A Year On: An Academic Perspective of the October 17 Uprising – Part I

In the first of a three-part series, LAU’s Dr. Ghassan Dibeh, Dr. Bassel Salloukh and Mr. Nadim Shehadi provide a retrospective view of the mass protests.

By Editorial Staff

The cover for our special supplement on the October 17 Uprising depicted the monument at Martyrs’ Square, the epicenter of the protests. (Photography courtesy of Bernard Khalil)

In October last year, mounting discontent with a government that had failed to deliver drove the Lebanese people to the streets. The breaking point had been the imposition of a $6 tax per month on all free calls via the internet, such as WhatsApp.

At the time, we issued a special supplement to our LAU Magazine & Alumni Bulletin, offering an academic perspective of the protests by a cross-section of our academic body.

A year on, we have invited those same faculty members to re-examine the uprising in light of their original analysis. In the first of a three-part series, Dr. Ghassan Dibeh, Dr. Bassel Salloukh and Mr. Nadim Shehadi walk us through the changes undergone by the mass movement and the potential, if any, for reform.

Dr. Ghassan Dibeh, Professor of Economics and Chair of the Department of Economics

The October 17 uprising had pure economic causes, from the direct cause of taxes announced then by the government to the sclerotic economy that stopped creating good jobs and impeded social mobility for the educated. Before the uprising, society became highly divided between the top 1 percent that accumulated wealth and the majority that was experiencing economic and social decline. This led the protests to be joined by both the poor and the middle, working and educated classes. 

However, the uprising went beyond pure economic demands to become a revolt for the establishment of a real democracy in Lebanon. Thus, slogans were raised against the sectarian system and the rule of what was dubbed “the oligarchy.” In this sense, the uprising continues today as a “democratic revolution” to remove the dual domination of rentier capital and sectarian parties, which in their formation of the “Ancien Regime” have become an obstacle to progress and modernity in Lebanon.

But now what? In the aftermath of the uprising, a new complex political situation has emerged with increased threats of civil war and foreign interventions. Hence, the peaceful transfer of power through democratic means in early parliamentary elections is the most effective and safest way to achieve change. The uprising needs political leadership or a “broad front,” composed of the most advanced forces in society, which will lead the democratic movement to transform the people’s voice in the streets to votes in the ballot boxes. Only then will the October 17 uprising become a “rehearsal” or a harbinger of what will come next in Lebanon.

Dr. Bassel Salloukh, Associate Professor of Political Science

One hundred years after the creation of Grand Liban, including a year since the October 17 protests, and we still have not found a viable way to negotiate our political conflicts amicably. This is primarily a consequence of how the postwar political system has mutated into what Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast John Nagle labels ‘zombie power-sharing’ that invites perpetual political immobilism and inhibits the emergence of alternative viable forms of anti/cross-sectarian political mobilization and identification.

There is nothing inevitable about this, however. It is rather the consequence of a complex ensemble of institutional, ideological, social, and material practices that reproduce sectarian modes of representation and mobilization.

On this view, then, the October 17 protests, especially their revolutionary first few days, expressed the deep political economic crisis of zombie power-sharing. But it also expressed its power and durability: its ability to hit back and defend its myriad interests deploying an array of ideological, material, institutional, and coercive shock troops. Nor should we be surprised that the so-called ‘sectarian streets’ turned out to be much more organized and violent than the many different groups affiliated with the thawra. After all, the material and ideological stakes vested in the sectarian system are so great.

But there is one lesson we should never forget as we look back and recall the passions of those beautiful first few weeks immediately after October 17: that pontification does not bring about political transformation. If we are serious about changing this postwar zombie power-sharing arrangement, then we need to go back to the drawing boards of political organization. Only there will we find hope and a way out of our present collapse.

Mr. Nadim Shehadi, Executive Director of LAU New York Headquarters and Academic Center

“All of them means all of them” or كلن يعني كلن  is an expressive slogan of the Lebanese Revolution rich in meaning and undertones. It pits the people against the whole political class for fear that targeting part of the establishment would also split the people. The unity of the revolution is thus dependent on the unity of the establishment, and the price is to deprive the revolution of politics.

It is doomed to fail by demanding a government of technocrats with no vision.

Having a unified single vision is even worse, as democracy is all about competition between divergent views. The protestors are in a state of denial about their disagreements and intellectually impoverished by the absence of a debate. Instead of coexisting with their differences they are calling for abolishing them, when in fact coexistence is precisely what they should be striving for in a democratic system.

The system the protestors want to change is stronger because it is a product of political and intellectual debates as well as numerous crises that gradually resulted in a consensus about the identity of the country. In 1920, that consensus did not exist in the newly established Greater Lebanon; it took one hundred years for it to become inclusive of all elements of Lebanese society.

Lebanon flourishes when it is a free and open society that is tolerant of diverse political views and can accommodate contradictions. It is time for the revolution to embrace that ethic and courageously discuss the future. It is the only way they can improve it.

More perspectives from our faculty will follow in Parts II and III of this series.