This new book edited by Jeffrey G. Karam and Rima Majed seeks to make sense of the October 2019 uprising that shook Lebanon. The Lebanon Uprising of 2019: Voices from the Revolution pulls together experts from political science, sociology, economics, the arts and other fields with the objective of giving readers a holistic approach to the topic.
As a small Mediterranean country with a population of 6.8 million and 18 officially recognised religious sects, as well as millions of refugees from Syria and Palestine, many have characterised Lebanon as a pressure cooker waiting to explode (again), and yet the October 2019 protests surprised everyone. After a devastating wildfire left parts of the country in ruins, a proposed tax on the use of WhatsApp — upon which many Lebanese continue to rely — prompted an angry backlash that led to street protests.
Despite the government backtracking on the new tax very quickly, the protests snowballed and millions took to the streets to demand that the entire governing class should go. Areas of the country that don’t normally protest and which are often assumed to support their “representative” political parties protecting the interests of their religious sect, were now calling on them to leave power.
Something had shifted radically in Lebanese society and it seemed inevitable that the system would fall. Yet, despite a change of those in government, the system that protesters railed against survived, leading many commentators to declare that Lebanon’s revolution was a failure.
It is this contention that The Lebanon Uprising… aims to challenge. While conventional political science describes a revolution as an event where the political order is overturned suddenly, the narrow fixation on this definition has led many to dismiss Lebanon’s 2019 uprising as well as the 2011 Arab Spring; unfairly, I believe.
The editors of this book seek to demonstrate that a more profound change occurred socially and economically in Lebanon. The best way to make sense of these changes is to think of them in terms of “social revolutions” that led to “revolutionary situations”. The book builds on frameworks used by scholars of uprisings, who developed Leon Trotsky’s 1917 Russian Revolution concept of “revolutionary situation” as being a moment where state power is threatened by an opposition coalition that cannot be easily crushed or dismissed.
“The Lebanon uprising of October 2019 created a historical moment in which a revolutionary situation arose when state power was seriously threatened and politics intensified in the oppositional streets that managed to shut down the country for weeks… and creating an alternative way of doing politics,” the editors explain. The ruling elite, in the end, managed to limit the “revolutionary situation”, but a closer examination into what led to it offers us good reason to think of October 2019 as having roots in earlier revolutions in Lebanon and the Arab World rather than reduce the uprising to a single “failed” 2019 event, as many of the social conditions that caused the protests have intensified since then. One implication of this book is that more uprisings are likely to follow as a direct result of what happened three years ago, due to the new revolutionary subjectivity built up over time. “While these uprisings might not fall under traditional definitions of revolutions — since they have not overthrown the regime as a whole — it is important to think of them as part of a revolutionary process,” writes Rima Majed.
The essays in The Lebanon Uprising… offer a wide range of thinking about the new revolutionary subjectivity from the transformation of urban spaces to new voices in alternative media landscape, changing gender dynamics, labour movements and other critical areas. A key part of the uprising was the protest against poor economic conditions and state sectarianism. Majed connects these two things and develops a concept called “neoliberal sectarianism”, which is similar to “racial capitalism” as she explains: “The neoliberal capitalist system in Lebanon and Iraq depends heavily on social differentiation… the story of sectarian neoliberalism in Lebanon and Iraq should be understood as part of a broader global story of neoliberal capitalism that strives on identity politics, social differentiation mechanisms, and right-wing populism.”
However, Majed points out that one difference between racial hierarchy in the capitalist system and such a hierarchy in a sectarian system is stability. Racial and gendered hierarchies are more fixed, whereas sectarian hierarchies are more fluid and change rapidly according to circumstances. Sectarianism and neoliberal economics are reinforced by one another, but due to the fluid nature of sectarianism, when protesters came onto the streets to denounce confessional politics, they also coupled it with a critique of neoliberal economics.
The Lebanon Uprising of 2019… is part of a scholarly movement to move away from thinking about revolution as a singular political event. Nonetheless, it is challenging not only a classical political science idea, but also a widely believed one. How successful the volume is at doing this comes down to individual judgement. While I concur with the authors that something has changed in Lebanon, a potentially new revolutionary subjectivity exists and revolutions are processes and not single events, I hesitate to say that this means that the toppling of the old order is inevitable. In politics nothing is inevitable, only possible.
People all too often fall into the trap of thinking of revolutions in purely metaphysical terms, which is this invisible force leading us into the inevitable direction of natural justice. The problem with this is that there is no evidence that such a thing is happening. What is nice about The Lebanon Uprising… is that it avoids this way of thinking and aims to offer a material basis for making sense of what has happened and what might still happen.
The contributors are mostly from the political left and so contemporary left-wing ideas and contentions are at the core of the book. For some, this will reduce the impact of the work as not being holistic enough, but I feel that this would be unfair. The Lebanon Uprising of 2019 offers us new voices, excellent emerging scholarship and a sound basis for making sense of the October 2019 protests.