Elements of contestation. Sectarianism as extractive violence and Lebanon’s revolution
5th Mar 2020 by Sara Fregonese
La ta7riqoo Lubnaan be l ta2ifiyya
[Don’t burn down Lebanon with sectarianism]
Sign at fire rangers protest, Baabda, March 2018.
Since October 17th 2019, cities across Lebanon have experienced widespread protest. The trigger was a new monthly tax on VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls. In a country, like Lebanon, with an inadequate, under-invested and failing telecommunication infrastructure, this move proved unpopular. According to a recent McKinsey report (McKinsey & Company 2018), Lebanon has the 130th slowest internet out of 133 countries, including current warzones such as Iraq.
On the evening of 17 October, major traffic arteries in central Beirut, including tunnels and flyovers, filled with protesters on foot. The following days, protests spread to other Lebanese cities, and acts of iconoclasm against the built expressions of political and sectarian power (such as posters and banners depicting party members) took place. This constituted a new type of public open shaming of the political establishment sanctioned through the Taif agreement, which in 1989 ended the Lebanese civil war. Despite Taif’s claim that “Abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective”, de-facto the country’s public sector, including reconstruction and development, still relies on sectarian ‘balances’ and quotas, often as part of favouritism dynamics. This, as Bou Akar argues “allowed the militias that had fought the war to organize themselves as religious-political organisations overnight, and so continue to rule postwar Lebanon” (Bou Akar 2018, 3).
The protests – still ongoing – have been unprecedentedly widespread: data show a stark increase in the number of collective actions in late 2019. 2107 collective actions took place in late 2019, compared to 256 in 2017 and 2018. This year, so far (29 January) has already seen 476 collective actions taking place (Lebanon Support 2019). What these collective actions also show, is a shift in their objectives. Between 2015 and 2018, collective action was mainly centred around partisan goals – such as support of a specific party cause or party member, o demand for reform against a specific government measure – [fig. 1] while as of late 2019, this has shifted towards a generalised demand for radical change across the socio-political system [fig. 2].
Figure 1. Collective actions by objective, 2015-2018. Source: Lebanon Support -
Figure 2. Collective actions by objective, 2019-2020. Source: Lebanon Support:
Despite being unprecedented in geographic spread and frequency in 2019, non-sectarian civil movements rallying around individual causes and exposing governmental corruption have brewed up in the last decade. One of the most notable was # YouStink, protesting the mismanagement of a garbage crisis in 2015, and whose momentum built into political movements centred around the right to the city like Beirut Madinati. After more than 100 days, the current protest or Thawra (revolution) has been mostly peaceful, but has also seen numerous attempts to thwart it by violent actors, a recent spike in the severity of response by the Lebanese police and army including heavy use of teargas and installation of defensive barriers in the street of the city centre. All this is happening amidst a deepening banking and liquidity crisis, the resignation of the PM, and a 2-month stalemate before forming a new government, approved on 11 February.
In this short intervention, I offer an elemental perspective for analysing the current events in Lebanon. This lens is mindful of the role of urban space and sectarianism in the current contestation, but it also focuses on physical elements beyond the city and their political ecologies, the political forces they mobilise, and ultimately, the entanglements they expose between sectarianism, neoliberalism, and the politics of resource extraction.
Urban geographies of protest
Lebanon’s protests are relatable to a transnational context of urban uprising - including the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and more recent protests in Hong Kong and Santiago – that since at least 2010, demands basic rights and access to services, resources and infrastructures. Across these urban settings, militarised police responses have been similarly heavily against protestors, blurring regional distinctions between ‘global north’ and ‘global south’ when it comes to policing protest. For example, John Yates, former Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, while advising the Bahraini government on police reform after the Loulou Roundabout protests in 2011, called the Bahrein riots ‘not dissimilar to those the UK itself faced only a couple of decades ago’ (Jones, 2011b). The Egyptian post-revolutionary Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in 2011/2012 erected ‘temporary’ fences and concrete walls across the streets of central Cairo to create buffer zones between the protesters and the sites of state power located around Tahrir Square. This breaking up of what should presumably be seamless urban civic space into militarised controllable zones, is strikingly similar to what has recently occurred in the streets of central Beirut, where the police and armed forces erected metal walls to fence off the protesters from the site of Parliament on Nejmeh Square and of the government in the Serail building on the overlooking hill.
Cities are spatial expressions of the mobilisation of surplus (Harvey 2008). In an era when most of the planet’s population is urbanised, and where cities and regional metropolises are increasingly financially strategic, urban space constitutes a crucial physical and symbolic terrain for socio-political claims and change (Harvey 2012). Demanding a different right to the city and its resources - and the repression with which such demands are met - are becoming characteristics of protest in the urban global north and south, where building speculation, soaring housing prices, increasing inequality, and often government corruption, all contribute to the alienation of resources from the urban population (Harvey, 2012). A strong part of the current mobilisation and demand for radical systemic change in Lebanon, has been the reclaiming and re-purposing of specific urban spaces.
For the first time since the end of the civil war, for example, protesters gained access to a number of buildings inside Solidere - the central district reconstructed after the civil war – that had been idle and awaiting redevelopment since the early 1990s like the Grand Theatre, the Saint Vincent de Paul church, and the former Metropole Cinema. Resulting from a private/public capital venture managed by Solidere and mediated by the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the reconstruction of Beirut aimed at creating a ‘neutral zone’ symbolising a new Lebanon for all. However, due to high property prices, lack of public spaces and costly services, together with domestic and regional economic and geopolitical instabilities, The Beirut Central District (BCD) became more similar to a space for no-one. This point has been strongly made by Saree Makdisi in what remains one of the most radical critiques of the reconstruction process:
“What Solidere and Harirism seem to represent is precisely the withering away of the state, whatever one might have called a public sphere or civil society, and their final and decisive colonization by capital. And perhaps it is for this reason that the company avoids any discussion of Lebanese national identity except in terms of visual pastiche”. (S. Makdisi 1997, 693)
The takeover of city spaces by protesters is, then, not only a means of contestation, but a core message and demand: a spatial redesign of the neoliberal status quo, of a different right to the city. This is not only to contest the neoliberal economic system and its close imbrications with the sectarian political system (Bou Akar 2019), but also to re-imagine national collective memories and national spaces. These notions have been embodied performatively, for example, through a human chain stretching along the coast from Saida in the north to Tyre in the south; a ‘national picnic’ day reclaiming the coast from privatisation; and a civic parade by a number of professional and vocational groups which replaced the traditional military parade on Martyrs’ Square on November 22nd. These new ways of performing the nation beyond the sectarian status quo re-establish a different right to access the urban commons, in line with Harvey’s argument that the right to the city is more than the sum of individual rights of access “to the resources that the city embodies: it is […] a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization.” (Harvey 2008, 1).
This collective exercise was severely hindered by the 1975-1990 civil war and its aftermath. In 1991, an Amnesty Law resulted in the absence of state-led initiatives to trace responsibilities for the violence and, more generally, created a state vacuum around issues of violence and the country’s relation with its past.
Elements of contestation
Lebanon’s thawra has recently seen an intensification of violence in the streets in the run up to the formation of a new government in January, numerous accusations of violations by the police from Human Rights Watch (2019), and attempts to extinguish the protest especially by supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. On February 11th 2020, an urban battle between protesters, police and counterprotest groups took place on and around the ring road that separates the reconstructed city centre (where Parliament and the Government palace are located) from the rest of the city, and caused more than 300 injured. Despite these developments, the core of the movement has remained non-sectarian, aimed at total change across the political and economic system, and has used urban space as a representational and performative terrain for socio-economic claims against the spatial expressions of the neoliberal/sectarian status quo.
However, At the crux of collective actions since October is not an urban event, but one regarding the Chouf mountainous region, extending from south of Beirut and into the Mount Lebanon area to the east. Here, a chain of about 100 wildfires among the worst in decades raged from 13 to 16 October, damaging 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of forest, according to one of Lebanon’s most authoritative forest fire risk experts, George Mitri (Azhari 2019). The fires killed one person, saw residents evacuated from endangered houses, and threatened schools and businesses (Haddad 2019).
If the fires were, at least partly, caused by natural events like higher temperatures (albeit linked to climate change) and strong winds, their destructiveness was political: while the fires raged and other countries including Italy, Cyprus and Jordan had to be called to the rescue, three crowdfunded firefighting aircrafts sat idle at Beirut’s international airport, due to failure by the Ministry of Interior to fund their maintenance and repairs (Haddad 2019). Moreover, Lebanon had experienced a shortage of fire rangers in the previous year, as appointments of successful applicants were delayed, allegedly in an attempt to fill sectarian quotas in the sector, despite the Constitution not requiring sectarian balance for generic public service jobs (The Daily Star Lebanon 2018).
In this context, traditional geopolitical interpretations of Lebanon as a country suffering chronical flare-ups of sectarian violence funnelled by regional geopolitical rivalries (notably between Saudi Arabia and Iran) with localised sectarian has become a limiting frame for analysis. Instead, where analysis is needed is at the intersection between sectarian politics, neoliberal economy, and environmental degradation. At this intersection, we find natural resources or even individual elements – such as wood, fire, water, sand, chemical particles – whose (mis)use at the service of neoliberal markets and sanctioned by government ineptitude and corruption imperils the residents’ right to life and – in the case of the fires – right to breathe (Nieuwenhuis 2018).
Examples of misuse of resources/elements in Lebanon include the following:
- privatisation and urbanisation of much of the country’s coastline (2.5m square metres, according to 2014 data by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (cited in Faour, Verdeil, and Dictaphone Group 2019) often by illegal land occupation (mostly for tourism north of Beirut and residential south of Beirut) known to and tolerated and/or facilitated by the state (Faour, Verdeil, and Dictaphone Group 2019).
- Sand, rocks and debris. Human activity like illegal quarrying - nurturing the concrete and construction industry booming after the end of the war - urbanisation of mountain area, and
- changes to irrigation routes, have increased the risks of lethal mass land movements like landslides, screes, and debris falling on inhabited areas (Abdallah and Gillette 2019).
- Flood water frequency of mudslides and flash floods. Some of them happened during the protests, prompting protesters to say that if they didn’t block the roads, the floods would. Floods and flash floods are hazardous to infrastructure, agriculture, and have provoked displacement and isolation of communities. Floods are linked mostly to anthropogenic factors, first of all illegal construction and urbanisation, and the filling of waterways with debris and even waste (Abdallah 2019)
- Air pollutants and hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are present beyond international safe levels especially in correspondence of major motorways. Their increasing concentrations are linked to the government’s move away from public transport since the end of the civil war in the 1990s, and the encouragement of credit purchase of cars which has doubled the quantity of imported vehicles (Verdeil 2019). Dangerous levels of other atmospheric pollutants from combustion – like Benzo(a)Pyrene – “are higher by 60%–99% than those in most cities around the world” (Baalbaki et al. 2018, 261).
- Solid waste. In 2015, a garbage crisis was provoked by landfill saturation and by the absence of alternative sites and of sustainable waste management strategies. This mobilised the population into a wide protest movement called #YouStink. Besides the short term landfill crises, at the crux of the problem were accumulated failure and inequality in municipal services and in public waste management, after the sector was disrupted in the civil war years. This led to widespread dumping of solid waste along the coast, illegal incineration, and – more rarely – in the delegation of sustainable waste management solutions to private actors and NGOs (Farah and Verdeil 2019).
It is ecological and elemental issues like the ones above that are currently replacing religious-political causes as factors of collective action in Lebanon. In this context, a political ecological approach is needed, which recognises the links between environmental governance (or lack thereof) and wider political and economic power assemblages, and which exposes the wider structural violence where these elements and resources are embedded (LeBillon and Duffy 2018). This structural violence, the overlapping socio-material crises it fosters, and their ramifications into political sectarianism and its civil war links, essentially blurs distinctions between the conflict and post-conflict phases in Lebanon.
Political ecology “recognizes resources and the environment as complex socio-material objects reflecting a diverse range of practices and discourses, but also as subjects endowed with certain forms of agency” (LeBillon and Duffy 2018, 248). As the forest fires raged in October, new social partition lines developed, together with new ways of mobilising. On one side, stood a corrupted and ineffective state system sustained by sectarian rivalries, as well as sectarian favouritism since the end of the civil war – the emblematic representation of this was Lebanese MP Mario Aoun arguing live on tv that the fires were targeting Christian villages. On the other, was a movement of connected and organized citizens willing to mobilise in non-sectarian and creative ways in order to help the fire-damaged communities. What started to appear was a re-alignment of the axis of political contention: this no longer ran along supporters of political parties co-opting protest movements (like with the 2005 ‘Cedar Revolution’), but instead lined up lay citizens against a sectarian elite which has been, effectively, putting its own population at risk of death.
Political ecology obviates the limitations of geopolitical perspectives on Lebanon’s revolution, as political ecology accounts “for a broader range of violence than geopolitical and mainstream political perspectives […] grasping a wider and more nuanced set of relations between conflict processes and forms of violence”- including forms of slow environmental violence like that caused by pollution (LeBillon and Duffy 2018, 246).
Lebanon’s political and economic life idealises sectarian identity and politics (supposedly at the service of the religious community) as an a-priori truth rather than as a socio-cultural construct (U. Makdisi 2000; Fregonese 2019). As such, sectarian identities are mobilised to silence the agency and responsibility for both physical violence in the war, and for structural violence after the war. Decolonising the sectarian dispositive (Fregonese 2019) cannot be limited to a ‘colour blind’ approach. Decolonising sectarianism must be accompanied by its recognition as a system of extractive violence, as a “quasi-hegemonic truth discourse[…] – that sustain and seek to legitimate resource-based processes of capitalist accumulation in the form of enclosure of the commons and other exclusive rights of access (Robbins 2012)” (LeBillon and Duffy 2018, 248).
In this light, the current Lebanese crisis can be approached as a crisis of extraction. War making and resource extraction are of course intimately entangled via the territorialisation of resources and the violent impacts on residing populations (Mbembe 2019), but in the case of Lebanon, following the elements of contention - water, sand, solid waste, micropollutants, among others – allows to draw deep linkages that connect Lebanon’s civil war and post conflict phase in the same sectarian political and economic dispositif. In Lebanon, what we are often used to see portrayed by mainstream geopolitical analysts as a ‘weak state’, is actually a solid sectarian sovereign system born out of modern western colonialismand now increasingly exposing its own citizens to environmental and livelihood vulnerabilities.
Approaching the Lebanese crisis as a crisis of resource extraction through a political ecology approach, allows to break down divides between countryside – where resources are primarily extracted – and cities – where the surplus from those resource is redeployed. The eco-activism to protect the Bisri valley at the border with Lebanon’s Southern Governatorate from a World Bank-funded dam construction is a case in point, as protesters in the urban squares and the Bisri eco-activists have expressed mutual support within the revolution. Political ecology allows to see the Lebanese revolution not as confined to the urban space, but with ramifications that overcome urban/rural binaries, as well as conflict/post-conflict ones, via the elements at the crux of state/protesters contention. In Lebanon, it is not only cities that become terrains for socio-political change, but rather “the complex, political and understudied physical elements that interact with the city and shape it spatially and politically […]”(Fregonese 2019). More research is needed to understand forensically how, where, and why specific resources and elements become agents of collective action in the light of their (mis)use.
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 The city centre of Beirut had been a no man’s land for the duration of the war and access at the end of hostilities and before the start of the Solidere redevelopment was limited. Famously, the Hariri Foundation commissioned a documentary by a groups of world famous photographers in 1991, short after the end of the civil war. Gabriele Basilico, then one among the commissioned professionals, said in a following visit to the city: “"There were almost no street lamps and buildings looked like ghosts. The only noise was that of electricity generators. Space was perceptible but not matter. The atmosphere was heavy and intriguing." He later concluded: "It seemed to me some people had just left and others were about to return. All in all, the situation seemed almost normal – the city had just entered a long period of waiting."(Hopkinson 2013).
 Source: Map of Collective Actions in Lebanon. Data collected by Lebanon Support https://civilsociety-centre.org/cap/collective_action/charts