A Protest Journal

Reflections from the street – October/November 2019

Lebanon mirrors a historic regional rebellion

by Rami G. Khouri, Senior public policy fellow, Issam Fares Institute; director of the Anthony Shadid Archives research project; journalist in residence, Media Studies Program November 8, 2019

The spontaneous citizen uprising throughout the country against the Lebanese government since mid-October has sparked a great confrontation. The unstoppable force of an enraged citizenry that has long been abused and neglected by its own government now challenges a power elite that refuses to reform its corrupt ways, despite repeated demands from the citizens.

The first week of the uprising—or the “revolution,” as protesters call it—was telling, because after the government ordered state institutions, schools and universities, and private businesses to return to normal activities, most of the protesters stayed in the streets, and the protests escalated to new areas around the country. Protesters refused to budge in their belief that structural changes must be implemented to shatter the sectarian power-sharing oligarchy that has ruled Lebanon—misruled it, they say—for many decades.

The government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri reacted to the unprecedented protests against it by agreeing to undertake a dozen major reforms that it feels respond to the demands of the citizenry. These include key changes in eliminating deficit budgeting, reducing the state debt, halving ministerial and parliamentary salaries, reducing taxes on citizens and raising them on corporations and banks, assisting society’s most needy, rehabilitating the decrepit electricity sector, retrieving billions of dollars in the bank accounts of corrupt officials and their cronies, and other measures.

Despite the unprecedented scope and gravity of these measures, most of the individuals and groups demonstrating in the streets refused to go back to business as usual. Hariri resigned a few days later, perhaps recognizing that the citizenry—or at least its members on the streets—no longer trusts the prime minister or the entire power elite that he represents to make the deep structural reforms that are needed to save the country from economic and environmental collapse. The protesters would seem to have history on their side, given that Lebanese governments have often promised but never delivered the structural reforms that would boost the economy and improve the delivery of essential services. Lebanon’s poor governance legacy has resulted in disastrous conditions for a majority of families that must spend much of their limited incomes to compensate for the dilapidated state social services, including water, electricity, education, transport, and healthcare.

The citizenry faces a seemingly invincible force in the oligarchic power elite—comprising the country’s 18 formally recognized confessional groups—that allocates the state’s budget, ministerial positions, and senior posts in a way that serves their narrow interests rather than the public’s rights and needs. This has been succinctly captured by Christiana Parreira in a new analysis from the respected Synaps research and analysis network in Lebanon: “Since gaining independence in 1943, the Lebanese state has existed in astonishingly minimalist form, failing to deliver satisfactory levels of social welfare and public services. The country ranks 113th out of 137 in terms of infrastructural quality, according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Electricity provision stands as the fourth worst in the world as per the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. Public schools and hospitals are avoided by all Lebanese who can afford to do so and many who cannot. Lebanon’s political class thus presides over a system serving little more than its own interests.”1

As has happened in the past during other bouts of political unrest, AUB finds its students, staff, and faculty deeply involved in the quest for a more stable, equitable, and prosperous Lebanon. Members of the AUB community have participated in peaceful street marches, manned medical aid tents in central Beirut, offered online classes for students who could not come to campus, held public lectures on topics relevant to the desired political changes, and proposed an assortment of remedies for the country’s shattered economy.

“We shall not be deterred from speaking up for the values of this university,” President Fadlo Khuri said, right after issuing an unprecedented joint statement with Salim Daccache, Rector of St. Joseph University. They described the protests as “an authentic national outcry, the largest unifying national protest movement since 1943, an outcry that profoundly expresses the sufferings and needs of our people and their immense desire to rebuild our country on new foundations.”

The breadth, depth, and intensity of the protests across the entire country are unprecedented across all religious, political, and age groups. Never before has Lebanon witnessed such a universal and national expression of shared anger among what seems to be a majority of its citizens. An interesting phenomenon is that demonstrators in some regions traditionally run by single political-sectarian groups are expressing solidarity with their fellow citizens in other areas run by groups opposed to them. Equally novel and significant are public protests in areas where groups like Hezbollah and Amal are strong, such as the eastern Beqaa or cities in the south. Even more unusual—and telling of the intensity of citizens’ anger and humiliation at finding themselves both poor and helpless due to decades of being mistreated by their leaders—many protests include direct, often brutally offensive slogans chanted in public against powerful political leaders.

All this suggests that Lebanon’s citizens may be at a historic turning point. The pauperization and marginalization of a majority of Lebanese—as is the case across the Arab region—is clearly a major reason for the intensity of the current rebellion in Lebanon. Lydia Assouad, a leading scholar of inequality in the Middle East, notes: “The richest 0.1 percent of the population—around 3,000 individuals, among them a large part of the political class—earns 10 percent of total national income, which is what the bottom 50 percent of the population earns. This gap is probably a main driver of the unity observed in the streets…” 2

The protesters have focused their immediate demands on a series of steps that would revamp the entire governance system and replace the existing ruling elite. They envisage an independently monitored transitional salvation government of technocrats, leading to new parliamentary elections on a non-sectarian basis, the election of a new president, and vastly revamped state policies that respect citizen rights and their demand for social justice.

Concurrent to the Lebanon protests are demonstrations in Jordan, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco, and other Arab lands, revealing pan-Arab structural weaknesses in governance. A recent dramatic moment reflecting the sentiment of these demonstrations occurred during a soccer match in Morocco when the crowd chanted an anti-corruption song entitled “This is a Land of Humiliation.” This speaks to a bitter situation, where corrupt and uncaring government officials make empty promises and build expensive houses, while their desperate citizens are forced to seek out a migrants’ boat to a new life abroad. Hundreds of millions of Arabs appear to feel in their bones the “humiliation” referenced in the Moroccan football fans’ protest chant, which haunts a vast majority of them. The chant’s specific mention of economic and employment distress, state corruption, uncaring officials, and the desire to emigrate all resonate widely with citizens across the region. The collective feeling of “humiliation” best captures how government disdain for citizens’ rights and needs generates daily humiliations of degradation and helplessness among ordinary men and women, which is the sentiment that most Lebanese protesters express.

New research by UN agencies and international NGOs shows that poverty in the Arab region is as much as four times higher than previously assumed, with some 67 percent of Arabs in the categories of “poor” or “vulnerable.” The Arab Barometer project, which surveys the entire region every few years, recently released the results of its 2018–19 fieldwork, which showed that about one in every three citizens across the Arab region is considering leaving to live abroad, a trend that is increasing steadily.

The first week of the uprising—or the “revolution,” as protesters call it—was telling, because after the government ordered state institutions, schools and universities, and private businesses to return to normal activities, most of the protesters stayed in the streets, and the protests escalated to new areas around the country. Protesters refused to budge in their belief that structural changes must be implemented to shatter the sectarian power-sharing oligarchy that has ruled Lebanon—misruled it, they say—for many decades.

The first week of the uprising—or the “revolution,” as protesters call it—was telling, because after the government ordered state institutions, schools and universities, and private businesses to return to normal activities, most of the protesters stayed in the streets, and the protests escalated to new areas around the country. Protesters refused to budge in their belief that structural changes must be implemented to shatter the sectarian power-sharing oligarchy that has ruled Lebanon—misruled it, they say—for many decades.

  1. Christiana Parreira, “The Art of Not Governing,” Synaps, October 23, 2019.
  2. Lydia Assouad, “Mass Protests Have Taken Place in Lebanon,” Diwan, October 21, 2019, carnegie-mec.org/diwan/80133?lang =en.

Student voices

bby Rita Bassil (BA, philosophy ’14, MA, public administration ’18) Program manager, Center for Arts and Humanities

As generations young and old came together for a common cause at the end of October, students across Lebanon proved to be a powerful component of the uprising. Many students saw the protests as a singular opportunity to join the fight for a future in which they can build their lives in their home country instead of leaving behind family and friends in order to find gainful employment. Grounded in the bedrock values of an AUB education—civic engagement, freedom of expression, tolerance of difference, and simply standing up for what you believe, students participated in large numbers in peaceful demonstrations and marches across Lebanon. The AUB faculty and administration supported their peaceful protests and their well-organized gatherings on campus, and recognized their right to join protests off-campus. When the administration sought to accommodate students who had missed classes, those students insisted that resuming their studies did not mean that they intended to abandon their activism.

I sought out AUB students for their impressions of this remarkable moment in Lebanon’s history. I wanted to get the student perspective on what they thought were the causes of the “revolution” and what changes they hope to see materialize.

What is clear to me as I reflect on these potentially life-altering protests is that the youth of Lebanon are a powerful political constituency, more connected through technology and better educated through financial aid opportunity. They deserve a better future, and they know it.

Reclaiming the city through art

by Sari Mounzer (BA, graphic design ’05), contributing writer

Popular uprisings such as the people’s protest movement, or thawra, that began in Lebanon on October 17, can be seen as a complex negotiation of space and power, a living example of the concept of “My house, my rules.” With a substantial segment of Lebanon’s population united in its demand for a massive change in the status quo, perhaps the most pressing question is, “How do you overthrow a repressive regime in a peaceful manner?” The thawra has utilized the time-honored vehicle of art to spread its message without inciting violence. Almost overnight, the glossy facades of Martyr’s Square and the neighboring Riad El Solh became the people’s canvas. The invisible hand of law that had preserved the prestige of these areas—a prestige that was maintained by an inaccessibility of sorts—was met with bold defiance.

Street artists usually reserve their interventions for old, dilapidated spaces that have a minimal bearing on the overall aesthetic of a neighborhood. It is one thing to put pen to paper or brush to canvas, but something else entirely to apply spray paint to public property. To intervene on public property, or even public space, is seen as a gesture of entitlement. Between the interventions of protesters who merely want to vent, notable local talents, and those who want to experiment with their work, artworks have claimed the most unlikely of spaces. Interventions have been made on directional street signs, on well-maintained walls adjacent to main roads, on the ever-so-glossy facades that line downtown Beirut, and the iconic Martyrs’ Monument. Even the barbed wire installed as a protective measure by security forces just outside of the Parliament in Riad El Solh has invited artistic intervention.

The voices of the thawra are many and varied. It seems every individual has their own frustrations and vision for how things ought to be, and this is reflected in each artistic statement. Collectively, these interventions are so pronounced that they silently scream, “This city is ours!”

The Revolution is a Woman

by Sally Abou Melhem, contributing writer

The 2019 Lebanese uprising has signaled a major social transformation with its inclusion of segments of Lebanese society that have been either dormant or only lightly involved in the country’s public and political life. Since October 17, women, children, individuals with disabilities, the country’s global diaspora, and other marginalized groups of Lebanese citizens have made significant contributions to the uprising’s historical impact.

The popular demonstrations have seen women take the lead on the front lines, even using their bodies to prevent clashes between security forces and male protesters. Women have featured prominently in public conversations, debates, and educational sessions aimed at understanding and shaping the uprising. They have been seen carrying a child with one arm and holding a Lebanese flag with the other. They have encouraged their children to participate, and have organized street cleanups and recycling groups. Women’s artwork has spread across the streets and social media, communicating messages that have defined the uprising, including the saying “al thawra untha,” meaning, “The revolution is a woman.”

Dr. Brigitte Khoury, associate professor in AUB’s Psychiatry Department and president-elect of the international division of the American Psychological Association, observed that women are not only influencing the uprising, they are being influenced by it. The protests have given women a platform to voice concerns that are unique to their gender, and have allowed them to push for much needed change.

As an example of how women’s leadership and public participation has altered the nature of the Lebanese uprising, consider Dr. Brigitte Khoury’s Psychological First Aid Tent, which she was inspired to build after seeing a medical tent in downtown Beirut. It provides mental health support, a much-neglected component of overall health and wellbeing. Dr. Khoury’s call for volunteers has yielded a highly trained staff of professionals from several universities and from within the community. The tent provides a safe space for walk-ins to decompress, vent, and receive generalized therapeutic counseling (not specific treatment or in-depth work), and to join in group sessions on self-care during the uprising. Children are also welcomed into playgroups and child-focused discussions on the protests. Flyers on these subjects were prepared in Arabic and English and widely distributed. The tent also makes referrals to low fee resources throughout the country.

Dr. Mona Fawaz, professor of urban studies and planning and coordinator of AUB’s graduate programs in urban planning, policy and change points out that the most poignant aspect of what many are calling a “revolution” might be the cultural and social transformation that rejects the oppressive structures that have so far thwarted the emergence of a more inclusive collective identity. “We are seeing signs and chants in protests openly denouncing the structural discrimination against women in our political and social systems.”

Fawaz was one of the first to take her classes to downtown Beirut, where she organized daily teach-ins until classes on campus resumed. “I find it important to strengthen political discussions in the public sphere and contribute as much as I can to the organization of public events around timely issues where conversations are needed,” she said. “There is also a need to put out information that helps consolidate the critique of the current political system through issues that touch people’s lives: Why can’t I go to a public beach? Why is Beirut’s historic downtown—the core of the city—a playground for property speculators rather than a space for the public to gather?

The protesters have reclaimed this empty hole, using it to develop the embryo of a collective that may ultimately restore it as the heart of the city. As an urban researcher, I have joined with colleagues and others to try and make these causes real, link them to everyday life, and use them to explain what good government and an inclusive political imaginary would mean.” Fawaz also works with Beirut Madinati, an active political group, to produce simplified content that translates popular demands into actionable items and actual reforms that are shared and debated in daily public discussions.

Also engaged in contributing to the uprising through their respective areas of expertise are OSB’s Dr. Lina Daouk-Öyry, associate professor of organizational behavior, and Dr. Charlotte Karam, associate professor of management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. “We decided to develop a research-based competency model and to translate it into words commonly used by the public,” said Daouk-Öyry. They revisited data from research Daouk-Oyry had conducted with Dr. Pia Zeinoun and Dr. Lina Choueiri, which identified four competencies that the next cabinet should have. “The aim was to create some sort of mental reference derived from research, but that anybody can easily relate to and remember when it comes to naming the next cabinet members.” To communicate this effectively, Dr. Lina Ghaibeh, associate professor of graphic design at AUB, helped create videos that presented this information in an accessible, constructive, and visually appealing manner. Fawaz and Dr. Mona Harb, AUB professor of urban studies and politics at the Department of Architecture and Design, also helped conceptualize the material and narrow down the competencies to address critical issues of importance to people in Lebanon today.

The response inspired by this unprecedented involvement of Lebanese women in the public and political spheres continues to reverberate throughout the country. Annahar, one of Lebanon’s popular newspapers, recently issued an edition dedicated to the women of the uprising. The name of the newspaper, which means The Day, was changed to Naharouki, a word that translates to Your Day, gendered in Arabic to address women. The newspaper also offered a bold change to the Lebanese national anthem by adding the word “women” to a lyric that referenced only men. A video of this version of the anthem performed by Lebanese artist Carole Samaha went viral in the following days—further proof that women are major drivers of this potentially pivotal event in Lebanon’s history.

Crisis Management at the Medical Center

Conditions in Lebanon post-October 17 have posed serious challenges to the provision of world class healthcare at the AUB Medical Center (AUBMC), but staff and administrators have managed to maintain standards of excellence throughout while providing all regular services. The first month of demonstrations saw numerous roads to and in the capital obstructed by protesters, creating significant difficulties for staff attempting to reach AUBMC. Relying on the inestimable dedication, resourcefulness, and bravery of staff who reported for work despite major travel disruption, the Medical Center was able to handle all its usual cases, in addition to treating an increase in injuries from the demonstrations. Essential staff who could not get home, such as nurses, pharmacists, and anesthesia residents, were put up in makeshift accommodation in and around the Medical Center.

“We have been very proud of our medical staff for providing the same quality care that AUBMC is known for, despite the challenges,” Interim Medical Center Director and Chief Medical Officer Ziyad Ghazzal told MainGate. “What we saw was a real desire among all the staff to continue serving our patients through the very difficult situation and to provide the same quality of healthcare without interruption of regular services.”

Concurrent to the initial travel disruption, priority was also placed on ensuring sufficient medical supplies, increasing the stockpile of critical items, and creating new space for longer storage times. The banking crisis has had a major impact, putting a burden on medical suppliers unable to access credit lines for imported goods and inflating costs. Patient volume dropped owing to security and financial reasons as people postponed clinical visits and elective surgery. Although numbers have picked up gradually, they have not returned to the levels seen before the protests. “Our hope is that the political situation stabilizes with a favorable impact on the economy, so that the Medical Center and healthcare system generally can recuperate the very significant financial losses incurred during the crisis,” Dr. Ghazzal told us. In the meantime, in order to treat more patients struggling to pay medical bills, with insurance companies also suffering from the banking squeeze, AUB has established solidarity funds for patients as well as students. Please contact advancement@aub.edu.lb for more information.

Comments collected from AUB faculty email group

“We can all support the demonstrators’ aspirations for capable, honest officials who exercise their responsibilities thoughtfully. And, here we come to the one service that we, as university professors, can hope to provide: we can help our students learn how to think, we can help them learn the facts they will need to execute their lives competently, and we can model the values that will help them contribute to something larger than their own self-interests.”

“At the personal level, i am in full support of the people of lebanon movement and their calls for change. I am deeply disturbed that for the first time in recent history there is a serious risk for the country to fall in complete chaos. At the same time, i am excited that we are at the verge of a new lebanon being born. Yet, i have to think as a responsible citizen of the country, and a good citizen of aub.”

“It is not unusual and quite possible that a noble cause can be diverted by political groups into chaos and protracted conflict. Suddenly, we may be on the wrong path. What will be our exit strategy if this movement malfunctions or becomes endless?” “Our call is for social and political work that is in alignment with our mission as intellectuals, pedagogues and social critics, and ultimately in alignment with the mission of the university as an institution that safeguards critical and transformative pedagogic practice.”

“We should not act as a barrier to the people’s voice (of whom students are an essential component), but rather (in the least) facilitators for a chance at reform and positive change.”

“Intellectuals are needed to translate the demands from the streets into actual laws and plans that secure and protect our kids’ futures in this beautiful country regardless whether the government is resigning or not.”

“I fully support the demonstrations—their goals and methods. I fully support faculty who demonstrate instead of teaching. And, i fully support students who demonstrate instead of attending classes. I don’t know whether i support faculty who divert their classes in service of the demonstrations.”

“We need to lead our students by setting an example of commitment to citizen voices.”

“Spontaneous mass demonstration could fizzle out or even turn ugly but who are we to discourage their [student] participation. We failed during our tenure, but at least we had hope. Don’t take away their hope. At least, not yet. We should not drag them back to ‘business as usual.’ it isn’t.”

“You cannot expect the spontaneous reaction of the people to produce an organized leadership and a program in five days. It needs time. That is why we as educated people need to work with all our good willed co-citizens and thus be on strike.”

O Rebellious Beauty (A Poem)

by Sahar H. Koubar, MD Assistant professor of Medicine and Nephrology

Read by the author:

English translation:
Arabic original: