Not a Revolution

Lebanon’s tomato movement is a refreshing expression of revulsion, but it is not about to turn into a popular revolution.

Photo by Habib Battah
There is no denying the righteousness of their cause. An ineffectual parliament extending its own mandate is a telling symbol of everything that is wrong with our Lebanese state and its institutions. Law enforcement whose members hit demonstrators while casually standing by as militias brandish machine guns and roam about freely is another.

This is why the sight of ordinary citizens expressing their distate so publicly and forcefully should bring to us nothing but admiration. It is no wonder that many people are joining their ranks, as this is a truly noble cause.

But a popular revolution, one that will change the system, it is not.

It is becoming a recurring theme in this blog, but every time I read these wild expectations online about how “the system” is going to be overthrown because thousands of activists decided to express anger on the streets, I get amused until I find out that they’re serious in their hopes.

A slap on the wrist

The scope of this movement should be clear: Get the MPs to repeal their decision to extend their mandate. Try to convince the MPs who are in theory against the extension to back their words with action (resignation). If you do that, your movement would be judged a success by the population at large. If you started a public debate about the role of MPs and their accountability to citizens, it will also be judged a success.

But please don’t be naive and believe that this is a popular revolution for changing the system in Lebanon. Don’t be so intoxicated by the crowds that you forget the tens of thousands who decided that watching Arab Idol was a better use of their time than hunkering down with you in Riad el Solh. Because if you do, like many before you, you will be disappointed.

True revolutions, the kind that make significant changes in power equations, look nothing like what activists do in Lebanon online and on its streets. Men, women and the elderly from all walks of life join in. The action takes place in all cities, towns and hamlets. Traders close their shops and join in, children and teachers leave school and join in. They are sweeping in a way only those who have been through one can know. This is what happened in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. This is what could happen (but still doubtful) in Brazil. But the closest we got to that in Lebanon was March 14, 2005 (and that only achieved the withdrawal of the Syrian army).

Changing the system

The purpose of this post (and the ones before it) is not to discourage action or drive young revolutionaries to despair, but to invite them to channel this dynamism into long term thinking, focus and sustainable action. There is nothing wrong with forming political parties, developing political messages, recruiting members and having long-term plans about governing the country. In fact it’s easier and cheaper than ever before with social media and the internet.

Magical thinking about revolutions that will somehow make everything better is just pie in the sky in countries where people usually vote to choose their representatives.

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  • gkaram

    There is no doubt that the term Revolution is misused, abused and overused by many including the above note. Most of these movements for “correcting” a policy or even getting rid of a dictatorship even though they are popular and even though they achieve their objective fail to meet the basic requirement of what is a revolution since none is based on the idea of a total a and comprehensive transformation in values and the societal structure. But to even hint at the need that a prerequisite for a revolution is to have a large number of demonstrators is equally invalid. What if 90% of the citizens of a country demonstrate against say an electoral system and furthermore let us assume that the movement succeeds. Does that qualify as a revolution? Of course not, if the values, beliefs and social dynamic in society is the same. On the other hand it is possible to conceive of a radical transformation of values in a society without a single demonstration then that would be revolutionary.
    The best and the most meaningful revolutions are the ones that take place through education. Arguably one of the greatest paradigm shifts over the past thousand years was the abandonment of the Ptolmeyic theory that the earth was the center of the universe and the eventual adoption of the Coperican view. I hope that no one is under the illusion that there was a revolution in Egypt or that there is currently one in Syria. A regime change is often nothing else but a change in personalities and that does not a revolution make even though 90% of the citizens were involved.

  • Ali K

    Sorry for the rant. Here it comes…

    These nice folks are irrelevant and annoying. They don’t have the numbers, nor do they have the organization that would make up for the lack of numbers. Their timing couldn’t stink more. There is a slow motion civil war going on, and a full bore war happening an hour away, while the country has two governments, one non-functioning and one non-existing. They just need to go home and be very quiet before the exhausted security people lose their patience and take out their frustrations on them.


    • Ali K

      Whoah! I can comment on my own comment…

      With the benefit of hindsight, my attitude was unfortunately justified, with Saida blowing up as it did. Living abroad, the first time I became fully aware of Assir was about a year ago, with his stunts like his video riding a bicycle. Back then I thought he was a buffoon. A year later he is waging war.

  • gkaram

    If there are many individuals who share the views of Ali K this country will never see any meaningful change. Its unfortunate but it looks like the die is cast and the country will never be able to rise to the challenges of a modern democratic state. Let feudalism, undemocratic rule and religious fundamentalism carry the day. No one should dare upsetting the corrupt and backward apple cart.

    • Anonymous

      I agree with you gkaram, Ali K reminds me of the recent ziad rahbani

  • romeo

    Revolutions are usually fueled by one major emotion: Anger.

    At present, the major emotion gripping Lebanese of ALL sects is Fear.

    Sunnis fear the hegemony of Shiites.

    Shiites fear the hegemony of Wahhabis.

    Christians fear both.

    Until a major incident causes revulsion in the hearts of all these people, simultaneously, irrespective of sect, and causes TRUE ANGER, there will be no revolution.

    Let’s hope that this major incident would not be necessary, and a “soft awakening” takes place. Unfortunately, history does not support this scenario.

  • Mark

    Let me sum up your article: “You children do not know what you’re doing. Only I know what ‘true’ change is.”

    Now let me sum up your tone, which I find much more interesting: Disdain.

    I don’t meant to pick on you specifically/personally but your post taps into an ‘attitude’ I recurringly find among activists and can be seen in some of the comments here and on this page (and many others)

    It’s an attitude of condescension and disdain that almost seems inherent among our ‘liberal’ ranks, a disdain that serves like a double-edged sword/pen of ego-flattering and self-consoling hacking at all possibilities for change, a disdain the undistinguishing blade of which none are spared –be they political figures, parties, rally-goers, ‘sects’, religious people, rural people, foreigners, expats, the uneducated, the illiterate, the educated-but-in-a-discipline-i-don’t-respect, the educated-but-in-a-institution-i-don’t-care-for, the passive, the over-zealous, the square, the junkie, the young protesters currently camping in downtown, ‘the people’, ‘those’, ‘them’- except for the self, perhaps the one most in need of that dissecting.

    This attitude went hand-in-hand with a persistent trend back in 2011; everybody was ready with a plan/idea/proposal to share, nobody was ready to follow/trust another person’s plan. The potential for change ‘fizzled’ not because of a lack of ideas, people, or spirit, or because of pressures from the state/political parties, but because we could not trust and support one another. We have reached a point of alienation, of which your post is an excellent example, where even those protesting against the “symbol of everything that is wrong with our Lebanese state and its institutions” are derided and trivialized. Really, what did you get out of your post?

    Do you realize the irony in advocating the formation of political parties as a more reasonable solution than protests to a legislative movement that renders the constitution and legal framework meaningless? Stepping back from the generalization cast on these protesters, its worth pointing out that among those who have been protesting are activists who have attempted to use the legal system, are entitled to parliamentary seats, and have been preparing and organizing for the elections since years past.

    Lastly, you speak of naivety. The only naivety is in the belief that there is only one procedure for change. Or that change can be predicted and engineered. As you and the commenters pointed out there are many possibilities and potentials: party formation, large-scale movements, education, anger, and so on. Just because another person’s envisioning for change is not yours does not mean their ideas are naïve. The spark of the Arab Spring took us all by surprise, it wasn’t a planned start, nor was it the first self-immolation in Tunisia, nor the last.

    Summing this up into one piece of two-cent advice: If we stop trying to control change, we will alleviate this crippling alienation, and if we stop alienating one another, we will set loose the tides of change.