The Failure of Lebanon's Facebook Demonstrations

Online mobilization is failing to take off in Lebanon.

Facebook anti war demo
There were almost more journalists than people in the “say no to war” demonstration

When people started shooting at each other in Tripoli and Tarik el Jdide, the rest of the Lebanese were visibly angry. Residents were clamoring loudly on radio talk shows, on TV stations and on the internet for the insanity to stop. One thing they all had in common was an overriding sense of helplessness, a feeling that there was nothing they could do to stop people from throwing bombs at each other in the middle of an otherwise lively city.

Facebook and Twitter were supposed to change that. The silent majority was finally given tools to organize, gather and stop being so silent. All the peace-loving citizens of Beirut and Tripoli would “reject violence” and “say no to war” in an overwhelming wave of peaceful protests that would shame the fighters into peaceful coexistence.

But the crowds didn’t materialize. People didn’t show up. Not in Tripoli, not in Beirut. In yesterday’s “no to war” event, according to a report by Stephen Dockery for the Daily Star, only 100 person of the 2000 who pledged attendance on Facebook showed up. There were almost more journalists than demonstrators, he sighed.

The online bubble

The Beirut peace gathering (and its Tripoli counterpart) were extreme cases, but they were not isolated incidents. In fact they are part of a recurring theme in the last couple of years: Online activists plan major mobilizations for causes we cyber-warriors believe are universal: Women’s rights, domestic workers’ rights, laic pride, workers’ rights, no to war, no to marital rape, no to sectarianism. We convince ourselves every time that sensible people all over Lebanon will sign up. And not without reason: We get thousands of likes, retweets and forwards, “This time, it will be big!” online backslapping abounds.

But when the moment of truth comes, the actual demonstration is revealed as a shadow of its virtual self. Invariably, we get hundreds (never thousands) of well-meaning middle class, well educated people, most of whom are university students. Nothing to sneeze at for sure, but far from the earth shattering crowds that will change the game. It is instructive to compare the attendance with that in “festivals” organized by political parties.

The Triumph of the political party

In his critique of Lebanon’s Laïque pride movement, Walid el Houry wrote:

The group, like most of civil society movements in the country, both addresses and is composed of middle and upper middle classes (mostly university students and graduates). This fundamental shortfall can explain the group’s failure to incorporate economic demands and an alternative political and economic project that would put forth the interests and speak to the needs of the large segment of Lebanese workers, peasants and unemployed [...] Mobilization requires reaching out to people whose economic situation does not allow them to see secularism as a valid demand

He concludes that real social change requires more than online activists. It requires political parties which offer comprehensive alternative plans. But plans are not the only advantage of political parties. In his critique of Egypt’s Facebook revolutionaries, Francis Fukuyama wrote yesterday:

(the Facebook liberals) could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. Political parties exist in order to institutionalize political participation; those who were best at organizing, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have walked off with most of the marbles. Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.

In other words, it is one thing to click “Like”, and quite another to follow through to the end and get actual results.

Our moment of disillusionment.

Lebanese online activists continue to hope, but I guess it is time we take a deep look at our shortcomings. If there was something we really need to change, perhaps we should consider forming or joining a political party..

  • http://2fkari.wordpress.com Karim Badra

    Good stuff, Mustapha. Good stuff.

  • http://blog.funkyozzi.com Liliane

    Well said Mustapha, I especially like the call to action at the end, but it is still a very hard task to accomplish (on so many levels)

  • http://www.poshlemon.blogspot.com Posh

    I always wondered about this problem we have in Lebanon. I think maybe because in our heart of hearts we do not believe in the particular cause that is being taken to the streets.

    So I don’t think the issue is of “forming or joining a political party” as much as it is a problem within ourselves. How are we to form a party or join and participate within a party when we do not have the belief or faith to drive our will?

    That is the problem. We don’t believe we can make a change. So we find it easy to be pseudo-activists and join protests and demonstrations and sit-ins and fundraisers on Facebook and twitter, but when push comes to shove, we back out. And we stick to the status quo.

  • Observer

    Mustapha,

    Which political party would you suggest?

  • http://stateofmind13.com Elie

    I agree with the last statement. The calls for change are seen by many as out of the blue and random. They are never fulfilled all the way through – we go with the the cause du jour for our demands and protests.

    I believe those that keep showing up for these events are the same people more or less. Why don’t they form a political party, as you said, and start working in communities. If they don’t get results in 2013 (they won’t), or in 2017 (they won’t as well) if they run, they will eventually reach a point where tangible change, however little, can be seen.

  • Anonymous

    The size of the problem is daunting. Our economic, political, legal, and social systems have been rotting and decomposing for much too long; so change remains wishful thinking and we easily fall into ‘pseudo-activism’. The no-show at the Facebook call for demonstration should not come as a surprise, or a disillusion. It is simply a reality check. All the universal social rights which I personally hold high – and secularism included – do not resonate with the masses. And sweeping change always comes from the masses. Not from the ‘happy few’. Secularism and social rights are a nice to have but they will not put bread and meat on the table. Economic reforms will. Only economic growth shall set us free. That requires a new breed of leaders: state builders with concrete plans for economic growth and socio-political reforms. Once the basics are there, secularism will come and social freedoms will be demanded. This is the point that the ‘happy few’ have missed. Until such leadership is allowed to force its way into our decaying system, we should find it comfortable to live in ‘bubbles”.

  • Mustapha

    @Karim,

    Thanks, glad you find the post useful,

    @Lilianne,

    I know, I know, but change and progress are hard everywhere. We all should try to get out of the “easy way out” mentality..

    @posh,

    Very interesting. So basically you’re saying people don’t really care, they just sign up to these events to satisfy their conscience in that they are somehow contributing, but they really aren’t prepared to invest time and effort for change and progress.. I’m afraid you’re on to something..

    @Observer,

    If you are a truly liberal person, I recommend the Democratic Renewal movement (Tajaddod) founded by the Late Nassib Lahoud. It’s full of the kind of people who read this blog and agree with its stances. If you’re interested, email ayman mhana at: youth@tajaddod.org

    @Elie,

    I guess we’re in agreement

    @Anonymous,

    You make excellent point. You sound like Walid El Houry? Are you sure you’re not him?

  • Citygirl

    @Mustapha, no I’m not Walid El Houry, but maybe I should start reading him :) any links you can recommend?

  • http://13brokenpencils.blogspot.com K

    Part of me definitely agree with you, but I don’t think joining parties is necessarily the solution. And even if you did, a lot of them actually communicate via Facebook. The issue is apathy. The point made by a commenter earlier about “joining” the event to ease the conscience is interesting, and leads to the point I’m trying (apparently confusingly and with great difficulty) is our apathy, laziness, and our dependence on social media to do the job for us. I still think we can use social media To our advantage, but we as people need to shake off the apathy and laziness an Lebanese idea of “tomorrow I’ll do it”

    Er. I hope I made sense.

  • http://13brokenpencils.blogspot.com K

    *tryign to reach

    (Typing on iPhone is not fun.)

  • http://lebaneseexpatriate.wordpress.com lebaneseexpatriate

    Mustapha,
    You are one of the most read bloggers and active activists.
    What do you think keeps the liberals from forming a party in Lebanon and rallying and actually having a mission, an agenda and people running for public office?
    AlYassar Al Cemocrati was an attempt but it got swallowed by the sectarian parties with the green dough eventually, even though its base still exists to this day and maybe consitutes the majority of the online political activists.

    If you read, “لست لبنانياً بعد… في مديح الطائفية” you will clearly see the failure of liberals and seculars in lebanon in actually ever forming a power to attract people who do not share similar points of view and actually challenging the existing religious and feudal powers.

    As an intermittent blogger myself, I really doubt the power of tweets and facebook in a society like lebanon, or around the world. What we need is people on the ground, people who are willing to meet on a weekly basis, solicit funding, reach out to the poor and uneducated, organize and know that they plan for the future and will not see change in their current days.

    the poor kid who dropped out of school in jabal muhsen, doniyeh, akkar, tareek l jdeedeh, al da7ieh and his family and friends who have not made it past the 9th grade will not read those tweets and facebook comments. they need a role model, a job and a book.

  • Chrissy

    I think your economic points hit the nail on the head. When I was in high school, I participated in the Model United Nations club, which is like a mini version of the UN but acted out by high schoolers; each school would pick a country to “be” and we would have a large assembly to debate current events. We quickly learned that no matter what the country was, or what the problem was, it almost ALWAYS came down to economics. If you have a significant part of your population struggling with poverty, those are the ones most likely to act out in desperation. Poverty is often cited as a root cause of many social ills, including crime and illiteracy.

    This is why gangs are so popular among the “inner city” crowd, as we say in the US. It gives them an artificial sense of purpose and an (albeit often illegal) income. It seems to me, as an outsider, Lebanon’s politics are hampered by a “gang” mentality.

    I’m curious, is there any sort of social welfare or charities that actively seek to promote better living for the poor in Lebanon? Could this be a channel for change from within the community?

  • Observer

    Suleiman: If there is a discrepancy between the Arabs and Iran, Lebanon must seek to bridge differences between them.

    Smart move.

  • Observer

    Finally someone willing to admit we are “different”.

    It’s called BEING A LEBANESE !

  • Observer

    Tonight I will start praying that my fellow Lebanese will realize that we are all Sunnis, that we are all Christians and Druze and Buddhists and this and that … and hope the Jews will also accept that we are all Jews as well … and that Shi’ite Iran needs to shed its “Darth Vaderesque Khomeini” look for a more appealing “Universally Appealing” Box office candidate.

    You know … “Gillette … The best a man can get!”

  • Observer

    Shaving obliges you to look at yourself in the mirror … at least once every two/three days.

  • Antidisestablishmentarianism

    Such a party would be elitist. What can it promise to the underprivileged? While existing political parties do not promise them anything either, except services offered in the form of charity, they have a successful card to play, which is sectarianism or some grand delusional slogans. I think another important issue is language. A lot of material for the liberal/secular cause should be produced in Arabic to reach anyone outside of the liberal clique. The ideas need to be made attractive, and need to really promise change and improvement. The middle class can act as a train engine for the rest of the nation, if it abandons elitism and truly cares for the plight of people it doesn’t really understand. It also helps if the issues are tackled one by one, rather than all at once. Choose one big attractive issue, and put all the firepower behind it until it works, then move on to the next. Such issues are civil marriage, citizenship to sons of lebanese wives of foreigners, proportional representation within the confessional system, etc. these already have a lot of traction….

  • http://www.ninars.com Tony Saghbiny

    Great points Mustapha. I hope more people from the Beiruti activists community read it.
    I wrote about the same subject a while ago, criticizing the reliance on Facebook as a main tool, but i was mainly interested in how it’s affecting the political culture of the young generation on the long run.
    The birth of real political parties requires a concrete political culture; and i can confidently say that what characterizes most of the Lebanese liberal activism community so far is the lack of one.
    Unfortunately, our community is characterized by hyper-individualism and competitiveness, the wariness and refusal of having leaders, the lack of patience, the lack of strategic planning, the lack of a historical perspective about the country and the issues at hand, the lack of conventional political expertise (most of the activists never had a political experience other than in NGOs), and we have the issue of “paid activists” who are a class on their own (introducing the western funding to Lebanese NGOs was very destructive).
    These issue not only undermine the possibility of having a real party, but they already inhibited the appearance of powerful functional NGOs (with some exceptions of course).

  • http://www.hanyrizk.com Hany

    Great job there.

    Personally, while I totally agree with the Laique Pride Movement’s principles and demands, I consider that achieving them now, while Hezbollah’s still armed, is very bad timing. It’ll be the same as the current dispute over ‘Nisbiyyah’, but instead of the arms forcing the party’s rule on specific areas, secularism allow it to grasp the whole country legitimately.

    Moreover, I disagree with their scope of work as it is right now. In my opinion it’s simply utopian, or in other terms the hippie’s way out. Organizing a march every couple of months won’t get the movement anywhere. Many of my friends participated in those marches last year, only because of the demands. They had no idea about the Lebanese socio-political system, and the implications of secularism on it, were it to be applied right now. Plus I don’t feel at ease with such a just cause being promoted by Hezbollah & Amal (like what was evident last year), where participants carrying banners against Nasrallah were ordered to bring them down then beat up.

    A well-planned, systematic & procedural method of action should be laid out for such a movement, that successfully & realistically tackles one issue at a time and then moves on to a bigger one.

  • Anon

    Good points. The problem is also economic as others have mentioned, and social, something I wrote about here: http://blkbtrfli.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/guest-post-a-country-of-heroes/