The Revolution Post-Explosion

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.

1. The Revolution of October 17 was a large-scale, cross-sectarian mass uprising that began in Lebanon on October 17, 2019, demanding the fall of the government and an end to the country’s sectarian political system. In response to the Revolution, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation along with that of his cabinet on October 29, 2019.
When I arrived in Lebanon four days after the blast there was a different energy in the air, an intensity and anger that wasn’t there before. I have been visiting Lebanon on and off since the October 17 Revolution, and before of course, but this was indeed rather different. It was as though, since the October 17 Revolution,1 the government and its people had been eyeing each other up, knuckles drawn, circling each other in the ring. And now the government had struck the opening blow. It was a blow, however, swung almost against the will of the one who struck it; a blow of incompetence and stupidity and negligence.  Either way, blood was now definitively in the air. Unlike earlier in the Revolution, when the operative words were poverty, humiliation, garbage, and corruption, they are now disfigurement, injury, death, destruction, and above all vengeance. It is hard to explain, but there is a sense that the Lebanese people, and above all the people of Beirut, have suffered a form of direct physical abuse. They look shaken, like someone who has just been in an intense physical altercation, but is trying to act “normal” as if nothing happened.  It feels like there has been an almost biological need for restitution from the government. In the first week after the explosion, people were rioting in front of government ministries with the level of reflexive reactivity that comes with instantly striking after being grabbed or physically assaulted. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, this was not the product of a distinct line of thought and didn’t require any sort of political comprehension, understanding, or worldview. The hangman’s noose had replaced the ubiquitous Lebanese flag in the Saturday protest on August 8th in Martyr’s Square, four days after the explosion. This time it’s personal. In fact, it couldn’t be more personal.

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.

2. Solidere is the construction company who, during the Hariri era in the aftermath of the Civil War, demolished the damaged buildings in downtown Beirut, bought up much of the property from the locals, and turned the historic center of Beirut into a ghostly real-estate project divorced from the rest of Beirut’s urban fabric. In fact, banners on the wall of Nation Station read something to the effect of “don’t let this neighborhood become a Solidere 2.0.”
It is civil society groups, charities, and groups of young activists that are emerging to clean up the affected areas, provide shelter for the displaced, offer material, medical, and even psychological assistance to those in need, and finally begin planning for the area’s reconstruction. Sometimes these groups or spaces are explicitly political, like “Nation Station,” which was formed when some friends who met each other during the Revolution collectively squatted a building damaged by the explosion for the purpose of giving out meals, offering mutual aid, and beginning to organize with the neighborhood. Other groups are also engaged in explicitly political work, organizing to prevent construction companies and real estate developers from demolishing damaged buildings and buying out the local inhabitants, as happened after the Civil War with Solidere.2 The scale and depth of the government’s non-response have forced the Revolution to do what it should have done from day one: self-organize. Many of the electoral parties that had formed in or around the revolution have self-imploded by now in the absence of the early elections they so desperately sought. Instead, the gravity of the catastrophe and the necessity of responding to it have endowed the organizing currently going on in the wake of the disaster with a form of unshakeable, self-evident legitimacy.

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).

3. By saying this, protestors were announcing their opposition to Israel, thus distinguishing the previous chant “Hezbollah is a terrorist organization” from being a mere echo of the American government’s rhetoric about the group. The protestors were also attacking what they see as Hezbollah’s symbiotic relationship with Israel, in that Hezbollah depends on an enemy state like Israel to frame itself rhetorically and justify its power. This makes Nasrallah, in a sense, the ultimate Zionist.
This brings us directly to the question of Hezbollah’s arms. What I discovered upon returning to Lebanon last week, in addition to the more palpable anger and quivering rage, was the willingness to talk about Hezbollah directly. Earlier in the Revolution, there was more ambivalence about Hezbollah. While some condemned them, others continued to harbor illusions about their ultimate benevolence, but there was widespread agreement then that Hezbollah and their arms, whether for practical or moral reasons, were not the end goal of the revolution. That is no longer the case. People are speaking directly about Hezbollah and saying that no progress can be made unless it is demilitarized. Last Saturday, alongside the burning effigies and the cardboard cut-outs of the heads of various Lebanese politicians in makeshift nooses, the chant “Hezbollah erhabi” (Hezbollah are terrorists!) emerged loud and clear. The fact that this was intermingled with shouts of “Nasrallah is a Zionist”3 tells me that this chant was less a capitulation to Western discourse than a clear, unmistakable declaration: Hezbollah is an enemy of the Lebanese people – an enemy with blood on its hands.

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).

4. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is a primarily Christian party founded by the current President Michel Aoun and currently led by his son-in-law, the much despised Gebran Bassil. The party signed a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah, providing political cover for the group’s weapons in 2006.
5. Nabih Berri has been the Speaker of the Parliament, a position traditionally reserved for Shia Muslims, since 1992, and is the head of the other major Shia party, along with Hezbollah, Harekat Amal. He and Gebran Bassil are widely viewed as the most corrupt figures in Lebanese politics.
6. Saad Hariri, former Prime Minister and son of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and his largely Sunni Future Movement, lead this opposition wing of the establishment alongside Walid Jumblatt, the traditional leader of the Druze community, and various traditional Christian parties opposed to the FPM.
Indeed, Lebanon is in many ways not really a country. It’s an agreement; a temporary agreement at best. The biggest source of disagreement right now is Hezbollah’s arms, and the President of the Republic and his party,4 along with the Speaker of the Parliament and his party,5 represent the segment of the political elite that supports Hezbollah and its arms. The dominant role of this faction in Lebanon’s government and political scene over the past decade has compromised Lebanon’s standing with its Western allies, preventing the kind of pact that had allowed for the supposed stability Lebanon enjoyed in the 1990s. A return to such stability compromises the essence of the supposed national unity government that many, both inside and outside Lebanon, are pushing for: an agreement on how best to exploit and run roughshod over Lebanon and the Lebanese without the thorny question of Hezbollah’s arms getting in the way. The noxious notion of using this tragedy as a way to reconstitute this old pact was best captured by our very own president when, in his first public address after the explosion, while people were still searching for their loved ones amidst the rubble, he referred to the tragedy in the most clichéd of terms as “an opportunity for Lebanon,” a statement that provoked widespread anger and disgust among the Lebanese. The other alternative to this “opportunity” on offer, however, seems to be a war that seeks to cut Hezbollah back down to size by force, either through inviting military foreign intervention or a scenario more akin to a Civil War, wherein forces of the political establishment, not so favorably disposed to Hezbollah and their armaments, take on the group directly.6

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?

7. The results of this international investigation, also known as the “Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” were released on August 18th. The verdict, which found only one suspect of the four men officially charged with carrying out the assassination guilty, and which did not find sufficient evidence tying the crime either to Hezbollah or the Syrian government (both commonly understood to have been behind the assassination), was widely regarded as a political exoneration of both Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
On one level, this dance between global powers, national and international legal mechanisms, and the arms of Hezbollah is nothing new. In many ways, it is a return to fifteen years ago, when, after the assassination of Rafic Hariri, an international investigation was regarded not only as a means of holding those responsible accountable, but as a path towards effecting and ensuring deep political change. To some extent, this was achieved with the withdrawal of Syrian forces later that year, but in a sense was left uncompleted, with the retention and in fact subsequent growth of Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal.7

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
August, 2020