At an intersection between Hamra and Bliss Street, Fanon, Marx, and Žižek’s names are sprawled across the shutters of a boarded-up store in red graffiti with hammer and sickles poorly drawn around them. Historically, these symbols and names are conjured up in times of revolution or suffering, like the names of Prophets who are called upon to alleviate the people out of their poverty and famine.
Theory, like religion, can paint a straight path, with accessible signs and the illusion of a final destination; in this utopia, there is revolution, change, then prosperity. Lives will be lost, martyrs will be made, but history will ultimately absolve the rage and the violence of the oppressed.
In the past week, tensions in Tripoli – Lebanon’s second-largest city and its poorest – have escalated into violent clashes between a starved and deprived citizenry and the country’s security forces. Videos circulated social media on Thursday night of several buildings and shops, including the city’s municipality and a courthouse, set ablaze by Molotov cocktails and grenades hurled by protestors.
The chaos follows a national lockdown that went into effect on January 7, after the government opened the Rafik Hariri Airport to expats scheduled to return home for the winter break without imposing a mandatory self-isolation period or enforcing restrictions to contain the inevitable spread. Many speculated that these loose measures, some of which permitted nightclubs to remain open, but prohibited dancing, were a bid to have “fresh dollars” injected into the collapsing bank sector and its diminishing reserves.
With the Lebanese Pound (LP) at a fluctuating exchange rate of approximately 8,800 LP for 1 USD, foreign currency now goes a long way for those who have access to it. While maintenance and living costs soar for the average Lebanese wage laborer, making Beirut one of the highest ranked cities for cost of living in the 2021 index, expats indulged in the exchange rate. Shocked whispers and loud boasts about drinks on a night out that cost as little as 10 USD or a pickup at Starbucks setting you back only 4 USD turned the city into a rich man’s playground overnight, livening up the deserted and abandoned streets that were still lined with shattered glass and debris from the August 4 explosion.
It was easy to see why the names of socialist and communist thinkers were being hailed to fix the tilted state, where the rich were getting richer, hiding behind their glass buildings and foreign bank accounts, and the poor were holding on to the kindness of strangers, trying to stretch out their meager salaries to the end of the month.
Reactions to the country’s reopening naturally split into two camps: the critics and the proponents. The former were still concerned about the impending disaster of a COVID spike that would overwhelm hospitals and an imminent government lockdown, while the latter argued that the Lebanese people deserved some fun after months of tragedy and an economic depression whittled down spirits and hopes. A pandemic was last on the list of priorities for a country whose crime rates have skyrocketed and whose families have struggled to put bread on the table.
As predicted, the government enforced a general lockdown within the first week of the New Year. Measures included closing nonessential businesses, restricting movement after 6 pm and allowing restaurants to remain open only for delivery, an unreachable service for those living in Lebanon’s poorest and most isolated communities. One week into the lockdown, stricter measures were introduced, including the closure of the Corniche, one of Beirut’s few public spaces to exercise in, and restriction on movement by car or by foot for those without a permit. Though the strict measures were implemented for a total of 11 days, the government extended the general lockdown February 8th without any indication of what measures were to remain and without adequate financial compensation distributed to the country’s most impoverished citizens.
The impact of the lockdown could be felt even in the liveliest of neighborhoods. The cacophony of sounds in the city were reduced to the hum of diesel motorcycles in the background. People that yearned for the Lebanon of their childhood or adolescence came hopeful and left disappointed if not distraught at the news of men setting themselves aflame because they were unable to provide for their family – a pillar of the Lebanese patriarch.
Even those flocking to their chalets or the resorts in the country’s snow-capped mountains could not turn the other cheek at the mothers and children begging for medicine or bread as they drove by in their Audis and Range Rovers. Evidently, the reckoning that the corrupt and ruling class did not think would ever arrive was here, earlier and angrier than they had imagined.
If the struggles of the past can inform the riots of the present, then the country’s mounting hunger and unrest anticipates a relentless mob that bows down to no authority but food and their God.
And so, Tripoli, a city chronically neglected by the central state since the country’s independence, is yet another bloodstain on the hands of its wealthiest elite, including their very own Najib Mikati, who Forbes listed as one of Lebanon’s richest men in 2015. Short-term relief organizations can no longer compensate for the city’s scarce resources and employment opportunities, leaving the old and the young to fend for themselves. The consequences of the lockdown’s misgovernance and misjudgment thus unfolded in Al-Nour Square on January 27, as young men and women, also joined by demonstrators believed to have been incentivized by external forces with a separate political agenda, collided with armed forces, causing numerous injuries, one death, and a young child left behind because her father could no longer provide for her.
Speculators questioned how the arsonists had access to military grade grenades, suggesting that the violence was further proof that the demonstrations this past week were organized by political figures. Tripoli’s legitimate pleas were ultimately overshadowed again by the hands of the elite, relegating their demands secondary to the violence of a handful of protestors condemned by news channels and citizens across Lebanon.
What is unravelling in Al-Nour Square today is a microcosm of what Lebanon will look like in the coming months: a splintering society that will tear itself apart from the inside out. The hungry will go to the streets protesting the humiliation of having to beg and borrow for a loaf of bread. Then there will be the hungry that are fed by the political elite and will do their dirty work for them by using their desperate bodies as a commodity. And lastly, a deepening gulf between the country’s rich and poor, which, with a rapidly evaporating middle-class, will introduce the beginning of a class war alongside the ill-fated sectarian strife that has infected this country with every strain of corruption since the French left us and the Civil War killed whoever was left.
The lines between the good and the bad, or the hungry and the politically motivated, will blur into a Civil War we may never recover from considering the collective amnesia of the lessons imparted unto us from that of 1975 and onwards. The diaspora or expat imagination will hold onto the Lebanon of their memories whilst those living in Lebanon will leave or live with a bitter taste in their mouths of what this country stole from them – their savings, their homes, their youth, their future, and their right to live and enjoy a dignified life.
At the intersection between Hamra and Bliss Street, the people’s answer to the question of their future is painted in a red coat all over the city’s buildings and streets. It is a call for a secular and economic revolution, where accountability and justice cannot be evaded by who you know or what you own. It is a call for self-sufficiency and self-regulation, where the people can manufacture their own goods and distribute it accordingly. But theory makes this dream look like child’s play, like anti-imperialistic Tweets or Instagram stories are enough to remind a starving people of their nemeses and their history. The people are on their knees, either losing their religion or clinging onto their faith, waiting for salvation from wherever it can be found.
Critics of the international agencies spearheaded by Northern and Western governments will reject aid on the basis of a neocolonial chokehold to pressure Lebanon into compliance and normalization with Israel. Critics of Iranian proxies will point to Hezballah’s stalemate, and how the movement has done little for the Palestinian cause besides making martyrs out of Shiite Lebanese families. In the midst of this rift are refugees and foreign workers who have been exploited by Lebanese employers as cheap and unprotected labor; sidelined and scapegoated by the political elite and the masses alike, they too get caught in devastation of this shipwreck without having their basic needs guaranteed or assisted by the state.
At this intersection, Marx, Fanon, and Žižek cannot do anything for an irrevocably divided people. There can be no breadline without bread just as there can be no revolution without faith, persistence and unity. Those with the drive, charisma, and charge to lead are boarding planes to elsewhere–anywhere–and those left behind are drowning in garbage and the daily reminder that while one eats, another starves.
So, Lebanon must stand by its brothers, sisters, and cousins in Tripoli after having abandoned them in the national project years ago. It must empathize with their struggle and push those with ulterior motives into the peripheries of a new national vision. The October 2019 revolution is not over so long as the ruling elite walk freely. The people of Lebanon must not allow incentivized rioters to overshadow protestors and, in turn, they must not dismiss the reasons for these rioters’ politicization and submission. Marx, Fanon and Žižek may act as benchmarks of guidance, but they cannot undo a history unique to a country that has continuously been at war.