Lebanon’s phenomenology of protest (by Estella Carpi – November 2011)


Lebanon and the phenomenology of protest

25 NOVEMBRE 2011

(by Estella Carpi) Last November 5 I attended a roundtable discussion to commemorate the journalist Samir Kassir – murdered on 2nd June 2005 – as a visionary of the Arab spring, which took place at the “Foire du Livre Francophone” in Beirut. One of the speakers, Ziad Majed, Lebanese political researcher currently based in France, got a burst of applause when he denounced the use of Lebanon as a battleground to serve foreign interests. Apparently, the “war of others” imaginary is still an effective palliative for the plights of Lebanese society.

Amid the series of Arab pro-democracy uprisings that spread throughout North Africa and the Levant, Lebanon is the-odd-one-out. For in Lebanon the scene is considered “surprisingly very calm” and “becoming a sleepy backyard”, as Fatima el Issawi recently wrote on Open Democracy. The Cedars Country, however, is apparently on the Arab cutting-edge as it grew to offer a wide scenario of protests, rallies and press freedom. It is told to be a “quasi-democracy”, as many put it, where journalists like Samir Kassir and Gibran Tueni had to pay with their life for their freedom of expression.

Within such an atmosphere, Rafik al Hariri’s assassination on 14th February 2005 and the so called harb tammuz(the 2006 war that Israel sparked with Lebanon) can be considered the watershed of Lebanon’s contemporary historical landscape. Hezbollah’s renewed strength in the aftermath of the 2006 war and its subsequent increased popularity has also contributed to engendering a political dichotomy within a multi-dimensional country shattered by a 15 year civil war. To suggest an idea of fragmentation and absence of consent about a single national narrative, is to make light of the way the Lebanese rather use the word ahdas, which literally means events, when referring to the civil war.

Such political dichotomy around Hariri’s murder and Hezbollah’s victory in the 2006 war seems to have given rise to a new binary set within Lebanese society in terms of social ethics framing ways of living. The origin of such a binarism of political “forces” can be traced back to 2005, when March 8 coalition, mainly led by Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, took down the streets in support and gratitude to the Syrian power. In opposition the March 14 alliance emerged – known as Cedar Revolution – led by ex PM Saad al Hariri and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea. The latter coalition returned to the streets of Beirut last January 2011, chanting “from Beirut to Tehran, we don’t want the Pasdaran” – the 1979 Iranian revolution’s guards – when Hezbollah walked out of the Parliament seeking to have their de facto legitimization addressed. Since January 25 the March 8 Alliance has been the ruling coalition.

Lebanese society has increasingly rallied around these two internally variegated contrasting blocs in their attempt to have their rights upheld and to attain the respective concept of “justice” that their community and – particularly – family culture has left to them throughout the generations. Indian theorist Gayatri Spivak coined a term that best captures the case in point: “strategic essentialism” takes place when heterogeneous groups – in our case people aligning themselves with one of the two 2005 March coalitions – present themselves as a single bloc despite internal differences. In such settings, it becomes advantageous for them to temporarily essentialize themselves and bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve their goals. Whatever the latter are: unanimous political de facto legitimization of Hezbollah and its ethics of Resistance, liberation from Syrian interference, political secularism or (il)legitimacy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as the road to national “truth”.

Albeit the Lebanese can boast they have always had great spirit of protest and hasten to say that they represent one of the few oases of freedom with expression in the region, individuals still occupy job positions and have access to health, education and other primary services on the basis of their confessional belonging or, better yet, of their personal connections, rather than universal civil rights and personal status. In a place where urbanization did not exceptionally produce an erosion of kinship ties and traditional values, what could be defined as “Lebanese daily way of living” apparently remains untouched by protests despite its inner will for change.

As Slavoj Zizek wrote recently, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: “the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere”. Rather, the real freedom is thought to reside in the “apolitical” network of social relations, “from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in social relations”. In other words, if real political changes should burgeon in the bosom of everyday relations through the everyday dismantling of social labeling and stereotypes, speaking out for rights and protesting in a noble bid to overthrow a boorish system, or a lack of system, will not lead to any real change.

In the Lebanese “not-war-not-peace” everyday life, scholars and civil society activists have often spoken of an aesthetic approach to existence  – perhaps not particularly exceptional – that Lebanese youth adopt, as they tend to live their ordinary experiences in wild pursuit of pleasures and consumerism of the new world order. In such a frame, the active attempts to force society to acknowledge its plights seem to remain weak and unachieved, despite the strong capability that they embody.

Wide consumerism and the mentioned ethic aesthetism, however, do not bury contemporary issues that are pending addressed. Most commonly you find on a daily basis Lebanese people of any generation putting forward the issue of secularism, or the already mentioned “war of others” syndrome, as well as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s strategy to uphold foreign interests in the country, and Beirut’s reconstruction. A reconstruction that has been rebaptized by dissenters “architectural betrayal”, which was carried out by company Solidère, founded by Rafik al Hariri in the postwar. The company is currently accused of misconceiving the city’s original morphology and was also target of fatwas issued by religious parties. These issues comprise the cornerstones of the everyday Lebanese civil society’s agenda, which flaunts how it has been expressing its dissents for longer than other Arab civil societies, such as its Syrian neighbor.

Revisiting Marx’s argument and its current relevance, the strength of protests risks withering away or being expressed in vain, insofar as it is mutilated by self-seeking youth’s voyeurism or ephemeral consumerism; the strength of protest is then scattered throughout an allegedly fake and disaffected atmosphere. This begs the question of whether the phenomenological dynamics of today’s protests are in danger, perhaps more so in the western world in terms of material efficiency and transformative potential.

These public space narratives of dissent that are brought to the fore on a daily basis, involve confessionalism, Beirut’s demolishing reconstruction, the Special Tribunal’s hoax and the everyday criticisms on basic services scarcity. For instance, it is a norm to experience 3 hour daily power cut within Beirut, and an up to 18 hours cut per day outside the capital. Notwithstanding, these criticisms and protests are often advanced by people that lead a life style which heavily contribute to feeding and maintaining communal lines, who go pub crawling in places that are nowadays replacing old urban heritage spots, or who contest the tribunal and its fake nature in the bid of bringing out “real justice”, while showing reluctance to share family memories and still worshipping political party members that used to be civil war criminals; or, in a similar vein, while pretending to express socio-political disinterest and distance from the political present.

The rift between social effectiveness and phenomenological formality of protests is a looming risk faced by states that can boast years of demonstrations and rallies. Here comes the importance of the Arab spring, which, in spite of the profound pessimism of several scholars, simply unravels the Arab will of telling different stories and of proposing their own way of shaping their identity as a bottom-up phenomenon in the making. The Arab spring is a genuine lesson to better off complainers occasionally wearing the clothes of steadfast protestors, despite the widely spread pessimism of some “neo-orientalists” who, protected by their “third-worldism” and imbued with academic ubris, argue that these uprisings have been triggered by the US and its strategic interests in the region. Thereby, these opinionists end up representing Arabs as beings incapable of struggling and even longing for radical changes. Yet, some of these scholars actually wish protesters to be defeated, and express the need for acknowledging the people’s “choice” of other forms of statehood than western-style democracy. The “Arab Street” seems to prove its anger to be truly revolutionary instead, and the region is not “naturally” doomed to be governed by authoritarian regimes.

If and when macrocosmic changes will stem from and refresh their lifeblood in the microcosmic daily – though temporary – sacrifice on an individual level, the Pandora’s box of privileges, interests, impunity and lack of rule of law will be likely to be opened up. In order to guide the stream of changes to a commonly supported direction, in the abovementioned new cristallysed social dichotomy, everyone should be up to temporarily give up their own everyday balance and gradually reshape their raison d’etre in a country that is still moving, in some way or another, along communal lines. In the first instance, if this “loss” of balance were portrayed as a far-sighted national common achievement rather than as communal identity threat, a new social order built through consent and inclusiveness would be more likely to be established.

Nonetheless, assuming that the act of taking down the street is by this time void of meaning in Lebanon and in the Western world would merely serve to feed the rhetoric of the conservatives. Rather protest, beyond its formal essence, ought to be largely fueled by individual sacrifice in the private sphere on an everyday basis. Likewise, sufficient popular commitment to changing things from below is not a phenomenon that rules out the high responsibility that governments and regimes should be burdened with as to address people’s needs and, in some cases, to annihilate themselves for the sake of people.

In some realities, authentic changes can afford lie in the people’s willingness to everyday sacrifice, given that the liberation of the individual from an oppressive or shattered state doesn’t seem to be enough. The Foucaultian argument is still enlightening on this purpose: individuals should also liberate themselves from the type of individualization linked to their state – tribal and communal in the case of Lebanon. No other deus ex machina will come and rescue us.

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