Research on the Lebanese Popular Movement
Amid the seemingly endless COVID lockdown that is currently underway in Beirut, it is easy to forget what it’s like to be in a crowded place. Yet barely more than a year ago, crowds of protesters were still gathering physically in public squares and highway roadblocks across the country as part of the Lebanese Popular Movement of 2019. In the year since the protests dwindled—a combined effect of the rise of COVID, persistent police and military containment, and exhaustion on the part of protesters—enough has happened to make it seem as though the protest is centuries in the past. First, there was the financial crisis of 2020, whose effects continue to register in the slipping value of the Lira and the precarious state of the economy. Then there was the advent of COVID, adding further pressures to an already embattled country. And then there was the port explosion of August 4th.
But against the threat of historical amnesia, the Orient-Institut Beirut has been hard at work on an edited volume covering the central events and issues of the months-long Movement as well as the ongoing effects that it has had on the political climate of Lebanon—as well as its possible futures. The Lebanese Popular Movement of 2019: Perspectives From Within draws work from an array of voices who were close to—or involved directly in—the Movement. Not content to offer only chronologies or political dissections, it also explores the sensory experience of downtown Beirut at the height of its occupation by protesters, the response by Lebanese artists in the form of art and music production in public spaces, and the important roles played by women. Several of the contributions also attempt to draw paths forward, showing how the demands of the protesters can either be carried forward in future activism or fulfilled through reforms.
Last summer, OIB hosted two events that were closely connected to the publication. The first was a COVID-friendly and simultaneously-streamed conference featuring the contributors to the volume, each of whom presented their research and answered questions from an audience. This was followed by an illuminating group discussion involving the audience and moderated by the director of the OIB, Birgit Schäbler. The conference not only created a much-needed space to continue the kind of discussion that was a feature of the Popular Movement, itself, but it also allowed the volume’s contributors to come into greater conversation with one another. The second event was a talk by Nicolas Chikhani hosted, again, in OIB’s garden terrace, that addressed a possible solution to the ongoing financial crisis. While not specifically about the Popular Movement, this talk added an important perspective to many of the issues raised by contributors in their articles and provided a forum in which economic matters could be explored with greater specificity.
Now, as the book nears publication, OIB is looking forward to stoking more conversation about the legacy of the Popular Movement. An important focus of the book is the centrality of gender within the Movement. Sally Farhat, Claudia Kozman, and Jad Melki (Lebanese American University) explore the participation of women in the Movement and how gender intersects with media usage and media literacy. Adding to the discussion of gender, Zeina Tohme (Lebanese University) writes about how women’s participation in protests leveraged emotional force to draw on collective memories and build collective identity. Meanwhile, Jasmin Diab (American University of Beirut) contextualizes women’s participation within the broader scope of Lebanese history and gender politics.
Banking, corruption, and trust in Lebanese currency is another key topic of the book. Jakub Jajcay (American University of Beirut) addresses the way in which the Movement turned towards banks and financial engineering shortly after the protests began. Rayan Haykal (Sagesse University) investigates how Lebanese citizens perceive the Lira and its uses in contrast to the U.S. dollar. Turning to the nuts and bolts of Lebanese politics, Maximilian Felsch (Haigazian University) makes several suggestions for how the government might attenuate its problems without completely dismantling its consociational structure. Sami Ofeish (University of Balamand) places the Movement within the longer history of protest movements and civil society activism in Lebanon.
The book also attends to the cultural and aesthetic dimensions of the Movement. Cherine Yazbeck documents the way in which artists and arts organizations both contributed to the Movement and also used it as a platform for the development of new artistic networks and practices. Serge Yazigi (Lebanese American University) draws attention to the manifold sensory stimuli of Martyr’s Square during the Movement, drawing connections with the openness of the pre-War souks of the same area.
In sum, the book provides documentation and analysis of the Lebanese Popular Movement of 2019 from numerous angles, and we’re looking forward to celebrating its release later this year.