Feeling political times: Notes from downtown Beirut during the uprising

Fuad Musallam
London School of Economics

On October 17th, 2019, the Lebanese uprising began. With the economy having ground to a halt, International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity measures on the horizon and the currency on the cusp of devaluation, a proposed tax on the use of WhatsApp proved the final straw. Protestors came to the streets and squares in their thousands, and then their millions. The central chant of killun ya`ni killun (all of them means all of them) targeted the whole political class. Solidarities forged across different regions and beyond confessional communities, too, signalled this moment as a genuine challenge to Lebanon’s political-institutional status quo. As participants themselves emphasised, ‘lubnan yantafid: mish hirak, hiyye sawra’ (Lebanon rises up; this is not [just] a movement, it is a revolution).

In a time of rupture, taken-for-granted ways of acting end; other ways become suddenly, achingly possible. The passages that follow describe how protestors interrupted everyday flows of time and uses of space to make the uprising in downtown Beirut. They track the uprising’s rhythms through the ways protestors acted in and upon the materiality of the site, ending with parallel walks through downtown Beirut on two days when the uprising’s survival looked in question. These descriptions highlight what political times feel like: the temporal, affective, expressive shifts that are produced through bodily movement and performance alongside others. Such an account is an attempt to foreground together the immense activity and sheer indeterminacy of such moments of rupture, when the horizons of political possibility open up before you – both how much you are suddenly able to do and how much remains beyond your control.

On hoardings and empty spaces.

Over the past decade, downtown Beirut has been the primary site for public protest against the Lebanese political elite: to call for the end of the sectarian system in 2010-11; to oppose parliamentarians extending their own mandate in 2013 and then again in 2014; to protest political mismanagement and infrastructural collapse during the ‘trash crisis’ in the summer of 2015. Each time, protestors (and the security response to their activities) leave marks on the landscape: material echoes of times when opposition to the status quo found physical form.

Some marks on the landscape last longer than others – security architecture, if it recedes, does so at a slow and halting pace. Graffiti is removed from buildings once their owners feel that protests have finally died down – all except those daubed on hoardings and the boundary fences of building sites. Ironically enough, these least permanent structures remain standing, with every layer of inscription visible. As building work grinds to a halt, in part motivated by the economic stagnation that engulfs the whole country, the hoardings remain, uncleaned and unmoved – they stand as a material reminder of the protests that came before, and signal the economic crisis that precipitates the current uprising.

 

Temporalities cut and remade.

In the first days of the uprising many of the hoardings do come down – but at the hands of protestors. The hoarding materials feed fires used to block the city’s arteries, altering the immediate flows (and stoppages) of city life. With the hoardings gone, two buildings that were neither torn down nor restored in the aftermath of the 1975-90 civil war suddenly become accessible: ‘the Egg’, a cement ovaloid shape, standing on stilts, once a cinema complex; and the Grand Theatre, a pre-war cultural centrepiece. Normal passage blocked, and blocked passage opened: both movements signal a change from regular time to something else. The Grand Theatre is too unstable to be used for performances or events; instead, people explore its lower floors, unthinkable outside of the extraordinary time of the uprising. The Egg becomes a part of the uprising as people climb onto its roof at all hours to wave flags and assess the numbers before them. The inside of the ‘liberated Egg’, as some start to call it, becomes a part of daily rhythms, through talks, film screenings, musical performances.

 

 

On the first night of the uprising, protestors smash the frontage of nearby GC Towers, a recently completed luxury residential development, all seafoam-tinted glass and exposed white metal. They set a fire to one side of it, next to another plot where building work is still underway. The out of the ordinary act of the fire tragically highlights another rhythm of ‘normal time’ in Lebanon: two Syrian men, Ibrahim Younes and Ibrahim Hussein, sleeping in the lower floors of the building, die of suffocation. As is often the case for Syrians and other migrant workers employed in construction and the service industry, they had been sleeping above their place of work. A section of the protestors hold a vigil the next evening, hailing them as martyrs of the revolution. Where the fire started is now covered in messages of grief and solidarity, alongside what remains of the candles lit to commemorate them (and, at a later vigil, all lives lost through the Arab revolutions).

Slow encroachment.

As it becomes clear that the uprising will continue, immediacy gives way to a steady, though precarious, production of permanence.

Multiple groups claim their place in the uprising by setting up marquee tents: single-issue campaigns for the protection and restitution of public land, or for the right of Lebanese women to pass their nationality on to their children and spouses; various political groups who claim independence from the current political system; professional and student associations; a feminist coalition; as well as tents providing childcare and legal and psychological support. Some organisations have greater funds and resources: the retired army officers association erects a large stage in the middle of Martyrs’ Square, while the political party Sabaa sets up a long platform to its side. From the third week, another box stage is erected on the street connecting two main sites of contention, Riad el-Solh and Azariyye, with a full production suite housed inside of it.

As the area becomes a stable protest site, muralists use this extra time to create large art pieces on walls, hoardings and the pavement. With every passing day new posters, stencils, and political cartoons appear on every surface. This is done methodically: people walk up and down and calmly plaster, paint and spray in full view of all. The roads that lead to parliament were blocked off on the very first night of the uprising: permanent metal arms drawn down, supplemented by yet more concrete barricades and barbed wire. The whole road down to Riad el-Solh, passing next to parliament, has spools of barbed wire two metres high and five metres deep pulled across it. Everywhere blocked off in this way there are security personnel, who spend much of their time leaning on barricades looking faintly bored.

 

 

New rhythms

In the exceptional time of the uprising, new rhythms come into being.

The Ring bridge, the main highway connecting the eastern and western halves of the city, south of the Egg, gets closed by protestors. An initial continuous occupation of the road – replete not only with tents but also an entire living room and kitchen interior of soft furnishings and white goods – lasts a week, before being torched by supporters of Hizballah. Since then, the Ring has entered a relatively stable rhythm: closed by a critical mass of protestors in the late evening, cleared by security forces in the early hours of the morning, closed once again come the evening.

The attack on the Ring also evidences a staccato rhythm of incursions into the protest spaces, either by supporters of political parties or by security forces. A politician releases a statement or does an interview every few days, and these, too, provide irregular but constant punctuation, prompting party supporters to sweep through the protest space. Apprehension around these speeches makes people either feel the need to be present, to have as many bodies as possible to block incursions or, alternatively, to stay away. These speeches often, though, backfire by causing immediate outrage, and within minutes people return to the street, closing roads that had been slowly and attritionally reopened by security forces, and filling squares across the country.

This map designed by Antoine Atallah shows the configurations of downtown Beirut as protest site in the first few weeks of the uprising.

 

 

October 30th

It is 13 days since the uprising began. We arrive towards downtown from the Ring bridge in the late afternoon.

Two of us come together by taxi. On the way the driver asks us if we are going to the protests: he was just there, numbers are down but they’ll go back up later in the evening, you’ll see. The Ring bridge, closed by protestors for the past few days, is completely open, following an army ultimatum to clear it this morning. Soldiers stand along the edge of the road, looking out at the cars passing as normal.

As we walk down towards the protest space, we notice that a number of new metal fences have been placed along the street and around the various open spaces, closing them off. Some police stand around them. They do not stop us from coming through but we lower our heads as we pass, walking along the line of the gates to find the gap that has been left.

In Azariyye, there are relatively few people wandering around the space. Many of the tents are hosting open discussions. Their tone is sombre as participants talk about their worries about whether road closures should continue, about the presence of political parties in protest spaces, about what ‘we’ should be asking for. These are common refrains from the past few days. We find our friends sitting in one of the other tents, in a small group. Eyes gaze past each other, either to the middle distance or to the floor. Some talk about being here yesterday when the party supporters swept through and dragged down the tents, attacked whoever they could catch, and chased others out into neighbouring districts. A bottle of whiskey gets passed around.

A few of us walk down onto the street that connects Azariyye to Riad el-Solh. We walk along easily, the road relatively empty. A large discussion is taking place inside the building site where the hoardings were torn down. Sixty-odd people stand, craning to hear the speakers, who are arguing with each other. After a minute or so, two young men move us out of the way carrying speakers on their backs, which they then set up in this new discussion space. Next to us, a young woman turns to her friend, both having arrived after us, and comments: ‘they don’t know what they want’. The other tells her: ‘give them 48 hours and they will’.

A little further along the whole zone is a loose carpet of people sitting or standing together, in groups of between five and fifteen. There is very little energy and many slumped shoulders; it seems that our conversation with friends earlier is being repeated all across the site. By the barbed wire mound, though, we look up to see a man being led away by two others. A few metres away, he begins to gesticulate back at the group, from which one woman breaks, turns to him, and gestures – closed, pinched fingers are then opened and twisted out in front of her. A gesture that first means ‘calm down’, and then questions why he was still involved. For an argument, though, barely a word is spoken.

The vendor selling ‘Sweetcorn 1000LL, nonsectarian, nonracist’, shouts to the trickle of people walking past that he has the ‘tastiest thing in the revolution’. Next to him, another man picks up some of the bottles of water he has brought and starts shouting to come get ‘Revolution water! Tomorrow the revolution will end and you won’t have had any!’

Walking back, we stop to admire the large murals that are now mostly complete. To get a sense of their scale, we step back out into the road five or so metres, and take them in. The muralist is putting the finishing touches to one piece, and chats calmly to a few people who have come to see him.

 

Up the side of Azariyye we find a few more people are sat in the tent, but approaching mid-evening the area is still sparsely populated. We sit again and talk. Is it really a revolution if all you managed to do was get a government to resign? Isn’t it sad how quickly things died in Beirut? We know exactly who will end up working with politicians if this technocratic government idea that is floating around gets implemented, don’t we?

 

As we make our way out the bottom of Martyr’s Square, past the police officers and their metal barriers, we see only a small trickle of people making their way in. Tomorrow the banks will reopen, the general strike has been called off, the roads have been cleared, and universities and schools are also returning to normal service.

November 3rd

It is 17 days since the uprising began. We arrive towards downtown from under the Ring bridge in the late afternoon.

Thousands of us come together by foot. We have marched together on a demonstration called by the feminist coalition, under the banner tala`t tsaqqit al-nizam (she came to bring down the system). We gathered a few kilometres away, by the national museum, and have walked along main roads to arrive here, chanting, singing and dancing the whole way.

As we walk down towards the protest space, we notice many of the metal fences have been pushed out of the way and there are no police around them. We are stopped from coming through, because there are already so many people here. We sing and dance louder, we hang off of cars, we dance.

In Azariyye it is nearly impossible to move. One third of the space is taken up by a live transmission of a three-hour special on political corruption first aired a few days earlier by one of the TV stations. A 4×5 metre screen broadcasts the undercover investigations, a presenter stands in front of it linking the pieces, and an audience of hundreds forms a semi-circle around it all. At each of the larger tents open discussions are coming to a close, and it is hard to make out any one discussion as the microphones fail to be heard above the chanting, revolutionary songs, and general conversation taking place all around them. All the smaller tents have lost any semblance of distinction one from the other as people pass through.

A few of us walk down onto the street that connects Azariyye to Riad el-Solh. We walk slowly, weaving through the other people in movement alongside various organised and impromptu protest acts. A group of twenty or so young men are in a loose circle, facing in on each other, a couple of them on the shoulders of others, leading chants. When one loses his voice and sags a little, the others all chant back at him that ‘You’re fine! You’re fine!’ and jolt him upright again. They all jump and laugh.

A little further along, four men stand atop a small stage, leading chants to those immediately below them, through a deafening sound system. They make the crowd turn their phone lights on and lift them up, copying the protestors in Tripoli’s Sahet al-Nour who have done this every night since the uprising began. On the other side of the street from them is a gibbet. Standing underneath it are three figures, their heads emerging from white sheets, their necks in nooses, a piece of card hung around their necks: the first says ‘1975’, the next says ‘sectarianism’, the final one ‘when I die give my organs to the poor, but my middle finger I give to the authorities’. Many stop in front of them to take photos, blocking the thoroughfare even more.

Vans topped with sound systems are parked every twenty metres. Emerging from them all is the sound of people taking to the stage the far end of Riad el-Solh to lead chants to the assembled throng. Past the first van, crowd density makes it impossible to pass. Different people get on stage and lead chants until their throats are raw and their voices give out – each chant, from greetings to the other centres of the uprising, to praise for the road closures, to denunciations of the politicians, the banks, and the capitalist system, are chanted back by those standing around us, as innumerable Lebanese flags wave above us.

 

Walking back, we can barely make out the large murals, forced as we are to walk next to them along the edges of the crowd. In doing so, we catch our reflections on small mirrors that have been glued at head height every 5-10 metres. Along the bottom of each mirror, the phrase ‘I am the leader of the revolution’ – a direct response to the leader of Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah’s call for the uprising’s leadership to make itself known.

Up the side of Azariyye we find hundreds of people crowding around a troupe of musicians with traditional instrumentation. People dance, sway and sing along, with parts of the crowd taking over when other parts stop to take a breath. We stand and talk at the edge of the crowd. This is what needed to happen! Isn’t this amazing?

 

Having made our way out the bottom of Martyr’s Square, past the police officers and their metal barriers, we hear reports through alternative media that the roads are closed once more: at the Ring, and the main neighbourhood arteries in Beirut;  to the north of Beirut at Jal el-Dib and to the south at Khaldeh, in Tripoli, Sidon, and the other main cities of the uprising. The call goes out online: tomorrow once again is a normal strike day, everything is closed.

Fuad Musallam is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Anthropology Department at the London School of Economics. His research engages with activism, labour, and subjectivity, particularly as they relate to making community and the political imagination. He has conducted fieldwork in Syria and Lebanon, working with youth groups, political activists, and migrant workers.

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