Lebanon’s Stillborn Revolution
By: Rasha Abouzaki
Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Change is sweeping through many parts of the Arab world due to deteriorating economic and social conditions. But in Lebanon, where electricity and water are scarce, and there is no national health insurance, no work, and countless other problems, a movement for change still does not exist, despite recent signs of life in various labor movements.
“The only change a Lebanese citizen demands and gets is the tobacco in his shisha being changed.” This quip is making the rounds on Facebook, mocking Lebanese passivity in the face of the country’s multiplying social and economic problems.
With this simple sentence, citizens are registering their rejection of the status quo. It is a rejection of the unbearable electricity rationing. A rejection of the high prices of consumer goods. A rejection of the absence of comprehensive health coverage. A rejection of the all the lacking elements of normal life.
But this is where the matter rests — many protests are restricted to the Internet. Some pages are even called “Facebook Demonstrations.”
There are frequent suicides in Lebanon that can be blamed on poor living conditions. Some of those who tried to commit suicide have set themselves on fire in an attempt to emulate Bouazizi, who sparked the Tunisian revolution. However, these incidents passed with little reaction from the street.
So what is happening? What is this collective social drug that is silencing the Lebanese and preventing them from launching their revolution?
Is it the web of interests that make an individual adhere to their leader or party? Is it possible to weaken or destroy this system with all the practical complications crippling social protests in Lebanon?
To date, 2012 has witnessed several suicide attempts precipitated by desperate social conditions. The case of Zuhaid Zougheib caused a media frenzy when he tried to commit suicide after the security forces confiscated his coffee van.
They imprisoned him for a month. When he came out, he found he had no work opportunities. His father had done it before him — he committed suicide last year when he was fired from his job and could not find an alternative.
In May alone there were three suicide attempts due to difficult economic circumstances. A young man set fire to his beach tent in Tyre, then threw himself into the fire. He was protesting against the security forces removing the tent and destroying his livelihood.
A large number of Lebanese suffer from unemployment and the lack of health coverage. Their job stability is continuously threatened, and yet few have acted in protest.
The director of the Consultation and Research Institute, Kamal Hamdan, believes that the secret in Lebanon lies in the fact that the rate of people living in absolute and relative poverty is lower than in several neighboring Arab countries, particularly Egypt. This is according to the available statistics on poverty in the region.
Furthermore, in Lebanon, there are various ways of coping with poverty and unemployment.
First, the support of the extended family. Family solidarity still plays an important role in everyday life in a small country like Lebanon.
Second, sect-based organizations and what is termed civil society play a role as important as that of the state. The ratio of organization per thousand people is one of the highest in the Arab countries. Most of these organizations deal with difficult cases of social hardship.
Third, the political dynasties, as well as some political parties, distribute money for political reasons which they make back at double the rates because they control the public purse in various ways.
Another factor is emigration – this eases the lives of many poor and marginalized families because they receive money from family members abroad.
There is also the ‘favors system’ of quite a few public services that consists of many subsidies, huge expenditures, and other simple palliative measures that go hand in hand with all the waste. The predominance of this feature allows many of the poor to benefit, relatively speaking, from the crumbs of these allocations.
The huge problems in transport, electricity, job opportunities, and other issues cause permanent anxiety about living conditions without compelling people to turn to actively pursuing social reforms.
This is primarily due to the sectarian political system, which turns individuals into sheep and prevents them from being aware of their common interests. The only way out of this is to unite to bring down the system.
Jad Shaban, an economist who has tried to set up several actions and protests over unemployment and comprehensive health coverage, believes that the problem has three dimensions.
One is in the mechanism of communicating with those affected; the second is in the nature of the existing political regime; and the third is in the way those affected view their own social conditions.
He points out that those who control political and financial system in the country have succeeded in weaving a network of interests which imprisons ordinary citizens, whereby those who are not covered by health insurance can go to hospital for free through the intercession of a leader.
They can also send their children to sect-based schools, in addition to receiving direct financial support at certain times, particularly during elections. Furthermore, because large numbers of young people are forced to emigrate, families can live on the money sent home.
Therefore, a great number of citizens have surrendered to the situation and have become completely tame. This is reinforced by fear of another civil war, fear of the alternative, and fear of repeating failed attempts at implementing change.
Shaban explains that, for example, Lebanon has recently witnessed protests against severe electricity rationing. However, protesters were often calling on their own leaders to put pressure on other leaders to improve their situation.
In this context, some areas which support a certain leader did not join the protests because their leader is in charge of electricity in the country. This applies to many services because there is an absence of the concept of public interest among Lebanese, leading many to despair.
51.5 percent of Lebanese families spend their entire income before the end of the month.
30.6 percent of families have to borrow money before the end of each month to secure their basic needs.
4.6percent regularly have to dip into their savings.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.