A revolution covered in smoke and gas clouds – Trying to make sense out of the political chaos in Lebanon

BY BRAM VAN DER HEIJDE

Since the 17th of October, the Lebanese streets have been filled with demonstrators trying to ‘take down the sectarian system’ that has been in place since the end of the civil war. While the protests that broke out in all major cities were all over the international news, by now most of the international media have lost interest in Lebanon. In January, I started my field work on political activism in Beirut and since I arrived, people back home keep asking me about the situation over here. I am however finding it difficult to give clear answers. Being here, in the midst of the chaos, it might be even more difficult to describe what this revolution entails, how it will materialize, what it means to people and what its effects are on Lebanese society.

Most of my Lebanese friends tell me not to dive into politics too much. They say that politics in Lebanon is too complicated and that any information I will find is biased or censored by the government. But at the same time politics is everywhere in Beirut, where the revolution is difficult to find but simultaneously impossible to avoid. The whole city seems to be covered in material traces of demonstrations; on my way to the city center, I pass smashed windows, burnt tires, destroyed phone booths and graffiti slurs on every wall. Everyone I speak to is either complaining or bragging about ‘the situation’ in Lebanon and its significance, but meanwhile the post-apocalyptic-like leftovers on Martyr Square have been abandoned every time I passed by for the last month. From time to time I notice that the protests get violent when I hear the sirens of ambulances from my balcony. The flat where I live is located in between two hospitals, so whenever the sirens go on for a long time, I know something is happening in the city center. On the other hand, my home is a safe 20-minute walk away from the demonstrations that most frequently take place in the financial and political center. So to be honest, I hardly notice anything of the protests when I’m not actively looking for it. 

While I want to experience the protests and feel tempted to involve myself in them, I have to remind myself that I am still an outsider. I want to experience the demonstrations, but I am also aware that I will never experience the effects of the corrupt government. Maintaining some distance is also important, in order to keep an open and critical mind, and even to secure my own safety. Yesterday, my curiosity got the best of me and I swallowed a breath of teargas for the first time. It is a horrible feeling. My eyes started watering up. My throat started hurting. People around me reacted in the same way and started walking away from the white fog.  

It was in the city center, where protesters were trying to prevent politicians from entering the parliament in order to vote for the new financial policy, a major decision with which the demonstrators disagreed. The government closed all the roads to the parliament with massive concrete blocks topped up with shining barbwire. Politicians were escorted inside by heavily armed vehicles, while protesters were held outside with teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Both the protesters and the riot police seemed very well prepared for everything that was about to happen. Protesters in gas masks threw rocks over the concrete wall, while on the other side the riot police held up their shields, knowing that only a few people at a time were able to actually climb over the wall. Ambulances were parked in the middle of the square ready to take any injured people to the hospital. It is an absurd scenery to look at as an outsider. 

People here tell me with a smile: “It’s an interesting time to visit Lebanon.” It is interesting to say the least, but also chaotic, dangerous and difficult to grasp. Some things that did become clear to me after one month in Beirut are the constant confusion and the distrust in the government that anyone in the city can feel after almost four months of revolution and no change. In the meanwhile, the problems of the people in Lebanon are getting worse. The exchange rate is dropping day by day, which causes the prices to rise up, especially hurting the most vulnerable people in the country. The revolution itself is also hurting the economy and destroying the city. Businesses have closed down and tourism has dropped. The Lebanese people have however sacrificed a lot, so I do not expect them to back down any time soon. People will never accept things to stay the same, something has to change for better or for worse. It is sad to say that my field work will most likely be too short to witness the results. 

Bram van der Heijde is a master student Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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