What kind of groups are you working with, and how did you meet?
I work with a group of independent young men and women. We have no political affiliations and are not members of any party; each of us has their own work, interests and ideas that might vary from one person to another. We were mainly brought together by the demonstrations and activities that we started to do together. In this aspect, our views and goals are the same. Most members of our group knew each other since before the revolution, However, as it happens in all revolutions, we met many new activists from different regions and backgrounds through demonstrations and activities. Also, the demonstrations reconnected old friends who were separated by life and workload. The revolution aroused in response to the ongoing worsening daily conditions in Lebanon. We live in a country that does not provide the least essentials of life, thus people began to protest against this condition.
As a group, how do you usually call for a demonstration, or organize your activities on the group?
The Lebanese revolution is a leaderless revolution against the regime and the state. We formed small groups of professionals among activists, each in their own field, such as the lawyers’ committee and the economic committee etc. These different groups call for demonstrations and other activities; each group appoints one or two delegates. Then, delegates from different groups would meet to coordinate activities on the ground. Of course, we communicate with each other through WhatsApp groups. Also, many workshops and cultural activities are held on the ground for example by lawyers or economists, and other experts. We also have many discussions exchanging ideas about what can be done to finally reach the implementation of activities on the ground in coordination with all people. I do not want to call them big organized groups, otherwise, politicians would accuse us of being financed by embassies. Nonetheless, we are groups of people demanding the minimum of our basic rights. Each of us has their work and life preoccupations, but we are dedicating time to fulfilling the revolution’s demands.
What are people demonstrating against?
We have a severe economic crisis. Banks seized depositors’ money and now they treat people like beggars. But, it is our money! Depositors have to wait long hours so at the end they can merely collect $ 200 per week. There are also retirees who have their end-of-service compensation’s money held in the banks. These seniors go to the bank every week and after waiting for many hours, they get $ 100 if they are lucky. There is a money crisis that is aggravated by the fact that in this country money is everything: if you get sick but you don’t have money you will die at the hospital’s doorstep.
What are the demands of the street?
The scene in the street is very clear. We went out into the street and our demands are the following: to topple the government because the government is a failure and cannot provide the minimum of basic services. After about three weeks, we succeeded in bringing down the government and we started calling for a government of independent specialists. The political cast suggested names for the next government, but none of them was a specialist nor independent. Most of them already served in previous governments or they are corrupt businessmen who have close ties to the politicians. It is clear that the current government has an agenda to suppress the revolution, end protests, and get everything back as it was maintaining their corrupt practises as before. Before the revolution, the country was already collapsing due to entitlements, debts, and money smuggling outside the country. The economic situation is catastrophic, the Lebanese Pound exchange rate is fixed by the central bank, while its real value nearly doubled in the market. Hundreds of shops, restaurants and bars closed their doors rendering the owners and employees unemployed, in addition to companies that cut salaries in half or cut the number of their employees. Lebanon is going to collapse; the value of the currency dropped 40 percent, prices rose by the same value. I guess the coming days will be worse.
Do you think that all the activists’ groups share the same demands?
The demands of the street are united, and they are rightful demands that should be met, as in any other country in the world. In other countries, citizens pay taxes and in return, they receive basic services such as health insurance, social security, etc. We pay our taxes, but we get nothing in return, not even electricity.
Also the women have rightful demands: if a Lebanese woman is married to a non-Lebanese, her children are not entitled to obtain the citizenship, they must leave the country from time to time in order to renew their residency. Anyone should have the right to give citizenship to their children. We have several different demands, but they are all valid and legitimate, we are demanding our minimum rights in education, health and social services. We don’t want this for free, we pay taxes, but the money goes to politicians who spend it on their huge possessions, while the average Lebanese citizen is hungry and has no electricity or the slightest social services. Corruption in public administrations is terrifying, politicians legislate laws to match their deals and businesses as if it is a private business. There is no legal investigation or any kind of censorship, corruption and weapons spread across the streets because parties give authorization to their supporters.
After four consecutive months of demonstration, which of your demands were met?
So far, the main achievement of the revolution is that we instilled fear into the politicians. Before the revolution they were acting independently of any accountability. This changed, and can be seen in the last parliament session during which MPs were supposed to give confidence to the new government. It was ridiculous to see the MPs entering the parliament in secret, on motorbikes, some of them stayed the night at the parliament, everyone feared the demonstrators because the demonstrators prevented the MPs from entering the parliament before. This is a victory for the revolution, we even started chasing them everywhere, inside restaurants and cafes. While they are afraid, we are no longer afraid. People died in the revolution, they are the martyrs of the revolution, other people lost their eyes, this broke our barrier of fear, we are no longer afraid to insult and pursue the politicians. The biggest victory for us is watching the parliament surrounded by barbed wire, concrete walls and barriers, a victory in the sense that politicians know they are guilty and are afraid of the demonstrators. In the past, each political party had its own supporters and groups that they sustained through clientelism. Later, parties gradually stopped sustaining these people, who became poor and hungry, and that is why today they attack the leaders and the state.
The Lebanese politicians are in total ignorance of the demonstrators and their demands. What do you think can be done differently to be heard?
Politicians have formed a new government that has nothing to do with the revolution and its demands, but the barrier of fear has been broken, and the October 17 revolution will succeed because people are starving and politicians are trying to quiet them with basics. The economic situation in the near future will get worse due to the debts that the state is obliged to pay. Regardless of the debts’ payments, the Lebanese Pound’s value is deteriorating. As a consequence, people will go to the street again.
In my opinion, there is a lot that can be done. Many people are not participating anymore. They should go back to the streets and continue demonstrating peacefully despite the excessive repression and the arrests by the state. We will continue to put pressure on the state. We must not pay the banks and twitch the banking sector because all the money we pay is being stolen with the help of all sectors. There are no reform plans, and since the last government (Saad al Hariri as prime minister, Gibran Bassil as foreign minister) the situation in the country has worsened rapidly.
We saw an increase in the use of violence by the security forces, and activists were arrested arbitrarily. Do you think that the political elite wants to suppress the demonstrators?
Recently, the security forces increased the repression and detained protestors in attempt by the authorities to end the revolution at any rate. They removed the tents, repressed the protestors and the journalists, and increased the violence in order to end the revolution. Many of the revolutionaries lost their eyes because the security forces used rubber bullets against the demonstrators shooting them in the faces, others were heavily injured from the beating they were subjected to. This is not the dissolution of a demonstration, but rather the suppression and intimidation of people, which causes a decline in the number of demonstrators out of fear of being injured.
As an activist, how do you react when you face violence that the authority uses? Is there any agreement between demonstrators to keep the demonstrations peaceful?
We are insisting on this revolution because we can no longer live in this situation. We conduct our revolution with passion and great hope because this revolution is the last hope of this country and we will not leave the street. We also insist on our peaceful protests despite the violence we face from the authorities; we do not have the methods nor the tools of violence they use against us. Sometimes we bring onions with us to inhale to lessen the effect of the tear gas; if they find an onion with you they confiscate it!
We also bring masks and helmets because the riot police fires gas bombs aiming at the heads directly. They also throw stones at us.
Politically speaking, what do you think is going to happen in the street in the coming months?
The state is trying to suppress the revolution to end it. We don’t live in a police state, however, the authorities operate as if we do as the arrests, threats, and the use of violence raise. This is their method, as most of the MPs and ministers were militia leaders fighting in the streets during the civil war and have sufficient experience.
Economically, the scene is clear. In our country, we don’t produce nor export, rather we import everything from abroad. With the collapse of the Lebanese Pound and the shortage of dollars, the situation will get worse.
I do not think people that lost their job or money have anything to lose. The revolution is our only and last hope, our revolution will continue, we want to live in this country. Most people acquiesce to new banking procedures because most depositors are not convinced yet that their money disappeared, but when the banks will announce it people will blast.
We will continue what we have started and bring down this failed system. I urge all people to participate in the demonstrations and think about the future of their children.
* Moussa Yaakoub is a Lebanese political activist who has been on the streets since October 2019. He is involved in a group of independent activists.
** Mohammad Blakah is a political activist and researcher working on politics and society in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.