Nearly two months have passed since the revolution started in Lebanon. The sectarian regime, the politicians who guard and sustain it, and the quick-fix economic policies that leave the rich richer and the poor poorer—they all still stand. While Lebanese people are taking to the streets daily, blocking roads, and announcing strikes until their demands for social and economic justice are met, the broader world is celebrating women's "participation and leadership." But the world has long avoided acknowledging that women have always been an integral part of mobilizing for protests both in Lebanon and across the Middle East and North Africa. Leaders and members of political parties who celebrate women's participation in the current protests have opposed criminalizing marital rape, issuing a civil personal status law, efforts to codify women’s right to pass on their citizenship to their children—the list goes on.
As a feminist, I have always known that patriarchy is an integral pillar of the Lebanese regime. But now that the local and international media is celebrating women's participation in the Lebanese revolution, it is important to articulate an explicitly feminist understanding of the Lebanese regime and its mode of governance. That said, what I discuss in this piece are not ideas that emerged from a vacuum, but rather they are part of an ongoing debate among feminists in Lebanon. In this article, I start by establishing that President Michel Aoun is a patriarchal figure, a role that is encoded in his popular moniker "everybody's father." I provide a brief context and background for the current ruling party coalition in light of the 1975–1990 Lebanese Civil War. Throughout, I argue that a feminist lens and praxis can provide different potentialities in this process of revolutionary emancipation.
When the Lebanese parliament elected President Aoun in 2016, the country was infested with posters calling him “everybody’s father” (bayy al-kil). The term was meant to indicate the political unification of all sectarian parties under his wing. This illusion was especially important given the reconciliation of Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement with Samir Geagea and the Lebanese Forces. The two parties fought viciously during the civil war, destroying much of Beirut. The ritualized reconciliation and ostensible elevation of Aoun as the president for "all" Christians was commemorated via a celebration cake in addition to an “Ouaa Khayak” concerto. The music video accompanying the song evoked kinship ties of blood and emotional bonds between Christians breaking and mending. The events glossed over years of civil war and a Syrian occupation by depicting the parties’ differences as a simple fraternal dispute among teenagers.
Toxic masculinity as an aggressive normative performance of manliness suffuses the atmosphere of the song, its narration, its model of kinship, and its approach to reconciliation. On the one hand, there is something almost viscerally appealing about the simplicity of the “teenage quarrel” narrative: “They were young! They were rash! They did not know what they were doing.” After all, we have all heard the oral histories of the brothers who killed one another on the Green Line, one siding with Geagea and another siding with Aoun. This narrative is affectively encoded within an urban legend of two brothers who fought at the green line against each other. On the other hand, it takes vast reservoirs of unapologetic impunity to confess, after thirty years, that the reason a generation grew up in underground shelters was because of a “teenage phase” (that is, war). War, as Rima Majed reminds us, is a decision between leaders. War is not a spontaneous act of coincidence or teenage fistfight (which is how it is depicted in the reconciliation video clip). War as a form of toxic masculinity is a complex system built on the plural foundation of the Lebanese nation, such as power, conflict saturation, political and economic problems, and a less analytically popular structure: patriarchy.
“Everybody’s father,” is the quintessential teenager, in men’s clothing. The phrase reminds us of the patriarch, and offers, I would argue, a framework by which the current Lebanese state functions under Aoun–and has functioned under others. In the Aoun/Geagea dichotomy, Christian leadership/kinship allows political, economic, and social relations to infiltrate the sectarian state as a simple “family matter.”
Observing “al-ahed al-qawi” (the strong reign) at work, I must note that the Aoun leadership and the FPM political party has promised much: a flourishing economy; twenty-four-seven electricity; and a commuter train in Lebanon. Lebanon is infamous for its “dysfunctional” infrastructure, especially in the essential public service sector. Those promises acted as an immunity wall built to deter accountability for the past. Violent recurrent social relations are not fond of the past; the lords of the civil war constantly avoid acknowledging their histories. For example, the Lebanese school history curriculum stops in the year of the civil war, effectively silencing the civil war. The past is only invoked as a scare tactic, for example, when zu‘ama threaten the return of the civil war for the purpose of parading power. When Aoun came to power, he did so without an apology for all the lives lost by death or forced disappearance during the war he fought with the Lebanese Forces. There was no promise of “I will not do it again.” Aoun did not try to be the remorseful patriarch.
If we take, for example, the allegory of domestic violence abuse cases where the father is older, sitting at home, policing the household, and punishing whosoever speaks up against him. He sends his kids to work and restricts their access to food and money, taking their salaries by force. Once the father’s power is inadequate to contain the anger of the house, he usually resorts to the other men in the family to assist him in taming resistance. Is this scenario familiar? Now imagine Aoun is the father (everybody’s father), and Lebanon is a big “family” gathering. Of course, this is only one of the many scenarios and forms of how a patriarch runs a family.
One of the most common forms of taming resistance is policing. Policing is critical to how patriarchy sustains itself within gender, economic, capitalist, and political power structures. Policing is the intersection that glues neoliberal economies, the taming of rebels in public spaces, the maintenance of private properties and their condition, and, of course, the very tone of the society. Post-civil war Lebanon is/was a police state, but under the guidance of a strong patriarch, the “daddy” of the nation, policing escalated. Daddy is, in turn, allied with other male figures: the brother (the recently resigned Prime Minister Saad al-Harriri) and with dogmatized figures of governance such as Hassan Nasrallah (the head of Hizballah) and Nabih Berri (head of the parliament and the political party Amal). These male figures work in concert, controlling a broader apparatus of policing that stretches from the public to the public/private and to the private and intimate.
How does this operate in practice? So far in 2019, various state agencies have arrested and interrogated more than sixty people based on Facebook posts and, at times, for circulating WhatsApp messages against politicians—especially those who are close to the ruling regime. The president patriarch is not only entitled to our bodies, but also to our thoughts, expressions, and to any ideology that is not synonymous with the regime’s own. (Honor thy father—ok, daddy). Silencing via policing, whether docile, subtle, or blatant, is one of the main pillars of patriarchal violence that allows its reproduction. Silencing as a forced immaterial tentacle of violence sustains patriarchy by curbing any attempts to come together as a movement or collectives and mobilize against it—or at least it tries to, but that does not mean it is always efficient or applicable.
Another layer or trait embedded in the syntax of “everybody’s father” is the patriarchal ownership that manifests in so-called “chivalry” of protection. This form of protection entails that to protect land, a human, or even a pet, you need a sense of entitlement over them, their lives, and their bodies. For example, the army and the police are formed around the idea of protecting citizens, and thus are entitled to their bodies. Since entitlement is de facto granted by all (infra)structures of patriarchy, this sense of ownership becomes a form of negotiation and mediation between protection and the lack of thereof.
In the case of Lebanon, other men in the governmental “family” assist the president in performing this entitlement over the bodies of people. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), General Security, State Security, and the president’s political counterparts (the zu‘ama) act like watchful brothers. The LAF is looked up to as the “secular” protector of the people. But the “father” instrumentalizes the subtle power of LAF for the benefit of the power center. For example, when a militia tried to attack the protestors on 25 October, the army used that power to stop the attackers, reminding the people of the importance of their existence. Four days later, the same attack took place in the presence of the riot police, with what seemed like a lose attempt from riot police to form a barrier between the protestors and the militiamen attacking them. The attack took place in an area called "the Ring," a major highway that links different parts of Beirut. The attack took place in the proximity of an army station. A permanently stationed tank and some sort of army station were visible to the naked eye, steps from the attack. As the riot police tried to contain the violence by creating a barrier between the protestors and the militias who were attacking them, it took the army about an hour or so to arrive to the area to separate the attackers (militias) from the attacked (civilian protestors).
The protection game here is exposed via giving protection and withholding it as a power hierarchy. This power hierarchy’s backbone is exactly this entitlement of the army over the bodies of the protestors; they decide when the protestors should be protected, not the other way around. In other instances, on 23 and 29 October 2019, the army is itself seen attacking, arresting, and policing the roadblock gatherings orchestrated by civilian protestors. The army is the protector, who fluctuates in taking roles of protection at times and withdrawing it at other times. The army is playing that exact game of entitlement and protection where its institutional or regional political alliance with political parties in Lebanon decides whether to protect or arrest protestors. Therefore, the destiny of any type of resistance against the system is always portrayed as arbitrary and full of surprises. That political game is constantly at play and is based on the concealed and abstract process of decision making whether to protect protestors or arrest them. Security agents of the Lebanese governance is constantly shifting alliances. Decision to protect or attack a protest is mainly another form of abstract patriarchal tyranny where those who are “supposed” to protect civilians (the army, the police) sometimes do, and other time attack protestors.
The Concept of Consent
Another facet of “everybody’s father” governance is the deployment of assigned-at-birth male kin as a “buffer zone” between the patriarch/president and the people. Gebran Bassil, minister of foreign affairs in the caretaker government, is the appointed president of FPM and the right hand (and son-in-law) of the president. Bassil is one of those “buffer zones.” For example, on the first three days of the October 2019 revolution, Gebran Bassil, a politician who united the streets in their hatred of him, stated on national television that this revolution is his. He claimed that the movement assists the FPM because it will help the political party to push its anti-corruption agenda. The protestors’ reaction to his speech could be best described with the famous feminist phrase “no means no.” They went to the streets and kept protesting to say no, this is not your revolution, but it is a revolution against you.
It may seem odd to bring up the concept of consent in such situations, but revolutions are, among many other things, about saying no to unacceptable modes of governing. A big clear no; a no that is soon twisted or discursively coopted by the patriarch’s power by either ignoring or twisting it to say, “Oh you say no, but you do not really mean it; you obviously never wanted me, but now you might not want me more, but you still want me.” A revolution is also about acknowledging that “boys will be boys,” as in politicians will do whatever pleases them, is not acceptable anymore. The refusal of the protestors to justify politician’s behavior is an acknowledgment that things might change. It is against another allegory which is “whatever the people do, the politicians will always stay” which is almost like saying “boys will always be boys.” A month into the revolution and the president and his allies are still trying to coopt the street's discourse, still playing the patronizing role of the patriarch who is selflessly worried about the children of the nation. More than a month now and the streets are saying no means no.
This is when the past is purposefully used. For example, in his televised interview on 12 November 2001, Aoun stated that if the protests do not stop, the country will collapse. Even after a month of strikes and the protestors’ refusal to leave the streets, the government continues to infantilize protestors, denying their constitutional rights to form a transitional government and victim-blaming them. Though Prime Minister Hariri resigned, remaining, however, in the government in a caretaker capacity (a constitutional procedure), Aoun is still insisting on holding his presidential position, even as protestors chant “leave, leave, your reign starved everybody,” and repeatedly demand his resignation. The non-consensual interaction with the state and all its politicians, while there are thousands in the street saying no to them, brings back the conversation to the roots of patriarchy: power, entitlement, and non-consensual violence. Consent is one of the most ignored social relations of every day of struggles and especially in revolutionary moments analysis.
So Where Are We Now in Terms of Daddy and Kin? (Daddy-kins?)
The ruling party tried to co-opt the movement by claiming it as theirs. The president pretends that he is “everybody’s father.” The system relies upon governance that is predominantly non-consensual. When sweet talk does not work, the male kin give the rebels a disciplining spank. The male kin here can stretch to all state security apparatus, starting with militiamen, the riot police, or the army. Once the spank does not work, the president and his governance tools revert to the past—that specter that is never mentioned unless it is for their benefit. They remind people of civil war, and warn them of the potential for civil war. Here, the patriarchal alliance starts forming among regimes of power to tame the movement via “spontaneous” counter-protests from political parties.
The game of good cop/bad militia has already been played, and once it did not work for the benefit of the state, the fraternity of army, riot police, and civil and institutional militia both simultaneously contesting one another but also supporting one another started to surface. It is more than a month now and everybody’s father—big daddy—has shown that he is familiar with the demand of the protestors through his speech, but still keeps his position. Ironically, in one of his interviews, the president started his interview with all Lebanese citizens are my children, and I love all of them. The same interview ended with the victim-blaming the protestors for destroying the country and its economy. Moreover, the government is stalling on the dominant revolutionary demand for a technocratic government. Protestors are still in the street; the movement is still vibrant, and with it there are also more obvious codes of patriarchy: morality apparatus, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and so on, all working as tentacles of violence, sometimes striking together, other times acting singularly.
Feminist scholars or not, we all need a wider analytical frame to examine the politics of protection, entitlement, and consent. I am suggesting a conversation that aims to develop how we think of governance, and within what context, but also from various perspectives. A feminist lens of looking at the present/past unfolding non-linear events exposes areas and political games that the economy lens alone, or the traditional political lens alone cannot provide.