The events of Oct. 17 that triggered a leaderless civilian-uprising-turned-revolution caught everyone by surprise. Let us establish one important fact: No one saw this coming. The government’s inability to extinguish the wildfires, an unfolding and growing economic crisis and widespread corruption set the stage for what transpired on Thursday, Oct. 17. However, it is certain that no one imagined what precipitating cause would push the people to the streets of Lebanon.
As expected, two weeks into the October Revolution has triggered a flood of political analyses and forecasts of the future. Some involve long-distance and armchair observations. Others include a need for simplicity and consistency, which centers on drawing broad generalizations and less than suitable comparisons to other states in the region.
A misrepresentation of the sudden, massive and unprecedented uprising in the streets of Lebanon contributes to growing counterrevolutionary narratives. Perpetuating them denies the agency of the people in the street and the significance of their demands and grievances. Producing knowledge through simplistic frames fails to capture the complexity and splendor of the unfolding revolutionary struggle in Lebanon’s modern history.
NOT ABOUT FIGHTING ONE POLITICAL PARTY, SECT OR MOVEMENT
The sit-ins, peaceful blocking and closure of roads and various protests in the October Revolution are primarily about bringing down the regime. A characterization of the uprising-turned-revolution as one against a group, sect or movement is dangerous. It also supports one widely used counterrevolutionary narrative that thrives on using sectarianism as a tool to divide and conquer. The outliers on the streets that are still uncomfortable with abandoning sectarian language, especially after Saad Hariri’s resignation as prime minister, are not representative of the uprising.
It is crucial to counter existing narratives that seek to frame the initial success of the October Revolution along sectarian lines. Framing the protests in different squares along the lines of intrasectarian and political conflicts, such as one between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, or others as intersectarian, stressing the possibility of Shiite-Sunni tension and rivalry, is precarious.
NOT A CONTINUATION OF THE CEDAR REVOLUTION IN 2005
After the use of violence by gangs close to the Amal Movement and Hezbollah against the protesters and the encampments they propped up to discuss ideas, there is some focus on reviving the political climate of 2005. The events in 2005, at least for the March 14 bloc, were primarily about bringing an end to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. The protests that erupted on Oct. 17 are neither a continuation of what transpired in 2005 nor ones that are aimed at ending foreign occupation. They are mainly about fighting the political and religious elites that are determined to prevent any possibilities of transitioning from the current regime to a secular and democratic one.
Political actors and movements that draw a straight line between events in 2005 and 2019 are in effect co-opting the civilian uprising. Broadly, there are some overlapping demands in mass mobilizations. However, there is a clear and significant difference between the drivers that pushed people to the street and their perceived socio-economic grievances.
NOT AN ARAB SPRING 2.0
One widespread misrepresentation of the glorious October Revolution frames these events as part of the Arab uprisings that erupted in late 2010. A rejection of neoliberal policies is a common denominator. However, besides the simple fact that the Arab uprisings in late 2010 or the one in Lebanon both began in the fall season and not in spring, a characterization of the October Revolution as the continuation of the Arab Spring is misleading.
A comparison to the Arab uprisings in other states promotes a binary frame for understanding the ongoing revolution in Lebanon. This centers on one of limited success - drawing comparisons to Tunisia or Sudan - or failure, by looking at what transpired in Libya and is still unraveling in Syria. It is certain that the course of events in Lebanon are far from being predetermined, and broad comparisons to other cases fail to capture the nuance of what is still unfolding. It is vital to understand the exceptionalism of the revolution in Lebanon in the larger context of the country’s history of domestic struggles and moments of contentious politics.
NOT ABOUT GREAT-POWER POLITICS
As a professor of international relations, I am keeping an eye out for analyses that frame the October Revolution as one that is against Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. I am very aware of attempts by regional and international players to score points against each in the game of nations and alliances between great powers and different proxies. Yet, it is difficult to perceive of the October Revolution as simply an event that directly lends itself to great-power competition and regional rivalry.
Since the beginning of Oct. 17, many political parties and actors have attempted to shape the demands of the people in the streets of Lebanon to complement to their objectives and narratives. It is certain that regional and international powers will likewise try to hijack and the ride revolutionary wave, and this is far from surprising. However, one should maintain that the sequence of events that began on Oct. 17 are caused primarily endogenously (by domestic factors) than exogenously (external drivers).
MOVING FORWARD: CHALLENGING EXISTING FRAMES OF KNOWLEDGE
It is too early to properly frame the revolutionary struggle of the people of the October Revolution and their commitment to changing the status quo against the experiences of other movements in the region and beyond. The course of events is not exceptional in the wider context of contentious politics, uprisings and revolutions. As an educator, I find it crucial to learn from other experiences in the Middle East and elsewhere to speculate about how events might unfold. However, the uniqueness and spontaneity of the uprising-turned-revolution that began on Oct. 17 and has continued for the last two weeks has already challenged a simplistic view of what drove people to the streets and whether we have the knowledge and tools to predict how and when such events might occur.
What comes next will hopefully be determined by the people in the street, and they alone have the true voice to reflect on these experiences and properly present their revolutionary struggle for generations to come.
Whenever you are in doubt of what has occurred and been accomplished so far, remind yourself of one important thing: Where were you on Oct. 17? Take a deep breath and remember, and you will immediately recognize how exceptional and unique this moment, and what has transpired, has become in our and Lebanon’s next chapter.
Jeffrey G. Karam is an assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. He is also an associate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Middle East Initiative. He is the editor of the forthcoming book “The Middle East in 1958: Reimagining A Revolutionary Year.” Follow him on Twitter @JGKaram.