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To the Barricades in Beirut
Lebanese protesters are reappropriating roadblocks—long a mark of civil war-era division—as a symbol of unity.
BEIRUT—Night after night, Ali Nourredine helps block the Ring Bridge, one of Beirut’s major thoroughfares, with the aim of bringing Lebanon to a standstill. On a balmy Thursday evening in late October, the 25-year-old addressed several hundred Lebanese demonstrators conducting a sit-in in the middle of the road.
“We are the people of the revolution. You are the sectarian war,” he chanted. “From the churches and the mosques, we are streaming to the streets.”
A horde of riot police pressed into Nourredine’s back with their shields, and, shortly after, security forces violently dispersed the seated demonstrators, clubbing those who resisted with batons. But the protesters were adamant and returned to sit peacefully, growing steadily in number until the riot police were outnumbered and eventually retreated.
The scene was reminiscent of the cat-and-mouse game played at roadblocks across the country between demonstrators and security forces since mid-October. Calling for the government’s downfall, demonstrators have brought the country to a halt over the last four weeks by launching a general strike and setting up roadblocks around the nation.
Critics of the movement—political leaders and those loyal to their parties—have criticized roadblocks, decrying them as remnants of Lebanon’s long and vicious civil war, when warring militias would establish checkpoints that prevented movement along sectarian lines. But protesters contend that they are pushing back against the war’s legacy, calling for the downfall of civil war-era oligarchs who have driven Lebanon into a severe economic crisis.
The anti-government movement spontaneously erupted on Oct. 17 in response to a series of tax proposals, including a proposal to tax voice calls on free mobile messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, which is ubiquitously used because mobile phone fees in Lebanon are extremely high. It rapidly escalated into a mass national uprising against austerity measures, decades of extreme government corruption and mismanagement, and a deteriorating economy in which the government struggles to provide even basic services such as electricity and water. Dubbed the “October Revolution,” it has quickly become one of the largest independent protest movements in Lebanon’s history—its momentum now carrying well into November.
The October Revolution is unprecedented not only for its size and momentum but for the movement’s message of cross-sectarian unity. In a small country historically divided along confessional lines, political allegiances are built along sectarian lines, as are government posts: The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim. In theory, this ensures an equal representation of sects in Lebanon’s governance, but in practice it ensures sectarian division—a holdover of a long and vicious 15-year civil war that still casts a shadow over Lebanon.
Notably, the current uprising has overshadowed Lebanon’s sectarianism, drawing in diverse crowds from all sects and classes that are calling for the downfall of the political elite with the slogan, “All of them means all of them.”
The goal of the demonstrators has been to paralyze institutions across Lebanon, enough to pressure authorities—a political elite largely considered a remnant of the civil war—into conceding to protesters’ demands.
And the pressure exerted by the protests and roadblocks combined has largely worked. Banks, schools, and universities closed down for the first two weeks, while roadblocks, demonstrations, and calls for general strikes continued into the third. As a result of pressure caused by the uprising, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on Oct. 29, taking the government down with him. Yet in the meantime, President Michel Aoun appointed Hariri as the caretaker prime minister, and progress toward the formation of a new government has dragged.
With few changes implemented at the top, the protest movement has also prompted backlash from government supporters and sectarian outfits like Hezbollah and Amal, allied parties whose constituents largely hail from the country’s Shiite Muslim demographic and that have exploited sectarian divisions to their benefit.
On Oct. 25, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah addressed the nation in a televised speech, throwing his weight behind the current government, suggesting that foreign powers were exploiting the movement to “implement foreign agendas,” and asking demonstrators to open roads so that people could tend to their work and education.
He specifically accused demonstrators of checking IDs and charging for passage at roadblocks, despite no reported evidence of this—an echo of the days of the civil war, when militias would set up checkpoints to prevent people from passing based on their sectarian and ethnic affiliation.
Nizar Hassan, a Lebanese political researcher and organizer, said Nasrallah’s comparison of roadblocks to sectarian civil war-era checkpoints was “the easiest way to turn this movement against us and to turn people against each other.”
Throughout the civil war, militia-operated checkpoints were often dangerous and humiliating to cross for those who did not have allegiance to the militias operating them and were often used to levy taxes as an excuse to extort money. Crucially, they were also often sites for brutal reprisal killings or kidnappings: For civilians belonging to an “enemy” sect, certain neighborhoods and cities were considered no-go areas.
This memory remains imprinted in Lebanon’s consciousness. “The civil war checkpoints were based on sectarian divisions,” Hassan said, “and these roadblocks are based on anti-sectarian mobilization.”
The cross-sectarian unity is especially evident on the Ring Bridge, as it is colloquially known: Anti-government demonstrators of all classes and sects gather at the roadblock due to its strategic location bridging predominantly Christian eastern Beirut with mostly Muslim western Beirut. They hail from Dahiye, a Shiite suburb associated with Hezbollah; from Tariq el-Jdideh, a Sunni neighborhood associated with Hariri; from Ashrafieh, a predominantly Christian area; and from Choueifat, a mixed, mostly Druze area.
Still, according to Hassan, Hezbollah’s strategy of sowing sectarian and class divisions within the movement seems to have been effective. Many working class and Shiite Lebanese were part of the protests before Nasrallah’s speech, but some have since been alienated by the roadblocks, which brought the country to a standstill, and by profanities which were leveled at Nasrallah and other politicians during demonstrations. Despite this, many working class citizens from all of Lebanon’s sects remain active in the protests.
On Oct. 29, four days after Nasrallah’s speech denouncing the roadblocks and a few hours before Hariri announced his resignation, counterdemonstrators believed to be affiliated with Amal and Hezbollah descended on the Ring Bridge roadblock, chanting that the protest movement was a “Zionist conspiracy.”
There, they scuffled with protesters before proceeding to ransack and set fire to the nearby protest encampment in the capital’s downtown area—a symbolic area for the decentralized national uprising—before riot police eventually sprayed tear gas and dispersed them.
An angry counterprotester from the largely working-class Shiite neighborhood of Khandak al-Ghameek, who declined to be named, told Foreign Policy that he felt the roadblocks were disenfranchising poor, working-class people. “The first day or two we were with them, and even now we are with their demands,” he said, emphasizing that his initial support for the movement had waned. “But not like this. We are being prevented from going to work—we have families, we have kids, [and] they need to eat.”
Bitterly, he expressed disbelief that the government and ruling establishment would fall. “This movement won’t get anywhere with this government. These roadblocks are just depleting us and making problems for all of us,” he said.
Hassan, however, was quick to point out that the sectarian ruling elite stand to lose the most out of the massive, unprecedented cross-sectarian unity taking place across Lebanon. “For the first time, people from these areas went against their own political parties, and this threatened Hezbollah and Amal’s power,” he said.
But the rampage against protesters, which Hassan believes high-ranking officials in Hezbollah and Amal orchestrated, failed to quell demonstrations.
A few days after the violent incident, riot police attempted to remove seated demonstrators from the Ring Bridge. Eventually only two women were left on the road, arms tightly linked as security forces attempted to pry them apart. As the police officers eventually dragged her from the road, the 22-year-old student Reina, who chose not to give her surname, tenaciously confronted one of them.
“Why are you using force against us?” she demanded. “When the Khandak [al-Ghameek] men came and destroyed everything here and in downtown, where were you? You were watching while they beat us!”
Still, the army and police have continued to crack down on roadblocks around the country. For their part, demonstrators have turned to targeted actions, attempting to enforce a strike by blocking entrances and roads to state electricity plants, telecommunications companies, and schools.
Mustapha Dhaybe, an activist organizing between Beirut and Tripoli, has acknowledged that the tactic of maintaining daily roadblocks had become divisive for many economically underprivileged citizens. The roadblocks have eased because of the concerns of poorer citizens, he said, but if Aoun and the caretaker government continue to drag their feet with the appointment of a new prime minister and a new cabinet, they may return in force.
For other activists, the roadblocks have done more to unify Lebanese over common goals than they have divided them. Manal Ghanem, a 30-year-old student of drama and literature, described an incident that filled her with hope. On a late Saturday evening, four young men from the nearby Amal-affiliated neighborhood of Khandak al-Ghameek approached the Ring Bridge roadblock, requesting a dialogue with protesters.
The demonstrators and Amal supporters sat together over coffee, and one of the young men began to speak.
“He was saying very positive things—that our revolution is also their revolution,” Ghanem said, “but he said that we need to understand that they hold some things holy, that we can’t speak ill of Nabih Berri”—the speaker of the parliament and leader of the Amal party—“or curse Hassan Nasrallah.”
The incident struck Ghanem and other protesters as remarkable. “They’re on the Ring, and we’re on the Ring, and it felt like freedom that we could talk in the middle of the road and talk about revolution with people who are ruled by a political party. It felt like a message that the political elite could no longer control any of us.”
But Ghanem’s experience with the visitors from Khandak al-Ghameek was three days before irate counterdemonstrators descended violently on the Ring Bridge and downtown protest encampment. While in her experience the roadblocks had effectively brought together disparate people from all classes and sects, the violent rampage in central Beirut belies the anxiety gripping many Lebanese: that the political elites will not hesitate to exploit sectarian rifts in order to maintain their decades-old grip on power.