The revolt in Lebanon has brought thousands into the streets demanding change. Helen Patuck asks Sophie Chamas if it will expand to include demands for justice for the millions who are not Lebanese citizens.
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The government doesn’t want to take responsibility for economic instability and precarity, so it puts that blame on refugee populations, even though the evidence points in the opposite direction,” Sophie explains.
“In terms of Syrians, the Lebanese economy has benefited from the Syrian presence. You need to turn the blame away from the fact that you, as a government, are more invested in foreign investment, the things that will help you accumulate wealth, at the expense of the wider population. So you use the scapegoat, which is the refugee, and then you crack down on the refugee. It’s really that simple.”
So is there a “right time” to make refugees a part of the Lebanese revolution? “There is this really powerful sense of the revolution being for the Lebanese,” says Sophie, describing how some protesters have been asked to remove Palestinian flags during the protests in Lebanon. This was a common sentiment, which she also witnessed in the diaspora protests in London last autumn.
“I tried to argue with some of the organisers about it, and again it’s this framing of: it’s not the time, it doesn’t make sense to do that. To me, it’s really abhorrent that you could tell someone who’s living in that country – in many cases more affected by these policies than a middle class activist would be – to tell them to lower their flag. They don’t even want your country, they’re raising their own flag and their own identity. You’re asking them to remove that because they were displaced to your context.”
Xenophobia is pervasive in Lebanon. Discussing the lack of solidarity for Palestinians in both the July 2019 protests, and the wider Lebanese revolution against the government which began in October that same year, Sophie observed how very few people showed solidarity with Palestinians
“It doesn’t mean that if there’s a revolution that’s blaming the ruling class that people are not still blaming refugees for their problems,” she says.
Sophie believes racism is at the core Lebanese attitudes towards its resident refugee population. “Of course it has political roots, and economic roots, but you will hear in many spaces a cultural discourse about contamination – physical, biological, cultural, religious contamination – and the fear of the terrorist.”
Underlying the relative silence around Palestinian struggles is the memory of the 1975-1991 Lebanese civil war, a complicated legacy which remains largely untouched by local or national restorative justice processes.
Yet there have been certain activists and activist groups who have made a concerted effort to articulate constant solidarity with Palestinians.
At the forefront of this vision have been certain queer feminists who have always incorporated refugees and migrant workers and other revolutionary contexts into their chants. “This is not just to show solidarity with refugees,” Sophie tells us, “but to articulate a vision of a Lebanon that is not nationalistic: a country for all its people and all the people who live in it.”
Though some might argue that this is just 1 percent of the population, Sophie argues that the risks undertaken to share the Palestinian struggle, and the considerable impact of this solidarity, should not be underestimated.
“These are people who often have bull-horned an attempt to position themselves physically in ways so that they will be heard often at great personal risk. Because some of these women, for example, have been accused of treason and found themselves being investigated by state security. So they’ve taken this risk to stand, visibly, literally on the shoulders of somebody, so that they can articulate this sentiment, and I don’t think it’s an insignificant thing for those words to reverberate in the space of the revolution.”
Women have always been present in political mobilizations in Lebanon and Sophie explains how queer feminists in particular have used the space of the protests to articulate really complex visions through modes of refusal. “They are unabashedly anti-capitalist, and anti-sectarian and queer and feminist. Their chants have linked refugee rights, to migrant rights, to queer rights, to feminist rights. It’s a holistic vision of emancipation.”
With some chants focused on the re-appropriation of derogatory swear words against women and the LGBTQI+ community, Sophie argues that an attempt to shift the public discourse around these issues is actually an important precedent to a demand.
“It doesn’t make sense in a country that is this conservative to send some sort of formal petition, saying: and now include LGBTQI+ rights,” says Sophie. “That doesn’t mean that this is not considered a fundamental and important right to these people, but I feel like the way they are pushing for it is by inserting themselves within the discourse, and refusing the idea that: this will have to come up later, for now we should just focus on economics. There’s an insistence on using the fact that you are assembled with people, that you are comrades within this space, using that space to engage in these interventions.”
“I think what’s really amazing is that there’s a lot of grassroots organizing. People aren’t just saying: we don’t want the government, and then going home or sitting in the street. There are attempts to organise from below that have the potential of really creating a lasting social movement for change in the country. There is an acknowledgment among a lot of people that what this revolution has started is something that will be a very long-term process.”
“In the end, you’re talking about a complete socio-political upheaval. It doesn’t happen in a day. So people who have that kind of framework for thinking about revolution don’t think that at any point in the next couple of months, or next year, a government is going to be put together that they are going to like.”
Refusal of the government is a very important political practice, but Sophie observes that what people are doing beside this critique is setting up alternative unions or intervening within unions when they have elections so that independents can be elected.
“There are attempts at creating these spaces where people can organise around their labour, attempts to think about these mechanisms as things that will have lasting transformative effects on society,” Sophie tells us.
“You’re actually creating a base so that if eventually parliamentary elections happen for example, then you’re not just building a campaign from scratch and suddenly trying to appeal to people. You’ve been doing this work on the ground through unions, for example, for years.”
This is the idea amongst a lot of activists. They are creating the base through which they can organise and promote particular political discourses so that when the opportunity presents itself to actually create an alternative government, or system of governance, there is a base of support for that.
“Not just a base of support,” says Sophie, “but a base of people who have thought collectively about what that government should look like.”
Sophie warns us away from the assumption that sectarianism on a societal level has been dissolved through these collective protests.
“There is an assumption that people can’t share a protest space and share a moment of euphoria but then revert back – that they can’t hold those things together.”
“Sectarianism is a political system but it is not only that,” Sophie explains. “It is a lifeworld for a lot of people, which means it’s a disposition, it’s an orientation, a way of moving in the world, a source of dignity and a source of emotion. I think it can be suspended, abandoned, set aside and returned to.”
Sophie observes that these moments of encounter between sects in the Lebanese revolution are important expressions of collectivity, but they do not necessarily mean – or require – the sacrifice of identity.
Sophie draws attention to another vulnerable community in Lebanon, migrant domestic workers, who she describes as incredible political organisers prior to the present revolutionary moment. Many of these women bring socialist politics from home states like the Philippines.
“They were creating a political vision which intersected with other people’s issues, so labour rights, gender rights, and sexual rights, and also creating a sense of kinship.”
“I don’t believe in nationalistic nationalism,” says Sophie. “I don’t think that citizenship as a framework in which a citizen deserves rights in exchange for duties is an egalitarian or emancipatory framework. In a context like Lebanon it sets aside millions of people that also call that country home, and on whose labour it has been running for the longest time. Migrant workers form the foundations of the care industry. I think it is unacceptable to design a vision for the country that doesn’t include, on an equal footing, migrant workers with citizens.”
Sophie Chamas is a Lebanese activist. and teaches Queer Politics at SOAS, University of London. She spoke to Helen Patuck in February 2020.