Three years since Oct. 17, Forces of Change MPs look back at what has — and hasn’t — changed

Three years since Oct. 17, Forces of Change MPs look back at what has — and hasn’t — changed

Demonstrators rally in Martyrs' Square in Beirut in November 2019. (Patrick Baz/AFP)

BEIRUT — On Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, Lebanon’s then-Telecoms Minister Mohamed Chocair decided to implement a $6 monthly tax on WhatsApp, a popular mobile app used by Lebanese people both at home and abroad.

Hundreds of people took to the streets within hours to protest the announcement. They were met with intimidation and violence by senior politicians who happened to pass through the area where the protests were ongoing, creating outrage and driving many still sitting at home to join the demonstrations.

The moment, three years ago today, felt like a turning point in Lebanese politics. Hundreds of thousands of people joined those initial protesters on the streets over the weeks and months that followed, uniting under the slogan “kellon yaani kellon,” “all of them means all of them”— a reference to the protesters’ claimed universal blame of the entire political class for the years of corruption deemed responsible for the economic crisis now clearly looming. As the lira shifted away from its officially pegged rate on the parallel market and banks imposed informal capital controls, before fully shutting their doors for two weeks, it became increasingly apparent that Lebanon was heading straight for one of the worst economic crises in its history.

In May of this year, a few months before the third anniversary of what people still refer to as the Oct. 17 thawra, or “revolution,” Lebanon had its first parliamentary election since the nationwide movement. Many people had doubted the political class would even allow the elections, suspecting that the Oct. 17 protest movement had pulled too many of the traditional political parties’ supporters away in favor of groups advocating change.

Nevertheless, the election resulted in wins for 13 candidates who had been associated with the Oct. 17 protests, and who now make up Parliament’s Forces of Change bloc – the only bloc not affiliated with any of the country’s establishment parties.

Three years since Oct. 17, and five months since the elections, where do the Forces of Change MPs stand today? L’Orient Today spoke with several of them in recent days to gauge their thoughts on the protest movement, what has changed since then and what needs to change still.

An initial ‘moment of restoring hope’

One of the 13 Forces of Change MPs is Paula Yacoubian, who represents the Beirut I district. She is the only one of the 13 who also gained a seat in the previous election in 2018, at the time positioning herself as non-sectarian and anti-establishment.

Yaacoubian resigned from Parliament in 2020 following the massive Aug. 4 port explosion. In an interview with L’Orient Today, she said that even before Oct. 17, 2019, “my work was like many other Lebanese were doing, which was to convince the Lebanese to remove themselves from the traditional parties and leaders and all the corrupt junta.”

When she ran for Parliament in 2018, her platform was that “staying with the political class is suicide,” she said. “I think after the thawra it became more obvious.”

When the protests first started in 2019, Yacoubian was part of the Tahalof Watani (“Country Coalition”) group which she ran under during the 2018 parliamentary elections. As the Oct. 17 movement became more entrenched in the weeks after the initial protests, Tahalof Watani joined other groups in setting up tents for discussion and other activities in Downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, the center of the protests.

“Tahalof Watani’s [discussion] tent was one of the first tents installed after Oct. 17,” Yacoubian said.

Mark Daou, a Forces of Change MP for Aley, also recalls the tents set up in 2019. His friends even set up one of their own, where debates and discussions were held in the weeks that followed.

“When the thawra started it was like a dream,” Daou said. “For this to happen at our age, [a movement] which nearly abolished the political system.”

“The TVs were filming something new on the streets, it was massive,” Daou added.

For Firas Hamdan, a Forces of Change MP for Marjayoun-Hasbaya, the protests were a “moment of restoring hope.”

When the protests started, he and others “decided that we can’t achieve change without going to the streets,” Hamdan said. “It was our chance to stand against the government policies of the last 30 years, which increased taxes without stopping corruption and without holding accountable those who stole amid the theft of the century,” he added, referring to the illegal controls that banks placed on most people’s deposits as the value of the Lebanese lira began its tailspin in late 2019.

The de facto capital controls exist to this day, shutting off thousands of people from their savings while reportedly allowing senior politicians and others to transfer billions of dollars in their deposits abroad.

Almost a year after the nationwide protests ran out of momentum, Hamdan was badly injured in a demonstration following the port explosion. A lead pellet reportedly fired by security forces penetrated his heart.

“I had to do a heart surgery. I survived death, and the bleeding was contained after the surgery but the pellet stayed and will stay in my heart all my life,” Hamdan said.

A leaderless movement

Though initially drawing huge crowds, the protest movement lost momentum after months without any major political wins.

Still, according to Hamdan, one of the significant changes that the protests brought was the alteration of the discussion within politics.

“Previously, there wasn’t an independent voice that represented the real needs of the people. The division was sectarian, sometimes about sharing seats and sometimes linked to outside camps,” Hamdan said. “The [thawra] was not a joke,” he added.

Indeed, just a few months after the thawra, lawyer Melhem Khalaf, a representative for the protests, was elected president of the Beirut Bar Association. In 2022, Khalaf was elected as an MP for Beirut II and joined the 13-member Forces of Change bloc.

“After this, [political leaders] started fearing the authority of the people, fearing for accountability, a public opinion was formed that some [established political] blocs were accounting for in their calculations,” according to Hamdan.

One of the dividing points that existed among protesters in 2019 was whether the movement should have leaders who would communicate people’s demands.

“There shouldn’t have been a leadership,” Hamdan said. “If leaders existed, [the authorities] would have put them in prison. At the time no one had the right to lead the protests; there were four or five main goals that were everyone’s.”

Daou has another take.

“We had no program, no organization and no leadership,” the Aley MP said. “That’s why, in November [2019], we had our first meeting as the people who later created the Taqadom party.”

The party would go on in 2022 to win two seats in Parliament, held by Daou and Chouf MP Najat Aoun.

“People rejected the idea of leadership,” added Daou, going on to contemplate that perhaps having formed a leadership may have ultimately benefited the protest movement. “If some were jailed you could have substituted them, and maybe if one of the leaders was jailed they would have become stronger like Nelson Mandella,” he said.

Leader or not, the protests at the time were met with violent repression by security forces, and oftentimes by supporters of establishment parties.

“If it wasn’t for the tight grip of the system, which used all of its tools of repression — destroying tents, arresting and beating people, ruining people’s reputations, accusing them of being affiliated with the embassies, and all the other attacks — this political class would have collapsed to the garbage,” Hamdan said.

For his part, Daou said that though “there were no immediate political changes, there were massive social changes. Hundreds of thousands quit [traditional] political parties, and that was reflected through the parliamentary elections as a few hundred thousand people voted for us.”

He added that there likely could have been many more than just 13 Forces of Change MPs if not for the 2017 electoral law, which drew the country’s electoral districts in a way that entrenched sectarian lines.

From thawra to Parliament

Now that the 13 MPs are elected representatives, they have to bring their political experience from the protest era to Parliament.

So far they have submitted draft laws that were meant to protect the Beirut port silos from collapsing, to update the law protecting Lebanon’s gold reserves, to recognize crimes against protesters, and to claim Line 29 as the delimitation of the country’s maritime border with Israel. None of these draft laws has been approved by Parliament. Parliament rejected the Line 29 law, with the final draft of a maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel instead largely following Line 23, essentially granting Lebanon less maritime territory.

Though still new, the Forces of Change MPs are often the targets of harsh criticism, including from supporters of the thawra.

A picture of Daou cutting a cake with Kataeb party members after the May elections circulated on social media, garnering criticism. And the Forces of Change MPs’ collaboration on certain issues with some traditional parties has been viewed by many people as a diversion from the thawra’s principles.

“We are not efficient yet because we don’t have the experience and the skillset, but we’re trying to build all the resources,” Daou admitted. “Secondly, we don’t have a fully defined program. We have positions on issues but we don’t have a proactive legislative agenda set in place yet, and this would help us because we would be able to work out the items you want to deal with and how to negotiate with other parliamentary members,” he added.

Daou said that a clear program is “definitely possible” but will take time.

Hamdan, on the other hand, said that just five months after the parliamentary elections, it is too early to judge the bloc’s performance. For him, however, change can only happen when they as MPs work hand-in-hand with protest movements to advocate for specific issues.

For Yacoubian, the biggest danger that the bloc faces is that “on one hand, you have one team that campaigns against us because we don’t want to join their alliance,” she said, in reference to some traditional parties that have positioned themselves as anti-establishment. Meanwhile, she added, other parties simply try to limit the Forces of Change bloc’s influence overall.

“So far I think we’ve had enough awareness to stay honest with our slogans, with the actions that we experienced and with the idea of Oct. 17, which to me was a revolution of awareness before everything else,” she said.

BEIRUT — On Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, Lebanon’s then-Telecoms Minister Mohamed Chocair decided to implement a $6 monthly tax on WhatsApp, a popular mobile app used by Lebanese people both at home and abroad. Hundreds of people took to the streets within hours to protest the announcement. They were met with intimidation and violence by senior politicians who happened to pass through the area...