Understanding the nexus between division and solidarity in protest spaces: Reflections from Lebanon’s Tripoli
20th Jan 2022 by Anne Kirstine Rønn
Many of the largest and most well-known protest movements in recent history - from Occupy Wall Street to the Egyptian Revolution - have an important thing in common: They remind us about the critical role of urban spaces in contentious politics. Spaces like the Tahrir Square have acted as powerful vehicles of unity and solidarity across social classes, religion, race, gender and age, and in public discourses, they have often been portrayed as small societal utopias. However, an emerging research field on the spatiality of political contention also casts light on the role of space in shaping conflict, reminding us that protest spaces can at the same time draw boundaries within social movements and facilitate clashes between protesters and their adversaries. This reminder, I argue, serves as a good starting point for understanding the spatiality of Lebanon’s October Uprising.
Urban protest spaces played an important role in the uprising. Soon after it broke out on October 17, 2019, a dominant narrative emerged, which highlighted how Lebanese reclaimed public areas and made them inclusive and accessible for all (Al Jazeera, 2019). Pictures circulated on various media platforms, showing how squares and buildings across the country had been turned into lecture halls and music stages. However, when I did my fieldwork in Lebanon during and after the uprising, I found that this romanticized image was only one side of the coin. In fact, several of my interlocutors told me that there were particular sites within the protests, which they avoided, because they either disagreed with the people, who mobilized there or did not feel welcome. Frequently, interlocutors also complained that the protest spaces were being misused by fellow protesters, who played too loud music, organized discussions about the wrong issues or caused unnecessary material damage.
These observations motivated me to conduct a case study, exploring how protest spaces fostered a nexus between solidarity and division in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. During two field trips in 2021, I collected testimonies from over 50 protesters, who represented differences in class, age, gender, educational level, sect and neighborhood of residence, in order to find out how they understood and recollected the function of space in the protest. Interestingly, the uprising in Tripoli was often described as a patchwork, consisting of separate sites, which represented distinct tactical logics, identities and social dynamics, even though they were located right next to each other.
To further understand this patchwork, I examined Tripoli’s protests through two lenses: one that looked at the relations between the main protest sites and one that focused on the site-specific dynamics. In the following, I discuss some of my preliminary findings and reflect on the lessons, which can be drawn from these.
Relations between protest sites in Tripoli
There were three main protest sites in Tripoli, of which the first and arguably most famous one was Nour Square. Like the Pearl Square in Bahrain and the Tahrir Square in Egypt, Nour Square is not really a public recreational area. It is a roundabout at the entrance of the city, which is normally filled with passing cars. In the middle of the roundabout is a statue of the word Allah, which was erected by the Islamist Tawheed Movement in the 80s and has symbolized the city’s history with conservative Sunni Islam and sectarian extremism. During the uprising, the statue, however, became a famous symbol of Tripoli’s resistance against the sectarian system along with the abandoned Ghandoor building, which overlooks the square and was decorated with a large painting of the Lebanese flag and a text reading “Tripoli, the city of peace”. During the first weeks, Nour Square was flooded with people, some of whom walked several kilometers by foot to get there. At night, the balcony of the Ghandoor building was turned into a concert stage, where DJs performed, while people on the ground danced and waved their flashing mobile phones.
The second main site in Tripoli’s protests was an alley next to Nour Square, which was labelled “The Island”. The area was filled with tents, which had been put up by different groups, including, NGOs, existing political opposition parties and new activist networks, which had been formed during the uprising. One tent, for example, operated as a small public library, where people could relax and read. Another tent served as a headquarter of the student movement in Tripoli. While the island acted as a site for political deliberation and learning, the groups who were based there also had very different visions and outlooks. Ideologically, they ranged from communists to social liberals. Some of them promoted clear political stances, while others presented themselves as facilitators of conversations.
The third main site was the street in front of the Serail, which is the headquarters of the governorate of North Lebanon. This site was often associated with the uprising’s radical flank, which used disruptive and confrontational tactics to voice their dissatisfaction with the sectarian regime and Tripoli’s local political figures. Already within the first months, direct confrontations between protesters and authorities took place in front of the Serail, but as the activity in Nour Square dwindled, the economic situation turned more desperate, and the Covid lockdown was imposed, the clashes became increasingly frequent, and the Serail became the central stage of Tripoli’s protest.
When I asked interlocutors to reflect on the relationship between the three sites introduced above, they spoke of both solidarity and conflict. On the one hand, the spaces were seen to reinforce relations of solidarity between protesters. For instance, organizers from the tents would go to Nour Square to convince new people to participate in political discussions and workshops. Some of these people, who had no previous experience with grassroots organizing, became part of the teams behind the tents. When there were clashes in front of the Serail, activists would leave Nour Square and the Island to gather along the road in display of support.
On the other hand, the spatial division between the three sites also reinforced and highlighted divisions within the movement. In particular, it reflected fundamental disagreements with regards to tactical repertoires. A major division, for instance, regarded around role of political discussions as a tactical repertoire. On the one side of the debate were the protesters, who preferred to stay in Nour Square, because they believed this site was most genuine and inclusive. These individuals tended to see the Island as an elitist project, because the political discussions and workshops, in their view, were hosted by well-educated activists, who sought to enlighten rather than listen to the lower classes. On the other side of the debate were the protesters who spent most of their time around the Island and viewed the political discussions as an important tool to foster a common ground between people across boundaries of class and religion. These individuals in turn tended to see interactions in Nour Square as more superficial.
Another main division concerned the use of violent and disruptive repertoires. To some, the Serail was the site of the real battle against the regime, a truly revolutionary one, which confronted the political elites directly and with anger. Individuals who clashed with authorities there often told me it was not serious to be happy and dance during a revolution. The music in Nour Square, they believed, posed no threat to the political elites. To others, violence did more harm than good, and the Nour Square displayed a large threat to the elites by showing the ability of Lebanese to unite under one flag. The disagreement about violent repertoires was sometimes interpreted as a reflection of class-based divides in Tripoli, as the clashes had a larger representation of underemployed men from lower social class backgrounds.
Dynamics within protest sites: A look at Nour Square
Based on my fieldwork, I found that the tactical repertoires and the physical properties, which characterized each of the different protest sites, also fostered unique opportunities and challenges to solidarity building. In other words, the same factors which allowed for solidarity building also facilitated conflicts and divisions. The Nour Square illustrates this observation quite well.
The square was an open space, both materially and socially. The material space was accessible to almost everyone in the city, as it was located between the poor and more well-off neighborhoods. Several roads led to the square, meaning that people could arrive at Nour from various sites of the city. As a social space, it had acted as a gathering point for various social movements in the city, ranging from communists to Islamists. Moreover, it was one of the few places, which was not associated with a particular class or social segment. Rather it was a meeting point for street vendors, taxi drivers and people from across the city, passing by on their way to work.
During the uprising, Nour Square became a mirror of Tripoli’s social and economic life, and even though the square went viral across Lebanon for its musical demonstrations, it was these everyday interactions between citizens, which were highlighted in the interviews, I did with protesters. Especially the street vendors were seen to have a special role and were often interpreted as symbols of the strong cohesion, which was fostered in the square. The role of vendors speaks to Asef Bayat’s concept of “encroachment”, which described the ways in which informal economic life penetrates into the occupied squares and merges into political contention (Bayat, 2017). Encroachment, it seemed, was one of the main qualities of Nour Square.
The same openness, which allowed for individuals to interact and form ties of solidarity in Nour Square, also allowed for the sectarian political life to encroach upon the protest space. As the days went by, Nour Square increasingly became the center of a latent conflict between protesters on the one hand and followers of political elites on the other. Some interviewees told me how they had seen people receiving money from political organizations in the middle of Nour Square. Another common story was that the main stage at the Ghandoor Building was controlled by the security apparatus. While it is difficult to fact-check these observations, they nevertheless suggest that infiltration was considered a serious problem, which changed the atmosphere in Nour Square. It blurred the line between the protesters and the regime, as the regime was suddenly present inside the protesters’ territory, influencing chants, funding food, surveilling and threatening. This gradually contributed to curb out protesters. Some went home, while others retreated to the two other main sites; the Island and the Serail. In the end, only the vendors, taxi drivers and some of the most dedicated activists were left in Nour Square, which, when I visited it on a rainy day in January 2020, looked like a protest space without a protest movement inside it.
What can Tripoli teach us about the spatiality of protest movements?
Whereas the spatial environment of Tripoli’s protest movement was unique, my findings mirror wider trends within the literature on the spatiality of protests. In fact, the dynamics in Tripoli, resemble those of Syntagama Square in Athens, which was a focal point of the 2010-2012 Greek anti-austerity protests. Syntagama Square was divided into a lower and an upper part, and the stairs connecting the two parts functioned as a dividing line between two main groups of protesters with radically different ideologies and tactical repertoires, who did not always identify positively with each other or shared strong feelings of solidarity (Simiti, 2015).
The spatial dimension of political contention is still a relatively new research field, and as several authors have stressed (Della Porta, Fabbri, & Piazza, 2013; Soudias & Sydiq, 2020), we still know insufficient about the functions of space in social movements. My study of Tripoli, for instance, raises the question, whether we can build a more general typology of protest sites, which share material and social qualities and foster similar forms of solidarity and conflicts. My examination of Nour Square, for example suggests that open protest squares can be prone to certain forms of infiltration, which organizers in the tents believed they had better chances to defend themselves against.
Al Jazeera, (2019). As Protests Grow Lebanese are Reclaiming Public Spaces. At https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/20/as-protests-grow-lebanese-are-reclaiming-public-spaces
Bayat, A. (2017). Revolution without Revolutionaries: Stanford University Press.
Della Porta, D., Fabbri, M., & Piazza, G. (2013). Putting protest in place: Contested and liberated spaces in three campaigns. Spaces of contention: Spatialities and social movements, 27-46.
Simiti, M. (2015). Rage and protest: The case of the Greek Indiginant Movement. Contention, 3(2), 33-50.
Soudias, D., & Sydiq, T. (2020). Introduction: Theorizing the Spatiality of Protest. Contention, 8(1), 1-3.