Since the popular uprising began on October 17, Lebanese youth have been at the forefront of the revolt, storming the streets and turning them into places for gatherings, public debates and also parties. "There is a new language; a new way of doing politics, and this is the most important thing,” Tarek Mitri, former Minister of Culture, says.
Segments of the youth––some of them still in high school––are doing what many in Lebanon thought impossible: they are reclaiming public spaces in their country and joining together with compatriots for their generation who share similar demands, bridging the divide between sects and social classes. They have joined together to demonstrate their rage against an obsolete political system that has deprived them of their rights, the same way it deprived their parents of theirs.
"The myth that our parents have built around other communities’ social components is collapsing. We are all in the same situation,” says Elie, a 23-year-old student from Jounieh who is very active in the current demonstrations.
Like many others in his age group, Elie’s participation in the uprising is part of a real generational divide. As the engines of the protests, the youth feel that this is their opportunity to save their country before it’s too late. "There is a feeling among them that this is their last chance to restructure a rotten system, and many tell me that if this revolution fails and we go back to the confine-based system of sectarian identities, they will seriously think of immigrating,” says Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science of Saint Joseph University.
In Lebanon, 41 percent of the population is under the age of 24, according to unofficial statistics, and these youth feel like they have nothing more to lose. Every year, tens of thousands of young people leave the country to search for a better future, something they feel has been denied to them in their homeland because of the corrupt political class. The same ruling elite have used sectarianism to fuel anger between different groups, but this approach is no longer working.
According to the World Bank, 35 percent of 18-25 year olds in Lebanon are unemployed, a difficult reality in a country where public services are not only failing, but also practically non-existent to begin with. "Us students are more privileged than others, but there are so many basic rights that the Lebanese are deprived of, such as education and health. People even have to pay to go to the beach,” says Dima, a 21-year-old who lives in Tripoli.
As for Elie, he says that the middle class, which his family is part of, has become much poorer in recent years. "Before, my parents could afford to pay for our Master’s Degrees. But now, with the current economic crisis, they can no longer do so. My sisters could not continue their studies because it was becoming difficult for my family,” he says.
Even those who are able to pursue their education worry about their futures. “We do not want to neglect our education. But at the same time, once we get our diploma, what do we do with it? Where do we go next?” asks Abdelkarim Wehbe, 25, a Lebanese from South Africa who came back to Lebanon six years ago to study architecture at ALBA.
The rejection of clientelism
The rhetoric is the same everywhere. Young people are denouncing social inequalities and the pain their loved ones face to make ends meet. This is the case for 18-year-old Charbel, whose family was forced to live in Zgharta because they were unable to pay their rent in Sin el-Fil. The young man's father works hard to try to secure his children’s future, but to no avail. University fees are exorbitant. "He has to choose between me and my sister,” Charbel says. “The other option would be to make use of the patronage system (often political) in order to get into the Lebanese University.”
Now, this anxiety ridden generation is refusing to be sacrificed on the altar of clientelism. With the outbreak of the revolution, the youth are delving into political issues. For some, it is entirely new terrain. "The only political point of view that I kept on hearing throughout my life was in regards to regional politics, and more specifically to Hezbollah's resistance against Israel,” says Abdelkarim, a native of Ghassanieh, a Shiite village near Saida.
Others are heirs to long historical legacies that they are now taking by the reigns and guiding in different directions. "My father was affiliated with the Kataeb party. He fought during the civil war. I, on the other hand, was in favor of the civil society during the last university elections,” says Elie, who voted the same way during the 2018 legislative elections. “We come from a Christian conservative family. Six days after the elections, I told my father that I voted for the civil society. He got really angry, as if I had betrayed him.”
"It seems absurd to join a party that supports the presence of corrupt people and wants to preserve the confessional system,” says Marcel*, a medical student and member of the independent movement in his university department. He too could have joined one of the Christian political parties, where his uncle serves as a deputy. But he chose not to.
At just 16 years old, Charles was also brought up surrounded by politics. He knows every single party and its background and knows the history of the civil war by heart, even though he didn’t live through it. "I have always wondered why previous generations have not revolted. Nothing works properly in this country, but until now, no one has done anything about it,” he says.
The voting age in Lebanon is 21, and young people have never been a significant concern for the ruling class. Some were not old enough to vote. Others simply followed in their parents’ footsteps or were indifferent to politics. "Is it the acceleration of recent events that explains this profound transformation in today's youth? Or were they already in an advanced process of mutation, but were not loud enough because they did not have the chance to speak out?” asks Mitri.
In the streets and squares of downtown Beirut, young people are organizing themselves, putting real issues on the table and debating the future of their country. And they have been doing so in an impressively mature way.
The heaviness of past memories
Some of these students have been skipping school and university to join the ranks of the protesters, sometimes against their family’s will. "Some parents may be apprehensive because of their traditional mentality of belonging to a certain political party. But sometimes it is necessary to go against the opinion of one’s close circle in order to be able to move forward,” says Abdelkarim, who was encouraged by his father to take part in the demonstrations in Saida.
"The words of these young people are words of responsible citizens. They are linked to the affirmation of an individual self that wants to be set free from the traditional links of community, places of origin and family. These youths are emerging as individuals, who want to break free of this ‘tribal mentality,’” says Mitri. “This liberation from the family sphere, and from the sectarian discourse, is largely explained by the fact that these young people did not experience the war.”
“The fact that this generation was not victimized by the brainwashing that occurred during the war years for the sake of protecting the religious minorities, makes them particularly open to change, and it carries with it new messages,” adds Bitar.
The emergence of a secular state is not necessarily the main demand of today's youth. But youth are refusing to be held hostage by the logic of sectarian identities. "Since childhood, the religious people have been teaching us to hate each other,” says Ihab Abu Kheir, a Druze from Kfarhim in the Shouf.
Abu Kheir’s friend, Wael, confirms this fact, pointing to the hate messages circulated on WhatsApp by members of the Prograssive Socialist Party (to which both friends belong). In the messages, the authors accuse other political parties of sowing discord. "Friends from a Shiite party were receiving almost identical messages on their group. They only want to turn us against each other. But we are fed up of hearing about the civil war. That was the past, and now we need new blood,” Abu Kheir says.
At the demonstrations across the country, youth have been intermingling, exchanging ideas, debating, singing and dancing together. "It's obvious that people who belong to the same community are very much alike. They speak the same language. They are almost formatted. But the young individuals who are demonstrating today are not," says Mitri.
On the streets of Beirut, students from Saint-Joseph University (an elite Catholic school) mingle with young people from other social backgrounds. "It is something very comforting. They have every reason to be proud because they too have broken down all the psychological barriers, whether community-based ones or factional,” says Bitar.
The revolution allowed the coming together of a whole generation. "Thanks to this revolt, I traveled across the country: to Tripoli, Jal-el-Dib, Zouk, Beirut,” Elie says.
For her part, Dima would never have imagined that Shiites from the south would be joining the protesters of Tripoli and vice versa. "I really think that my generation is closing the chapter of the civil war,” she says.
“For the first time in my life, I do not feel like leaving Lebanon. I can see a tiny ray of hope, but at least it is there,” concludes Abdelkarim.
* The first names have been changed at the request of the interested parties.
(This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 9th of November)
Their names are Elie *, Abdelkarim, Charbel and Dima. They are from Tripoli, Beirut, Jounieh and Saida. All of them are between 16 and 25 years old, and they are united in their quest for the same goal: a Lebanon free of the obstacles that divide them––obstacles that have been reinforced for the past three decades by the memory of the civil war. Since the popular uprising began on October...