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