When I first saw the videos, I thought they were a hoax. It didn’t register in my brain that an explosion of that magnitude could have happened in Beirut. It seemed like an end, like an apocalypse; everyone must be dead. Then, as I checked WhatsApp groups and called friends, I confirmed that everyone I was close to was, in fact, still alive. Even after an end it is never the end, and time keeps on going. That is what apocalyptic thinking fails to take into account. The end does not come in one fell swoop, no wiping the slate clean and starting over. There are only a series of mini-catastrophes that compile one onto the other and you have to build on top of the shit and rubble of the previous events, negotiating your way towards a hazy horizon. The best you can hope for is not a new beginning, but the opportunity to pivot, to ground yourself in the political movement in order to gain momentum and change direction. Somehow I always thought that that opportunity, the opportunity to dig our collective heels into the current moment and swivel away from the direction of the inferno, that that collective decision would be the result of a self-generated popular will. It wasn’t. It was the result of an event that forced us – forced us against our will – to adapt and respond to a vacuum whose existence we, as a Revolution, had previously announced, but that now had revealed itself to us all too clearly, whether we wanted it to or not.
The October 17 Revolution of last year was itself supposed to be the proverbial shit hitting the fan, the WhatsApp tax the last in a series of insults, the spark that lit the fire. Covid-19 arrived instead, followed by an economic and financial crisis of unimaginable proportions, and now the explosion. Every time we hit rock-bottom, jackhammers were ready to burrow into the floor bed beneath. But what happens when you drill below that floor bed and nothing is there?
What we are witnessing today is nothing less than the collapse of the Lebanese state, or indeed the final revelation of its collapse. The October 17 Revolution had demanded just that from the very beginning. The only problem is that, as a Revolution we were, purposefully or inadvertently, addressing ourselves to the very entity we were attempting to negate, the Lebanese government. This was the catch-22 in which the Revolution found itself: it wanted a new government – a new Lebanon – but had no one to address its demands to other than the very state it was attempting to bring down. Today the situation is different. This collapse of state legitimacy isn’t a demand that needs to be proclaimed by protestors or radical thinkers, but a fact that announces itself to all, whether we like it or not. It is our reality – one we must work amidst and to which we must ultimately respond.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the efforts to respond to the catastrophe. The state is visible only in the form of its own obstruction, its own insignificance. It takes the form of surly soldiers clutching their AK-47s, smoking cigarettes, and looking disgruntledly on as volunteers pick up the debris. It is evident in the officials who closed off the port, preventing the families of victims from searching for their brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers buried alive beneath the rubble.
This final implosion of the state’s legitimacy, however, should not only be framed as an opportunity for the Revolution. Although it is also that, it is rather primarily and in essence the transfer of struggle into a new nexus of power beyond national politics and the state. It is within this new nexus of power that any sort of revolutionary opportunity can and must be located.
Power in modern Lebanon has always been a three-layered cake. It was never just the state as such. It was never just the political class, the killun (all of them) in “Killun yani killun” (All of them means all of them), the slogan of the October 17 Revolution. The political class – the sectarian leaders who assume their place in the tribal confederacy known as the Lebanese government – exist alongside two other pillars, each symbolizing, respectively, the backbone of any sort of political power: money and guns. The former is there by the grace of the banking cartel that has run an elaborate Ponzi scheme since the early 1990s and has currently fleeced the Lebanese middle class of their life savings while simultaneously creating the conditions for an unparalleled devaluation of the national currency. The latter is there thanks to Hezbollah (and their arms). Though it superficially resembles the other sectarian parties, Hezbollah actually forms its own distinct, separate layer of power: it enjoys a local military supremacy vis-à-vis the other sectarian parties – even the Lebanese military – which allows it to act as a quasi-military deep state. Distinct from these parties, its political leadership is not structured around a local political boss or feudal leader, but is encased within a broader “Islamic Revolution” led by the Iranian government, whose ambitions are far more regional than local.
These two realities, Iranian guns from below and Gulf capital from above, formed the consensus at the heart of the Taif Accords that brought an end to the Lebanese Civil War. An unprecedented military build-up went on in the country’s south (overseen by Iran but facilitated by the Syrian government), while a form of unbridled neoliberal development (predicated on Gulf investment and heavy borrowing from national banks, making Lebanon one of the most indebted countries per capita on the planet) was overseen by the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and their man in Lebanon, then Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. This agreement collapsed in 2005 with the assassination of Rafic Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. It seemed as though that arrangement would be reconstituted with Michel Aoun’s ascendancy to the presidency in 2016, but it has fallen yet again. As is now clear after the explosion, it has taken the legitimacy of the Lebanese state with it.
The Sleep of Politics Brings Forth Monsters
The move towards negating classical politics has been a defining feature of this new Arab Spring that has taken off in 2019, before Covid-19 entered the world stage. Unlike the first Arab Spring of 2011, when vocabularies of liberalism, nationalism, Islamism, and sometimes socialism emerged to counteract the autocratic power of the state, the Arab countries that saw revolutionary movements in late 2019 (Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan) witnessed in many ways a rejection of state politics itself. The state was no longer a repository of national aspirations. It was instead something that had failed, and that had no existence outside of that failure. In Sudan, all traditional opposition parties have taken a back seat in the face of neighborhood committees organized in revolution (the so-called “resistance committees”) and the SPA (Sudanese Professional Association), a non-state sanctioned union of middle class professionals. In Iraq, one of the major slogans has been “No, No to Political Parties.” In Lebanon, the aforementioned slogan “All of them means all of them” (Killun yani killun) has prevailed, denoting opposition to all the major political parties ruling the country.
However, now as the collapse of state legitimacy moves from demand towards reality, we must take stock of what forces come into play. On one level, as the skin of politics gives way to hard bone, we see the reduction of the state to the forces whose interplay have composed its essence: the law, or the location of the sovereign, on one hand, and the sheer threat of force on the other, embodied primarily by Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, by what is left of the state. With the recent declaration of a state of emergency, the union of state power and law becomes particularly clear. As I write these words tonight, there is a demonstration in front of the Palace of Justice, attempting to spur action by the Lebanese Supreme Council as the only power in Lebanon capable of constitutionally removing the president; at the same time, the aforementioned state of emergency declared by the military actually forbids demonstrations. Where is sovereignty now located? With the president, the Supreme Council, Hezbollah, mother France?
This question brings us to the other dimension we must take into account as we transition to a non-state (or non-Lebanese state) nexus and orientation of political struggle, the question of foreign powers: I am speaking of the supposedly “outside countries” that currently circle Beirut like hungry vultures now that the legitimacy of the Lebanese state is on the auctioning block. They bring global legitimacy, courtesy of the West (traditionally led by France), as well as hard green cash, courtesy of the Gulf (traditionally led by Saudi Arabia). We saw this when Macron arrived in Lebanon two days after the explosion, and with Dubai’s offer, announced on Twitter of all places, to rent the Lebanese port for twenty-five years. The question for these powers is how to re-enter Lebanon, how to restore Lebanon as a financial and tourism safe haven. In short, how can they re-institute the pact of the 1990s, now that Iranian forces are so much stronger and more entrenched in Lebanon then they were before (and not only in Lebanon, but in Syria and Iraq as well).
So the money and the guns are back, with a vengeance. I am not much given to acts of prognostication or prophecy, but there seem to be two stark choices before us: either a devastating civil war that will inevitably result if foreign powers join with their allies among the political parties in Lebanon in direct pursuit of Hezbollah and its weapons, or a devil’s agreement between foreign capital and the armed forces on the ground (i.e. Hezbollah). The latter will need to be fulfilled by an intermediary that is acceptable to the West, but that can still communicate with Iran and Iranian forces in the region. Russia plays this role perfectly, albeit militarily, in Syria, and the UAE, fresh off its recent peace deal with Israel, would seem the most likely candidate to play such a role in Lebanon, albeit economically (as opposed to militarily).
It is truly a puzzle to imagine which scenario is worse. Civil war, or the final securitization of an agreement between guns and cash – the twin pillars of Lebanon’s demise – unequal, unjust, and short-term economic development predicated on a corrupt banking center and the growth and expansion of a proxy militia serving a bloody agenda of sectarian domination from here to Baghdad. Both systems depend on Lebanon being a banana republic run by the very same corrupt sectarian political class that the October 17 Revolution initially rose up against. I honestly don’t know if it’s better for these two tendencies to battle it out over the corpses of dead Lebanese or to shake hands over the corpse of a dead Lebanon.
Yet the question we should finally be asking is the following: where is the October 17 Revolution in all of this? Where do we locate the horizon of the October 17 Revolution, in between these two versions of inferno offered up to us by our political class?
Today, we see the Revolution perhaps repeating this scenario, with Melhem Khalaf’s decision to file an international lawsuit against the Lebanese state at the International Court of Justice. Melhem Khalaf is the only non-affiliated political independent to be awarded the presidency of a major Lebanese professional association (in this case the extremely important Beirut Bar Association), and thus this current initiative can be regarded as a venturing of the Revolution into the murky, geopolitical waters of international legal jurisdiction. The problem is that the global left generally, and local revolutionary forces more specifically, are unfortunately ill-equipped to find their way through such terrain. Sadly, regarding the question of geopolitics, the global left has either preferred to remain silent, turning attention toward local politics and struggles while condemning all global actors (a worthwhile effort and in principle correct, but insufficient), or, what is worse, has ceded this ground to those whose political horizon is defined strictly by an opposition to the politics of the West. There is no international revolutionary discourse that has found an appropriate language or methodology to talk about, deal with, or strategize around pre-existent and yet continually evolving geopolitical machinations.
It is said that, during the Lebanese Civil War, everyone was in Beirut. The CIA, the KGB, the PLO, the IRA, the Saudis, the Libyans, and the Chinese. Every single secret service network, terrorist organization, and militia had a presence here. The same thing can be said today. Everyone is in Beirut. The FBI has arrived. Macron was here, then returned on the 1st of September. Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, gave a speech from Beirut, denouncing, of all things, outside interference in the affairs of Lebanon.
So where do we locate ourselves in all this? A popular slogan often heard during the October 17 Revolution was that the Revolution doesn’t negotiate, it demands. The truth is that the Revolution neither negotiates nor demands. There is no one to negotiate with, and no entity left to make demands from. The Revolution can only build. It is in this and indeed into this void that the Revolution must and already has begun organizing itself; making itself solid through action. This is happening first through the response to the tragedy and the immense human need surrounding it. Later, it must happen through the constitution of an alternative power to a state that has, in practical terms, essentially disappeared. I am not naive enough to believe that grassroots revolutionary institutions will take over the Lebanese state, but as much as can be built, as much initiative as can be seized must be seized to erect another pillar outside the clatter of machine gun fire and the sweaty handshakes behind closed doors. A pillar at a distance from the money, at a distance from the guns.
The bare reality of the tragedy has shifted the terrain in people’s minds. Beyond mere anger, there is a heightened level of intensity, of emotionality and negativity. Emotions range from despair to rage and then back again. The party is definitely over, and the atmosphere emotionally and literally is, in the parlance of my generation, toxic. Yet, as I was recently sharing with a friend from New York, there is a singular determination here, a kind of determination that I did not discern earlier in the Revolution. It is a rugged and brutal determination, born of anger and despair, not of hope or of happiness. Rage and anger may be, in the final analysis, stronger than hope, vengeance may be a more powerful motivator than revolutionary aspiration. Despair can be a force for renewal, because there is literally nowhere else to go. Indeed, our vision of the horizon ahead is shaky at best. There is no dream to attain because it is not entirely clear what we want. We are leaving a house because that house has already started collapsing, and if we stay inside we’ll die. We have no choice but to pick our way through the rubble and get out. We are walking because we have no option. But that option, no option, might be at the end the best way forward.
– Malek from Liaisons