Two years ago, a triumphant hope coursed through Lebanon as hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied around the country, transcending sectarian, partisan, and geographic divides to condemn the country’s political establishment and demand a just future.
Two years after the October 17 Revolution, a darkness haunts Lebanon.
Economic despair, the COVID-19 pandemic, political violence, a paralyzing fuel and power crisis, extreme brain drain, and the enduring consequences of the Port of Beirut Blast continue to traumatize the country.
Hope, though present, is hard to find.
But Lebanon’s enduring crisis is not simply a function of internal mismanagement, unchecked corruption, or intra-state strife, nor has the country’s complete collapse happened behind closed doors.
As the Biden Administration prepares to embark on a new foreign policy strategy aimed at empowering democratic movements around the world, it must start by taking decisive action in Lebanon.
Lebanon is not a failed state; it is a state made to fail. And its revolution can still deliver the transformation needed to save it.
It needs a fighting chance.
The October 17 Revolution
The history of the October 17 Revolution is well known by now. In its early days, demonstrators across the country (and in the diaspora) famously rallied around a common cry—“kelon ya’neh kelon” (“all of them means all of them”)—to denounce the entire ruling class. The once unthinkable took place almost daily, as traditional political elites and parties were mocked, condemned, and denounced.
In doing so, October 17 birthed a people-powered movement that directly challenged the very legitimacy of the ruling class.
By the end of the month, then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri submitted his resignation, in what was hailed a momentous victory for the revolution. Independent candidates in syndicate elections flourished, such as Melhem Khalaf, who won in a landslide for head of the Beirut Bar Association against a candidate backed by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Future Movement, Hezbollah, Amal, and the Lebanese Forces.
Despite the ebbs and flows in the popular protests, almost every major electoral contest since has been won by independent and secular candidates. To be clear, in the absence of early municipal, parliamentary, or presidential elections—all scheduled for 2022—these campaigns focused on syndicates and universities, key indicators of the political moods and currents in the country.
In 2020, university elections were dominated by independent candidates, with unprecedented losses for traditional political parties.
In the summer of 2021, this momentum of electoral domination continued with the independent coalition Naqaba Tantafid (“The Syndicate Revolts”), securing a significant win over a unified force of traditional parties in the syndicate elections of the Order of Engineers and Architects.
These victories mark not just the deflation of popular support for traditional political parties, but the organizational ingenuity and campaign effectiveness of independents actors, and their tested ability to circumvent smearing, misinformation campaigns, and sectarian fear-mongering.
Independents can and do win elections. Established parties can and do lose them.
New face of authoritarianism in Lebanon
While recent localized elections, far removed from the halls of power in Lebanon, point to the shifting tides in public opinion, they do not fundamentally transform policymaking in the country.
That popular support does not translate into political power has less to do with the thawra (revolution) and its organizational capacities and more to do with the particularities of those in power.
Indeed, the resignation of Hariri in the first month of the uprising, did not result in a follow up resignation of the speaker of the house, the president, or parliament as a whole, regardless of the scope or reach of protests.
What soon emerged was the formation of a one-color government, led by Hezbollah and its allies the FPM (President) and Amal (Speaker of House).
Hassan Diab, a minor political actor within the establishment but outside the traditional ruling elite, was appointed as prime minister to head a quasi-technocratic cabinet.
But this was not a victory for independents, it was the advent of a new face of authoritarianism in Lebanon.
Writing in March 2021, Nadim Shehadi drew attention to the two competing narratives seeking to explain the unravelling of Lebanon’s crisis. The first narrative positions Lebanon as a failed state—driven to collapse by the uncontrollable corruption, greed, and negligence of a morally bankrupt and inept ruling class. The second contends “that the country has been subjected to a systematic and coordinated ‘battering’ since September 2004, when UN Security Council resolution 1559 challenged the Syrian presence and the arms of Hezbollah.”
As with most narratives, both draw on partial truths, and read together, help highlight the challenge facing Lebanon’s future.
Political power in Lebanon is not dependent on popular support, but rather is rooted in clientelism, foreign alliances, and violence. While parties compete for representation in the country’s political system, it is the political consensus outside the corridors of state institutions that primarily shape policy-making in the country.
Ever since Hezbollah’s use of arms to defeat its local rivals in 2008, a new political consensus emerged in Lebanon, with Hezbollah positioned as the major power-broker, engendering a gravity of its own that all other local actors orbit around, free to split spoils outside the strategic interests of the group and its backer, Iran.
Hezbollah is not a state within a state; it has eclipsed the state.
Diab’s nomination made clear that while the corrupt ruling class was on the retreat, the actual powerbroker—Hezbollah—was no longer hiding in the shadows. The nomination of a Prime Minister outside the traditional ruling class highlighted the concern (at the time at least) the ruling class had with their unpopularity. Equally true, however, was that the nomination of a PM at the disposal of Hezbollah stood as a reminder that Lebanon’s major powerbroker remained entrenched.
Beyond Diab, the continuity of this one-color government, currently headed by PM Najib Miqati, marks the ascension of a new chapter in Lebanon’s experience with illiberalism and authoritarianism.
Herein lies the new phase of struggle for Lebanon. The leverage, capacities, and legitimacy of the ruling class have significantly deflated. However, the ability for Hezbollah to coerce its strategic agenda with impunity remains the axiom guiding politics in the country.
As the clashes aimed to obstruct the judicial investigation into the Port of Beirut last week demonstrated, no checks to Hezbollah’s power are tolerated.
But the group’s almost absolute control over the country is not an inevitable reality borne of its ability to mobilize force, coerce dissidents and rivals, and crush any armed opposition in the country. Indeed, there are limits to the degree to which the organization can use force inside Lebanon, without risking some form of international intervention. Unlike autocratic states, Hezbollah—labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other international stakeholders—is not shielded by the pretense of “sovereignty.”
Hezbollah’s power is rooted in its targeted use of political violence—and the absence of protection from it. The more that ability to use coercion against reformers, dissidents, and all opponents who challenge its strategic interest continues without consequences for Hezbollah, the stronger its claims that its domination cannot be contested and its opponents are alone.
In the face of such real and present violence, what can unarmed, people-powered movements and reformers really do? What choices are they given when fighting, for example, for accountability and transparency over the port of Beirut blast?
Inaction to authoritarianism
The rise of Hezbollah and the differences between the Cedar and October Revolutions necessitates examining the role of international responses to authoritarian violence in Lebanon. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, following the 2005 assassination of Former PM Rafiq Hariri, is often criticized for focusing on the withdrawal of the Assad Regime and allowing the continuity of the country’s sectarian and confessional system, along with its ruling elite. On the other hand, the original focus of the October 17 Revolution prioritized tackling the country’s systemic failures, such as pervasive corruption, non-governance, and sectarianism; albeit not significantly addressing the new power dynamics in Lebanon.
Among protesters and the new people-powered movements, the question of how to respond to Hezbollah’s disproportionate power remains a divisive issue, inviting debate over how to address the matter. Does “kelon ya’neh kelon” offer the protection needed to challenge Hezbollah, or does it inaccurately equivocate, shielding the organization from taking the weight of critique it is due?
Whatever decision voters choose to take will likely be informed by their ability to make that decision in safety. In the event that the government of Lebanon fails to fulfill its responsibility to protect residents from such violence, international support is needed.
The Cedar Revolution was backed by U.S. and French support through United Nations resolution 1559 and pressure on the Assad regime. Perhaps more importantly, in depth analysis of the Assad regime’s decision-making at the time suggests it was primarily concerned with real or potential threats from Washington.
Conversely, since the start of the October Revolution in 2019, there has been no meaningful international support for Lebanon’s revolutionary movement. Under both the Trump and Biden administrations, the United States appears to have yet to develop an actual Lebanon policy, instead seemingly offering the file to France, whose intervention under President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership has sustained Hezbollah’s interests in the country, marking a serious departure from decades of French foreign policy commitments and priorities in Lebanon.
With Biden’s plans to host a Democracy Summit at the end of the year, the U.S. president can no longer afford to ignore Lebanon.
Nor can the White House force a clearly outdated Iran Deal, as advanced by the Obama Administration, that exclusively focuses on Iran’s nuclear capabilities at the expense of its hegemonic interventions in Lebanon and across the region.
Lebanon is not a bargaining chip; it is a litmus test of the seriousness of Washington’s pledge to develop a foreign policy rooted in uplifting and preserving democracy in an increasingly autocratic world.
To do so, as with its efforts in using robust diplomacy to advance UN resolution 1559, the United States must prioritize small states like Lebanon and fundamentally invest in protecting reformers and people-powered movements from political violence by drawing clear red lines, and being prepared to act when they are crossed.
Lebanon is well positioned to be the flagship of Biden’s new initiative, a decisive move that would signal credible U.S. and international commitment to the country and its fight for a democratic future. It can also deliver a much-needed win on the foreign policy front to the Biden Administration.
Lebanon’s popular movement is able to transform and challenge the domination of a corrupt ruling elite on the retreat. To do so, it needs a fighting chance. Without security from political violence, however, it is unreasonable to expect it to thwart the increasing authoritarian intervention of Iran and its local allies in Lebanon.
Saving a battle not yet lost
We are living in times of great change and uncertainty in Lebanon and the region. It is in this very moment when questions over the future of democracy loom large, that solidarity—real solidarity—with people-powered movements fighting for nothing short but their collective freedom is most needed.
In his Foreign Affairs article outlining his vision for a Democracy Summit and renewed U.S. commitment to democracy around the world, Biden, asserted that: “[t]he triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.”
In doing so, Biden rightfully identifies a key existential threat facing our world. The question is, how will he go about responding to this global challenge?
If actors in the U.S. are sincere in their recognition of the perilous state of democracy at home and abroad, they must also acknowledge that Washington’s foreign policy will intimately impact how it will respond to its internal dysfunctions.
In no uncertain terms, any attempt to suppress popular uprisings in Lebanon and the Middle East and force the defunct former status quo through the facade of a U.S. withdrawal from the region, is to impose a broken social contract and oppressive system. It is also a fiction; unstable, untenable, and divorced from reality.
The U.S. must fundamentally transform how it views its alliances in the region, moving away from a preference for autocratic and corrupt regimes and instead build meaningful alliances and solidarities with grassroots movements transforming the region’s political landscape.
As global climate activists have made clear, our world is moving towards a politics of survival. The same stands for the future of democracy, justice, and human rights. The survival of these chief pillars of our modern world are at risk. And while limited knowledge (and in turn empathy) for injustices overseas have weakened the development of a U.S. rights-based foreign policy—especially in the Middle East—these moral and political failures are intimately tied to the country’s internal structures of oppression and illiberalism. For human rights are universal, we are all equal or we are not, and when governments are selective in deciding to whom justice applies in their foreign policies, they are bound to, as many already do, replicate similar or reinforce existing moral compromises and double standards at home.