Nizar Hassan

The start of Lebanon's revolution is not its end

Lebanese protesters' first demand - the resignation of Hariri - was granted on Tuesday [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 October, 2019

Comment: For Lebanon, the hard work of defining our future, and ensuring it is not co-opted by other forces starts now, writes Nizar Hassan.
The lack of euphoria among activists in downtown Beirut minutes after Prime Minister Saad Hariri's resignation on Tuesday was confusing to many.

The uprising had achieved its first major demand after almost two weeks of exhausting continuous protests, so why were the celebrations so timid?

"I still feel it is too good to be true," one protester told me, while another said it could be explained by the ongoing shock from the attack by supporters of Hezbollah and Amal Movement on the protesters earlier that day.

Beyond that, however, our celebration was incomplete because our victory is incomplete.

Lebanon will now be governed by a caretaking council of ministers until the president performs parliamentary consultations to select a new prime minister who in turn then forms a new cabinet and gains the parliament's confidence.

It is a long process, and one that could not be more urgent. Indeed, the real political fruits of the uprising are yet to be picked. The government's resignation was the most low-hanging one; the easiest demand to achieve.

Lebanon is deep in economic crisis, and the threat of financial collapse is real. Central Bank governor Riad Salameh recently told CNN that we were "days away" from the collapse unless confidence is restored.

And nothing can restore confidence except a new government, independent from political parties and with a popular mandate, that enacts serious and fair measures to overcome the crisis. Moreover, the new government needs to put into action people's call for a change in political leadership by scheduling an early parliamentary election.

The people's clear discontent with corruption must be addressed by passing laws to allow an independent judiciary to prosecute government cronies and those who stole public funds. 

I am not suggesting anything new here, this has been the second prominent demand advanced by most protesters and groups in the uprising. Like the first demand - for the government's resignation - the second is also not impossible to achieve; however, it will take a much harder battle. 

To be clear, achieving a cabinet resignation was far from easy. The uprising faced various attempts to co-opt its rhetoric, suppress its actions, destroy its reputation, or dismiss its seriousness. ‚Äč

The lack of responsiveness to the movement by political leaders was striking. The president only addressed the nation with a disappointing speech a whole week after daily protests drew millions to the streets across Lebanon.

The leader of the largest bloc in both parliament and cabinet, Free Patriotic Movement chief Gebran Bassil, last appeared on media almost two weeks ago, on the second day of protests, with a vaguely-worded tweet. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a pillar of the post-civil-war political order, has not made any comment.

Attempts to co-opt the movement were also very clear: The Lebanese Forces attempted to join the uprising and influence its rhetoric after its ministers resigned from government. The Progressive Socialist Party attempted to do the same without resigning its ministers. The two parties' members even took part in blocking roads.

Prime Minister Hariri had attempted to throw water on the fire with his "reform paper" which found no positive echo on the streets, and had voiced sympathy towards the movement without accepting any of its major demands.

Now, the three parties are trying to co-opt the movement after Hariri's resignation, portraying themselves as the opposition to the FPM-Hezbollah-Amal Movement camp, which is the most powerful in parliament. This is a red flag for the uprising, as there seems to be a drive to bring back the old divisions of March 8 vs. March 14, using the uprising as a fuel. 

For its part, Hezbollah and the FPM have gone on the offensive. Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah addressed the population with two speeches, the first acknowledging the righteousness of the movement but downplaying it, and the second voicing conspiracy theories around "embassies" and anti-resistance political forces being behind the mobilisations.

Read more: Hariri prepared to become Lebanese PM again but under 'certain conditions'

Hezbollah supporters also took matters into their own hands, heading to downtown Beirut and attacking protesters on at least three instances, the last of which was a brutal destruction of the entire protest camp and attack on whoever was present in the area, including journalists.

The security forces played a role in the crackdown, especially in the first two days of protests in Beirut and later in areas of the south. The media war was also launched by both Hezbollah and the FPM, with their respective TV stations and news websites switching towards negative coverage of the uprising especially after Nasrallah's second speech. 

Against all these odds, the uprising won and achieved its first demand.

And despite the intensity of resistance from the ruling class against the first demand, achieving the next steps will be more difficult for a variety of reasons. To put it simply, it is one thing to demand a resignation of a cabinet in Lebanon, but quite another to demand the formation of a new one.

Government formation in Lebanon is a very long process, with the last cabinet taking a whole nine months to be born; and time is not on our side.

Maintaining popular momentum will be key during the coming days, to ensure the president feels the pressure to select a prime minister as soon as possible. With uncertainty around the state of the general strike in the country, and most companies reopening their doors, this momentum is at stake.

The second obstacle is that many questions will arise in relation to the identity of the next prime minister.

What will be the position in case Hariri is selected again? Will he be rejected as he represents the ruling class, or accepted considering the political balance his presence achieves with Aoun and Berri in the other two top posts?

Will disagreements on this cause division among protesters? This is a challenge that organic leadership in the movement will have to navigate. 

And perhaps the most significant challenge will be for political movements and grassroots networks to achieve a certain degree of homogeneity when it comes to the criteria for accepting the next cabinet. The concept of a cabinet of "technocrats" seems inevitable, and is endorsed by many major political parties.

As much as it is needed, this is also a trap. A technocrat can be a banker or an economist who has no political affiliation but supports very regressive economic policies. A technocrat can be a judge with racist, homophobic, or misogynistic views. A technocrat can be a bureaucrat from the non-profit sector with an attitude that carries contempt for refugees and migrants. It's not technocracy that accounts; it's the agenda.

And forcing the ruling class to vote in a cabinet of progressive ministers with clean records and an agenda that protects the exploited and oppressed is an extremely difficult task.

It will require very strong and far-reaching messaging, for one. Progressive movements need to benefit from the ongoing politicisation of economic affairs to set economically fair policies as top priorities in the public discourse.

They need to vet names being leaked as potential ministers and discredit those who do not represent the uprising. And last but but least, they need to advance concrete proposals and make them popular enough to be forced onto the new cabinet's policy agenda.

These tasks are made more difficult in the presence of more centrist parties with much larger funding who pose a risk of diverging the popular energy towards a renewal of failed neoliberal policies. 

In this coming phase, tensions and differences between various groups and movements will resurface after a period of relative peace and harmony that emerged from the demand of cabinet resignation.

In other words, the time for the clear and uniting street action has passed; now is the time for politics. Who will win the battle over public discourse and agenda-setting in this historic moment for Lebanon?

Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese organiser, researcher and podcaster based in Beirut. He is a co-founder of the progressive political movement LiHaqqi, he researches workers rights and social movements, and co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast.

Follow him on Twitter: @Nizhsn

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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