[Marxism] Growing grassroots in Beirut

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at resist.ca
Sat Aug 6 17:45:20 MDT 2005

Montreal Mirror: Growing grassroots in Beirut


The Lebanese capital's activist community takes action
in the post-Syrian political era

commentary by STEFAN CHRISTOFF

Beirut is a city that vibrates with political culture and is defined by a
history of social justice struggles. Currently, Lebanon is undergoing massive
political changes, sparked by street protests following the assassination of
former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February and the subsequent
withdrawal of
approximately 15,000 Syrian troops and intelligence officials last April.

The future for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in refugee
camps throughout Lebanon is also central to current political discussions in
the region, as refugees continue to demand their right to return to occupied

In this context, I travelled to Lebanon this summer as an independent
journalist and social justice activist to network with political movements
to report on current events in the country and the region. My voyage was
in a growing effort among political organizers in Montreal to build long-term
links with media activists and grassroots struggles in Lebanon.
Specifically, I
have focused on securing links with political organizers pushing for
and direct democracy in Lebanon by challenging existing political power

Politics of poverty

Since the end of the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990, Syria, through its
military presence, has maintained enormous influence over the country's
politics. Hariri's assassination has been widely blamed on Syria both within
Lebanon and internationally, although there remains no proof of its

Hariri was a soft critic of Syrian influence in Lebanon, especially
the direction of Lebanon's economic and political policies. One central point
of dispute between the Syrian regime and Hariri was his support for
Western-style neo-liberal economics, which have forced open Lebanon's markets
to international investment and paved the way for membership into the World
Trade Organization. Hariri's economic policies were deeply opposed by many
Lebanese while he held power and continue to have devastating impacts on the
country today.

"He was a symbol of the global capitalist infrastructure," says Samah Idriss,
editor of Al-Adab, a Lebanese arts and politics magazine. "After his
death, no
one wants to remember that Hariri was the person who instituted economic
policies which have left 30 per cent of the country in poverty and a national
debt of $40-billion (U.S.)."

Despite the widespread unpopularity of Hariri's economic policies, his
assassination sparked a series of massive street demonstrations in Beirut and
calls for major political change in the country. Demonstrators called for
Syria's withdrawal, but also questioned the sectarian nature of the Lebanese
political system, in which Hariri was a key player. Lebanon's 128
seats are equally divided between religious communities, which by default
defines official political life on sectarian lines.

The demonstrations, along with international pressure, mainly from the
U.S. and
France, forced Syria's withdrawal. Despite this, widespread skepticism or
outright rejection of Western interference in Lebanese internal affairs

Standing up for the secular

Lebanon's June elections took place in the shadow of the Syrian withdrawal
amid calls for national unity across religious lines. They brought a deeper
sense of anxiety to the country, rooted in an uncertainty over its political
future. Tension trickled down to daily life, into speeding taxi drivers
engaging passengers on politics, and in heated debate on Beirut's smoggy
streets. Election signs still line the streets today, pasted alongside
of assassinated politicians. Beirut has been aptly described as a city of
ghosts, as politics are equally defined by the living and the dead.

In the end, Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, led a coalition of political parities
fuelled by energy from the popular street demonstrations into a parliamentary
majority with 78 seats. The coalition grouped together parties from opposite
sides of the Lebanese political spectrum, including the Progressive Socialist
Party, representing Lebanon's Druze community, former representatives of the
right-wing Christian Lebanese Phalangists - responsible for the 1982 massacre
of Palestinians from Sabra and Shatila refugee camps - and also the
newly-formed, left-leaning Democratic Left Movement (DLM).

"The first thing which we called for is a democratic Lebanon, with no
from anyone, regardless if it's Syrians, Americans or the French," says Mirna
Shidrawi, a DLM organizer. "We want a free Lebanon. When you find that
has been in your country for 30 years, running your country as if it's their
backyard, definitely, if you are leftist or not a leftist, it's something
will touch you."

During the recent elections, a political campaign emerged called Hayya Bina!
(Arabic for "Let's Go!"), rooted in a struggle for a secular political system
in Lebanon. Hayya Bina! organized a mass direct action in which thousands of
people cast spoiled ballots for the elections, an illegal act in Lebanon.

"We had a lot of reservations concerning the way the opposition seemed to
manage the recent elections," says Lokaman Sleem, a Hayya Bina! organizer.
called on people to vote by using spoiled ballots that were printed with a
slogan that's very easy to understand in the Lebanese context, which was .64
plus 64 equals zero." Lebanon's electoral law splits the parliament's 128
between Christians and Muslims.

"Saad Hariri is the son of Rafik but also the son of a sectarian political
system, which has failed Lebanon until today," says Sleem. "He will bring no
real change, as he represents a political culture rooted in religious and
social divisions."

Media power

In Lebanon I have also been working closely with the Independent Media Centre
(IMC) of Beirut, a collective of media activists with progressive
on current events in the country. During the recent elections, IMC Beirut
focused on covering the struggle for a secular political system in the

IMC Beirut operates with the participation of a diverse representation of
Lebanese society, including Palestinian refugees, queer activists and media
organizers. "Activists in Lebanon need a space to illustrate what they stand
for and their struggles, which the mainstream media chooses to neglect
it's so heavily controlled by the political and social powers of the
says Mohammed Shublaq, a Palestinian anarchist with the Beirut IMC.

Today, many grassroots activist organizations like IMC Beirut argue that
demonstrations sparked by Rafik Hariri's death were co-opted by the electoral
"opposition," as the loose political coalition Saad Hariri leads is known.

"We need to change Lebanon's electoral law and make it based on relative
representation," says Afamia Kaddour, an IMC Beirut activist. "This would
political voice to people who don't have the same power or money to run
people like Saad Hariri. I don't think that this change can happen overnight,
because there is little will to change the political system from those in
power, as it is beneficial to them. So the people who can force real
change are
outside of the equation of institutional politics."

For more information on the Independent Media Centre of Beirut, visit

Stefan Christoff is an independent journalist and activist from Montreal. He
reports for CKUT Radio 90.3 FM in Montreal and works with the International
Solidarity Movement of Palestine. You can contact him at

Macdonald Stainsby
In the contradiction lies the hope.

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