When we last spoke to Shirine Jurdi about how protest movements have contributed to dialogue in Lebanon, the most recent revolution in the country had not yet started.
In fact, the Foundation’s publication, Dialogue in Peacebuilding: Understanding Different Perspectives (which has now been translated into Arabic), was published around the time the people of Lebanon, across socioeconomic and religious divides, took to the streets on 17 October 2019.
The people were protesting against widespread corruption among Lebanon’s political elite, which has been blamed for the economic collapse of the country, and which has been bolstered by a political system that lacks accountability and transparency and is therefore rife with misuse of power.
To find out how the demonstrations have affected dialogue efforts in Lebanon, and to hear more about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the protest movement, we checked back in with Shirine on the extent to which the reflections she shared in the publication continue to resonate today.
Do you have a specific memory that demonstrates the role of dialogue during the recent protests?
I was marching with a group of women in support of the protest, and we encountered a group of mothers demonstrating against violent clashes that had taken place alongside the protests, concerned that the protests could lead to renewed armed conflict. We started talking to the women and asking them what kinds of messages they have for the protest movement. There were media cameras there and our discussion went live; families in the neighbourhood were listening to us and were able to see what this kind of dialogue can look like. As a sign of good will when we arrived, they gave us red flowers (as a symbol of their motherly love) and we gave them white flowers (the colour of the revolution), in the hope for peace. It was the most beautiful moment. It broke the ice between us, and we saw each other as humans, as Lebanese against sectarianism and for national unity.
We spoke to you last year, before the most recent demonstrations started. Are there any differences in terms of how this revolution has played out compared to past demonstrations?
It’s really been very interesting to see people, who like to be called ‘Thuwar’ or protesters, going into the streets and calling for reforms so close to the publication of my first interview with you. This time around we have young people, who were not around for the previous protests. People from different geographical locations and all walks of life and religions are joining; this we did not see in previous revolutions. Now, in the same place you can see a person with not one dollar in his pocket talking with a person who owns a private jet. What is unifying them is their call for change.
At the same time, the protest has been more organic and decentralised this time around. Previous protests centred around particular issues such as access to electricity and trash collection, but this is a revolution against the root causes of the political establishment itself. While the protesters may not necessarily agree when it comes to what should be prioritised in order to end corrupt government practices, they are all coming together to speak up against corruption.
In previous revolutions, the government was very smart in using religious differences as a means to divide demonstrators. This was in part a result of Lebanon’s confessional political system, in which government postings and seats in the legislature are apportioned according to religious political party allegiances rather than national representation. While the government has tried similar tactics during the more recent demonstrations, it has not worked. At the beginning of the protests, when politicians tried to enter the protest square – across from the parliament building – demonstrators would not allow them in, saying: ‘We are calling for change against the political system that divides us’, and ‘Killon yaa’ni killon’: ‘Everyone means everyone’.
You also spoke about protests being a form of dialogue in Lebanon given that there is no other outlet for proper dialogue at the national level. How have the more recent protests contributed to dialogue efforts?
The revolution has opened up space for dialogue to take place in every sphere between people of different backgrounds involved in the revolution, in a way that has not happened in the past. That is the richness of this movement. At the protest square (before COVID-19) tents were set up and they became spaces for discussions between groups, from different geographical locations, social classes and religions. As part of a divide-and-rule strategy, the government in Beirut has always depicted people in the north as terrorists, but during the protests we saw that they are actually the backbone of the revolution. We started to get to know one another – even after COVID-19, we have continued through WhatsApp groups. Rather than focusing on our differences, there was a sense that we are all Lebanese.
The revolution has also opened up an opportunity to reach out to those who do not support the protests. Much of the focus of the protests has been on highlighting how the current political system divides Lebanese along confessional lines. There are initiatives to connect to those who do not support the revolution, to highlight that we as Lebanese experience similar challenges, such as the lack of electricity, lack of access to social services, etc. This is the kind of dialogue that we need. Even if people don’t support the revolution, they agree that the corrupted political system needs to be changed. But for some of them, the protest slogan ‘Everyone means everyone’ (i.e. that the entire system and all politicians are corrupted) does not apply. In their opinion their political parties/leaders are not corrupted, but are the ones working to positively change the system.
To what extent has the dialogue that has been taking place advanced the protest movement?
Dialogue has taken place in different ways. Forms of dialogue have been used by protesters as a non-violent means to raise their concerns with the government and demand change. Graffiti and other art depicting messages for change, has for example been used to represent the calls of the demonstrators, but also to rally demonstrators and to serve as a record of what is happening in this moment in history. You can hear and you can see what the protesters are calling for. For example, during a period when the protests became less peaceful, security forces created a wall so that demonstrators could not enter the square in front of the parliament. A group from a women-led network, Art of Change, used graffiti to create on this wall a door to symbolise that the Lebanese people not only intend to but will enter the parliament; in essence, ‘We don’t want to be shut out’.
Women also built on the momentum of the protests to hold marches calling for equal representation. In Sidon, women started to beat pots as a way to demonstrate that they supported change. It has now transcended from just being a women’s movement; children and men are banging on pots as a way to say: ‘We matter, we exist and we are being vocal’.
These are all indirect forms of dialogue, ones that do not involve a conversation with government but where the people express what they want. In some instances, the government has also responded, such as when the former government resigned. But there has been no formal dialogue between protesters and the government. For actual change to happen, we have to move the agenda from the protesters to the decision makers, and this requires dialogue between the two. In the past, as I mention in the publication, political actors have engaged in dialogue or announced an intention to engage in dialogue as a tactic to calm tensions and manage conflicts. This time, protesters are saying that they do not want to have a dialogue with a government that they view as illegitimate. When the government, which derives its legitimacy from the people, is actively seeking to curb the revolution, it is a failed political system. Protesters want a new system.
According to decision makers, the lack of dialogue between demonstrators and decision makers is due to protesters being less organised and the revolution having no single leader. Protesters not having a representative group has been used by the political ruling leaders as an excuse to not acknowledge the need to look into the real demands of protesters and to refuse to step down. At the same time, there have been some groups that have attempted discussions with decision makers, which has not been welcomed by the revolution as a whole. The revolutionaries are currently holding elections for representatives of the group, with separation of powers so that representation and the rule of law lies at the heart of change.
The protests were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a country-wide lockdown. To what extent has this affected dialogue efforts around the protests?
At the beginning, everybody agreed that COVID-19 was a threat. There was some kind of collaboration between civil society, media and the government, and people for the most part abided by lockdown regulations. At the same time, the lockdown allowed the government to legitimise the closing of protest spaces, and to avoid addressing issues raised in the protests by instead focusing on a COVID-19 response. But, people in Lebanon are living in very bad situations. At least 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty level; inflation is increasing by 60 per cent. So, people started to go out in the streets and say that they won’t abide by the curfew if they don’t get access to basic services.
The revolution is now back. But the kind of dialogue that protesters are having under this ‘new’ post-COVID-19 protest is different. There is more tension between protesters and disagreement around how to take the protest forward. There are fewer successful efforts to reach out to other groups than before the pandemic came along. Some worry about joining demonstrations because of the risk of spreading the virus. Others feel that they have an obligation to make sure that change happens in other forums. There are fewer people on the streets this time around. The revolution will come back in full at some point, but I don’t know how or when.
In your contribution to Dialogue in Peacebuilding, you discuss the importance of the international community supporting civil society, which plays a critical role in advancing dialogue. Given the recent developments with protests and COVID-19, what do you feel is the most important way the international community could support civil society?
We need the international community to back us up, to put pressure on the government. It is difficult to understand how European and other countries do not see the corruption – often flaunted in lavish luxury – taking place. European countries continue to provide financial and other support to the state, much of which does not reach the people most in need of assistance.
The international community, including multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and the UN, needs to be inclusive. This requires actively speaking to, supporting and working with grassroots people on the ground. Instead of providing funds to the state, support civil society actors and peacebuilders financially, those who are actually addressing the challenges that we face in this country, those who are actually going out after the explosion to clean up and those who are keeping the revolution alive.
Finally, people in other countries can follow civil society in Lebanon and share our stories and voices with others, in their own languages. The protests in Lebanon and if I may say now the suffering of the people should be trending – maybe then we will finally be able to open that door into the parliament building for change.
Note: We spoke with Shirine before the explosion that took place in August 2020 in Beirut. The effects of the explosion on the protests and dialogue efforts in Lebanon are therefore not reflected in this post. Following the explosion, a new piece of graffiti showed up; it said, simply, ‘HOPE’. Banner image: Rami Ahmad.