How sectarian politics overshadow Lebanon’s anti-establishment protests

    As sectarian political networks have been maneuvering to undermine anti-sectarian demonstrations, the country’s political elite is likely to remain a dominant force.

    When mass protests broke out in Lebanon on October 17, many said that the Lebanese Civil War had finally, and truly, come to an end. While the war officially ended in 1990 following the 1989 signing of the Document of National Accord at Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, the country has continued to live in the long shadow of its complex past ever since. What became known as the Ta’if agreement established the framework for the next three decades of Lebanese politics. Understanding this point can help understand where the country has arrived at today.

    “Ta’if was premised on the notion of continuous economic growth and the ability to divide wealth [amongst the country’s respective communities]” Bassel Salloukh, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University and political risk analyst told TRT World. “Resources have now dried up.” Although Ta’if was supposed to eventually lead to an “election law free of sectarian restrictions”, Lebanon would never actually arrive at that point. The division of post-war political spoils on the basis of an ultimately bankrupt notion of confessional and sectarian equality would serve to entrench the logic of sectarianism throughout state institutions across the country.

    According to Salloukh, ‘Lebanon today is an ensemble of practices, a political economy of sectarianism,’ which involves “complex clientelistic networks of state institutions and private interests. The problem today is that you can no longer finance the economy [upon which the system depends],” he continued. “What we saw on October 17 was an explosion of all of these issues.” To many observers, the protest movement has seemingly managed to stay united on a core set of demands revolving around the themes of the formation of a political accountability and competent economic management, ensuring the independence of the judiciary and the pursuit of long-pending corruption cases, and electoral reforms designed to move beyond sectarian allocations.

    “There are disagreements and variations that begin when we delve deeper into each of these issues, but groups that are part of the movement realize that there’s no point in arguing over them right now” political activist and researcher at the Lebanese Centre of Policy Studies Nadim el Kak told TRT World. “The priority is getting the government to hear these broad demands first.”

    Re-stating sectarian identities

    In Lebanon, the spectre of sectarianism is an ever-present dynamic in political and social life. This is not to say that sectarian identities are primordial, as advocates of the ‘ancient hatreds’ thesis maintain, but rather that the bonds with which they have been constructed are fluid perhaps, but strong. Faced with a protest movement that has demonstrated its staying power, the political elite in Lebanon have been shaken. “The ability of the elites to maintain [their positions] has been tested” stated Salloukh. The deployment of supporters of traditional political parties to the streets, whether in an attempt to confront protesters or in an effort to ride the wave of popular resentment, has demonstrated that the emerging popular movement has caught the attention of the ruling elite.

    “What we are beginning to see is an attempt by sectarian parties to reiterate the sectarian identities of their supporters… this is dangerous. They are seeking to re-erect sectarian barricades in order to protect against the [advances] of the anti-sectarian community” said Salloukh. Adding that, “my fear is that sectarian identity will be weaponized and we will see more violence.” One of many challenges facing the protest movement is the maintenance of its broad appeal across both socio-economic and sectarian affiliations.

    According to Nadim el Kak, “the anti-sectarian movement is already appealing to many. However, those who are most vulnerable to its trappings, namely through the sectarian political economy, may be forced back into their dependencies on confessional patrons. This doesn’t mean, though, that they are blindly loyal to them… it’s just a matter of survival which is valid and understandable considering the current realities.” There have, however, already been signs of cracks in this broad appeal in the dynamics in the street.

    Commenting on the dynamics of the protests in Beirut in particular following the initial days of sustained activity in the streets, Rima Majed, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut told TRT World that “after [the initial few days], the squares developed in a way that alienated much of that class [i.e. young working-class men from Beirut]. The presence of big NGOs established parties, stages and ‘discussion spaces’ didn’t look like the riots that the protests started with. This alienated many of those [working-class] people.” “The initial protests were mainly economic and against the ruling class as rulers, not as sectarian leaders” added Majed.

    In the beginning, it seemed as though the traditional parties were losing, however, they have arguably adjusted their efforts to maintain their respective support bases. These efforts have arguably begun to bear their fruit. Ever-present memories of the 1975-1990 Civil War were brought to forefront in recent weeks following a series of clashes between supporters of Shiite Hezbollah and protesters. The most notable of these was a confrontation between young men from the mostly Christian neighbourhood of Ain al-Remmaneh, where Lebanon’s civil war was sparked, and the mostly Shiite neighbourhood of Chiyah. This was followed more recently by several successive nights of violence in downtown Beirut between protesters, counter-protesters and security forces. Discussing how traditional parties have had some measure of success in dissuading some of their traditional supporters (mostly young men) from remaining on the streets in support of anti-government protests, Majed said that “when the attacks happened, it reminded me of the first few days [of the protests in Beirut].”

    Several other incidents, mostly involving young male supporters of Hezbollah and Amal attacking protest sites while deploying deeply sectarian chants of ‘Shia! Shia’!’ and ‘We want another May 8′ – in reference to Hezbollah’s 2008 armed takeover of Beirut – are a clear indication of the efforts to restate sectarian identities. The political divisions have begun to overshadow the widespread anti-establishment sentiment, which allows the political elite to remain dominant, if not hegemonic, as the crisis in Lebanon continues. “As the economic crisis deepens, the sectarian elite will seek to maintain control at all costs” Salloukh told TRT World adding that “here is a historical trend in Lebanon of the elites trying to turn socio-economic dimensions into sectarian divisions.”

    The road ahead

    For political activists such as Nadim el Kak, this involves building on issues which are clearly of common concern to average Lebanese citizens from across the sectarian spectrum. “Cross-sectarian feelings have always existed… the most recent example being the response to the wildfires. Sectarian identities and the constructed narratives of antagonism that rulers have invested in for decades do still get instrumentalised, and are effective, but to a decreasing extent. This uprising has allowed socioeconomic background and citizenship trump sectarian identity as the defining characteristic of Lebanese people who recognise that the former identities intersect and are much more relevant than the latter.”

    For Rima Majed, any long-term solution to the issue of sectarianism in Lebanon firstly entails seeing Lebanon as having a “deeply divided politics, not a deeply divided society.” While the prospect of civil conflict should not be discounted outright, understanding that any movement towards armed conflict would be a deliberate political decision may help those in Lebanon and in the international community devise more effective approaches to the crisis.

    For Majed, it needs to be understood both in Lebanon and in the international community that “thinking and devising political systems based on this [sectarian] logic is absurd.” In all of this, one thing seems to be certain. That things are different this time. For Rima Majed, that difference lies in the dynamics of the initial protests. “This time is very different than before for many reasons. For one reason, is that the protests began with the constituencies of the [traditional] parties. This is the deep shift that has happened. This is nothing like what we have seen before.”

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