by Laure Burg, Aviral Goenka, Pau Maturana-Nolla, and Marion Sauzay
Amid the climate of corruption, misrule, negligence, and lack of accountability of the Lebanese governing class, protests broke out on October 17th, 2019. Unlike other previous protests in 2011 or 2015, these protests brought all Lebanese together: citizens of all ages, classes, and genders took the streets to claim for a better future for Lebanon, which in turn implied the out rule of the by-then legislators.
The protests escalated, and their large-scale public support led to some political resignations but not the extended reforms demanded by the protestors. Nevertheless, due to the COVID-19 health pandemic that hit Lebanon around March 2020, and the subsequent curfew, Lebanese people could not take the streets anymore and the Revolution was left on standby. Then, on August 4th, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of the city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, exploded, causing at least 203 deaths, 6,500 injuries, and US$15 billion in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. This sparked again the flames of the Revolution.
Last Tuesday, October 13th, about 250 Lebanese met in Geneva to celebrate the first anniversary of the Revolution and to ask the Lebanese political leaders to step down. As these anti-government protests persist and protesters continue to express their discontent in Lebanon and across the world, we interviewed Fares H., a first-year MIA student at the Graduate Institute and a Lebanese activist that took part during the aforementioned Revolution.
Q → Questions and Comments by the interviewers
F → Answers and Comments by Fares H.
Q: So first of all we wanted to thank you Fares H., and welcome you to this interview, and thank you for taking the time. The very first thing that we would like to ask you if you can introduce yourself in a few sentences.
F: I am Fares H., from Lebanon, actually, from a small village in the south, but I have lived in Beirut for the last ten years. I have studied Business & Law in Lebanon and I am here [at IHEID] as a student at the MIA Programme. I have worked as a researcher and campaigner for many years with many NGOs (locally in Lebanon), and sometimes in Istanbul and Paris.
Q: Alright then, moving onto the topic of the interview which is the Lebanese Revolution, we would like you to tell us a little bit, in the sense of a timeline, from October when things started to heat up, through COVID and the explosion, how did things evolve?
F: It started on the 17th of October, as everyone knows, I was in Beirut and I joined the movement at seven or eight pm. For the first time, because I had been in the streets (protesting) for the last ten years, from 2011 to 2013, to 2014, and even in the 2015 protest, I saw new faces during the protest, as well as a big of outrage; so I knew something was going to happen, and that’s how the Revolution started.
Q: Was it much bigger than the protests in 2015?
F: Yeah! Of course! And even after the 17th of October, we witnessed a lot of protests in Beirut and other cities by thousands of Lebanese, and even the diaspora had their own protests, in Geneva, in Paris, in Latin America; everywhere.
Q: How would you describe the Revolution in one term? Is it a Revolution or is it a revolt?
F: Actually, there was a huge debate about this topic, especially during the first weeks of the Revolution. Sometimes, it was said that there was an uprising, not a revolution, or they even used the term hirak, and hirak was used in 2015 in Lebanon. Hirak is a Lebanese slang that refers more to uprising rather than a revolution, and it was (also) used last year in Algeria1, for me, this was a revolution. I do not care about the term, I just care about what happened, and what happened, for me, was a Revolution.
Q: Alright, so following on that line, what would you say that were the aims of the protesters, and especially, what problems did they face? We know that for instance there were taxes on WhatsApp calls and that seemed to spark it all, but I am sure this comes from way before. So, the key that people were aiming (to change), and that made them be disenchanted with the regime?
F: Actually, Lebanese people waited for this moment. Everyone knows that there were taxes on WhatsApp calls and other things. But no, they wanted this Revolution [for a while]. Before the Revolution we had many protests, in 2019, 2018, 2015, but there was no media coverage. The Revolution aimed to stop corruption for sure, and then, there was also a slogan “Recover The Stolen Money” that had been stolen from Lebanon (by the authorities) and transferred outside the country. Lastly, (the protesters) wanted new elections. Also, another slogan was “Kilyun ya’ane Kilyun”, which means “all means all”. By this slogan, we (the protesters) wanted them to leave, all of them, and I am referring to the ruling class.
Q: When Hariri6 resigns, how did that make you feel? Was that a catalyzer?
F: When Hariri resigned after two weeks of the beginning of the Revolution, we felt like we had achieved our first goal. We then wanted to form our own government, with technocrats and cabinet specialists, rather than just politicians.
Q: So in that sense, what were the demographics of the people that were taking part in the protests? Where they young people, old people, men, women… What was the Revolution composed of?
F: All the Lebanese joined the Revolution, inside the country and as well as the different diasporas that I have mentioned before. The thing is, that there are two main points to focus on regarding this question: the younger generation and the women’s participation. Women, in particular, have been in the front line, especially to prevent clashes between the security forces and the protesters, from the very first moments of the Revolution on October 17th.
Q: That’s actually very interesting. Were there also elders, people above 60 years of age?
F: I can’t say if there were particularly a lot of elders, but there were just people of all classes and all ages.
Q: Picking it back on the media coverage that we were talking about before, communication plays a very important role today, as I am sure it did from October 17th onwards, but it seems that the Lebanese Revolution is dying out in the Western media focus.
F: After mid-March, COVID took in Beirut and other cities that’s why the local media channels and of course the Western [media] stopped covering the Lebanese Revolution. But during the first month, for weeks, all the media, local, regional, and international were covering the Revolution 24/7, it was the biggest event in the Middle East and they were waiting to see how it would unfold.
Q: And would you say that, although the protests since March have kind of decreased, is the period for change still there?
F: It was more related to COVID but then the explosion happened. For August and after that, there was a mobilization to clean the streets, in Beirut especially, for two or three days. I say we are activists. Then, we had a huge protest on Saturday, the 8th of August, but we were attacked by the army and the police forces.
Q: This hadn’t happened beforehand?
It had happened but this time it was much more aggressive.
Q: Now that you brought up the army and the fact that they were pushing back against the protestors, do you think the army is one of those elements of power defending the elite that still needs to switch sides?
F: We knew the army would support the regime and we wouldn’t believe the army could help the Revolution.
Q: We saw that you were involved in a lot of interviews and that you were talking [on TV] about the protests while they were happening in Lebanon. Could you tell us more about why they contacted you and why you were a spokesperson?
F: I was working as a researcher and activist at the same time, so I was invited by local and regional media channels to talk about the Revolution. Mainly during the first weeks about the future steps. We used to have meetings every day and then decide what were the other steps we wanted to take. For example, whether the next day we would be in Beirut or other cities. I was invited to talk about these issues and to cover the situation in Lebanon from a general perspective and as a researcher.
Q: We would like to ask you about your thoughts about the future, the Revolution. Do you see any similarities with previous events that have happened in the last decade?
F: What happened in Lebanon is part of what took place in the wider Arab region, from Tunisia to Syria to Yemen. We saw something similar in Lebanon during the Revolution, they are the same even though the place or the country is not the same. The Revolution in Lebanon was similar to what happened in Syria, in Egypt, and everywhere in the Arab region.
Q: Where do you see the country in 10 years? 20 years from now? What are your hopes for the future?
F: [laughs] In Lebanon you cannot predict something for the next day.
Q: Then where would you like it to be, if you picture Lebanon in 2030?
F: Lebanon in 2030… I hope that we have the capacity to change the regime, to have a good economy, good public services (health, education), in summary.
Q: What are your plans after graduation here at The Graduate Institute?
F: I was looking at topics during the last months related to revolutions and counter-revolutions in the Middle East. After graduation, I would like to go back to looking at that.
Watch the full interview here:
1For further information see Serrano, F (2019) After Bouteflika’s Ouster, Algeria’s Popular Uprising Faces a Much Bigger Test, and Grewal, S (2019) Why Algeria’s Army Abandoned Bouteflika. 6 Saad Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon.
Laure Burg, Aviral Goenka, Pau Maturana-Nolla, and Marion Sauzay are first-year students in the International Affairs’ Master Program at The Graduate Institute.