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Why I’m no longer joining the Lebanese protests

Lebanese protests are no longer as intense as they once were. The streets are empty, the protests have dimmed but there's never been a more appropriate time to protest, living conditions are dire. What's going on? Why aren't people on the streets demanding more?
Lebanese protests
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Lebanon needs a radical change, desperately. Our local currency is now worth less than a fifth of its original value, we have just entered hyper-inflation, over 50% of the population is in poverty, electricity supply only runs for 2 hours a day, fuel used for private generators has become 40% more expensive, and life in Lebanon feels untenable. 

But when 10 months on, the methods we have been using to initiate change don’t yield the results we want, it’s time to reassess our strategy and change tact. 

Why the protests are not working

When the populist protests first erupted in Lebanon, I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. I was worried that it would turn into a futile rant for a few days, but I was also excited that it could be the dawn of much needed change for Lebanon. 

Lebanon Protests
Protesting in Downtown Beirut – Al Amin Mosque

In the first few weeks, I was a fervent protester, I was on the streets almost every day, marching down town with my plastic flag and packed snacks. I walked for hours, chanting revolutionary slogans, singing patriotic songs and participating in public discussions. I felt part of an unprecedented movement, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets every day to demand better living conditions, it became my duty to mark my presence on the ground and make sure the message is heard loud and clear. I believed we could make a real change.

The culmination was the resignation of prime minister Saad Hariri two weeks after the protests started. I was exhilarated that the people had claimed their power and were asserting their message.

But the victories were short lived. As the protests continued it became abundantly clear that those in power are not interested in what their people have to say, they are after all a group of corrupt warlords who have been abusing their power and making top dollar from illicit deals. My worst fear began to show its face; protests turned violent, the government was increasingly dismissive of the movement and the momentum dissipated.

The main reasons why I don’t believe the Lebanese protests are working are down to three key areas: (1) there’s a lack of visible leadership, (2) there’s no dialogue or negotiation with the system and (3) the key message is lost in translation.

There’s a lack of visible leadership

The revolution has always identified itself as a leaderless movement, we believed that revolutions didn’t need a face, that the sheer volume of people speaking out was loud enough to drive the change we needed. After all, governments are meant to be a representation of the people they serve. Alas this was not enough, the system didn’t flinch. The very fact that the movement has no identifiable leader that people can relate to, became a weak link. A strong charismatic chief is not only essential to inspire and push people towards action, but also to open a dialogue with the incumbents and begin negotiations.

There’s an absence of dialogue

What struck me the most is that the revolutionary movement has refused to open a dialogue with those in power. Over 10 months later, the group is still refusing to negotiate. The movement has been defiantly requesting a ruthless uprooting of the entire collection of leaders in power, changing the laws and putting a new system in.

I think these demands are, however legitimate, unrealistic to achieve in one move. They are unrealistic because of the government’s totalitarian refusal of any meaningful change, because of their dismissal of the people’s requests and because of how stubborn they’ve shown themselves to be. This massive level of organisational change doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger, this takes years of working through reforms and implementing constitutional changes.

There’s no consistent and realistic message

Lebanese revolution

If you happen to join a protest in Lebanon these days, you hear at least 50 different causes that people are fighting for. There are those fighting for economic improvement, some asking for stolen money to be returned, the ones calling for gender equality, others demanding the ending of the Kafala system, or the dissolution of the existing political system… The list goes on. Radical and targeted change needs a clear, consistent and realistic message; this hasn’t come across clearly for people to believe in. The key slogan frequently repeated is “kellon yaani kellon”, which translates to “everyone means everyone” and calls for the entire political suite to step down. I find it hard to get behind this message, because I don’t believe it is either realistic or achievable to get rid of the entire system as it is. Initiating the kind of drastic change this slogan calls for requires many more independent parties to step up to the plate so they can be elected into office and replace the 128 MPs, which to my previous point on clear leadership, has not manifested.

An alternative perspective to inspire a new course of action

Politicians who have ruled the country for over 30 years are still in power and are refusing to resign to fresh blood. They’ve not only enjoyed a position of power for over 30 years, they’ve accumulated wealth that lasts them generations. So what is it that’s running in their hearts; which is standing in the way of democracy? I believe human emotions are so powerful that they can blind any sense of logic and common sense.

While it may be abundantly clear to you and to everyone else that the system isn’t working, getting the folks in power to recognise this and voluntarily make the decision to step down is not a realistic aim. I say this because the last 10 months have shown us that there is no interest from politicians to attend to the people’s needs. We must remember that they have been in positions that allow them to abuse their privilege to their benefit at the expense of the people they are meant to serve. This, coupled with the fact that no legal system has ever questioned their intent or held them accountable for their actions, make for a disastrous combination. Changing this deeply rooted toxic organism is not as easy as chanting a few slogans in a protest.

Change is hard

Lebanon Protest
Standing in the Lebanese Human Chain

We all know that logic alone has never been enough of a driver for change. How many times have you managed to resist that cake knowing full well that you don’t need another dose of sugar and fat in your diet? Remember the times when you were fighting yourself to make it to the gym even though logic and common sense tells us that exercise is healthy? We know these things in our heads, but actually executing them is a whole different challenge. The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that while everyone logically knows what’s best for the country, there are other emotional and psychological forces at play that make the answer much more complicated than it seems.

What we are failing to understand as a group of change makers, is how the essence of humans is playing out in this quarrel. Those in power are also humans, and are governed by the same emotions that govern each of us. Have you ever tried to get your dad to change his habits, maybe stop smoking or talk quieter on the phone? It’s almost impossible unless there’s a life-threatening situation, and even then it’s not always enough of a driver for change.

Shaking decades of engrained habits off is hard. I’m not defending their behaviour, I’m merely giving another perspective to inspire a different course of action to tackle our major problems in Lebanon. This kind of transition is colossal, and it requires a significant emotional capital to get their mindset to shift.

Creating a compelling future

What does life after politics look like for the ruling class? If they stepped down, their life as they know it would be over. No privileges, no kickbacks, no sweet illicit deals, no getting away with murder, no turning a blind eye on misconduct. There is no compelling reason for them to change it all, the status quo is very comfortable and the alternative looks too bleak. While this may not be our issue to resolve, achieving the long term change we want will require drumming up a future where everyone “thrives” in the short term so that we can create a win-win solution.

What the path to change could look like

Get the dirty work done

It’s a nasty truth but we have to get our hands dirty. We have to start changing our mindset from the defiant demand of throwing the full system away, to that of taking incremental steps that lead to the significant change we want, including creating a short-term co-existing scenario for a while. In project management, it’s an approach we often take to get the job over the line. Even if the task is not in your job description and it’s in the way of delivering your project, you’re going to have to do the work yourself to get the objective delivered.

Change from within is the only way forward

We need qualified people with sound political education to step up to the plate and become visible leaders of the new generations. We need them to start infiltrating the system and take up positions of influence to start chipping away at the organisation. If we were to have early parliamentary elections tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a single new and visible candidate running for office from the populist movement. My guess is that the same combination of MPs would be elected again, because we have not gathered the courage to put ourselves forward to start working and negotiating. 

Dialogue

We must begin a dialogue, a roadmap to change. Not a defiant roadmap, but a smart one that factors in the incumbents, how to navigate around their egos and their emotional inertia to change. We must think of movement leadership, to put someone forward and lead the conversation with those in power and start a negotiation. If we study the events of the Sudanese revolution, the details seem familiar to ours, and they managed to negotiate. They don’t have the perfect solution, but they have a roadmap, and it’s a smart one. It’s important for us to learn how things have worked well in similar environments with similar regimes so we can leverage it to our advantage.

Ending the toxic cycle

The reality is that we are in a toxic relationship with our system. The government has disproportionate power and is abusing the relationship to the point where the people have no energy or will to carry on; but they are struggling to break it up. There’s no compelling reason for the abuser to leave, as long as they can still get their needs met by terrorising their partner and making them feel small. The only way to solve this is for the abused to end the toxic relationship, escape and run far from the perpetrator. In Lebanon, the people have nowhere to go, those who could leave have left. Seeking help from global player friends has been a struggle, the government isn’t playing ball.

What else is left for us to do? We must be astute. The more you act defiantly with an abuser, the more aggressive and toxic they become. It is necessary for our survival to make intelligent moves, to slowly wiggle ourselves out of this and move them aside.

The desire for change has never been stronger, but people are tired of marching to no avail. It’s crucial for the movement to harness the despair people are feeling to turn the dial, but people need to see results. I want the change desperately but just like me, many others need something to believe in, something to hold on to and a glimmer of hope to keep going with the struggle.

For more Lebanon-related content, see posts related to Lebanon Chronicles.

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