Thawra anniversary

Once upon a time there was a thawra

Two years after the sweeping popular protests, the country’s colors have changed drastically, with hope giving way to disillusionment

Once upon a time there was a thawra

Rouba Ahmad Taha (center) participates in a demonstration in Baalbeck. (Credit: Picture provided by Rouba Ahmad Taha)

The “revolution fist” is still standing in Martyr’s Square in Beirut. In the city center, a few passersby walk indifferently past shops bearing the scars of looting. They stroll by the imposing concrete blocks bristling with barbed wire erected at the end of all the streets leading up the Parliament. They pass walls covered with writing: messages of anger, insults, calls to set up the gallows and other anti-establishment slogans.

At the al-Nour Square in Tripoli, in the country’s north, engines purr, motorists honk, and a young man hums “hela, hela ho” — one of the uprising’s slogans — as he walks along.

In the distance, Tripoli’s revolution fist, burnt and almost completely destroyed, fades against the background of the cityscape.

This is all that is left of the thawra in the squares that kept its flame alive for weeks in the fall of 2019.

These are the last remains of an exhilarating, short period during which hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the street to voice their anger, demand the end of a deadly status quo, reclaim the past and the future, and to dream of another Lebanon for a fleeting moment in time.

Lebanon transited from hope to disarray, from a state of tipsiness to a terrible hangover, from euphoria to disillusionment — nothing has been spared in the land of cedars over the past two years.

Just two years after the most exhilarating moments in Lebanon’s history, everything now seems like a distant memory. Once upon a time there was a thawra.

In Beirut, the first symbol of the revolution was born

The scene was one of these images that permeate our memories. It was as if we had been there right at the moment when Malak kicked him.

On the night of Oct. 17, 2019, demonstrators took to the city center after the authorities announced a tax on WhatsApp calls.

In Downtown Beirut, the convoy of then Education Minister Akram Chehayeb was blocked by protesters. One of his bodyguards, a Kalashnikov in hand, walked toward Malak, a diminutive young woman, who shouted at him, “shoot me!” before landing a kick in his crotch.

In seconds, she became the first symbol of the Lebanese uprising, although she had not wanted to come down to protest.

“I had lost my faith in the Lebanese. There were only about 10 of us protesting every time something happened in the country,” Malak recalls today.

In the days leading up to the uprising, the Lebanese watched helplessly as their country burned down in wildfires spreading from Akkar to the Chouf through the Metn.

Malak was among those who volunteered to fight the fires.

After her encounter with the minister’s bodyguard, she headed to the Ring Bridge — the site of multiple clashes between party partisans and anti-regime protesters in the initial months of protests.

“For the first time since we blocked roads, people got out of their cars to join us,” Malak recalls.

It was the beginning of great gatherings, rallies, songs that we learned by heart and repeated on a loop. It was the beginning of small victories and precious moments, before the past caught up with us on the Ring Bridge — the front line separating east and west Beirut during the 1975-90 Civil War.

Malak resembled the uprising: young and fervent but also secretly hurt and in a constant struggle with her own demons.

Behind this beautiful story, lies a much more sinister one. This young warrior, the bride of the revolution, who in fact celebrated her wedding in Downtown Beirut on Oct. 23, 2019, lived in terror.

“I felt dishonest. I gave that kick because I had nothing to lose. Because I was going through hell at home,” Malak says.

Inside her apartment in Aley, she was being beaten by her husband, who forced her to include him in all her media appearances.

“I was telling women to fight for their rights, while I was being battered at home,” Malak says.

Around 20 days later, having camped in Riad al-Solh in Beirut, she packed and left following some tension with demonstrators.

Malak returned to Aley where her ordeal resumed. There was a knock at the door, she jumped out of her skin.

“He doesn't know where I am,” she tells L’Orient-Le Jour as she holds her 10-month-old infant. “I kept silent to protect my son and my family.”

Today, Malak is separated from her husband. She is trying to rebuild her life.

“I have changed since the thawra. I broke the wall of fear,” she says.

A few days after the protests’ outbreak, several women took to the streets arm in arm to protect the rest of the demonstrators from the security forces and the “men in black shirts,” a reference to Amal and Hezbollah’s supporters.

Olfat Timani, 57, was at the front line. With her impeccable makeup and well-groomed ash blond hair, she gives the impression of a classy woman, but her discreet tattoos reveal a rebellious side.

“I was putting out tear gas canisters,” Timani says, showing a photo of her in the street, with a mask covering her face, goggles to protect her eyes from the tear gas and a kind of hiking stick in her hand.

“I never thought I would do something like that,” she says. She used to leave every demonstration with bruises all over her body. One time, she even passed out, but she would not want to stop for the “sake of the youth.”

Before Oct. 17, Timani, a French teacher, had never taken part in any demonstration.

“I am part of the war generation. We have lived it all. This time, it was unacceptable not to revolt,” she says.

She continues, “I really thought that we were going to bring down the political class after a few months.”

Timani was not the only one to believe this. The protesters can claim to have won several battles. In fact, they prevented MPs from passing an amnesty law — one that would not only pardon those wanted or arrested for petty crimes, drug crimes and some terrorism offenses but would also allow public officials accused of serious misconduct and corruption off the hook — by blocking the entrances to Parliament on Nov. 19, 2019.

They, however, returned to the squares when the “black shirts” attacked them on the Ring Bridge on the 13th day of the uprising, while the security forces stood idly by.

Perhaps for the first time in Lebanon’s history, the Lebanese came together as one nation. But the more weeks that went by, the more politics took hold and the image of unity was shattered.

The slogan “Killun yaani killun,” Arabic for “All of them means all of them,” was an advantage that has its disadvantages: it was general enough to include everyone but was ultimately too loose to garner full majority support.

The thawra began to break down into several groups: right and left wings, March 8 and March 14 camps, those who wanted to wipe out everything and start from scratch and those who wanted to return to an idealized past.

It would have taken time to overcome all these divisions and differences, to build bridges between the various groups. But time was sorely lacking.

The economic crisis was already set and overshadowed everything else. Then came the coronavirus pandemic as a final nail in the coffin of the uprising, which took its last breath one day after the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut port explosion that left more than 200 dead and 7,000 injured.

“My friend Diane died in her car in front of her children. It was they who called their father to tell him the bad news,” Timani says. She has lived all her life in Achrafieh, one of the neighborhoods devastated by the blast. Her son has since left the country.

“I am livid,” Timani says. Today, she continues her revolution in her classroom at the Lycée Français because for her, the youth still give her hope.

Two year later, most young Lebanese have more than ever one thing on their mind: packing their bags and leaving the country.

“I shouldn’t be this depressed at my age. Abroad, people have robots as pets, while I must wait in line for hours to be able to pump gasoline into my car,” Elias*, 25, says, stroking his goatee.

Among the many repercussions of the crisis, the country has been plagued with crippling fuel shortages and hyperinflation.

Two years ago, Elias was on the front lines, with a gas mask on his face and a keffiyeh scarf around his neck. The young man had left his house in Jdeideh for Martyrs’ Square, where he lived in a tent for four months.

“I used to say I live in the most expensive neighborhood in Lebanon,” he says jokingly.

Across the public spaces in Saida, Tripoli, Beirut, Nabatieh, Baalbeck and Sofar, tents were everywhere. Food was distributed, experts held outdoor conferences — a mini-community was created.

“Our lifestyle was just like the Lebanon we wanted. Despite our differences, we found common ground by voting on things,” Elias says.

While the streets began to empty as the weeks went by, especially after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down on Oct. 29, Elias decided to stay despite calls from friends telling him that “normal life had resumed.”

But on Feb. 11, 2020, protests picked up again during the vote of confidence for Hassan Diab’s newly formed government.

Thousands of protesters went to the streets and blocked the entrances to Parliament, confronting the Internal Security Forces and the army special forces who attacked demonstrators in order to make way for arriving MPs.

Yet, when a horde of Amal and Hezbollah supporters on scooters allowed an MP to pass through Zoqaq al-Blat, the security forces stood idly by.

The smoke from the tear gas canisters blinded the demonstrators who were forced to retreat as tanks were parked all along the Ring Bridge.

Elias decided to return home a few days later.

“The thawra was failing before my eyes. We were hundreds of thousands, then thousands, then hundreds, and finally only a few dozen,” he says. “We’ve all turned back to our bubble since,” he adds, referring to his friends who shared the tent with him.

The wall of fear began to crack in the Amal and Hezbollah strongholds

In Baalbeck, in the heart of the Amal and Hezbollah fiefdom, the flags of the two Shiite parties that adorn every street and corner were met by the Lebanese flag waved by demonstrators.

“At rallies, I couldn’t believe it when I saw a neighbor’s face in the crowd. Here, we are silenced, and even more so when you are Shiite,” says Rouba Ahmad Taha, 43.

Taha has a bachelor’s degree in literature and philosophy, but never worked in her field because she refused to engage with “wasta,” or string-pulling, in the education system.

Today, Taha, who sells home-made mouneh products — vinegar-pickled vegetables and other food stored in jars — spends all her income to pay the tuition fees for her two daughters aged 9 and 12.

“I can’t save anymore. The crisis frightens me. Before, we worked hard but we lived well with my husband,” she says.

Today, Taha has to drive all the way to Beirut to find heart medications for her sick mother, because these are no longer available in her area. Not only have the medicines’ prices soared, but the cost of the journey has also gone up in line with the sharp rise in fuel prices.

Despite everything, “I remain revolutionary,” says Taha, who during the uprising was attacked by Amal and Hezbollah supporters.

On Nov. 26, 2019, a horde of people waving the flags of the two Shiite parties rushed at demonstrators gathered in Baalbeck. They destroyed the tents and the loudspeakers.

“We weren’t afraid. On the contrary, it made us stronger. There were a hundred of them against 10 women and three men. The army intervened to protect us,” Taha says.

She continues to attend opposition meetings, still hoping that one day she will be able to help bring about change in the country.

Throughout the uprising, several attacks were made on demonstrators in the strongholds of the two Shiite parties.

In December, in Beirut, the two Shiite parties’ supporters set fire to the tent of writer Lokman Slim, a fierce Hezbollah opponent, who was assassinated on Feb. 4, 2020, after having been threatened on several occasions.

In Sur, in the south, two days after the protests’ outbreak, Sultan witnessed first-hand the counter-account on behalf of political parties’ supporters.

​​Young men, who had demonstrated alongside him on Oct. 17, were now attacking crowds of protesters defending their political parties.

“I never imagined that so many people in Sur shared the same ideas as me,” says the young man, recalling the uprising’s early days.

But the counterattack by the two Shiite parties’ supporters got the better of the revolution in his city. Sultan decided to head to Beirut to keep demonstrating.

He also voiced his thoughts on social media, which is not without risk.

“At first, some Hezbollah partisans considered any criticism of the party tantamount to being a traitor. Now, they think we [protesters] are contributing to the execution of certain political agendas,” Sultan says.

Hezbollah accused foreign powers of instigating the uprising.

Despite all the attacks, setbacks, the disillusionment and fatigue, Sultan wants to stay in Lebanon. He can leave, but he is “pushing back the deadline.”

The 20-year-old young man, who has “found hope,” has been engaged in politics and is now a member of the newly founded Secular Club of Sur.

A student of political science at the Lebanese University, Sultan dedicates his time to preparing for the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2022.

“Undoubtedly, the mobilization in the streets has died down, but I can still be part of the change,” he says.

Tripoli, the compass

The inhabitants of the poorest city in the country had almost lost all hope.

On Oct. 17, 2019, seized with a revolutionary fervor, al-Nour Square welcomed tens of thousands of demonstrators.

The city was soon labeled as the “bride of the revolution,” with its zealous and festive atmosphere and DJs that revved up the crowds.

The streets were transformed: the Tripolitans removed all photos of political leaders and covered a building façade with the Lebanese flag on which is inscribed: “Tripoli, the city of peace.”

A few months later, Tripoli became the city of the thawra’s martyrs.

On the night of April 27-28, 2020, clashes erupted between the security forces and protesters. On that day, the lira was trading at over LL4,000 to the dollar — more than double its official peg of LL1,507.5 to the dollar; today it trades at around LL20,000 to the dollar — and the confinement measures in mid-March dealt a hard blow to Tripolitans, most of whom depend on daily wages.

Anger was simmering in the city once again. Banks were targeted by Molotov cocktails.

Fawaz Samman, a 26-year-old mechanic, was shot dead.

In an April 29 report, Human Rights Watch found that the Lebanese Armed Forces “unjustifiably used excessive, including lethal, force against protesters in Tripoli.”

“Fawaz’s death was an eminently political cause,” Fatima Samman, his sister, says.

“He was not participating in the protests. He was shot as he was smoking a cigarette outside the store, where he was working for LL50,000 to be able to feed his 4-month-old daughter,” she adds.

While Fatima did not experience the uprising in her hometown, her political awakening in Beirut remains closely linked to the fate of Tripoli.

“As a photographer, journalist and maybe a researcher later on, I want to help my community, and all the economically fragile people like me,” the 26-year-old woman says. Having now moved back to her hometown, she is also enrolled in the first year of sociology at the Lebanese University in Tripoli.

Armed with her camera, she recorded scenes from the protests in the capital. It was in Riad al-Solh Square, where leftist discourse predominated, that she found the ideals that spoke to her.

She presents her criticisms of the Oct. 17 uprising by quoting intellectuals. “It is an intifada, not thawra,” Fatima explains, because “Sulking about the establishment is not enough.”

The uprising’s slogans were limited to negations without offering a political plan that would give any semblance of hope.

“It is high time to move past Oct. 17 and learn from our experiences,” Fatima says.

“The uprising’s first anniversary was heartbreaking and disappointing. There was still no program. We were selling illusions to people,” she adds.

Since Aug. 8, 2020, Fatima has stopped going to the street to demonstrate. “Our days are now over before they even begin. The crisis hit hardest in Tripoli. You wake up in the morning without electricity, without water, without anything,” Fatima says.

Mahmoud Kassem, also from Tripoli, remained in detention for three months during the winter of 2021, when the uprising resumed in the northern capital. Two people died in the clashes between the security forces and the protesters.

The day after a demonstration, Kassem was arrested along other 30 demonstrators on terrorism charges by the military court.

“I was devastated,” the 25-year-old cook says with a lump in his throat.

He adds, “I am not a terrorist. I am with the thawra. We only had stones against tanks. We felt that we were on our own. Only Tripoli was protesting.”

His tone is calm, but he has a heavy look on his childlike face. Born into poverty, Kassem dropped out of school at the age of 14 to work.

The socioeconomic crisis, which brought 78 percent of the population below the poverty line, came to worsen the young man’s situation.

He cannot land a job outside Tripoli where “all his wages would go into transportation costs.” He has no hope of getting married. “I can’t even afford to rent a room,” says the young man who has been engaged for over a year.

A promise of a job abroad kept him hanging on to some hope. “That’s why my anger did not explode,” he says. But the prospect of a job fell through.

Despite the blows, setbacks and disappointments, Kassem says, “If the uprising rages again, I will be the first in the streets.”

*Names have been changed at the interviewees’ request.

This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

The “revolution fist” is still standing in Martyr’s Square in Beirut. In the city center, a few passersby walk indifferently past shops bearing the scars of looting. They stroll by the imposing concrete blocks bristling with barbed wire erected at the end of all the streets leading up the Parliament. They pass walls covered with writing: messages of anger, insults, calls to set up the...