Jeffrey G. Karam and Rima Majed (eds.), The Lebanon Uprising of 2019: Voices from the Revolution (I.B. Tauris and Bloomsbury, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you co-edit and contribute to this book?
Jeffrey G. Karam and Rima Majed (JK & RM): Our plan to co-edit this book came from a desire to provide an initial account of the historic events of October 2019 through the voices of some of its protagonists.
The book project started during the COVID-19 lockdowns in mid-2020, when we found ourselves pulled out of the streets and confined to our homes. The fast transformations in our lives in Lebanon, from revolution to pandemic, and the quickly deepening financial crisis, created a need amongst many of us to make sense of the immensity of the events we were living and experiencing. This was further aggravated by the 4 August 2020 Beirut port blast that devasted the lives of thousands of people and formed yet another critical juncture in our collective history. In that sense, this book started as a collective effort to document, understand, and explain the October 2019 revolutionary uprising and its aftermath.
We wanted a book that echoes some of the various experiences and reflections that shaped our thinking around the revolution and its unfolding at the moment of writing. Most importantly, we wanted to work on a book that moves beyond the strict confines of academic writing to make space for non-academics and academics alike to contribute their knowledge and shape the debates around the Lebanon uprising of 2019. In that sense, we wanted to experiment with various writing styles and open up the discussion to topics ranging from social and political theorization to discussions on history, urban spaces, tactics, the banks, the media, refugees, the environmental question, disability rights, women’s activism, party loyalists, counter-revolution, and so on. We also wanted to ensure that the book would be neither Beirut-centric nor Lebanese-centric. Therefore, we invited contributions that looked at spaces and experiences of revolution outside Beirut, in addition to a chapter on the diaspora. Similarly, we purposefully do not use the term “Lebanese” uprising or revolution out of a conviction that the roles and experiences of non-Lebanese residents and refugees in Lebanon are equally important. To that end, we included contributions by non-Lebanese authors and provided chapters that link the events of October 2019 in Lebanon with the revolutions in Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, and beyond.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JK & RM: Before addressing this question, it is important to note that the book is not representative of all the diverse actors who took to the streets of Lebanon. Yet, it centers on the varied experiences of diverse individuals across different milieus. While we argue that this book is an early and deep appreciation of this complex moment in Lebanon, it is an interdisciplinary treatment of the revolutionary situation that erupted in 2019. We highlight two important points on what the book addresses.
First, we sought to rectify the problems of a scholarly echo chamber by complicating the artificial boundaries of academia and questioning the hierarchies of knowledge production. By amplifying the voices of protagonists (academics or not) on the ground, our book highlights the importance of endeavors that reconstruct history from below.
Second, the book constitutes a body of knowledge that includes primary documents, photographs, and reflections from the ground that have not been featured collectively. Thus, the different chapters reflect on the fine line between analytical reflections and lived experiences. These lived experiences stem from different exchanges between the contributors and many others in forming alternative labor unions and syndicates, political coalitions, and new political platforms to challenge the status quo. While the book is published in English, many contributors wrote their chapters in Arabic which were later translated into English. Importantly, we are working diligently on translating the book into Arabic to reach a wider audience in the Arab world.
In that sense, the book is among the first in the broader literature on the Arab uprisings to exclusively bring together local activists and academics to reflect on their experiences and present their analysis of their own uprising. This forms an important step in bringing to the fore knowledge production from the Global South and giving priority to local scholars and activists to tell their stories while making important academic contributions to the broader fields of international relations, social movements studies, revolutionary theory, and Middle East studies.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JK: My contribution (chapter 8 specifically) is a natural outgrowth of my monograph that will be published soon on how great powers engage with and often seek to disrupt transformational moments of political change in the Arab world. While my monograph focuses on the Cold War and examines how the United States analyzed the various revolutionary situations that unfolded in different Arab capitals, my chapter in this volume complicates the relationship between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces by examining how the United States and Iran served as the “shadow guardians of the status-quo” in Lebanon before, during, and after the revolutionary uprising in 2019. This book likewise compliments my edited volume, The Middle East in 1958: Reimagining a Revolutionary Year (NEWTON here), which focused on the postcolonial revolutionary situations and the broader connections to revolutionary struggles across West Asia and North Africa and outside the region in the 1950s.
RM: My work for the past ten years has focused on the intersection between social movements and sectarianism in Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond. Therefore, this book (and my contribution in chapter 7) came as a clear continuation of my previous work and my long-standing interest in the question of contentious street politics and change in sectarianized polities. I built on my previous work on Lebanon and Iraq and on my extensive fieldwork in both countries to write a chapter for this book that theorizes for what I call “sectarian neoliberalism” and to reflect on these revolutionary situations as part of a broader process of revolutionary ruptures in the region, denouncing both neoliberalism and identity politics at once.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JK & RM: This book was conceived with several audiences in mind. For brevity, we will highlight three. First, scholars and activists who work on or in the Arab world and those interested in understanding unfolding revolutionary situations as part of longer processes of change that happen elsewhere around the globe. Second, curious readers who are interested in the intersection between the various revolutionary situations that unfolded during the “first wave” of uprisings in the Arab world in 2010/2011 and the “second wave” that started to erupt in 2018. Third, this book was also written with specialists and scholars of Lebanon in mind, specifically those interested in situating the October 2019 uprising within Lebanon’s historical, political, and social context.
While our book is not structured as a typical academic contribution, we believe that its format, depth, and rigor serve a great scholarly goal. This book broadens the theoretical and empirical debates around revolution and counter-revolution and will push our understanding of revolutionary outbreaks in the twenty-first century. Similarly, we hope that this book will serve as a helpful resource for undergraduate and graduate courses.
In terms of impact, we hope that many scholars and activists will build on the book and further analyze both the similarities and differences between the unfolding revolutionary situation in Lebanon, elsewhere in the region, and beyond. We likewise hope that the book is a starting point for future work that will bring together local protagonists andacademics to reflect on and present their analysis of their own uprisings.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JK: Aside from my monograph and several articles on US engagement with revolutionary situations and moments of political change in the Arab world from the Cold War to the present day, I am currently writing about the “oil crisis” in 1973 and the role of great powers as counter-revolutionary actors between the “first wave” and “second wave” of Arab protests. Moreover, my published and forthcoming work likewise addresses the complexities of teaching political science during moments of crisis, with an emphasis on Lebanon. I am also writing article manuscripts that draw on a recent book that I co-edited, Global Authoritarianism: Perspectives and Contestations from the South, which complicates existing accounts of “authoritarianism” to provide a multifaceted perspective on such political structures and dynamics in the Global South, with an emphasis on the Arab world.
RM: I am currently working on a monograph that provides a reading of Lebanon’s uprising through the antinomies of “sectarian neoliberalism.” This book project is an in-depth account of the Lebanon uprising read through the lens of contradiction and based on a wealth of novel data and research. In addition to this book, I am working on a number of other projects: 1) archiving protests in Lebanon since the mid-1980s; 2) an initiative that highlights critical approaches to development studies in the region; and 3) a comparative research project that looks at the second wave of Arab uprisings through research on Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and Algeria.
J: What are some of the many theoretical and methodological issues with researching and writing about revolutionary situations along binary lines (failed or successful)?
JK & RM: Our book strongly contests the tendency among scholars and commentators to quickly label revolutionary struggles as either successes or failures. To this end, this volume highlights the importance of the “longue durée” in the study of revolutions and adopts a much more nuanced framework that accounts for the complexity of revolutionary struggles and that pays attention to the dialectical relation between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. A focus on the dynamics and processes of revolutionary struggle, an analysis of social and political transformations, and reflections from the field as these struggles unfold and deepen can demonstrate the particularity of this transformational moment in Lebanon without falling into the trope of Lebanese exceptionalism.
Excerpt from the book (from chapter 1—Jeffrey G. Karam and Rima Majed, “Framing the October Uprising in Lebanon: An Unfolding Revolutionary Situation,” pp. 1-4)
On the eve of October 17, 2019, Lebanon’s revolutionary uprising (Thawra) erupted. Following a week of wildfires that ravaged parts of the countryside while the state stood inept, and in the context of a financial crisis that had started to clearly implode, the Lebanese government announced the introduction of new taxes, including a tax on the popular WhatsApp voice and messaging application. Hours following the governmental decision, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Beirut and other cities, blocking roads and burning tires. The mobilization quickly grew and spread across the country in an unprecedented way. By the early hours of the evening, hundreds of thousands were in the streets, in every corner of the country, declaring what they called a Thawra.
Despite having a long history of protest and contestation, this was the first time in the modern history of Lebanon that protests erupted concomitantly across the country in a geographically decentralized way, mobilizing such vast numbers of protesters. For those in the streets on that evening, the events felt different compared to previous waves of mobilization. This was a popular uprising that initially mobilized the working classes across the country in a spontaneous and concerted way. Raising the same revolutionary demand that echoed in the streets in 2011, the protesters wanted the downfall of the regime. Repeating the 2015 slogan that arose during the #You_Stink movement, protesters chanted “Kellon Ya’ne Kellon” (or “All of them means of all them”) to highlight the multiheaded nature of the Lebanese consociational system. However, what was eye-catching on that October evening was the spontaneous mobilization of masses across the country with a clear class-based discourse, linking the economic and the political, targeting the sectarian leaders and the “oligarchy” at once, bringing back the social question to the center of contestation, and speaking of a clear “us” versus “them” in class terms.
The other interesting aspect of the early days of this uprising was the heavy prevalence of curse words in chants to express anger against the ruling class, with a focus on Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the president of the Republic (Michel Aoun). This discursive break with norms and hierarchies, with curses, addressed at all politicians and bankers from Riad Salameh to Hassan Nasrallah, made the early days of the uprising a powerful and celebrated “insolent revolution.” The events of October 17 quickly took the form of road blockades as a move to shut down the country from north to south in the absence of unions to declare a general strike. The need to put the country to a halt, disrupt “business as usual,” and declare the start of a new phase was evident. The historic images of that night and the spontaneous coming together of a population against a ruling class reflected deeper social and structural transformations and signaled an “intensification of history.”
Lebanon’s Thawra can only be understood within a broader historical context of internal, regional, and global movements and uprisings. Since the first wave of Arab uprisings in 2011, social movements and revolutionaries around the globe have been affected by this major critical juncture that spread from the squares of some Arab cities to shape movements and revolts in other parts of the world such as the Occupy movement in the United States and the United Kingdom, the Indignados movement in Spain and Greece, or the Africa uprisings that had been long underway and intensified in 2011. The reverberations of this first wave of Arab uprisings were also felt in other countries of the Arab region that did not directly witness an uprising. In Lebanon, the year 2011 had reshaped and transformed local struggles. Starting with the emergence of the movement for the “Downfall of the Sectarian Regime” in 2011, passing through the renewed feminist movement, the 2013 mobilization of the Union Coordination Committee, and the 2015 “#You_Stink” movement that formed an important turning point in the history of activism in Lebanon, and reaching the 2019 mobilizations in the Palestinian refugee camps for the right to work, Lebanon’s sociopolitical history since 2011 has been shaped by a broader regional context of heightened mobilization and countermobilization. This context has been significantly affected by the reverberations of the Syrian revolution, and its counterrevolution, in Lebanon.
Like 2011, the year 2019 formed another critical juncture in the history of protest in the region and globally. With the Algerian and Sudanese uprisings starting at the end of 2018 and the Iraqi uprising erupting just a few weeks before October 17, 2019, when the Lebanon uprisings started, a “second wave” of Arab uprisings was soon announced. This wave continued to develop in the region with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2021. As with the previous wave of 2011, the year 2019 also witnessed increased mobilization and revolt across the globe, spreading from Chile to Hong Kong. While these historical moments of uprising form what political scientist Kathleen Thelen and sociologist Donatella della Porta called “critical junctures,” this book conceptualizes uprisings as both critical events and longer-term historical processes that need to be studied and understood as they unfold in their longue durée. In that sense, this book zooms into a critical moment in the history of Lebanon—the eruption of the revolutionary uprising in October 2019 and the initial aftermath—to analyze and position it within a broader history of social change and political transformation.
Framing the October Uprising: A “Revolutionary Situation” and Counterrevolutionary Forces
This book’s approach to understanding the October uprising in Lebanon is rooted in the political and academic debates that have developed over the past decades to define, analyze, and frame moments of mass popular upheaval that have shaken societies and polities alike and that have attempted to change political regimes and social orders. Therefore, this book centers Lebanon’s October revolutionary uprising as part of the wider revolutionary movements that have taken new shapes and higher frequency since the start of the twenty-first century, and more precisely, since 2011.
One of the most heated debates today revolves around the nature of the events that started to unfold in the Arab region since 2011. While some scholars and commentators consider these events to be revolutions or revolutionary uprisings and revolts within a broader process of revolutionary unfolding in the region, others are more skeptical of the revolutionary nature of these historical events and see them mainly as an Arab “spring” followed by a “winter,” failed uprisings, “refolutions,” or even “brief moment of mobilization.” Some consider how revolutions reshape international order and why such transformational moments of political change pose unpredictable threats and generate instability between and within states.
At the core of the more skeptical accounts lies a definition of revolution centered on successful outcomes in terms of regime change and state transformation. This has drawn a large body of literature on the Arab uprisings that focuses on the difficult process of democratization, the resilience of authoritarianism, the resurgence of Islamism, and the persistence of monarchies. While this understanding of revolution tied to outcome is widely based on Theda Skocpol’s classical definition of revolution as “rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures . . . in part carried through by class-based revolts from below,” more recent debates are inviting us to rethink the definition of revolution in the twenty-first century beyond the focus on the binary of success and failure in outcomes.
Moreover, these newer accounts are also encouraging us to move away from a definition of revolution that is fixated on “political revolution” that changes regimes to an understanding of “social revolution” that centers social and economic transformations—an aspect of Skocpol’s definition that has been widely overlooked in the mainstream discussions on the Arab uprisings. These debates have also opened bigger theoretical discussions on whether the study of the Arab uprisings is still considered part of the fourth generation of revolution theories that had moved beyond the structuralism of the third generation to focus more on agency and processes. Moreover, there are discussions of whether a “fifth generation of revolution theory” has developed in the past years of study of the Arab uprisings with an approach to these revolutions as being essentially nonviolent and nonconfrontational. While these debates are still heated and lively, there seems to be a consensus that new approaches and theories are needed to understand revolutions today.