Over the past three months, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the global neoliberal logics which make most societies unable to manage the ensuing socioeconomic and health crises. Between the ramifications of highly privatized healthcare systems and the lack of social safety nets, corporate interests, and weak state institutions are detrimental to the welfare of populations around the world, particularly the most vulnerable.
The impacts of, and responses to, the pandemic in Lebanon provide us with a particularly interesting case study into the manner by which political authorities instrumentalize crises. It also uncovers the lack of organizational structures through which working classes can push for universal social protection. In turn, this piece is concerned with examining Lebanese political parties’ responses to the overlapping health, socioeconomic, and political crises. It also seeks to shed light on emerging alternatives and the urgent need for class-based organizing.
Responding to Covid-19: Clientelism, Charity, and Repression
Lebanon has been on partial lockdown since 15 March. In a country already dealing with soaring unemployment rates, a depreciating currency, pay cuts, business closures, unsustainable inflation, and banks running out of liquidities, the already precarious living conditions of Lebanese residents are going to be further tested. Rather than rely on the state to devise a comprehensive and thorough plan to help its population, political parties saw an opportunity to further their interests by rebuilding their clientelist networks and reminding people that they have no one but them.
As such, parties deployed what resources are at their disposal, and made sure to advertise their efforts. For instance, each party had its own quarantine centers, and local news stations provided extensive coverage for these initiatives. On 27 March, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) had a full segment in which it outlined the number of centers and rooms each party was provided to citizens. Meanwhile, parties also deployed the municipalities they controlled: a number of videos were circulated on social media showcasing volunteers, vehicles, and trucks branded with the logos of their respective parties.
The state implemented a cash assistance program for the most deprived, amounting to 400,000 depreciating Liras, yet many protesters rejected it as an unsustainable and insufficient solution. Rather than treat the socio-economic crisis as a systemic and structural issue in need of radical reforms, politicians and business elites instead resorted to charity. Most notably, during the infamous “Sar el Wa’et” talk show, more than 3.2 billion LBP were reportedly donated from political and business leaders. The likes of billionaires such as Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati, as well as the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Jumblatt, also made donations. In addition, the Association of Banks in Lebanon—the group representing the interests of those withholding people’s deposits—made a six million dollar donation to the government.
Political parties did not only capitalize on the crisis through their clientelist networks: they also cracked down on protesters and symbols of the uprising. On 27 March, when the country’s curfew measures came into effect, riot police tore down dozens of protesters’ tents in Downtown Beirut, which had been up since the first week of the uprising. Nearly a month later, members of political parties raided other symbolic structures in Martyrs’ Square. More recently, on 3 May, the Lebanese army removed protesters’ tents from the side of a road in Baalbek, following similar occurrences in other squares associated with the uprising.
When protesters sought to express their opposition to the measures undertaken by political parties, they were met with aggression by security forces. On 29 March, Ghaith Hammoud, a protester in ‘Akkar, was arrested by the Internal Security Forces after expressing his opposition to the clientelist practices of parliamentarians in his district. Supporters of Member of Parliament Walid al-Baarini shot at Ghaith and his friends during the protest, yet none of them were arrested by the Internal Security Forces.
Despite these events, protests were rather limited during most of the lockdown period. However, what is being touted as the second wave of the Lebanese uprising began the night of 27 April. Riots in Tripoli and Saida were at the forefront of the news. Violent responses by the army in Tripoli led to twenty-six-year-old Fawaz Fouad al-Samman succumbing to gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, reports of some of the worst kinds of torture have emerged from protesters detained by security agencies in Saida.
Emerging Alternatives and Class-based Organizing
This crisis has once again exposed the Lebanese state’s systemic violence and unwillingness to cater to its most vulnerable citizens. The Lebanese working class has been pushed to the brink, with modest estimates placing unemployment at thirty percent, not to mention the prevalence of unprotected and informal labor across sectors. Soaring inflation has also made basic necessities inaccessible to many. Under such conditions, it is imperative for communities to find alternatives to the clientelist networks of political parties. Non-governmental organizations and charities filled some of the gaps left by the state throughout the postwar period, yet such alternatives were mere band-aids to a much larger wound. Not only do they ignore systemic and structural ailments, but they also depend on these conditions for their survival as top-down institutions.
Considering these realities, many mutual aid initiatives have emerged since the start of the uprising and cultivated solidarity networks that are community-driven and non-hierarchical. For instance, Facebook groups like LibanTROC and, more recently, “Kitfi bi Kitfak” (Shoulder to Shoulder) have become platforms for people to exchange basic goods, raise money, or resolve personal issues as a community. Essentially, these groups are functioning as alternative forms of grassroots safety nets.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the Habaq Movement are seeking to develop self-sustainable local economies by encouraging cooperative farming, while others like the Housing Monitor seek to guarantee housing rights by documenting violations and advocating for radical legal reform. These various initiatives, alongside many others, reflect how people recognize the state’s inability and aversion to developing formal safety nets. They also uncover a larger move towards communities taking matters into their own hands, as highlighted by the emergence of various new political groups and unions.
Historically, labor unions were the main vehicle through which the working class sought to obtain its rights. Class-based organizing has always posed a threat to Lebanese elites, because it undermines their sectarianization efforts, both materially and ideologically. In the prewar period, particularly the early 1970s, industrial and agricultural workers were well organized and radicalized, engaging in multiple mobilizations against capitalist elites. During the 1990s, the General Labor Confederation (CGTL) was the key player opposing neoliberal policies and the growing rentier economy dependent upon clientelism.
Ever since unions were co-opted in the late 1990s, they have lacked the independence required from political parties to be effective. As recently as 2011-15, a teachers-led movement sought to reinvigorate the labor struggle, only to be defeated yet again by the sectarian establishment. With that historical context in mind, and recognizing the need to rebuild labor networks for the success of the uprising and beyond, various actors took advantage of the revolutionary momentum in 2019 to mobilize workers across sectors and found alternative unions. These groups came together under the umbrella of the Lebanese Association of Professionals (LAP), which includes professionals in the health sector (medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy), engineers and architects, lawyers, social workers, journalists, economists, writers, artists, and university professors.
There is a dire need for such grassroots-based groups. Indeed, the pandemic has further exposed the lack of social safety nets, the ensuing need for systemic reforms, and the fact that citizens lack the organizational structures needed to push for these rights. The only mobilizations in the Arab region which have turned into relatively successful revolutions occurred in Tunisia and Sudan, and both were led by strong labor movements.
The LAP is far from ready to carry such a role, but it is a promising initiative that reflects people’s growing will to organize politically. There are various other emerging groups, such as LiHaqqi and Kafeh, that have similar ambitions and that are committed to class-based and grassroots-driven approaches to political organizing. Such initiatives can eventually come together as a broader coalition of progressive revolutionary forces, such as the Forces of Freedom and Change in Sudan. However, the key for the short-term is to expand their presence on the ground and become viable alternatives that the larger public can trust and support.
In turn, the foundations for alternatives to the political and economic status quo are in the making. However, such efforts require time and experience to develop the capacity needed to become viable nationwide. In the short-term, mutual aid initiatives and emerging political groups can help meet some basic needs while curtailing clientelism and pushing for systemic reforms. At a time when the Lebanese state is moving closer towards an International Monetary Fund assistance plan, pressure must be exerted to guarantee progressive reforms that prioritize the social protection of the most vulnerable.
This entails opposing austerity measures that further deplete the capacity of state institutions, while pushing for progressive taxation, accountability and transparency mechanisms, and public investments in healthcare, education, and local productive sectors. A combination of these complementary short-term and long-term measures, alongside the growth of class-based organizing, is the sole solution to mitigate the damage of Lebanon’s overlapping crises and to establish a solid foundation for future recovery, social justice, and sustainable growth.
[This article was originally published on fes-lebanon.org.]