Marie-Noëlle Abi Yaghi, director of Lebanon Support and teacher-researcher at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon.
Lebanese took to the streets to demonstrate two days after the explosion. Were you surprised by the speed of the protest?
These protests were completely predictable. Regardless of the cause of the explosion, the population is frustrated by attempts by the political class to exonerate themselves by shedding responsibility. But we must not look at these demonstrations in a vacuum of mobilizations. They are at least part of the continuity of the social movement that began in October 2019, and which claims a social contract, a rule of law and justice.
Lebanon is often described as a resilient country, which rebuilds after every destruction. I think the Lebanese are tired of this speech against which they are rebelling. We don’t really want to rebuild right away, but take the time to bury our dead and hold those who need to be responsible.
Are today’s protesters the same who marched in October?
It’s hard to say, but I think a lot of groups that mobilized in October are still there. There are also people who were completely demobilized, including those who were personally affected by the explosion. Others find it hard to believe in a political alternative, which remains untraceable to this day. Until now, the mobilizations mainly express anger and protest, but all the groups mobilized are struggling to develop an alternative. In Lebanon, one has the impression that the demonstrations are often made by reaction, but today, we must ask ourselves to build this alternative, or I am afraid that there is no way out.
What prevented the construction of this alternative?
Building a political movement takes time. For decades, civil society actors have engaged in a more or less invisible and marginal way and the great cycle that began in October is in a way the fruit of this militant accumulation. However, we should not underestimate the strength of the regime, which had as its first reaction the outright repression of the demonstrations. Beyond the orientalist clichés, Lebanon is not a democracy and this political system has been showing authoritarian abuses for several years.
We also often forget that the protest space is full of contradictions. Groups that are far from homogeneous negotiate their position in relation to each other and struggle to develop a common agenda. The problem today is that we are in a hurry, and that it is difficult to see a way out of this situation without a real political alternative.
What are these groups divided into?
They disagree on classic questions like whether to reform or overthrow the system. Each other’s personalities also collide over who can speak for the group. Certain groups, oriented to the left, and with a horizontal operation, are resistant to any idea of representation. Their divisions do not boil down to one single reason, and the latter is surely not denominational.
Can this movement overcome the confessional divisions of Lebanese society?
Confessional cleavages are more institutional, within the State, the civil service, government posts, parliament and of course, in their emanations in terms of social services. It is more a political divide than a social one. Historically, Lebanese civil society has a very important transcommunity and transfaith movement, and that is not exceptional.
On the other hand, since October 2019, a large part of the population has started to make the connection between the social impacts of the institutionalization of confessionalism in the political and economic system. For years, the parties close to power or which have taken turns since the end of the civil war, have created clientele networks around charitable associations which have nurtured confessionalism within the population. With the economic crisis and the decline in their resources, they saw the limit of clientelary redistribution. The Lebanese rebelled because they realized that they have no social rights. It is our political system that institutionalizes denominations and sets them against each other.
What place could foreign powers take (or not) in this political alternative?
Members of the international community can above all revise their foreign policy towards Lebanon. For years, this country has received donations that have allowed successive governments to stay in place. They never led to reforms for the people, but only helped fuel corruption and keep these people in place. We must also stop looking at Lebanon as a conglomerate of faiths that we fear will explode because it is too diverse. Ditto for this desire to maintain the status quo, however undemocratic it may be. The Lebanese must be given the chance to change their political regime.