Thousands take to the street in the capital Beirut as part of a nationwide anti-government mobilization. October 18, 2019. (Lara Bitar, The Public Source)

Thousands take to the street in the capital Beirut as part of a nationwide anti-government mobilization. October 18, 2019. (Lara Bitar, The Public Source)

The People Want … Social Justice! The October 2019 Social Movement and the Impact of Aid Politics in Lebanon

Day 92: Thursday, January 16, 2020

Lebanon has never been a social (welfare) state. Since independence, its political economy, “Lebanese capitalism,”1 has been built around the commercial and banking sectors, retreating from the state’s social responsibilities toward its citizens.2 Since the end of the civil war (1975-1990), reconstruction efforts and public policies did not take social and economic rights into account.3 Rather, the political and economic agendas appear to be aligned with the neoliberal doxa,4 and the development of a social state stagnates at an “embryonic” stage.5 These agendas and subsequent policies contribute to “a highly unequal political economy,”6 one of the “most inegalitarian in the region.”7 

Additionally, the end of the civil war in 1990 consecrated the rule of former warlords and the normalization of a parallel economy for public services, notably in relation to water and electric supply, waste management, and charities. The latter have traditionally been the main providers of social services, care, and social protection to the most disenfranchised and vulnerable in the country.8 Without a doubt, these “arrangements” with private and charity initiatives have both contributed to the prevalent myth of Lebanese “resilience,” and nurtured the permanence of clientelist and primordial ties. 

Neoliberal policies, coupled with the consociational regime, have not only paved the way for the collusion and captation of state resources by a business and political class feeding on primordial identities.9 They have also contributed to structural inequality in the form of notably a withering middle class, rising poverty rates, high unemployment, notably among youths, and increased labour casualization. If in 1978, more than forty years ago, Lebanese sociologist Salim Nasr identified the “crisis of Lebanese capitalism” to be the “backdrop” of the civil war, today, nearly thirty years after the Taif agreement that formally ended the war, the Lebanese political economy is facing recurring crises that trigger social conflict and cyclical protest movements. These “arrangements” with private and charity initiatives have both contributed to the prevalent myth of Lebanese “resilience,” and nurtured the permanence of clientelist and primordial ties.  Indeed, the current mobilizations are not new: various groups have been mobilizing for years especially around social and economic issues. Their key demands focus on wages, access to housing and the rental law, and inflation, among others. Such demands convey the socioeconomic difficulties people are facing.10 The protestors’ general framing of the movement, or in other words, the “diagnosis” and interpretation of the current situation and crisis they pose, makes direct links between the sectarian consociational regime and the structural economic challenges, but also the collusion of financial and political interests with the capture of state revenues by the business-ruling class.The rejection of a public debt perceived to be illegitimate and currency depreciation, denunciation of failing public services (housing, education, health, social protection), and the demands for the preservation and respect of civil liberties, an independent judiciary, women’s rights, and fiscal and labour market reforms have all become essential grievances. Together they culminate in a greater demand for a (new) social contract which fundamentally features a reclaimed social state (the infographic here illustrates how the cumulative role of various civil society actors, collectives, and activists has notably contributed toward framing  socio-economic demands and discourses of the current movement). 

In this context of pauperization where social policies have been historically and structurally sidelined, discussions of a possible intervention by the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) as a "solution" to the crisis is troubling on two counts. First, it turns a blind eye to such high social costs as increased poverty and social inequality that are caused by the policies and structural adjustment programs spearheaded or implemented by these institutions. Second, it displays a limited understanding of the structural and internal factors that have contributed to the ongoing reliance on elite patronage and “philanthropy” for access to services. This dependence on charity networks, often sect-based and za‘im-connected, in lieu of universal access to rights, has shaped consent to establishment leaders for years by keeping a significant part of the population in a vulnerable situation.A bailout plan, notably through an IMF intervention, might contribute to mitigate macroeconomic indicators and contain the acute financial crisis. However, such a bailout comes at a cost: it would be feeding into the corrupt and nepotistic political system, while compounding the vulnerability of an important segment of the population that is increasingly disenfranchised.In sum, neoliberal policies coupled with a consociational sectarian regime,  and its privatization of social services in the form of sectarian and/or clientelist “charities,” have contributed to the prevalent status quo, but also to discipline constituents and contain possible forms of dissent and contestation. The current social movement, as it spread to the “peripheries,” has illustrated, to a certain extent, the limitations of private and informal “redistribution” mechanisms. In this vein, the contestation of confessionalism, through “al-sha‘b yurid isqat an-nizam al ta’ifi,” is also a denunciation of an economic model and an outcry for accountability: the accountability of warlords and their failed post-conflict policies.

In the ongoing social movement, it is essential to go back to the protestors’ grievances since October 17, as they have framed the movement in terms of a new social contract based on social justice. A bailout plan, notably through an IMF intervention, might contribute to mitigate macroeconomic indicators and contain the acute financial crisis. However, such a bailout comes at a cost: it would be feeding into the corrupt and nepotistic political system, while compounding the vulnerability of an important segment of the population that is increasingly disenfranchised. While the urgency and acuteness of the crisis requires quick policy decisions, aid, whether in the form of Official Development Assistance (ODA), IMF loans, or philanthropic provision of services, merely contributes, in fine, to the permanence and reproduction of the very system that brought thousands into the  streets in the past months. In this perspective, the current social movement in Lebanon is setting forth a demand for a switch from the framework of “development” to enforcing a (radical?) paradigm based on social justice and solidarity. 

  • 1. Jamil Mouawad and Hannes Baumann, “Wayn al-Dawla: Locating the Lebanese state in Social Theory,” Arab Studies Journal 25: 66-90 (2017).
  • 2. See Myriam Catusse, “Tout privatiser ou bâtir un Etat (social) ? Le système public de sécurité sociale au Liban à la croisée des chemins,” Section thématique 23, Congrès AFSP (2009).
  • 3. Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi and Myriam Catusse, “‘Non à l'État holding, oui à l'État providence:’ Logiques et contraintes des mobilisations sociales dans le Liban de l'après-guerre,” Revue Tiers Monde, hs(5): 67-93 (2011).
  • 4. Ghassan Dibeh, “The Political Economy of Postwar Reconstruction in Lebanon,” research paper 2005/044, Helsinki, UNU-WIDER (2005).
  • 5. Salem Nasr, “The New Social Map,” in Lebanon in Limbo: Postwar Society and State in an Uncertain Regional Environment, 143-158, edited by Theodor Hanf and Nawwaf Salam, Baden Baden: Momos Verlagsgesellschaft (2003).
  • 6. Hannes Baumann, “Social Protest and the Political Economy of Sectarianism in Lebanon,” Global Discourse 6: 634-64 (2016).
  • 7. Éric Verdeil, Ghaleb Faour, and Mouïn Hamze, Atlas du Liban: Les nouveaux défis, Beyrouth: Presses de l’IFPO, (2017), 111 .
  • 8. See Karam Karam, Le mouvement civil au Liban: Revendications, protestations et mobilisations associatives dans l’après-guerre, Paris/Aix-en-Provence: Karthala/IREMAM (2006); Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi, “Social Protection in Lebanon between Charity and Politics,” in Arab Watch 2014, Arab NGO Network for Development, December 2014.
  • 9. A consociational system is a culturalist political system based on power sharing between elites from different social groups in so-called “segmented” or divided societies.
  • 10. See Lebanon Support’s ongoing mapping of collective actions. To read more about leftist mobilizations in the 2000s, see Marie-Noëlle AbiYaghi, “L’altermondialisme au Liban, un militantisme de passage : Logiques d’engagement et reconfiguration de l’espace militant (de gauche) au Liban,” PhD diss., University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne (2013); on movements by taxi drivers and public-school teachers, see AbiYaghi and Catusse, “‘Non à l'État holding,” (2011); on public sector workers mobilizations, see Léa Bou Khater, “Public Sector Mobilisation despite a Dormant Workers’ Movement. Confluences Méditerranée 92: 125-142 (2015).