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The Battle for Jerusalem: Turkey’s Erdogan stakes his claim

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t mince his words at this month’s opening of parliament. In his first assertion of a claim to a lost non-Turkic part of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Erdogan declared that Jerusalem is Turkish.

“In this city, which we had to leave in tears during the First World War, it is still possible to come across traces of the Ottoman resistance. So Jerusalem is our city, a city from us,” Mr. Erdogan said.

He went on to say that “the current appearance of the Old City, which is the heart of Jerusalem, was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, with its walls, bazaar, and many buildings. Our ancestors showed their respect for centuries by keeping this city in high esteem.”

Mr. Erdogan was referring to the 16th century Ottoman sultan, a sponsor of monumental architectural development, who is widely viewed as having protected his Jewish subjects.

In July, Mr. Erdogan described that month’s return of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a sixth century Orthodox-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, to the status of a Muslim house of worship as paving the way for the “liberation” of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

Mr. Erdogan’s office released a month later a four-minute video clip suggesting that Turkey’s quest for leadership of the Islamic world was as much a military and nationalist endeavor as it was a religious drive. Laced with martial music, the clip meshed religious and Ottoman symbolism.  Entitled Golden Apple, the clip ended with a panorama view of Al-Aqsa.

The president, who embeds his often raw nationalism in a religious mantle, can have no illusion that Jerusalem would return to Turkish rule.

Yet, by putting forward his claim, Mr. Erdogan hopes to put his quest for leadership of the Muslim world on par with that of one Turkey’s staunchest rivals, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is home to Islam’s two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina.

Rather than seeking to regain lost Ottoman territory, Mr. Erdogan is staking a claim to custodianship of Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount and Al Aqsa mosque compound that currently rests with a Jordanian-controlled religious endowment known as the Waqf.

The president escalated his rhetoric at a moment that the Palestine Authority has reached out to Turkey as well as Qatar in the wake of the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and a series of statements by prominent Saudi and other Gulf leaders taking President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration to task for squandering opportunities for peace with the Jewish state.

Mr. Erdogan’s claim adds to Jordan’s worries that Israel, in the wake of the formalization of its ties to Gulf states, could support Saudi ambitions to join the Hashemite kingdom, if not replace it, as the holy site’s administrator.

Israel Hayom, Israel’s most widely read newspaper that is supportive of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, quoted an unidentified Arab diplomat as saying that Saudi funds were needed to counter Turkish influence in Jerusalem.

“If the Jordanians allow the Turks to operate unhindered at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, within a matter of years their special status in charge of the Waqf and Muslim holy sites would be relegated to being strictly ‘on paper,’” the diplomat was quoted as saying in June.

Raed Daana, a former director of preaching and guidance at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, said in 2018, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that Saudi Arabia had secretly invited Palestinian Muslim dignitaries in a bid to garner support for a Saudi role in the Waqf.

Mr. Daana attributed the secrecy in part to a refusal to accept the invitation by a number of Palestinian religious figures.

Jordan last year increased the number of members of the Waqf from 11 to 18 in a bid to give it a more a more Muslim rather than exclusively Jordanian  flavour and to fend off attempts by regional powers to muscle their way into the body.

The new members included officials of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority as well as figures with links to Turkey and Gulf states like Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, a former grand mufti of Jerusalem and Holocaust denier who has defended Mr. Erdogan’s militancy regarding Jerusalem; and Mr. Sabri’s successor, Muhammad Hussein, who had close ties to the United Arab Emirates until he last month barred Emiratis from visiting Al Aqsa in protest against the UAE’s recognition of Israel.

Mr. Erdogan has in recent years been laying the groundwork for his claim with millions of dollars in donations to local Islamic organizations as well as Turkish religious activists and pilgrims in Jerusalem whom Israel has accused of instigating Palestinian protests.

Turkey’s Directorate General for Religious Affairs (Diyanet), that is part of Mr. Erdogan’s office, lists Al-Aqsa as a site for the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage.

Israeli sources say Turkey’s cultural center in Jerusalem as well as a Turkish renovated coffeeshop two minutes from the city’s Western Wall that is adorned with Turkish and Palestinians flags as well as portraits of Mr. Erdogan and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II serve as a meeting point for activists and pilgrims.

“Turkey is working diligently to deepen its involvement and influence on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods. It is encouraging welfare-religious (dawa) activities…aimed at drawing the Palestinian public toward the Turkish-Islamic heritage and at weakening Israel’s hold on the Old City and east Jerusalem,” said conservative Israeli journalist and analyst Nadav Shragai.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Turkish Strengthened Parliamentary System

Muratcan Isildak

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“Corrected” or “enhanced” system of parliamentary debate, thoroughly sat on Turkey’s agenda in recent days. There are two reasons for this. First, it is unclear what, all from a single source power is collected, brought Turkey no balance-point of the current regime where there is no monitoring mechanism. Of democracy, of freedom, which abolished the rule of law, both inside and outside the war which, as all institutions of workers pouring connected to a single person, the economy of bottoming out, which is a record level of unemployment, inequality of well increase as a Turkey. Undoubtedly, the first step to get out of this darkness and tidy up the wreckage is to get rid of the one-man regime called the “Presidential Government System”. The question then arises of what kind of management system to replace. The second reason is the increasing signs that the MHP-backed AKP government is about to end. A transition period will begin after the end of AKP rule. But where is the transition? This question should be discussed and an answer should be sought.

The parliamentary system has led to the domination of the majority over the minority in Turkey. Since there are no mechanisms to prevent the executive from dominating the legislature, the power is meeting in the hands of the prime minister, who is the head of the ruling majority party. The end of the independence of the judiciary, the silencing of the press, the pressure on the opposition, the arbitrary administration all took place in the parliamentary system.

Such a new democracy changes the focus of politics. The subject of politics, political parties cease to be party heads, but become the people themselves. However, in order to create a grassroots popular movement, people need to unite within the framework of a project and not be a “mass”, but turn into a “people” that decide their future. Such “people” make decisions about their own problems and demand that governments implement these decisions. Such a people does not leave their future to the rulers, they take control of their future. Such a people becomes the engine of change in society, creates a libertarian, egalitarian, new society.

One of the most important features of participatory democracy is that it is based on equality. Equality in income distribution as well as in participation can be achieved in this way. We have seen the concrete application of this in the example of Porto Allegre in Brazil.

There are many different models of participatory democracy. These models cover a wide spectrum, from the budgeting powers of local units to different decision-making platforms. It is necessary to discuss these and, according to the results, the construction of local democratic institutions. 

However, no matter what model is adopted, participatory democracy has some unchangeable basic principles:

Participation is open to all who live in that place.

Participatory democracy institutions are independent from the state. The aim of the system is to realize a power sharing between representative democracy institutions and local democracy institutions. Representative democracy institutions will lose their power as they will transfer some of their powers to local institutions. 

But considering that representative democracy is not working well anyway, this weakening is not a loss for democracy.

Informing the public correctly. For this, there is a need for effective use of social media as well as the prevalence of freedom of expression and press in the country.

Participatory democracy leads to deepening democracy and creating a culture of participation. However, the main problem here is that the people adopt this culture with an active citizenship awareness. Successful pilot project implementations are required for this.

Let’s not forget that my imagination of the future determines what we will do now.

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Kingdom’s journey from ultra-conservatism to ultra-modernism

Abdul Rasool Syed

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Saudi Arabia, currently, is undergoing a phenomenal metamorphosis; a country widely known for its ultra-conservative posture is now gradually moving towards liberalism. It is witnessing a remarkable transformation in its socio-economic-cultural contours. The kingdom, once influenced and controlled by orthodox clergy, did not let women come out of their domestic confines but, now, the situation has diametrically changed. It has allowed the womenfolk incredible latitude to not only come out of home but also to travel abroad independently. They are, thus, supposed to contribute to country’s socio-economic development by working shoulder to shoulder with men. Economy, too, is being diversified; the kingdom is jettisoning its chronic dependence on oil revenues and is moving towards rapid Industrialization. Acculturation, once regarded as taboo by Saudi society is now, being appreciated bit by bit.

The man, who masterminded this movement of colossal change, is none other than Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS); He is the real catalyst that is working devotedly and diligently to improve his country’s image nationally and internationally. His ideology is described as nationalist and populist, with conservative attitude towards politics and a liberal stance on economic and social issues.

However, His style of governance came under severe stricture by journalistic community. He has been dubbed as “extremely brutal” by journalist Rula Jabrael and “authoritarian” by Late Jamal khashoggi. On contrary, his move to reform the country has been widely lauded and supported by Saudi populace.

Prince Mohammad is of opinion that his country has been severely harmed by traditional clergy that considered any reformative move as a sin and hence, has kept the country stagnant economically and socially. He emphatically stated at one occasion: “we are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world. We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today.” He later added that Saudi Arabia “will remain committed to the principles “of Islam, “the religion of tolerance and moderation”. The kingdom “will keep on fighting against extremism and terrorism”—a message directly meant to counter the outrageous edicts released by leading clerics against anything they perceived a threat to Saudi society.

The crown Prince took the clergy as a great hurdle in the way of kingdom’s socio-economic development. He, therefore, trimmed its wings of power by stripping it of its policing powers. Instead, the government took the reins into its hands to guide the society. Now, with the passive and emaciated clergy, Prince is aggressively pursuing his agenda of reforms.

“Vision 2030” is the bedrock of Prince Mohammad’s scheme of socio-economic change. Under this vision, he is going to transform country’s economic physiognomy. Vision 2030 aims at steering Saudi’s economy towards more diversified and privatized structure. It expounds goals and measures in various fields, from developing non-oil revenue and privatization of the economy to e-government and sustainable development.

To this end, Bin Salman, in October 2017, at the inaugural conference of Future investment initiative in Riyadh, announced the plan for the creation of NEOM, a $ 500 billion economic zone to cover an area of 26000 sq km on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea cost, extending into Japan and Egypt.  NEOM aims at attracting investment in sectors of renewable energy, biotechnology, robotics and advanced manufacturing.

 A project to build Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor was also announced by Prince Mohammad in November 2018. The kingdom aspires to build 16 nuclear facilities over the next 20 years. Efforts to diversify Saudi energy sector also include wind and solar energy.

Apart from this, a much awaited high-speed railway line connecting two holiest cities of Islam Mecca and Medina was inaugurated by Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in last week of September 2018. The Harmain Express is 450 km line travelling up to 300 km/h that can transport around 60 million passengers annually.

In addition, before the outbreak of corona virus, in order to boost tourism industry, the kingdom started issuing e-visas to tourists. It  opened up its borders to fans of live sport, music and culture for the first time with the launch of a new online visa process dedicated to welcoming international tourists.

Moreover, in 2016, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) shared the idea for “Green cards” for non-Saudi foreigners with Al-Arabia Journalist Turki Al-Dakhil. In 2019, Saudi cabinet approved a new residency scheme “Premium Residency” for foreigners. The scheme will enable expatriates to permanently reside, own property and invest in the kingdom.

Prince MBS is staunch proponent of women emancipation. He contends that dream of progress and sustainable development cannot be realized unless women become part and parcel of workforce. He, therefore, has brought about many reforms pertaining to the status of women in Saudi society.

For this very purpose, he allowed women to drive in the kingdom. Driving licenses are, therefore, being issued to women at a very fast pace; the number of women drivers on the road, according to Saudi officials, is expected to grow to 3 million by 2020. Further, Saudi women may now attend soccer matches and sporting events. Gyms and fitness centers for women are being established. They can also join the military and intelligence services. They are allowed to open their own business without male’s permission and to travel abroad independently without male guardian. In this very spirit, Saudi Arabia appointed its first woman to head Saudi stock exchange.

On entertainment side, Saudi government has established an entertainment authority that began hosting comedy shows, professional wrestling, live music concerts and monster truck rallies.

In April 2017, Prince MBS announced a project to build one of worlds largest cultural, sports and entertainment cities in AL-Qidiya, southwest of Riyadh. The plan includes a safari and a six flags theme park.

Additionally, cultural transformation of the kingdom is also underway. It held its first public concert by female singer in December 2017. And in January 2018, a sport stadium in Jeddah became the first in the kingdom to admit women. In April 2018, the first public cinema opened in Saudi Arabia after a ban of 35 years, with plans to have more than 2000 screens running by 2030.

This all became possible, when clerical hold over the kingdom was eviscerated. The orthodox clergy with its antiquated and rigid doctrines was the biggest obstacle in the way of progress and development of the kingdom. Addressing this issue, Prince MBS said that he aimed to have Saudi Arabia start “Returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” He told the country’s clerics that the deal the royal family struck with them after the 1979 siege of Grand Mosque in Mecca was to be re-negotiated.

The crown prince believes that industrialization and wahhabism are mutually exclusive. The wahhabies are committed to fixed social and gender relationships. These are consistent with an economy built on oil sales, but industrialization requires a dynamic culture with social relations constantly shifting.

 Inter alia, Ayaan Haris Ali, a celebrated author and human rights activist claimed that if MBS “succeeds in his modernization efforts, Saudis will benefit from new opportunities and freedoms, and the world will benefit from curtailing Wahhabi radicalization agenda. A decade from now, the kingdom could look more like the UAE, its prosperous and relatively forward looking neighbor”.

In the end, I would like to quote Prince Mohammad bin Salman who while addressing to packed audience at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh said that Middle East can be the “New Europe” and that he would like to see the economic transformation of the region happen within his life time. He said: “his ‘war’ was restoring the Middle East to its past glory. “I believe that the new Europe is the Middle East”. “Saudi Arabia in five years, he added,” will be completely different”.

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Rethinking accountability, revolution and challenging the status quo in Lebanon

Marie-Christine Ghreichi

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Political corruption in Lebanon traces its roots to the re-assembling in the post-civil war era, which entrenched a realm of politics dominated by war lords and militia-like mentalities operating through a sectarian discourse.  The waste resulting from “confessional governance” costs Lebanon 9% of GDP each year.[1] In the early 1990s, “Lebanese political bosses either coopted or gutted institutions such as unions, professional associations and opposition parties. Public schools and hospitals were defunded.”  Today, many Lebanese do not send their children to public schools or hospitals. Sukleen, the company contracted by the government to collect waste in Beirut and Mount Lebanon charges 4x more per ton of waste disposed in landfills compared to providers in the UK.[2]  Nearly 40% of electricity is produced by private generators established during the civil war and partially owned by various politicians today, profiting close to $1 billion a year. Electricite du Liban, the public electricity company collects payments for only half of the power it produces.[3]

Additionally, corruption and government inefficiency in collecting VAT has cost the state $5 billion a year, roughly 10% of GDP.[4] Historically known for its banking secrecy laws, 15 of 54 commercial Lebanese banks have politicians linked to their chair of the Board; four out of the top ten banks in the country possess over 70% of their shares due to crony capital,  and individuals linked to political elites control 43% of assets in Lebanon’s commercial banking sector.[5] In Lebanon, 46% of government revenue is dedicated to public salaries, which increased 7.5% each year for the last ten years.[6] Thirty years of this crony, capitalist decadence has expanded inequality in the country with public debt skyrocketing, as well as visible incompetence to deliver on basic social services. As a result, the majority of Lebanese find it increasingly impossible to buy their way out of such a system.[7]In exploring corruption in Lebanon through the discourse employed by recent social mobilization in October of 2019 that defined and vilified its role in politics and social life, we can begin to understand how Lebanese define or perceive corruption and how the political elite both consolidate and perpetuate this structure.

Re-defining corruption

               Sentiments expressed in the protest movement, affirmand greatly emphasize the notion of theft or “stolen money” or of resources not rightfully possessed as a primary component of corruption.  As the revolution began to evolve, evidence emerged that various political leaders had withdrawn sums equivalent to billions of US dollars in the span of 15 days, presumably fearing the fallout of economic collapse.[8] This development was echoed by conversations surrounding the many public work contracts, electricity budget and government salaries that have systematically resulted in the theft of state funds.  This pattern of corruption underscores not simply the mismanagement of government resources, but a reaction against the acquisition of something that does not rightfully belong to a person, with little to no consequences.  These sorts of actions have permeated down from the political class to the daily interactions that guide society.  This and countless conversations of this nature that occurred during my field work in December of 2019 and January, 2020 in Lebanon , including my discussion with Ayman Mhanna (executive director of the Samir Kassir foundation, a civil society organization dedicated to free press and democracy) in the summer of 2019 speak to this corrosion of trust both in political leaders, but also the system they operate in, which trickles down to quotidian experiences.  An “every man for himself” mentality has fueled and reproduced this notion of theft, in which at all levels, politician and citizen can or must take what is not theirs either to live how they desire or in order to survive respectively.  However, this action is denoted as theft, because what is taken is not rightfully earned.

               The reoccurring question of theft can also be extended beyond material needs.  With many Lebanese paying dual public and private electricity and water bills, for private schools and their children forced to work or study abroad, this idea was often framed around conceptions of dignity, echoed in many uprisings in the region since 2011.[9]  As this basic access to water, electricity, clean air, public transportation, and work has become increasingly harder and harder to come by, many Lebanese snapped under the mounting pressure, demanding their own dignity be recognized. Moreover, this dignity was deeply tied to the enormous brain drain currently plaguing the country, in which over 4,700 Lebanese continue to emigrate from Lebanon every month.[10]  With opportunities dwindling both due to the economic situation, but also the theft of state money and inability to find work without wasta[11], the future of generations to come has also been stolen. This theft was veiled time and time again behind sectarian politics and attitudes, in which individuals’ leaders evade accountability but also squarely place the blame on their counterparts for political stalemates or acts of corruption. The effects of these sectarian politics were underscored by the current movement through graffiti on the ground in Riad el Solh square facing parliament in Beirut reading “corruption=sectarianism”.  Finally, the symbiotic relationship between the political class, the private sector and the banks, particularly following the reconstruction of Lebanon after the civil war has produced a ruthless economic system that solely benefits political elites. Therefore, this structure is also perceived as a form of theft, and by extension corruption. Unpacking further the various symbols and organizing culture of this movement can help expand this understanding of these perceived links.

Public space and knowledge production

               One of the most striking developments of the October 17th was the clear reclamation of public space and knowledge production. The reclaimed public spaces and transforming urban fabric challenged the agenda imposing a luxury oriented downtown Beirut catering to elites. Instead, the changing identity of this space now reflects the authority on the ground—the people.  The discussions that took place in these spaces through unlikely gatherings of people were revolutionary because they were unprecedented in the post-war context. Without access to public space, such conversations proved impossible. Moreover, there was an observable reclamation of trust in the fellow citizen and a reclamation of solidarity through the use of public space previously denied to the Lebanese people as a means of social control.  Now, the free exchange of ideas that threaten the established powers is possible. Though the protests of 2005, known as the Cedar Revolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces mobilized close to a million people in Beirut, there were no substantial efforts to actively claim space through the occupation of cultural centers and the establishment of tents, lectures, street art etc. like the current movement  The 2005 demonstrations had also reacted to the death of the then Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri who was responsible for the elite nature of the downtown area that provides virtually no public space.

               On New Year’s Eve, the movement organized a celebration in the downtown area, markedly different to the previous year where the municipality spent generous sums to maintain the glamorous image promoted by Solidere.[12] This year, however, the celebration proved to be far more “popular” in nature, focusing instead on the achievements of the movement thus far: the resignation of the sitting Prime Minister and a sense of national unity. During the evening, a recent acquaintance turned to me, offering another expression of identification with the space, saying that the atmosphere of working-class people enjoying the space is similar to how it was before the civil war.  This anecdote does not bear importance for its veracity, particularly as this individual was not alive before the civil war. Rather, it speaks to a perception that something about the general order today had robbed people of a common space that was inviting of all backgrounds. Reclaiming this space in this way, therefore is a direct rejection of the post war system and the authority legitimizing it on the ground. The public lectures and debates that had occurred in the first weeks of the revolution had shrunk significantly during the month I was present. However, across the interviews conducted, the various participants found that these initiatives created occasions for learning, a platform for self-expression, an opportunity to break up “bubbles” of typical confessional communities and to build cross-sectarian solidarity.  As one interviewee added, spaces of Beirut felt more connected to her now, as she explored and ventured into neighborhoods previously unknown to her in order to attend demonstrations.

Symbols, grievances and the politics of meaning

               Notions of public space reclamation, knowledge production, the visible links between corruption, sectarianism and the neo-liberal, urban reconstruction and the cartel-like economy materialized in various symbols throughout the movement. Street art and graffiti were incredibly effective tools in expressing the views of the movement. Moreover, the significance of the location of the street art strategically highlighted the decadence of the elitist reconstruction project, out of touch with the social fabric. This art often focused on issues of social injustice, social renewal (a statue of the phoenix rising), calls for a civil state as opposed to a sectarian state (“civil resistance”), the end of foreign interference (from Iran to Saudi Arabia to the United States) as well as various references to the far left (graffitied communist symbols, the Kuffiyieh—a symbol of Palestinian liberation and of leftist resistance more broadly, “down with bankism and classism,” “love, freedom and social justice” “liberation” “f**k Solidere”). Moreover, this art served as another form of reclamation of this space.  The artists and activists I interviewed asserted that this revolution would not have occurred at this point had Hariri “shared the wealth” with the Lebanese people, frequently referred to the political class as a set of cartels. During the “week of rage”, I repeatedly heard protestors singing a song entitled شيد قصورك or “Erect your castles on the farms,” a song by an Egyptian folk singer, known for composing political music sympathetic to working and oppressed classes. These images and sentiments were also reflected in chants outside the banking institutions:

الوطن ، العمال

تسقط سلطة رأس المال or “The nation, workers, down with the power of capital”

Many protestors from their balconies would bang pots and pans, a reference to the South American protest tactic, the cacerolazo. Perhaps a nod to an emerging global backlash against the many variations of this system around the world.

The locations and stops along marches and demonstrations also signified a rejection of extreme neoliberalism and the complicity of the financial system in the sectarianism and corruption of the state. Therefore, demonstrations typically became more targeted following the initial general mobilization, focusing on the banking districts, the Central bank and property of Solidere in the downtown area (Beirut Souks).  Along the path of many marches, protestors would not revert to looting or thoughtless vandalism, but would smash the storefronts of banks to crystallize the message. One day during a walk towards downtown, I observed the occupation of a branch of Bank Audi in the neighborhood of Achrafieh.  People had gathered in the bank, demanding the right to withdraw their funds, which had been limited to 200USD per week by the Central Bank due to the dollar liquidity crisis.  Contesting these restrictions, many stayed inside the bank until their demands would be met.  They were locked inside the bank, with one man placing sticky notes on the glass doors to inform outside observers of what was happening. Some of the notes wrote that they were forced to stay inside, and another wrote they were “prisoners of capitalism.”  

The movement also chose to demonstrate in front of the newly appointed Prime Minister’s home and would identify politicians in public, frequently shaming them out of establishments. The occupation of “the ring” highway, the original site dividing East and West Beirut during the civil war underscores a repudiation of typical sectarian divisions. The use of the communist symbol along with the prevalence of the Kuffiyeh further signified renunciation of the status quo. A divisive symbol associated with the pro-Palestinian, leftist and pan-Arab faction of the Lebanese civil war, now appears an almost non-issue in the context of the revolution. Instead, this symbol was reclaimed to no longer signify this division but rather calls for greater justice across all identities and communities.  Finally, beyond grievances surrounding social injustice and inequality, their connection to the notion of dignity also revealed itself in these symbols.

Alterative exchanges and democratization of mobilization

After October 17th, the movement took a vested interest in promoting Lebanese products or alternative modes of commercial exchange, both as a form of reclamation against the exportation of human capital and importation of foreign goods, but also out of compulsion. In one interview conducted, the participant described her experience in founding an alternative market with fellow revolutionaries. In this market, a committee was formed to find ways to “make ends meet” in the current economic decline before structural changes occur and raising money for those in need in a sustainable fashion.  This implied vendors would have the freedom to exchange goods and build their own markets outside the formal economy.  Sometimes this implied an exchange of their goods as a sort of alternative currency. The products exchanged in this market ranged from books, clothes, hygiene products, food, post cards, jewelry etc.  She affirmed this alternative market was created by protestors to support those in need— “not as charity in neo-liberal sense but as act of solidarity.” She stressed the revolutionary nature of this market, because she found that Lebanese are so unaccustomed to a culture of exchange, especially in this space.  The market committee and vendors would often meet in the tents set up in the downtown area where various lectures and discussions had taken place. Despite some support from traditional civil society groups, this market proved to be an independent, grassroots and organic creation of the revolutionary moment.  After running into a street child she had formed a bond within the early weeks of the revolution, she reiterated the importance of these horizontal exchanges claiming this allowed her to meet people she otherwise would never have interreacted with. This organizing nature of the market and various initiatives of the movement—diffused, horizontal, accessible—reflect Lebanese society in reality and embody its demands for greater equality and social justice in a system which continues to benefit a select few.

New alternative, and independent media outlets also emerged (Akhbar el Seha, Megaphone, Daleel el Thawra etc.). These pages on Instagram and Facebook, served as a direct counter to the traditional, politically affiliated media outlets in the country, which often ignored events on the ground or vilified protestors.  These pages offered live coverage, updates and summaries of daily events through a new base of journalists and activists, free of traditional political persuasions or financial connections, instead empowered by the democratic nature of social media and like-minded individuals. Informal and grassroots organizations led much of the movement, particularly as the movement progressed, signifying a dispersed and decentralized approach guided by common goals and common anger. With the perception that typical civil society actors proving to be ineffective, individuals or new groups became legitimate representatives of the people. This also led to a more organic expression of inter-regional solidarity. Therefore, the democratization and individualization of the revolution emboldened Lebanese to claim their rights and reclaim trust in their fellow citizen. The individual participating in the alternative market explained that pride in her identity would not link to a romantic nationalist notion but rather to a functional system.  As a citizen with rights, this desire is what pushed her to act towards claiming these rights. Moreover, this process empowered new actors to lead.

 Many of those I spoke to commented that typical civil society actors they expected to be organizing during this period were more timid in their approach, often hindered by inter-personal disagreements or as one interviewee said, their inability to tangibly defy state power and continued negotiation with the system. Moreover, unions and syndicates face increasing pressure in the Lebanese context and are unable to enact change as they did in Sudan or Tunisia. Traditional institutions of this nature function less effectively because they are consistently politicized. Consequently, this failure led many individuals to mobilize in new forms. The “week of rage” was called in order to protest the appointment of the new Prime Minister and the delay in government formation.  This week of marches and demonstrations seemingly led by students, feminists, and leftist activists.  However, no one organizer seemed to take credit in organizing the week, instead citing social media as largely responsible for simply spreading the word that something needed to be done. As the new context demanded alternative approaches, several individuals and grassroots entities became aware of their agency, the informal feminist, leftist and student networks rose to the fore to fill the gap.

The empowerment of non-traditional actors can also be exemplified in the mobilization and contribution of women in the movement.  Mobilized women and feminist activists have played a central role in combatting the status quo, particularly motivated by the injustice of personal status laws permitting child marriage, severely disadvantaging them in the case of divorce and the current citizenship law.  Women participating therefore issued demands for an end to these practices, protection of their reproductive rights, protection from violence and harassment as well as greater government representation and the termination of the Kafala system (recognizing the intersections between race and gender for migrant female workers subject to some of the highest forms of violence and abuse in the country).[13]  The role of feminists in the mobilization is embedded in the rejection of corruption in this current iteration.  As described by the activist working in the alternative market, the political system is corrupt, racist, sectarian, unaccountable, and patriarchal. For her, patriarchy is in and of itself corruption, because men are able to advance before women in all aspects of social and political life.  The system, according to her claims to be neo-liberal and open but is in fact extremely illiberal in how it treats half of the population.  Therefore, it came as no surprise to observe feminists’ organizers at every single protest, march and demonstration, calling for social justice through an intersectional lens and producing alternative media content.

 These testimonies encouraged a sort of individualization and democratization of the mobilization since October, particularly because everyone possesses an issue at stake in the event of a transition. The discussions empowering individuals to take this step and to organize with like-minded individuals was made possible through public space reclamation. This recognition of individual agency lent itself to greater dialogue across cleavages in society normally unapproached.  The sort of grassroots, broad-based and egalitarian nature of the mobilization efforts, therefore, serves as a manifesto and reflection of the grievances and desires of the movement—a Lebanon that is accountable, meritocratic, equal, fair, united against sectarian division and infantilization, and serves its citizens. 

The sociological problematic and shifting mentalities

 Dedicated protestors exhibited a liberation from this infantilization imposed on them by the state—the Zaim/Zu’amaor the political elite.  Others noted that such a transition requires a revolution within, which they had begun to witness. An artist and activist I interviewed argued that they “must revolt against the father before (they) can revolt against the Zaim” because Lebanon possess a sociological problem that cannot be resolved in a top-down approach, beginning at the political level.  Therefore, the mobilization of Lebanese appeared to be an organic demonstration of inter-regional solidarity, at least momentarily. A student activist I spoke to called this process the “death of the Zaim” and a revolution within oneself.  Without this individual decision to question and revolutionize how they view governance, their identity and citizenship, they were unable to rid themselves of the dominance of the Zaim and go to the streets.  The empowerment of individuals in this process of self-liberation reflects for some the unfettering from traditional bonds coercing political or communal loyalty.  This transformation was illustrated across various individuals from different walks of life. 

These events must not be considered universal or complete.  Still, many individuals and generations are seeking to uphold the status quo, and the loyalists of the political class will not easily concede what remains of their power.  The mobilization has been sustained by various age groups, sects, and classes. However, it has become clear that Shia support for the movement has dwindled, along with the support of the middle classes and the generation formed in the civil war.[14]  Perhaps the rise of Sunni communities demonstrated by events occurring in Tripoli speak to a reaction to a crisis of leadership rather than a total upheaval of the political and social system. Yet, one cannot dismiss that’s this popular movement has created unprecedented linkages across typical cleavages in Lebanese society in a manner that is diffused, more democratic, somehow anarchic, and in this way a rejection of the elite, unequal and corrupt post-war order.


[1] “Lebanon’s Political System Leads to Paralysis and Corruption.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/04/19/lebanons-political-system-leads-to-paralysis-and-corruption.

[2] “One Year on, Lebanon’s Waste Management Policies Still Stink.” PressReader.com – Your Favorite Newspapers and Magazines., www.pressreader.com/lebanon/the-daily-star-lebanon/20160915/281741268880633.

[3]McDowall, Angus. “Fixing Lebanon’s Ruinous Electricity Crisis.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 29 Mar. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-economy-electricity/fixing-lebanons-ruinous-electricity-crisis-idUSKCN1RA24Z.; Nasnas, Roger. “Emerging Lebanon Towards Economic Growth and Social Welfare.” CES, www.ces.gov.lb/uploads/files/1570_Emerging%20Lebanon%20-%20Towards%20Economic%20Growth%20and%20Social%20Welfare%20.pdf.

[4]“Lebanon Economic Vision.” Economy.gov.lb, www.economy.gov.lb/media/11893/20181022-1228full-report-en.pdf. 600,613

[5]Chaaban, Jad. “I’ve Got the Power: Mapping Connections between Lebanon’s Banking Sector and the Ruling Class.” Economic Research Forum. 2016.

[6] Lebanon Economic Vision.” Economy.gov.lb, www.economy.gov.lb/media/11893/20181022-1228full-report-en.pdf.

[7] El-Amine, Rayan, et al. “The Lebanese People Are Reclaiming Their Future. Can They Seize It?” Middle East Eye, www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/how-lebanese-people-are-reclaiming-their-future.

[8]Al Jazeera. “Lebanon: Banks Asked to Review Politicians’ Fund Transfers Abroad.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 16 Jan. 2020, www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/lebanon-banks-asked-review-politicians-fund-transfers-200116162617641.html.

[9] Lebanese citizens have long suffered from an inconsistent supply of certain public services, including water and electricity. Electricity is provided publicly to citizens in Lebanon, but at most will be available for two thirds of the day. Many Lebanese have reverted to private power generators, whose sellers are typically supported by politicians, who supply homes with power using the official pubic distribution networks in exchange for monthly subscription fees.  Due to the mismanagement by the government and the damage done to water systems following the 2006 war, most Lebanese receive water from their municipalities intermittently and often water that is contaminated. As a result, most are forced to pay two bills, one for municipal water and one for bottled water or some other private source, often associated with a particular political leader.   Such trends manifest themselves in the provision of practically all social services in the country.

[10] “Over 4,700 Lebanese Are Emigrating from #Lebanon Every Month.” Blog Baladi, blogbaladi.com/over-4700-lebanese-are-immigrating-every-month/.

[11] The term Wasta, loosely translates to an individual who finds themselves in the middle, between two actors or parties.  This term more specifically, is used to refer to the use of one’s connections for personal gain. Western readings of Wastaoften denote this concept as a manifestation of nepotism and for some, corruption. Wasta may include corrupt acts, but also captures a larger phenomenon in Middle Eastern societies. Some instances of Wasta are in fact legal. Such practices additionally, may be legally questionable but are in fact systematic, socially acceptable modes of behavior. Wasta is not a top down business but is diffused across society. 

[12]Solidere is a firm that was partially owned by the late Rafik Hariri, the Prime Minister in the 1990s, tasked with planning and reconstructing Beirut’s central district.  He centered his approach of the reconstruction on foreign investment and business interests. Yet, his approach allowed the warlords of the civil war to exploit the reconstruction economy. Additionally, Hariri focused largely on creating a “modern” and luxurious downtown rather than investing in infrastructure, transportation, hospitals or schools.

[13] « Under the country’s kafala (or sponsorship) system, the legal status of migrant domestic workers is in the hands of their employers. If the employer terminates their contract, the sponsorship gets automatically cancelled, turning these workers into illegal aliens and putting them at risk of arrest and/or deportation. In addition, although confiscating passports is forbidden by law, such violations continue to occur. In effect, this means that foreign workers, most of whom are women, have very little means to defend themselves should the employer abuse them in any way or refuse to pay their salary. “The Lebanese Revolution Must Abolish the Kafala System.” Middle East | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 14 Nov. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/lebanese-revolution-abolish-kafala-system-191114115435950.html.

[14] At times violent threats and acts were made against protesters from the Shiite Muslim community. As mentioned, this community relies on the group for protection, jobs, social services. Moreover, this community are often sidelined and neglected by state institutions and at times society at large. Therefore, a narrative from this community has emerged in which internal criticism may be permittedbut become defensive when their leadership is criticized externally. These videos seriously demotivated some from the community from participating in protests.  Yee, Vivian, and Hwaida Saad. “For Lebanon’s Shiites, a Dilemma: Stay Loyal to Hezbollah or Keep Protesting?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/world/middleeast/lebanon-protests-shiites-hezbollah.html.

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