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When Cities Are Empty... Armed Men Mobilize

When Cities Are Empty... Armed Men Mobilize

Thursday, 21 October, 2021 - 10:45

Two years after the October 17 protests began in Lebanon, the scene has gone back to normal. The revolution, whose participants had claimed they wanted to evade the fatal curse of civil wars, it seems, with all its crowds, supporters, songs and slogans, very far from today’s reality of armed sectarian clashes.

The Lebanese’ despondency and sense of defeat are understandable. Indeed, they are expected. That is because the revolution’s dreams and promises of stamping out corruption, putting an end to clientelism, the domination of a political class that lives on the corpses of the innocent and incitement to violence and assassination were shattered. Its only result was increased savagery reminiscent of the darkest days of the civil strife seen between 1975 and 1990. Everyone is called to the slaughterhouse, and everyone is preparing for it. There are no victims here, no children, seniors or needy. Everyone, like seasoned killers, has a dagger in their mouth. The smell of blood mixes with that of the air contaminated by the smoke released from electricity generators in the poor neighborhoods, while politicians with black hearts sit in their palaces and hiding places, counting their wins and losses.

The fact that Lebanon’s economic and foreign policy functions are linked to sectarian positions in domestic politics has been a given of Lebanese political sociology for decades. Academic works issued in the sixties demonstrated the link between the changes ensuing from the European industrial revolution in the nineteenth century and the continent’s demand for raw and semi-manufactured materials in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) and the formation of new social groups that went about affirming their identity as they rose up the social ladder and strengthened their ties with the West.

The wars fought between 1860 and 1840 were, from this point of view, an indication of the resistance of traditional agrarian societies built on feudal relations of production to the potential for massive change carried by the nascent capitalism of the Mediterranean’s southern shores.

The wars of the seventies and the eighties had a similar dynamic. The sects that were not part of the old conflicts fought in Mount Lebanon demanded- after seeing that they had the merit and deserved to do so- to share power with those who had inherited the country from the Mutasarrifiyya and French occupation.

Arab and international dimensions are also in the picture. Lebanon, which benefited economically from Palestine’s ports being shut and the nationalizations seen across the Arab world, refused to pay its share of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s costs. It seems that history has left the Lebanese paying those costs many times over through the destruction seen during civil, regional and global wars in which rivers of blood drowned every attempt to understand the reasons for the conflict.

Thirty years after the Taif Agreement was signed and the civil war officially ended, Lebanon has not yet carved out a role for itself that would allow it to join the post-Cold War world. The train of history departed and left its Lebanese passenger on the station’s pavement: no economic role or flexible political structure that would enable it to take on the tasks as of it and no real understanding of the scale of the decline that country’s position in the world had seen while it was preoccupied with rounds of fighting and importing weapons.

Attempts to bring the country’s pre-civil war function back to life and make Lebanon an economic hub in a peaceful Middle East have come to nothing more than the empty and abandoned buildings that we see in the capital’s commercial center, which has become empty and dreary, exactly as it had been during the civil war.

This time, however, its state is the result of the August 4 blast, not the destruction left by sectarian militiamen and their allies. Many of the shops in the commercial center were destroyed twice, once by the real estate company that seized it claiming that it would be transformed into a global commercial center and another when it was left dead and without movement, still a witness to the blast, with shops whose owners decided not to fix after the massive blast had left their doors broken. Beirut’s downtown perhaps deserves someone to walk its streets and describe it, taking inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s writings on Paris, its covered allies and facades, but flipping his description on its head.

The “October protests” and their subsequent failure to turn their slogans into reality came to be confirmed. The sterility of the political class’ framework for managing the economy, with its dependence on the outside and disregard for the direction Lebanese society was taking, was affirmed. However, unlike the wars of 1840-1860 and 1975-1990, which the tension between an intransigent political structure and the pressure of socio-economic change played a role in igniting, post- “October Uprising” Lebanon appears to be regressing to a situation of walking back on commitments to the agreements that frame how the Lebanese live together within a single state. It seems that we are seeing the beginning of a stage in which the Lebanese search for means of survival in a hostile and obscure world similar to that of the first humans to walk the earth. The angry armed crowds seen during last week’s clashes are the only outcome of the silence that reigns over central Beirut. The two images, one of the militants and another of empty commercial streets, deserve to be amalgamated and contrasted.

The flourishing of identitarian sectarian rhetoric, which had receded during the “October protests,” means, among other things, that the Lebanese’ means of survival have become linked once again to closed groups after they had abandoned the dream of openness to the other, accepting them, and living with them. They now prefer to wait for the generosity offered by expatriates over getting involved in costly local economic reform. In other words, illusions have proven more believable than reality.

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