BEIRUT: Looking at the mostly empty streets of Beirut and Lebanon’s other major cities, it’s very hard to imagine that just a few months ago every square inch of pavement was occupied by thousands-strong crowds demanding change.
Now, the cries of “thawra, thawra,” which sought to expel the entrenched political class accused of bringing about the economic devastation, have given way to more immediate concerns, namely the coronavirus pandemic that has so far afflicted 663 people in Lebanon and claimed 21 lives.
Amir el-Fakih, co-founder of the 2015 YouStink! movement and October 17th activist with Li Haqqi, acknowledges that the health crisis has superseded all else.
After being at the forefront of protests last October, facing up to Internal Security Forces around Riad al-Solh Square, Fakih now recognizes the place things have moved to. ‘‘We are in corona,’’ he tells The Daily Star over the phone. “The world has totally stopped.”
As for continuing street protests, Fakih perceives the present realities. ‘‘We can do nothing, we are staying at our homes,’’ he admits candidly. ‘‘I accept that they need to take away the tents,’’ he says, referring to the ISF’s March 27 dismantling of the sit-in on Martyrs’ Square in a manner which he describes as ‘‘barbaric,” in reference to the ISF's rough aproach on the night.
Meanwhile, Saha w Musaha founder Obeida Takriti argues that the government is taking advantage of present conditions. ‘‘They are trying to crush the revolution in different ways. With the lockdowns and prohibitions, but especially by opening Sahat al-Nour and Martyrs’ Square,’’ he told The Daily Star.
However, Fakih does note that the decline in street protests began in February, before the lockdown measures were imposed. ‘‘The movement began to see a decline once the new government was formed. Most people were waiting for help. We had a harsh winter. Our plan then was to restart in spring and re-exert pressure on the government.” In addition, he explains, ‘‘the international politics that usually impact Lebanon are sort of suspended.’’
Furthermore, the dismantling of the sit-in has drawn mixed reactions from the public, with some questioning the efficacy of the movement in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
‘‘What are they doing in the square that is so important?’’ asked one Twitter user following Martyrs’ Square’s opening.
‘‘The camps increase the rate of infection, anything that increases the spread must be removed,’’ argued another on the same thread.
A third claimed that while opponents and supporters of the new government have refocused their efforts on the national health crisis, this does not appear on the activists’ agenda.
‘‘I’m from Tripoli and proud of the revolution,’’ said a fourth user, following Sahat al-Nour’s opening, ‘‘but by the end, [the Saha] was empty but for wasters and drug-users.’’
For Saadeh, a 30-year-old Tripolitan and Oct. 17 protester, this was regrettably apparent. ‘‘Before the lockdown Sahat al-Nour was nothing. Just people selling kaak, tea and coffee, and also some drugs,’’ he recalls. ‘‘I think this was the politicians’ plan,’’ he added.
Acknowledging these criticisms, Takriti takes a more nuanced view. ‘‘People would see the good and the bad, would like aspects of the Saha but not others. Individuals’ views are not clear.’’
Amid these mixed feelings and the health crisis’ dominance, some activists are trying to take corona in stride. At protests outside the Justice Ministry last month against controversial judicial appointments, demonstrators wore masks and gloves while practicing social distancing.
“Of course, we all need to take extra measures due to corona,” said one protester in a video posted on Facebook, while standing at a safe distance from other protesters. “But we will continue to challenge the government.’’ Sahat al-Nour activists have also adapted. ‘‘We moved the dialogue sessions online,’’ says Takriti. ‘‘Distant sessions are going well, with good engagement.’’
Meanwhile various political parties have rolled out anti-virus initiatives, helping to re-establish their standing among supporters.
‘‘With the lockdown, they have the power to set the narrative,’’ Takriti says. Hezbollah leads the way, last month inviting the media for a tour of its coronavirus response, boasting ventilator-equipped ambulances and a team of 25,000 volunteers. Other parties have organized sanitization initiatives for public spaces and rapid-testing centers, Reuters reported earlier this month.
‘‘This fake trust they are building will not last because it is not real,” argues Fakih, before citing the Garbage Crisis of 2015 and the reappearance of bigger protests in 2019.
However, Jimmy Karam, a Tripoli-based activist with School of Rioters who collaborates with Takriti, does not believe the shift toward the health crisis has given the government any particular advantage.
‘‘I do not think people are giving the government a chance,’’ he says. ‘‘They may be succeeding with the lockdown, but in other ways they are failing,’’ he adds, citing the heightened deterioration of the economy due to the closures, as well as the severe devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which fell to less than half its value and is exchanging at more than 3,000 pounds to the dollar.
In addition, rising inflation and banks’ continuing capital controls remain a major grievance, while the government’s attempts to draw-up a comprehensive economic rescue plan have fallen flat, with the recent ‘haircut’ proposal on deposits sparking public outrage. Last month’s judicial appointments also sparked accusations of politicizing the justice system, leading to a senior judge, Ghada Aoun, resigning in protest.
All this, alongside the rapidly growing poverty rate in the country, especially with tens if not hundreds of thousands left without an income due to the lockdown will inevitably fuel the re-emergence of another, and likely wider, protest against the political class.
‘‘With the lockdown, the government is taking a timeout,’’ Karam says, but looking ahead, he sees problems for the government.
‘Injecting money, I do not see how they can do it. Supporting the unemployed, I do not see the funds. The poverty relief, can they afford it? This is where the biggest failures will appear on the public scene,’’ he adds. ‘‘Things are not going to go backward. What was triggered on Oct. 17 is still in the hearts of so many Tripolitans,‘‘ Karam says.
For Fakih in Beirut, the return of protests is inevitable given the prevailing economic problems, but street activists’ control over them is limited. ‘‘Organizing groups do not function to mobilize the streets, but to give direction. We do not move the people. We move with the people,’ he says.
The hovering concern on the horizon, however, is what shape the renewed protests will take.
‘‘When Tripolitans cannot afford food or are unable to support their families, I do not know if things will remain peaceful,’’ Karam says. His fears are supplemented by individual stories from across the country, reflecting the growing economic desperation people are facing. Fakih agrees, grimly predicting an increase in such cases, and adding, ‘‘The work of activist groups is to contain that madness and send it to the best possible place.’’