The Lebanese revolution …and the awakening of the left

Amid the economic and social crises, different leftist movements are converging but differences remain.

Demonstrators in Hamra, the 22nd of February. Photo João Sousa

In front of BLOM Bank headquarters, at the upscale district of Verdun in Beirut, hundreds of people gathered around 2 P.M on Saturday, February 22. The site was the starting point of a weekly march aimed at denouncing both, the political class and the banks, seen by protestors as one and the same.

Donning black or red keffiyehs, around the shoulders or over the head, the protestors denounced the economic and financial system, and raised slogans against the banks. They chanted songs of Sheikh Imam, the famous Egyptian singer who conveyed through his music, the daily sufferings of the underclass. His songs have been strongly present in the popular uprisings of the region, almost 25 years after his death.

With the sickle and hammer emblem printed on his cap, a man in khaki lead the protestors. “The country is for workers, down with the capitalist power," proclaimed the crowd in a mixture of fury and enthusiasm as the rain began to fall, adding to the gloomy mood.

Such a scene was hard to imagine just a few months ago. In a country where economic liberalism is enshrined in the constitution and where the banking sector and entrepreneurial culture have long been praised, the left has struggled to assert itself, despite conditions favorable to its development. During the civil war, the right-left divide was more linked to matters of regional policy and national identity than to socio-economic differences. If it had aroused a certain enthusiasm at one time, the left is today absent from the Lebanese political game, as the parties claiming to be leftist have largely adhered to the liberal and confessional model.

The October 17 revolution, however, may change the status quo and trigger its (left) awakening. Anger against the ruling class, demands to end sectarianism and denouncing social injustices are all themes that echo with this political trend, even if it does not hold monopoly over them.

The uprising, which unites part of the bourgeoisie and those left behind by clientelism, is not, strickly speaking, a leftist movement, but the left plays a significant role in it. "Those who belong to the left in the strictest sense, meaning those who define themselves as such, certainly form only a minority, but a numerically heavy minority in the context of the uprising," said Wissam Saade, professor of history and political science at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. "In addition, they have the particularity of being present everywhere… from north to south and to the Bekaa," he noted.

For a moment, downtown Beirut was turned into a political workshop from which sprung up slogans with a strong Marxist tone. In this Mecca of Hariri- style businesses, a symbol of Lebanese post-war capitalism dominated by luxury boutiques, banks, overpriced restaurants and nightclubs, inaccessible to the majority of the population, emerged a discourse focusing on class struggle and anti-capitalism. "Hearing such slogans in the middle of Riad el-Solh Street ... it was incredible," recalled Nina, a 26-year-old activist.

The left seems to be benefiting from a context where, for the first time in Lebanon’s history, socio-economic considerations are at least as important as strategic issues, in a country where inequality is the norm.

"Automatically, when a society becomes poorer, when more are in contact with poverty, it is completely normal that slogans or ideas known to be leftist surface," explained Maan el-Amine, the official in charge of political relations within "Mouwatinoun wa mouwatinat fi dawla" (Citizens in a State), the movement led by (former minister) Charbel Nahas. "Before, when we talked about the importance of public interest, no one listened. People have reacted when the crisis hit their wallets, "said Nahla Chahal, professor of political sociology and editor-in-chief of as-Safir al-Arabi.

Many activists feel that they are being finally heard, and more people are attracted to their ideas but without talking about joining their ranks. "Terms that used to scare the right conservative circles are today mainstreamed such as "social justice, secularism - concepts that were previously linked to the extreme left," said Pierre el-Khoury, political activist and member of “An Haqaq dafe’ “ (fight for your rights) group in Jal el-Dib. Mayssa, an activist and an architecture student, recalled that gatherings in recent years barely attracted more than 200 people at the Lebanese University (UL) campus in Hadath, where the Amal-Hezbollah Shiite duo exerts a strong influence. "During the revolution, one of our campus protests in November brought together between 1,000 and 1,500 people, we cried tears of joy," she said.

Young, not so young, communists, anarchists or reformists, they all proclaim they are from the left, even if they do not belong to the same left. But despite all their differences, a double battle unites them: that of social justice and the fight against sectarianism. "Being anti-sectarian or pro-secular does not make you a leftist, but to be a leftist in Lebanon, you cannot be tolerant of sectarianism," said Nizar Hassan, co-founder of the “Li Haqqi” movement.

"We even hear right-wingers quoting Marx"

In the galaxy of the Lebanese left, the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) has always reigned. With a long history and roots throughout the country, the LCP is at the forefront of the protest movement, especially in the southern region where its influence is significant. To many observers, the LCP is even the main initiator of the uprising in this region which has long been under the control of the Shiite duo. "Many young people are joining the Lebanese Communist Party today, including ex-Hezbollah supporters, left-wing independents, neutral protestors, Islamists, and even right-wing youths who have changed sides," said Jana Nakhal, member of the LCP Central Committee.

Interestingly, the LCP now has to deal with new political movements born in the wake of the waste crisis in 2015 and the legislative elections of 2018, many of which claim a less hierarchical structure, like “Li Haqqi”. Faced with the government's failure to manage, among other things, the garbage crisis in 2015, thousands of people had taken to the streets of the capital with slogans denouncing corrupt politicians and demanding the fall of the ruling regime. The protests allowed the emergence of movements from civil society, for the first time since the 1989 Taif Accord. Presenting themselves as an alternative to the traditional sectarian parties, these movements had a hard time imposing themselves on the political scene; achieving limited success during the 2016 municipal elections and then in the 2018 legislative elections.

A few years later, a similar, if not identical, discourse surfaced again. But unlike the “civil society” discourse used to oppose the traditional parties in power, leftist activists hold a theoretical and ideological background. "The revolution helped us and allowed us to express our affiliation to the left," said Dany Rachid, president of the AUB Secular Club. "It was spontaneous. … People were talking about protecting the marginalized and the weakest from the repercussions of the economic crisis and not to have to pay the price.”

Karl Marx is gaining popularity among the newcomers. Marx, who viewed religion as "the opium of the people" and that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” is gaining acclaim among certain young people who find in Marxism a tool to better decipher their world. "Marxist ideology gives you answers, clarifies the situation instead of just throwing ideas at random," said Nina, who started to be interested in politics in 2015. Referring to the failure of the Lebanese system, Jana Nakhal said: “We even hear right-wingers quoting Marx.”

Although they sometimes use same references and slogans, there is a distinction between the old and the new left. "There is a break between the old left, which maintains that it is possible to make a change using the same old methods, and the new generation," said Mayssa, a 25-year-old activist . "A 65-year-old leftist and a young person do not see things the same way, even though they are witnessing identical events." Initiatives are multiplying to advance the political debate. They include conferences organized in revolutionary tents across the country, sit-ins, protests against banks as well as use of social networks and WhatsApp groups. The modes of action have evolved, so has the discourse. "What is interesting about the younger left is that it is more inclusive of women and the LGBTQ community," said Manar Shourbaji, president of the cultural committee at the AUB Secular Club.

The left narrative and the Khomeynist discourse

The main difference between the two generations, however, lies in the fact that regional considerations are no more an important factor. Today, one should not be necessarily a Nasserist, Pan-Arabist or internationalist to join this trend. Notably, the Marxist ideology, in its moments of glory and its less rosy later days in Lebanon and the region, had echoed regional issues. "In general, in the Arab countries, the left was made up of various communist parties and movements born from Arab nationalism which had to marxize in the 1960s," recalled Wissam Saade.

At the time, a plethora of student movements took the Lebanese capital by storm, following the defeat of Arab forces by Israel during the 1967 war and the rise of the Palestinian armed movement, which were combined with a liberalization of mores. A large part of the youths were enthusiastic about Arab nationalism and stood against sectarianism, synonymous with the past. The defeat of the regimes claiming Arab nationalism in the war with Israel, however, pushed a number of leftists to move closer to more radical leftist groups.

During the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war, the leftist movements sided with the Palestinians in an alliance that lasted until the mid-1980s, when Lebanese Shiites emerged as a political power in Lebanon, gradually gaining monopoly over resistance against Israel, marginalizing the leftist parties in the southern region which was occupied by the Israeli army until 2000. “Since the 1980s, there has been some competitiveness, at least at the moral and symbolic level, between the different ways of resisting the Israeli occupation; thus between the left’s narrative and the Islamist Khomeynist discourse,” said Wissam Saade.

"After the decline of the left, the latter was increasingly intimidated by Hezbollah," he added. Such an intimidation led to divisions within the leftist camp to the point that in March 2005, the Democratic Left movement established a few months earlier chose to join the “March 14 Alliance” demanding the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon, while the other, “March 8 Alliance”, gave priority to the fight against Israel.

Resisting Israel has remained one of the main, if not the main, identity markers of the Lebanese left over the years. "The left in all its diversity is attached to the concept of resistance to Israel, to the rejection of this entity, and to the symbol of the legitimate Palestinian cause," said Siham Antoun, a former independent candidate to the 2018 legislative elections representing the Baalbeck-Hermel district.

"It is not an insult to be a leftist"

Amid the popular uprising, Hezbollah remains a dividing issue among leftist militants. Since Hezbollah supporters are mainly poor and middle class Shiites, a large part of the left has long spared Hezbollah from its critic. “Many people have changed their minds [about Hezbollah] after October 17. Many took clear stand against everything that Hezbollah represents and consider that the party has been exposed as part of the sectarian power and as partner in all evils,” said Siham Antoun.

This is the case of Saher, a young man in his twenties from Akkar, who is a supporter of the left but doesn’t belong to any particular party. "I have a deep respect to Hezbollah because I have always supported the Palestinian cause since my college days," he said. "However, as this party gave in to politics, I began to lose the empathy I had for it. This was exacerbated by its engagement in Syria which, I believe, caused it to lose many supporters.”. The young researcher now criticizes Hezbollah for abandoning the original ideals of the resistance and for being fully implicated in the country’s political corruption. "I think Hezbollah is different from what it used to be. It’s now just a political party playing the dirty Lebanese political game.”

The uprising has, to some extent, led to a convergence of the positions of the many leftist movements. The activists, who were divided over the issue of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005, are now in agreement: rejecting the political, economic and financial system. Even the LCP seems to be distancing itself from Hezbollah. "The LCP has come a long way during the last three years. In all of the south Lebanon region, which party had nominated independent candidates to run against the Shiite duo in the elections? Who did this in the Bekaa and in the south? Only the LCP did that,” said Siham Antoun.

Despite everything, Hezbollah remains a sensitive subject. "There are still leftist activists who will not even try to draw in Hezbollah," said Nizar Hassan. "Our approach at Li Haqqi is to draw away the popular bases of the parties from their elites, their businessmen, their deputies, and their ministers.”

Can the Left overcome its divisions? "In my opinion, it is impossible for the leftists today in Lebanon to set up a program enabling them to join forces. Several attempts were made, in particular between the LCP and Mouwatinoun, but for the moment, they failed to come up with a unified program,” said Siham Antoun. All the leftist movements and parties nevertheless signed a joint press release on February 1 entitled "We will not pay the price for your failure", highlighting their agreement over socio-economic issues.

"I don't call what is going on a revolution, but an uprising. This is not to belittle it, but to be exact and not to create illusions or disillusions,” said Nahla Chahal. On the “recurring question of whether the left is dead”, she added: “I start by saying that its ideas are alive and present, but we must first define what the left is and what it wants.”

Although economic expert and former minister Charbel Nahas is sometimes portrayed by the media as the figurehead of the left today, his party does not claim such status. "It is not an insult to be called a leftist. But the divide today in Lebanon is not a left / right divide. It is the confrontation between on one hand the non-state situation in which we have been living for a long time, that is the coalition of sectarian leaders and billionaires, and the political choice to build a real, effective state, which can only be a civil state, on the other,” said Maan el-Amine.

The left has modernized its discourse and widened the spectrum of its struggle. But for some, it remains trapped in a jargon inaccessible to the people it claims to defend. "The problem with the left is that it approaches the street in elitist terms, however, everyday people are not ideological," said Bilal, an activist from Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon.

Amid the uprising, some groups have emerged, reflecting a renewal of thought by somewhat moving away without completely cutting themselves off from the traditional ideological heritage. "Despite the emergence within the left of a democratic socialist ecologist and feminist movement, there are also the different ghosts of the past, the nostalgia for the different lefts of the twentieth century. It is not specific to Lebanon, but this exists everywhere in the world, "said Wissam Saade.

Would the left then have a future in Lebanon? To become more than a minority in the country of the Cedars, it will have to resist against the traditional parties, the return to "assabiyas" and its own divisions. It will need a whole revolution.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 3rd of March)

In front of BLOM Bank headquarters, at the upscale district of Verdun in Beirut, hundreds of people gathered around 2 P.M on Saturday, February 22. The site was the starting point of a weekly march aimed at denouncing both, the political class and the banks, seen by protestors as one and the same. Donning black or red keffiyehs, around the shoulders or over the head, the protestors denounced the...