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Why the Oct. 17 uprising failed to generate political leadership — and how it might yet succeed

Why the Oct. 17 uprising failed to generate political leadership — and how it might yet succeed

Members of civil society work to clear debris after the devastating Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion. The street art calls for executing politicians, depicting one being hanged. (AFP/Patrick Baz)

Almost a year after resigning under the pressure of the Oct. 17 uprising, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his willingness to form the next government during a television interview last week.

The return of Hariri to the heart of the Lebanese political and sectarian regime would deal a bitter blow to everyone who had bet on the collapse of the system in the fervor of the protests that broke out last fall.

But how can we explain this painful return to square one while the country continues to drown — not to mention the unexpected disaster of the Aug. 4 explosion, which was the result of criminal negligence and rampant political corruption among the political and sectarian elites?

To begin with, instead of fueling the wave of protests against the decaying system, the explosion at the Beirut port — which killed at least 202 people, wounded 6,500 others and ravaged part of the capital — has left the anti-establishment forces running out of steam.

Meanwhile, alternative political groups have been busy rebuilding the affected areas and delivering aid to people who were left to fend for themselves amid high inflation and the collapse of public services. These groups have become less present on the political scene as they return to the mission of civil society — a background many of them hail from.

Add to this the fact that various opposition groups within Parliament have renounced their prerogatives, preferring to sacrifice the tools of the legislative power for the sake of an emotional, populist approach. But the resignation of the Kataeb MPs, whose party has somehow managed to ride the crest of the protest wave, and that of Paula Yacoubian, who was the only member of “civil society” to have snatched a victory in the 2018 elections, have only allowed the regime to tighten its grip on the core of political institutions.

The intransigence of the political system

A year after the “Oct. 17 revolution,” which allowed optimistic youth to break through the glass ceiling imposed by the sectarian and patriarchal system, it is clear that the outcome remains meager.

Three factors can be put forward to try to understand this missed opportunity despite the widespread anger that suggested everything was becoming possible for a country in search of a better future.

First of all, the firm power of this political regime should not be underestimated. The fall of Hariri’s government on Oct. 29, 2019, did not pave the way for the overthrow of the entire political establishment. The latter ended up keeping its grip on the levers of powers through its various political formulations, and support drawn from its regional and international sponsors.

The government of caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, falsely portrayed as technocratic and currently in charge of day-to-day affairs, also failed to escape the pressure of the political “barons,” who continue to project the reality of their power.

It was these barons specifically that French President Emmanuel Macron was keen on bringing together during his two visits to Beirut in the unprecedented context of “saving” a Lebanon “at risk of disappearing,” as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put it.

Although the French initiative crashed into the wall of the current political regime, Macron had to admit that these political actors “are elected,” restoring some of their legitimacy. This came to the great displeasure of the supporters of the Oct. 17 uprising, whose motto was the rejection of the entire political class, under the slogan “All of them means of all of them.”

The intransigence of the regime was also reflected in its brutal crackdown on protesters. The Lebanese Army resorted to excessive force, maiming many protesters — and it did so with impunity. When groups of supporters of the main Shiite parties began to attack demonstrators and burn their tents, the army did little to intervene. The acts of torture perpetrated by security services against several activists were met with inaction from the judiciary.

Bad luck also played a hand, with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdown that kept people stuck at home. Taking to the streets was no longer an option in light of the preventive measures to curb the virus. In June, protesters tried to pick up where they left off, but to little success.

The second wave of the pandemic, which is currently hitting the country, and the sharp rise in the number of daily cases, is likely to prevent people from going to the street en masse again, despite some shy gatherings here and there by certain groups.

As long as the pandemic threat is still out there, demonstrators will not be able to rely on the strategic power of the street. This plays in favor of the political class, which is stalling for time to patch up the holes caused by the impact of Oct. 17.

Finally, a social factor was also at play, which is the fact that many hard-line partisans continued to support their own political leaders. A tragedy as appalling as the Beirut blast, which exposed the ruling elite’s lack of empathy and moral bankruptcy, did not budge these partisans away from their loyalty to their “zuama.” On the contrary, social tensions have only increased, with each group of partisans defending their leaders, sparking security concerns and causing many disillusioned youth to think of leaving the country for good.

The generational divide, though not prominent, continues to stand in the way of reformist movements. In an Oct. 1 article published in L’Orient-Le Jour, a disheartened young man said that his parents were in a hurry to put him on a plane out of the country to secure his future. Yet “they still support certain political parties,” he said.

What’s more, the existential fears of the “minorities,” the historical components of a century-old Lebanon, continue to prevail over their other considerations as citizens, serving as an unstoppable Trojan horse that has only strengthened the stranglehold of the ruling elite on the country.

This social factor also made it more challenging for sectarian Lebanese to rally behind alternative political groups, which in turn failed to garner the popular support that would allow them to tip the political balance in their favor.

Impossible unity

On top of these factors are the added blunders of these opposition groups, which have failed to capitalize on the blows the Oct. 17 uprising dealt to the regime. Because of the disappointing results of the May 2018 elections, prominent members of the protest movement were quick to shun any notion of “representing” the people in the streets, lest they be accused of political expediency. The foundation of modern political systems, based precisely on the very idea of representation, was quickly forgotten. By repeating over and over again that they did not represent the protesters, the reformist leaders quickly lost valuable political capital.

Instead, they opted for another plan focused on uniting the different movements on the ground — a strategy that proved futile in the 2018 legislative elections. Obsessed with searching for an impossible “unity,” these alternative political groups have failed to channel their energies to break through the cracks in the political establishment.

The interpretation of the Taif Accords, the defense strategy (along with the issue of Hezbollah’s arms), foreign policy, as well as national economic directives are all stumbling blocks that cannot be overcome without risking undermining the different political identities involved.

Yet the rich diversity of these movements, which comes with the very nature of a democracy, should not pose a problem to be overcome. Instead, these diverse groups should fully engage — without compromise — within their respective scopes of reach, to sustain a political consolidation of the local social fabric that resulted from the “revolution.”

One year after Oct. 17, the Lebanese state remains under the control of profiteering Machiavellian elites, defending their political and financial interests through a power-sharing system that seeks to sustain itself at all costs.

But if the energy and spirit of the Oct. 17 uprising remain intact, it can still make a breakthrough via new channels of expression that would claim representation at the political level and successfully create effective and lasting checks and balances to counter the political establishment.


Almost a year after resigning under the pressure of the Oct. 17 uprising, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his willingness to form the next government during a television interview last week.

The return of Hariri to the heart of the Lebanese political and sectarian regime would deal a bitter blow to everyone who had bet on the collapse of the system in the fervor of the...