—of their demands, this would lead to political change. While the roots of our experience in forming these groups date back to 2005 as a juncture following the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the strategies and mobilization are more recently shaped by the 2015 protests caused by the waste crisis, the 2018 electoral experience, and the 2019 October revolution.

What Is Their (Our) Problem?

These groups or movements face at least two sources of problems. One is external and known to all: An oppressive, violent, corrupt, patriarchal, and sectarian regime that will hunt people down, arrest them, shut their work down, and murder the likes of Alaa Abou Faker and Fawaz al-Samman in impunity. The other is internal: It is the social networks, experiences, and interpersonal relations that influence their ability to work together and engage citizens in the process of building a collective. It is not lack of experience but a lack of vision and leadership—not in the sense of having a centralized leader as such but rather of being able to build trust with citizens and create participatory inclusive systems of representation. Any of these groups whether student-led, electoral, or reformist needs to build a process whereby citizens participate in setting their agenda and take part in their mobilization.

These alternative groups have so far failed to transform from an urban elite-majority group of activists into a nationwide political platform. The October revolution changed this in the sense that it was bigger than all of those groups combined. Moving from street mobilization to structured and institutionalized mobilization targeted at challenging the system requires that the masses be included and leading demands, strategies, and representation of priorities.

What Can We Do Next?

No group can promise to build anything, let alone run for office, without a support base that gives them trust and legitimacy. Whether through confrontation on the streets, raising money, or running for office, our approach and agenda should be shaped by people who want to put their trust in a revolutionary political platform and who can be trusted to continue the fight long after street mobilization is over. People know what is good for them, they are rational, and will withdraw their support from this system if they see a viable future. Our responsibility is to build together a viable vision forward, one that can stand against and sustain the blows that politicians will throw at it.

The task ahead is not impossible, the revolution rendered it achievable, provided that we immediately create consultative mechanisms that engage people of all ages and classes throughout the country. Second, we must decentralize the process of agenda settings: People need to dictate what laws they want to see changed first. Likewise, people need to identify who they want to see in office. Thinking about this while sitting in Beirut cafes, bars, and universities does not make us the guardians of the process. Third, we must expect a counter-confrontation. People have already died, lost an eye, paid their life savings, gone to prison, and gotten beaten up, got laid-off for showing up at a protest. If we are serious about changing the system, we must expect a brutal retaliation. We need to build broad coalitions inside and outside Lebanon and guard against fatigue, failure, and physical harm.

Many of us still have hope, but the tricky thing about hope is that if it fades, it hardly ever returns in the same way. These new groups have an opportunity. If they do want to take part to a post-revolution Lebanon, they must find ways to develop robust internal structures that safeguard against the risks of potential bickering and self-indulgence. These days, the stakes are too high and sectarian political parties are already taking advantage of any weaknesses in order to snatch the last bit of hope people have left. We have already shifted from survival mode, to hope mode. The question is how can we protect hope and make change a reality?

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