Lebanon is broken politically, economically, and socially. In addition to the violence that daily targets civilians for living in areas that are said to “belong” to this or that political faction, religious and sectarian hatred is on the rise, more and more people are pushed into poverty and unemployment, citizens, refugees, and migrant laborers alike freeze to death or are crushed to death on streets, in tents, and in unsound buildings. There is no (legitimate) Lebanese government, and no hopes of forming one anytime soon. Meanwhile, presidential elections loom, and politicians are using the formation or non-formation of a government as both a bargaining chip and as a threat to their “rivals.”
There is a popular analysis that all that is happening in Lebanon today can be explained through a metaphor of “spillover” from Syria. But Lebanon was broken—politically, economically and socially polarized, and toxically so—before 2011. Sunni-Shi`i sectarianism and violence has been on the rise in the region since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, due to both the occupation forces’ incompetence and design. If anything, it is Syria that may begin to look like Iraq has for the past decade if the war grinds on. There is a War on Terror lexicon operating in Lebanon today—one that is peppered with binaries like progressive/regressive, culture of life/culture of death, Islamist/secular, rational/irrational, tolerant/intolerant. Even the cast of characters is similar. Iran and “their Lebanese” are in one corner, Saudi Arabia and “their Lebanese” are in another. Al-Qai`da(s) seemingly appears from thin air and everyone claims to oppose them yet they continue to receive money and arms from “mysterious” sources. The United States` (and Saudi Arabia`s) complicity in this inferno does not begin with the invasion of Iraq, but it certainly crystallizes there. We simply cannot understand Lebanon or Syria today without thinking about Iraq, and yet we so rarely hear of the connections between the three.
Protests and marches will not end the war that is being fought across the country, nor will they end political cronyism and corruption or even ameliorate, let alone remove, the system of political sectarianism. There will be no revolution in Lebanon, no uprising that sweeps the political classes away and puts them in the chains they belong in. Instead, there is a civil war. It does not look like the civil war of 1975-1990 or of 1958. Militiamen and armed gangs are not roaming the streets of Beirut (although they are in Tripoli and have in Sidon). Schools and universities and (miraculously) state institutions continue to function, albeit barely. But this does not mean that the country is not at war.
Our desensitization to violence should not make it impossible to know that this is a civil war. Armed conflict breaks out every other day in the second largest city in the country. Car bombs and suicide bombs and just bombs regularly target different “segments” of the population. Lebanese citizens and residents are fighting in each other in Syria, using weapons furnished by rival regional powers. This is war—not “spillover,” and that it will continue as long as Syria burns and perhaps even after that.
Right now it is not “realistic” or “practical” to advocate for political, economic, legal or social change. Of course, people in power have always told activists that now is not “the right time” to make demands in a country seemingly always in crisis. Still, changing or ending the wars in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon is beyond the reach of citizens and residents and refugees. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that it seems as if there is no way out of this vortex, it may be a good time to imagine what we want.
This might be a time to think without the restraints of what is "possible" and instead dwell in the realm of the "impossible." It could be a time to dream and to fantasize, unencumbered by the restraints of practicality or strategy. If you could change anything you wanted in Lebanon, what would it be? If you had to imagine a state one could at least live with (and under), what would it look like? If you could assume that a seemingly never ending war wouldn’t erupt every five or so years, and if you didn’t have to worry daily about the immediate safety of your loved ones, what would you want? If you believed that public funds (including the riches projected off of offshore oil and gas drilling) would actually be used to fund the public, what would you want to improve or revamp? If you thought your voice, opinions, fears, hopes and desires would reach others, and that those others would listen and not immediately brush them off as something to think about “bukra,” what would you say?
This week a Facebook campaign was started asking people to send in a picture of themselves with the hashtag #I am not a martyr and with a note asking for one thing they would like to change in Lebanon. There are many things I would like to change in Lebanon, but below are a list of changes that I think have the capacity to be revolutionary and structurally innovative for large numbers of people. Some of them are not obvious. The reader will notice that there are no political demands or “stances” on the current civil war in Lebanon. This is because the demands outlined below are not tied to any particular moment or political party or “side.” They are structural changes that are needed regardless of who is in power and regardless of who “wins” and “loses” this time around. There are so many of much needed structural changes and reforms that are needed desperately in Lebanon. This is only a small selection of my personal suggestions, and I encourage all readers to add theirs in the comments section.
Readers will also notice the absence of a demand for the removal of political sectarianism or the passage of a unified and obligatory personal status law. This is because my thoughts on both of these issues are somewhat uncomplicated and obvious: I believe that political sectarianism needs to end today, not at some undefined point in a fuzzy future when politicians tell us that we will be “ready” for it. Similarly, I also believe that a unified personal status law needs to happen now, and not later—when corrupt religious and sectarian leaders can be “persuaded” to somehow give up monetary, social, and political streams of revenue.
1) Abolish the current census registration system and close all the offices that hold census information (dar al nufus). The current system not only registers and monitors the patrilineally inherited sect of each citizen and registers families according to their geographic “origin” (as opposed to their residence), it also formally and bureaucratically treats female citizens as the legal appendages of either their husbands or their fathers. For example, when women are married their names are removed (most often crossed out by hand) from her family census document (listed under the father) and “added” to that of her husband. If she gets divorced she is again crossed out from her husband’s document (which would still list any children they may have) and “returned” to that of her father. While it has become common to critique the ways that the census bureaucratically promotes and protects sectarianism, we hear less about how it promotes and protects sexism. In fact, both male domination and sectarianism are intimately linked and reinforce each other—they are both patriarchal and hierarchical systems that reward conservatism and promote “strong men” as leaders/protectors.
In short, remove of the current census system (including family sijil numbers) and replace it with new individual ID cards that do not mention sect, religion, marital status, geographic origin, parental or family status (such as adoption or “illegitimacy”) or family registration numbers. Instead, each citizen would have an id card with a randomly generated census number. Such a change would end many practices that occur at the knot of sexism and sectarianism.
2) Women should have the right to grant citizenship to their children and to their spouses without exception. It is shameful and more importantly, unconstitutional that the majority of Lebanese citizens cannot pass on their citizenship.
3) Open a path to citizenship for all refugees/asylum seekers/economic migrants who desire to apply.
4) Create a free, safe, modern and public busing system that cuts across the entire country and is reliable. Similarly, a commuter rail system should be built that connects Nabatieh to Sidon to Beirut to Jounieh to Tripoli—the major coastal cities of the country. Once these are firmly in place and functioning well, encourage people to carpool through both incentives and penalizations for driving alone in a car, particularly in cities.
5) Raise the minimum wage to seven hundred dollars a month. This should apply to Lebanese citizens, residents, and migrants working and laboring (including domestically) in Lebanon. Currently, the minimum wage is around four hundred and fifty dollars a month, and does not apply, and/or is not enforced, when it to non- Lebanese workers. No one should be paid slave wages.
6) Enforce public land and public interest law. Demolish structures that violate it and reopen them to the public. This includes when the government itself steals public land, as is the case with the officers’ club on Beirut’s seashore. Urban planning should be in the service of communities, not gentrification or profit.
7) Better and cheaper basic services, including water, electricity, telephone and Internet. It is criminal that Lebanese pay more for their water, electricity, internet and telephones than most others in the world—particularly when they have no access to reliable running water, electricity, phone lines or internet.
8) Accountability for government corruption and public inquiries into scandals that are open, transparent, and have teeth. After all, how is it that the mufti is still the mufti despite the fact that his corruption is well known? How is that political leaders such as Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun—infamous for rumors of corruption and nepotism—have never been publicly investigated on charges of either? In keeping with the spirit of holding politicians accountable, in foreseeable elections all incumbents should be banned from running, and said elections must include televised debates where citizens can participate.
9) The creation of a consumer protection bureau. Currently, there is no accountability for capitalists and their political allies trying to make some money selling rotting meat, toys that are harmful to children, lead based paint or any other myriad spoiled and toxic goods, to consumers.
10) Public schools should actually be free and accessible across the country—currently the fees associated with public schooling are often too expensive for families. All children have the right to a good, well rounded, and unified education system. The public school system should be serviced by a publicly run (and free) school bus system that cuts across the entire country. Public schools should not be allowed to choose which religion their teach to “their” children and all school curricula should be unified and up to date.
11) End all political appointments to the Lebanese University, the only public university in Lebanon. Academic and administrative appointments should be merit based, not nepotism based. Create free and universal access to its central campus in Beirut and offer free housing to students in their first year.
12) Create a truth and reconciliation/memory bank for people to share their experiences with violence and trauma related to civil war. This memory bank should go to every village and city in the country and should be completely anonymous. Produce books and films from this archive and make them part of a unified school curricula.
13) Free and comprehensive universal health care that MUST be accepted at all hospitals and must include full access to safe and modern women`s health. In addition, what constitutes “public health” should include space for alcoholism, drug addiction, STIs, PTSD and trauma.
14) Legalize, regulate, export and tax hashish. Use revenue to fund newly revamped public health system and universal health care. Lebanon’s cannabis is a natural resource that should be put to use for the country.
15) Keep the security forces on a leash. Everyone in a uniform should be held accountable to the full extent of the law for abuses against citizens and residents and refugees. Their presence should be to protect at risk communities and the community at large, not to prey on them.