Majzoub: The Unfinished Business of Lebanon’s October Uprising

The answer to Lebanon’s problems lies not in foreign intervention, but rather a rejection of the status quo and identity politics in favor of community building.

by Tala Majzoub | 10/19/21 3:00am

On Oct. 14, the streets of Beirut witnessed deadly gun battles amid tensions over the probe into the 2020 Beirut port explosion. This fighting comes nearly two years after the October Uprising erupted in 2019, evoking memories of Lebanon’s civil war and the sectarian strife of the 1970s. With a political system in deadlock and an economy in shambles, the salvation of Lebanon does not lie in foreign intervention or aid packages, but in steadfast rejection of the status quo and a thorough investment in community building away from identity politics. 

Last Thursday, hundreds of Hezbollah supporters and allies assembled at the Beirut Justice Palace to call for the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar — the judge leading the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion. Their protest quickly turned into a four-hour bloodbath when Hezbollah claimed that snipers from a right-wing Christian political party, the Lebanese Forces, fired at the crowd from rooftops, starting an armed exchange that killed seven civilians and injured dozens. The armed clashes between sectarian militias add a new element of volatility to Lebanon’s downwards spiral. 

Yet Human Rights Watch researcher, Aya Majzoub, has warned people not to “buy into sectarian narratives propagated by the ruling political parties.” She argues that the manufactured sectarian turmoil “is not a conflict between Shiites & others, but a war by the establishment against people demanding accountability & rule of law.” Rampant corruption has seeped into the judiciary and granted unconditional immunity to the political elite, to the extent that no officials have been convicted for the Beirut port explosion. Such impunity dates back to the civil war when perpetrators of the gravest crimes in recent Lebanese history managed to evade accountability. The growing frustration, mistrust and desperation has led to an increased reliance on foreign salvation. 

After suffering through an economic meltdown that plunged three-quarters of its population into poverty, Lebanese sects have been seeking refuge from foreign players. For instance, Hezbollah billed itself as the national savior to the suffering Lebanese population after delivering more than a million gallons of Iranian fuel to citizens paralyzed by fuel shortages. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, has positioned himself as the “protector of the Sunnis” in the region by investing in multiple humanitarian endeavors in predominantly Sunni cities in northern Lebanon. Moreover, following the Beirut port explosion, more than 55,000 Lebanese citizens signed a petition calling for the restoration of the “French Mandate.” 

But no foreign intervention has ever liberated us — aid only offers temporary solutions with debilitating implications. Intervention in Lebanon often reflects broader political ambitions that render Lebanon a playground for regional proxies. It is true that sectarianism fractures Lebanese communities and weakens progress, but it is important to address the root causes of sectarianism that are embedded in age-old patterns of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism. If we look back in time, we discover that Britain, France and the U.S. crafted “religious tensions” in Lebanon to strengthen their proxies and rob Lebanon of its autonomy and resources. Both under the Ottoman Empire and the French Mandate, France’s interventions in some ways brought about Lebanon’s sectarian quagmire. 

France and the US seem less concerned with helping Lebanon construct a “neutral” government and more interested in exploiting the situation to target one of their primary geo-political adversaries. Shortly after the port explosion that killed more than 200 people and injured over 6,500, Macron met with Mohammed Raad, the leader of Hezbollah’s bloc in the Lebanese parliament, and demanded that the group cut ties with Iran and withdraw from Syria. This demand was paralleled by several demands and threats from then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to urgently address the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons. No “American Dream” will ever “sponsor hope in the region,” as a recent opinion article published in the Dartmouth has suggested — especially not when the U.S. funds the Lebanese army that employs lethal force against unarmed protestors fighting for their basic rights. 

On a similar note, The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s neoliberal playbook is not the answer to Lebanon’s economic woes either, judging by their disastrous record in the Global South. Such institutions have, in fact, dramatically increased the indebtedness of vulnerable countries, a state likely to aggravate social unrest. These two key institutions that govern global economy policy have a deeply disproportionate influence in defining the rules of international finance and trade. In the case of Lebanon, adding to the debt burden of a vulnerable economy will only offer short-term relief without addressing the structural causes of the crisis. 

The solution to Lebanon’s crisis must be Lebanese-owned and Lebanese-driven. An urgent plan should focus on humanitarian suffering while holding the political elite accountable and bolstering key institutions and processes that promote stability. Through expanding mutual aid networks and building care communities, we will be able to limit sectarian clientelism and international reliance. The goal is not to substitute the ruling elite, but to provide robust alternatives that go against the status quo. 

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the October Uprising, we must remember a revolution that instilled feelings of hope in a traumatized collective — a feeling of hope that is so easily overpowered by ghosts of sectarian strife. The answer lies not in foreign intervention, but fundamental economic and political reform from within. The Lebanese have long sacrificed accountability and justice for a semblance of stability, yet we never really achieve any of these three ideals. It is time we contest this equation and create a new one.