SAT 8 - 8 - 2020
Date: Nov 26, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Leaderless protest movement mulls what, and who, comes next
Mehr Nadeem| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Last Friday night, a group of protesters set to work building a large wooden structure in Downtown Beirut’s Azarieh parking lot. Forty-eight hours later, supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement trashed the area. Amid the tarpaulins and metal poles left behind, the domed winter tent stood intact and unharmed.

At the start of Lebanon’s monthlong national protests, the parking lot quickly transformed into a political space. Lebanese citizens of all ages, classes and sects now gather nightly in marquees set up by volunteers for discussions. The sturdy winter tent is a symbol, to protesters and opposition alike, that new politics are here to stay.

The protests have largely operated at a grass-roots level. Devoid of recognizable figureheads, they have been fueled by mounting anger at a corrupt ruling class and frustration at sharply declining standards of living. However, moderated discussions and teach-ins organized by civil society groups have worked in parallel with the aims of this leaderless movement.

Now, as the protests entered their 40th day Monday with no real progress made in forming a new government, the question of how to move forward hung heavy in the air.

Since the resignation of Saad Hariri as prime minister, there has been a shift in protest strategy.

“The focus is no longer the general action of paralyzing the whole country, but it has shifted toward taking direct actions against particular institutions,” Ghiwa Sayegh, a feminist organizer, told The Daily Star.

In the past month, protests have taken place in front of the Finance Ministry, banks, privatized coastal areas, embassies, public utility companies and universities.

For the likes of Bahi Ghobril, a member of the political movement Beirut Madinati, ensuring that people are informed and engaged is the movement’s most critical success.

“A mature people’s movement - if not a revolution - is successful when the government knows that everything it does it being watched, analyzed and constructively criticized by its citizens,” Ghobril said.

Although the discussions have been an effective strategy for some, others argue that the tents pitched in the Azarieh parking lot are demonstrative of the multiple, and potentially clashing, forces at play.

“Look at them. They’re all competing against each other [to] get the most people in their tent. They’re just selling ideas and their own agendas,” said one retired businessman, who asked not to be identified. While he spoke to The Daily Star, his wife recorded the conversation on her phone. Since the protests began, her husband has been uploading political comment videos on his Facebook page.

Social media has also been a crucial tool for the protest movement and the civil society groups in its orbit. Platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have proved highly effective at mobilizing people across geographical and ideological boundaries.

Meanwhile, viral videos - including one that circulated of protesters shampooing their hair with water from a Civil Defense water cannon - are not only a source of light relief in a tense national moment. They help maintain people’s attention.

Coordination and cooperation between different civil society groups in the parking lot has also been largely informal.

“The tent next to us is basically inhabited by people we didn’t know, but we help each other out. For example, they give us food when they receive too much and we do the same. Everything is happening super organically and naturally,” said Rayya Badran, a volunteer for Matbakh al-Balad, a group that cooks and sends free food to protesters.

Some, sensing that demonstrators were beginning to feel lost among the different groups represented at the Azarieh, have pushed for more traditional forms of organization in the space. One chain WhatsApp message suggested, for instance, categorizing all the different groups by their various initiatives, professional associations and social services.

“There has been a resistance to this kind of traditional NGO-ized organizing that the state wants to see. If we start organizing like this, it is playing into the current regime,” Sayegh said.

“If the revolution is visionary, we need a complete disruption in power and state, and we need to change the way in which we understand cohesive planning. We have not imagined different ways of rethinking power.”

The smaller debate around the Azarieh’s organization pushes at the broader - and far more sensitive - debate around leadership. Can a leaderless movement succeed? Or, do leaders need to emerge and, along with existing civil groups, push for a political turn?

According to one member of Re-Lebanon, a volunteer-led campaign group that sprang up during the protests, the answer is yes.

“I sense that many are still not prepared for this conversation, but the movement will slowly have to move toward becoming more political and discussing who we want in power,” the man, who asked not to be identified, told The Daily Star.

However, groups such as Beirut Madinati see it as the responsibility of civil society to present and prepare candidates.

“We are clear in our stance that we will not endorse any names, because we believe that you cannot speak for the street. This is an unspoken rule between everybody. ... [Leaders] should arise on their own,” said Rima Rantisi, a member of Beirut Madinati. “[If we] endorse anyone, we are only going to be asking for trouble.”

More radical organizers and protesters reject both stances. For instance, some feminists, including Sayegh, argue that fielding political candidates will mean engaging with and validating a deeply flawed system. “Pushing for a political agenda means that we are making concessions and that we are accepting that there are facets of this regime that will stay, and that we are OK with it. This is not what the demands of the people on the streets are,” Sayegh said.

Students have also been a crucial force over the past weeks. A large proportion of protesters in Beirut are young, aged between 18 and 25. Most of them believe that their future in the country is dependent on the movement’s success.

“We have to maintain this leaderless kind of form for the sole reason that we are not dealing with naive or innocent entities. If political candidates emerge, [established politicians] are going to smear them easily,” said Dany Rachid, president of AUB’s Secular Club.

With the country moving closer to economic collapse, protesters and onlookers are both seeking direction.

While the grass-roots movement has so far relied on its organic and spontaneous character, it is unclear how long its momentum will last. Though the power still lies with the people, civil groups are inching closer toward a tense conversation about how to move forward and who will lead the way.

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