Beirut: Vacuum and Despair

we-want

Signs reading “We are not poor… but our money is stolen.  Our dignity makes us the richest of the rich.” At a protest spring 2014. Photo by author.

This article was first published on al-Manshour

On the first week of May Beirut was engulfed by a heat induced stench emitting from the trash heaps mutating since last summer. Amid trash, heat and chaos Beirut was readying itself for municipal elections. One afternoon I was rolling around my city sitting in the passenger seat next to a taxi driver listening and nodding absentmindedly to his boasting about his sexual adventures. We slowly came to a halt just outside Gemayzi police station, and this is when my taxi ride became amusing. There was a white police SUV ahead of us trying to pull in and park at the entrance of the police station. A commotion, a shout and a valet parking runner popped out of nowhere launching his body towards the policeman’s vehicle smacking his hand on the dusty hood while shouting “Stop! Stop! What do you think you are doing?  Go away, you can’t park here it’s Friday, this spot is reserved”. A few seconds passed, the dumbfound policeman frozen behind his steering wheel, his ride immobile in the middle of the street. A long trail of cars piled up behind us and honked, an outraged orchestra. There was another policeman at the entrance of the police station, this one moved sheepishly towards his colleague and waved for him to backup directing him to park. Once the valet parking gathered that he was being ignored he fumed and yelled out profanities at both policemen concluding with “Yalla (C’mon on) ya a’rrs (you pimp) drive away, park elsewhere, get out of here quickly”. His warning and intimidation fired up the policeman’s vehicle; wheels turned then in a splash it was gone. The other policeman was left exposed on the sidewalk, he avoided looking at the valet parking man. So he dropped his head towards his rifle that was hanging limply between his legs like a dog’s tail and shuffled back to his post. As if we were watching reality TV the taxi driver and I sat through a show featuring power dynamics on the streets of Beirut. We were still digesting what we saw, taken aback by amusement and amazement, then at the same time we turned to face each other grinning ear to ear “did you see what just happened?” The taxi driver pulled out his cigarettes chuckled and spoke as if he was talking to himself “(lek el-manyak) see the fucker! That boy who parks people’s cars has got more authority than the police that polices us.” He took a drag on his cigarette and puffed out his last comment, “God damn this country”.

I later found out that Gemayzi was a Kataeb turf and that the valet parking company was one of many corners on that turf. It’s also worth mentioning here that Gemayzi police station is notorious for repressing peaceful protesters refugees and migrant workers.

Last May Beirut’s walls featured airbrushed faces of hopeful candidates running for municipal elections. The competition over Beirut’s municipality was a mix of frantic campaigning, a chance for entrepreneurs and aspiring individuals who can afford to dream and participate in the democratic charade. And like all previous elections in Lebanon this one too was a money making season for advertising companies, print shops and an opportunity for many to sell their votes. Essentially, the latest elections in Beirut unravelled the limited scope of influence of the civil-society and it left some politicians stripped of their partisanship: it created a void. Thus, the most important result of Beirut’s municipal elections was the political vacuum it unveiled. There was a 20% turnout on election day and a stark absence of an 80% dejected majority.

 

Differing prospects, (in)different bubbles

During the run-up to elections day the different social bubbles of Beirut had differing expectations to meet on Sunday the 8th of May. From inside the civil-society circles one rubbed shoulders at bars and cafés with the most agile campaigners. Young girls and boys buzzed around in white t-shirts emanating an omnipresent feeling of what could be described as euphoric young bodies fuelled by the ecstasy of collective action for political mobilisation. Volunteers of different ages campaigned tirelessly and organized their friends and family members because “every vote counts” and “we need to win. We want change”. Stylish young upper-class hipstery Lebanese yearned for change because “we can’t take it any more” and “we want clean streets, less traffic jams and we need to have a sustainable solution to solve our trash crisis”. I bumped into some of those boys and girls at the Food Market—a regular overpriced street food extravagance in downtown—who were volunteers with Beirut Madinati. We chatted about the upcoming elections shouting over loud euro-trash music that was blasting in the background. Their zeal while campaigning for Beirut Madinati on top of their American accented English made one feel that BM’s campaign was on par with Bernie Sanders’.

In contrast, outside the civil-society’s comfort zones an atmosphere of political apathy dominated many streets of Beirut. The lack of interest in politics and the upcoming elections was especially present in areas that were considered a support base for Future Party. On election day Hariri’s “Sunni electoral reservoir” Tarik Jdeedi didn’t flood the polling stations as Saad al-Hariri had wished. Conversely, Tarik Jdeedi’s streets were filled with political apathy and indifference towards Future Party politics. Disillusionment with Hariri was more vociferous in Beirut than at any other time, many of those who used to be Hariri diehards wished to witness his demise on May 8th. This sentiment was often expressed behind closed doors two years ago today its out on the streets, “We want him [Hariri] to lose the elections, as a lesson for this shit situation he got us into” announced one man in his early forties, a clothing-business owner, who also urged his neighbours on Afif al-Tebi street to boycott Hariri. For such disdain expressed publicly without generating any reaction in the middle of Tarik Jdeedeh means that Harirism is past its expiry date as a Sunni political representative in Lebanon.

These days the vibe on streets in Tarik Jdeedi is one dominated by social alienation and paranoia. Those streets are now living the repercussions and side effects of an intense last decade of Hariri’s toxic sectarian political gambles.  Street corners that used to accommodate loitering young men, some under employed and many unemployed, became a place for these same men to avoid. Those who used to spend their time on corners to pass time over sunflower seeds or in times when Future Party turned these corners to neighbourhood security watch–during before and after May 2008 clashes–are today out of sight. Some of the men who used to flock to these corners “went to Syria and were never heard of since” others “went to Syria and were martyred there” and “the lucky ones jumped the boats and are now in Sweden or Germany”. As for those who remain on the streets today they are broken-down, fragmented, filled with hate and suspicious of each other. These men who used to fume with Sunni chauvinism fed to them by their Future Party leaders today can’t get over the fact that they were backstabbed by those same leaders. They are now caught up in a nasty game: snitching on one another to al-Ma’loumat (the Information Branch).

Al-Ma’loumat, a security branch created by the al-Hariri family, is today under the influence of minister of interior and Future Party MP Nohad al-Mashnouk. The Information Branch is a model that represents the sectarian disintegration for each component of the Lebanese state security apparatuses. It used to be perceived by many Lebanese Sunnis as “their security branch” but at the moment al-Ma’loumat is a brute muscle force deployed against all. Since the tragic end of protests of summer 2015 Beirut’s civil-society back tracked from direct action and went on campaigning for municipal elections among themselves, in the meantime al-Ma’aloumat was bent on a strategy of containment. The security branch has since infiltrated the poorest among Beirut’s youth: grooming snitches, creating a culture of paranoia and distrust; dividing and conquering low income neighbourhoods. As Beirut turns into a police-state al-Ma’loumat infiltrates some sections of the city to force its hegemony on the streets and dominates the various human networks. Furthermore, Al-Ma’loumat’s thuggish practices found an alliance with Amal’s  gangsters when they jointly attacked peaceful protesters last summer.

I spoke to two young men who I first met in 2008. Back then they were among a politically flamboyant and sectarian macho crew who used to man-up street corners as Future Party partisans playing cards and smoking out while “waiting for Shia to attack”. Rabie, Ahmad and I hung-out on a side street in Qasqas, a TJ neighbourhood. After we exchanged pleasantries I asked about the situation in their area. “What? Didn’t you hear? Where were you? Did you see what Mashnouk has done to us?” Ahmad and Rabie shot back with regret when I asked about the rest of their crew. “No one trusts anyone anymore, they are all screwing each other for al-Ma’loumat.” While hanging out with Rabie and Ahmad I partook in observing a reality unfolds the dynamics of social-relations by those on the streets; the way people looked at each other and how fingers would point behind the backs of men indicating silently a snitch or a Ma’loumat agent had just rolled by on a scooter.

While sipping coffee and chatting on the street Rabie kept whingeing over the fact that he couldn’t find anyone to lend him $5000 so he “can get out of this place and never return”. I asked about the upcoming elections and if they are going to vote. Rabie insisted that if there is easy money to be made from elections “that’s what we want. other than that we don’t want to get involved in politics and Hariri’s games.” He was cut short by Ahmed who was provoked by Rabie’s reasoning he scowled and hissed at Rabie “All you think about is money. How many times are we going to let them (Future party) buy us then sell us?” Ahmed then turned to me, his scowling face was popping out beads of sweat, his voice softer, “life has become difficult. one must fear god and pray for salvation, we are living the end times. people are losing all their morals. Its unbearable, people are selling each other for a recharge phone card or a gas top-up for their scooters.” Ahmad was talking about the petty cash supplied by al-Ma’loumat branch for snitching on insignificant delinquencies. For example, each time someone snitches against one of their friends for smoking a joint or for stolen car parts the snitch gets a crumb. Or, even worse, snitches start using their position to settle rivalries by fabricating accusations. Evidently, people’s resentment is not directed against the snitches among them, but was projected towards two Sunni politicians: Nohad al-Mashnouk and Saad al-Hariri. “Saad and his people played us and sold us, they left us nothing in Beirut and now Mashnouk is here to devour all green and dry” said Rabie while eyeing Ahmad for approval. Ahmed shook his head in agreement and said, “al-Mashnouk wants to chastise us, he unleashed al-Ma’loumat on us for that purpose and to exploit people’s poverty and uses it as a point of weakness against us. They know people are bankrupt and are easily bought for the cheapest prices.”

mashnouq Chak noris.jpg

 “Nohad al-Mashnouk thinks he is Chuck Norris.” A protester’s sign from summer 2015 protests in Downtown Beirut photo by author.

It’s no exaggeration to say that since Lebanon’s colonial inception the rich or the colonial bourgeoisie families relied on state-security institutions to dehumanise, divide and punish the poor for their poverty. The current minister of interior Nohad al-Mashnouk made a name for himself last summer among protesters as “the guardian of Lebanon’s moneyed class”. The notoriously dysfunctional Lebanese state mobilized the repression of the peaceful protestors with unprecedented efficiency. The minister of interior proved that the state is actually functional when it comes to protecting privatized property.

Today, the minister of interior is bent on crushing the poorest sections of the city to strike the unity of those who are unemployed or underemployed, punishing them for their poverty and preventing their outburst. Those who can’t afford to go out to privatized venues or to bars/cafes end-up spending the long hot summer nights on their streets. The recent snitch culture was created to dismantle the very spirit of solidarity that invigorates the unprivileged to organize and strike; those who used to block streets with burning tires to protest severe power cuts or water cuts or when trash piled outside their doorstep today don’t trust each other. Ultimately, distrust created by snitches prevents a merger between the different social-bubbles of Beirut. The paranoia induced by distrust crushes the spirit of rebellion within the city’s broken youth who were the vanguards of last summer’s protests and on the receiving end of the most police brutality.

trash-2015

 Salim Slam bridge Beirut trash protests summer 2015 photo by author

Thus, one week before election day the only people who were politically motivated with much enthusiasm to vote were young people in Ashrafeye, Mar-Mikhail, Badaro downtown and Hamra. Those are the civil-society demographics presented in two divided camps of Beirut Madinati (Beirut my city) and Muwatinun wa Muwatinat fi Dawla (Citizens Within the State). On Saturday night before election day the minister of interior issued an unusual decree ordering cafés bars and night clubs to stop playing music by 8pm and to serve their last call by midnight. Mashnouk’s move of containment was perceived by many members of the civil-society as a move to limit them from recruiting voters, a knock back to those campaigning over drinks amid a euphoric party atmosphere.

 “When they win and join the politicians they will become just like them”. This observation was shared by many who don’t believe that change could come from inside of Lebanon’s corrupted political system. This apathy towards politics stems from the fact that people have lost faith in all components of the current political system and the state as a functioning institution for all. It also became increasingly confusing for people to keep up with those who’ve been calling for change i.e. the civil-society: “one day they protest to topple the regime the next day they are running for elections to join the same defunct political system” a sentiment echoed by many. Evidently, the hesitance to capture the spirit of drastic change by the civil-society is making them look timid and unfit to embody a political third-line outside the straightjackets of March 8 and March 14 political blocs. Many in Lebanon nowadays speak about the need to get rid of the same old political parties, the severity of the situation means people are ready to move on beyond the symbolism of protests and embark on radical change for radical solutions.

Hope or delusion?

Maybe the best way to illustrate Beirut Madinati’s campaign is to view it for what it was: a creativity and design competition promoting first world countries’ solutions. Perhaps Beirut Madinati’s campaign was a prelude to Beirut design week, since the municipal elections was portrayed through flowery social media videos that featured fifty shades of a futuristic city but not Beirut. It made one think that the failed state of Lebanon will simply be solved through creative design ideas the kind that usually result in more gentrification. In other words, Beirut Madinati’s campaign was a vision by the one percent projecting the dreams of the one percent to the one percent.

 All types of imported first world dreams flooded social media timelines during election campaigning promising a (unrealistic) brave new Beirut. And that brave new Beirut was more of the same one that currently exists: a glitzy private club for those who got it.

 What could best describe this recent election is that it was a competition between two capitalist visions or modes of production. Both the ruling class and the upcoming entrepreneurs vied to implement their capitalistic visions. There was the old school Mafioso-feudal-sectarian-bourgeoisie capitalist politics who found themselves facing a no match foe but a foe nonetheless dressed in a neo-Liberal capitalist outfit. Both camps had their eyes on the one cow in Lebanon that everyone wants to milk: the service sector.  The political fanfare and campaigning around how to rebrand that service industry that flooded social-media timelines before elections day fizzled out just a few days after elections. In the weeks that followed Beirut’s elections the rest of Lebanon’s regions were getting ready to vote, however the deafening calls for “change and reform” that preceded Beirut’s elections died in Beirut the day after elections were snatched by the establishment. Such indifference towards other towns and cities outside the capital illustrates the narrow scope of change the civil-society limits itself to. The fact that no legal action was taken against documented election fraud by the establishment meant that the civil-society was complacent.

Political Vacuum

On the day before elections I noted two predominant attitudes on the streets of Tarik Jdeedi: in one corner there was the familiar election hustle on the other corner an increasing apathy and distrust in their local political representation. There were organized and paid campaign activities: plastic tents lodged on corners shading unoccupied white plastic chairs; organized scooter mobs who rumbled around the vicinity of TJ trailing a loud commotion. Instead of ramping up Future voters they turned into a nuisance that agitated the public into curses against the scooters and ‘their Hariri’. I chatted to a group of five scooter-boys sticking the last pieces of sellotape to plaster their scooters in Future posters and Saad Hariri’s pictures. To these boys the whole thing meant “free gas” for their scooters and “some easy cash on the side” to do what they like best: driving around honking while doing wheelies and basically being obnoxious without having the police ambushing them as on normal days. This, I thought, summed up the elections for this group of youth and many of their peers from Tarik Jdeedi. Among those some felt no reservation to speak publicly and said “Saad (Hariri) is weak, he’ll never be able to represent us Sunnis as his father did”. It was evident that Hariri’s support base was empty, or, to put it more precisely, unavailable to him, as the low voting turnout showed on election day. However, the supposedly alternative politics of Beirut Madinati hadn’t been heard of on the streets in Tarik Jdeedi (some said they spotted BM’s slogans on Facebook). Beirut Madinati or Mouwatinat didn’t ring any bells for the scooter-boys; this meant that the scope of ‘civil-society’ campaigning didn’t reach beyond their social bubble(s). The majority of people I encountered in TJ voiced disbelief in politics and expressed a universal feeling regarding Beirut Madinati/Mouwatinat “they are all the same: if they are clean today they will be as corrupt as the ones (politicians) we have now”. This sentiment also echo’s a slogan held aloft during the protests of last summer: Kilon ya’ni kilon (All of them [politicians] mean all of them).

Resentments against Hariri are not new, disintegration among his partisanship have accrued in the last ten years, these days it’s just voiced louder. The votes of Beiruties that Hariri needed to win and keep control over Beirut’s municipality didn’t turn out on election day to vote for his list “as it is”. “As it is” was Rafiq Hariri’s motto during his heydays when he once embodied a Sunni patriarch persona; a “father of the poor” as his supporters imagined him.

Furthermore, Saad Hariri’s constituency in Beirut and elsewhere moved on while he was gone skiing. “Thanks to Saad Hariri and his family Palestinians are no longer the only ones living in camps”. Said Omar Masri, 34, who was on his way to his second job as a private security guard protecting a building in upper-class area of Ras Beirut.  “First his father then him (Saad Hariri) continued to force Beiruties out of Beirut and now they are in Aramoun. This is the Sunni refugees camp that Hariri gave us. I live in Barja (a southern town just before Saida) and work in Beirut, but I hate it there I hate my life in Barja. I never stop thinking and regretting the day we left Beirut, that was the worst day of life. I want to return to live in Beirut but it’s impossible, Beirut is too expensive we can’t afford to return. How dare he (Hariri) show up and ask us to vote for him. The Future Party called me today and said I have to vote, I told them I’m not voting. If they’ve got a paid job for me on elections day I’ll do it, but voting I will not do. Even if Future offered to pay for my vote I don’t want to give it to Saad. I live in Barja now why does Hariri expect me to vote in Beirut? There is nothing that he left for me in Beirut”.

In the end fraud and deception led Hariri and the political establishment to win Beirut municipal elections. But the low turnout in Beirut and later Hariri losing Tripoli meant that this might be the last hand that Hariri (or his Future Party) can play as a leading Sunni politician in Lebanon.

 

  This brutally consuming political deadlock is the essence of the Lebanese example: in its fragmentation of a small population ruled over by a political mafia manipulating identity politics. This situation makes change hard to attain it when it becomes impossible to connect and organize on the same street. At this point people seem to have lost the ability to unite against a mutually recognizable common enemy. The state, or some security branches, is not wasting any efforts to prohibit, by all means available, connections between privileged middle-upper class youth namely those of the civil-society and the have-nots everywhere outside ostentatious Beirut bubbles. A true change requires real solidarity, it will happen only through connecting, networking and later organizing a nationwide movement that aims to infiltrate social and class divides. The cost must be understood in terms of sacrifices that will result from organising for a long harsh struggle. The time is now for youthful energies to galvanize; to find the courage and discipline to work together and plot the strategic means of victory.  Since last summer’s protests we realized that the objective is not to raise to power of certain individuals or groups but the historical necessity to end class inequalities and muster a final blow to shatter the defunct sectarian system as such.

 

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