08. Lebanon’s October Uprising, Six Months Later

This is a conversation with Lebanese journalist Timour Azhari of Al Jazeera (previously The Daily Star) about the legacy of the October 17 uprising six months since it began. We spoke about the current state of Lebanese politics, the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on the country’s most vulnerable groups as well as what protesters might be expected to face once the pandemic is over.

You can read Azhari’s work on Al Jazeera here as well as his archives at The Daily Star here. He is also very active on Twitter with regular updates on Lebanese affairs.

You can follow the podcast on Twitter @FireTheseTimes.

You can also support it on Patreon @firethesetimes or BuyMeACoffee.com @joeyayoub.

This episode is dedicated to the work of Syrian Eyes. Please check out their fundraising to help prevent a large-scale escalation of the Covid19 outbreak in refugee settlements in Lebanon.

Featured photo was taken by Hassan Chamoun (I modified it a bit for the episode). Music by Tarabeat. Logo design by Carl Farra.


A big thanks to Thomas Cugini for this.

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0:01:06.x JA So this is a conversation with Lebanese journalist, Timour Azhari of Al Jazeera, previously of The Daily Star, about the legacy of the October 17 uprising, six months since it began. We spoke about the current state of Lebanese politics, the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on the country’s most vulnerable of course, as well, protestors might be expected to face once the pandemic is over.

0:01:28.8 JA: As usual, you can follow the podcast on Twitter at @FireTheseTimes, on Instagram at @thefirethesetimes, and you can also support it on Patreon or on BuyMeACoffee.com, the links, which are in the description. Thank you for your time. 

00:01:50:x TA: So my name is Timour Azhari, I’m a journalist based in Beirut, and recently became Al Jazeera English correspondent. 

00:01:59:x JA Timour, I’ve met you on the streets, so to speak, and well literally actually not just so to speak, and we have both been updating the protest and Lebanon on Twitter, you’ve been doing it for much longer and for a more… yeah, for a more extended period of time, I wanted to start this conversation with your general impression as a journalist, as someone who has tried and obviously to understand a situation as much as you can, what are some of your initial reflections now that we’re approaching the six months start of this uprising?

0:02:36.0 TA: Okay, well, yeah, first of all, I think my sort of initial remark about this is, I think it’s important to take a second and stop and think of what we’ve all experienced over the past six months, almost six months, I mean we went from… I can speak about myself personally, I went from feeling like as a journalist here… I was pretty much writing just to record sort of history, rather than being able to see any change coming in the future, and then we know 17th of October rolled around and sort of everything seemed like it was changing. We had about a month or so of really intense street protests where the country was basically shut down, I’d say probably from the 17th of October until after Independence Day, that was sort of, I would say, the first initial big sort of explosive stretch, and then really the economic crisis issue sort of took over and became the main story. We went from the high and euphoria of the whole country is united, or at least a massive part of the country is united to… Oh my God, how are we gonna survive? And this is for a lot of people, we just couldn’t access the money, so from a very high high to a very low low…

0:03:52.9 TA: And then protest kept going, they took on a more angry, angry sort of character as people really became frustrated, and then we have the coronavirus come in and that sort of just ended any protests that were still ongoing, we were basically at the point where we were seeing one or two big protests a week, usually on Sunday, and then there would be other actions in different parts of the country, so still trying to maintain momentum, still organizing, but definitely much more low-key than what it initially was, and then when Coronavirus came, obviously that sort of put the nail in the… I wouldn’t say the nail in the coffin actually, but it sort of put things on hold would be maybe a more correct way of saying it. I know from my conversations with people that, and just a general feeling in the country that the anger or the frustration, the demands that led people to go to the streets are there and probably have increased since, and I expect that when this whole thing is over, if it’s ever over, if we ever get to go back out on the streets again, that really what we’re gonna see is sort of a cross between a nationwide block party and a protest, and as some activist trends have put it, basically, we’re gonna make up for all the things they did while we were stuck at home.

0:05:11.2 JA: Yeah, it does definitely feel that the Coronavirus put things a bit on hold, which I guess is to be expected. I’m curious as to your impression, again, as a journalist, someone who’s generally interested and who definitely, you do your research, that’s something I can say about you that I can’t say about everyone. How have you seen the government’s reaction… let’s start with the government’s reaction to the Covid-19 cases to the coronavirus crisi, and then maybe more broadly, this new government, of course, with Hassan Diab as Prime Minister, how would you evaluate their… what they have done so far?

0:06:02.8 TA: I would start off by saying that, and let’s obviously discount any kind of conspiracy idea here that the government brought in Coronavirus or anything like that, but I just think that Coronavirus presents, it came as a very sort of… I wouldn’t say easy, but it’s sort of an opportune crisis for a government like Hassan Diab government to gain legitimacy from, and as far as crises go that the country are facing that, whether it’s economic crisis, financial crisis, health sector crisis, I think the coronavirus crisis actually, when you compare it to the economic crisis is, or the political crisis in the country, is much easier to solve because all you really need to do is shut down the country and make sure that people stay home. And that’s the kind of thing that states… states are good at, especially states that have a very security sector that is very much at the forefront, as we do have here in Lebanon, we’re not used to thinking about our states in that way, as you know, as being a security state, but very, I mean security forces in this country are sort of the main institution, whether it be the Army or the ISF that really function, and so this crisis presents a real opportunity for Hassan Diab’s government.

0:07:19.3 TA: And credit, where credit is due. It seems that their handling has you know show-, born result, they closed schools really early, eight days after we had our first case, they decided to close down schools and universities even before we’d double digits, and they got a lot of criticism for it at the time, because there were sort of people were saying that they’ve gone too far, too early, but it actually seems that Lebanon has done a quite good job on that side, on the lockdown, sort of containment side, where they haven’t done a good job, and which sort of takes away from the entire effort is the economic side of things. I mean the country now, statistics from the Finance Ministry say that 45% of the country is below the poverty line, the government’s reform plan, which was leaked yesterday puts that figure at 48%, so we’re looking at half of the country now that is below the poverty line, and that means they make less than 4 and a half million lira a year, which is at current exchange rates is even below 2,000 dollars, so imagine, I mean making below 2,000 dollars a year is half of the country now, half the country are talking at at least 2 and a half million Lebanese.

0:08:32.8 TA: And so Hassan Diab’s government decided, okay, we need the lockdown, and you could actually… If you look at global trends, it makes sense, but if people are stuck at home and they can’t feed themselves, they will go to the streets, and that’s where the government has failed because they announced aid… -way too late, in my opinion- and then when they announced it, they announced it in late March, we only really got that aid beginning to come forward, and it hasn’t even began to come forward yet, and we’re talking almost two weeks later, and so people are really in a difficult place now, and we’ve seen protests several times, we’ve seen them in Tripoli, we have seen them in the southern suburbs of Beirut, places where traditionally you have people of a much lower socio-economic status and people can take it, and so that if anything, I’d say that’s where this government has failed. Now, if we’re looking at Hassan Diab’s government as a whole, you know there was the whole question of independence in the beginning, and so there were two camps, there was the camp basically of… not really two camps, but I would say you could have taken the opinion that, “Oh no, this government is exactly like governments before it’s put forward by the exact same parties, and therefore…

0:09:42.6 TA: I want to be any different.” I think that you know to some degree, that that has been proven wrong, I think that if you look inside Hassan Diab’s government, basically what you see is that, yes, you have people who are party people, Berri’s appointees, for example, you have the Marada Movement’s appointees, these are basically traditional Lebanese feudal, sort of sectarian warlords. And so those people, basically what I’m saying is, in the cabinet, you have ministers who are completely loyal to parties, but you also have ministers who I think have shown a much more independent streak, and for right now, I think I would, to some degree, put Hassan Diab in there, I think that Hassan Diab is not under the sway of Hezbollah entirely, not under the sway of Berri or Gebran Bassil, I would say that he navigates in a space that needs to some degree to make those people happy, and that’s what we’ve seen recently when spea- the speaker Nabih Berri, he said that he would withdraw his ministers from Parliament, if the government didn’t change it’s plan to bring back expatriates, very quickly, we saw the government change the plan and very quickly they brought the expatriates back. So Hassan Diab basically has some moving area in my opinion, but in the end, there is that layer of Lebanon’s zuama, and there is a line that I think he can’t cross, there are other ministers in the government, the justice minister and the information minister, who I would say so far have also shown to be quite competent, and again, have some kind of an independent streak, but on the whole, we’re looking at a government that I would say has more leeway and more room to maneuver than previous governments, but it remains to be seen whether they can really push back on the important issues, political reform, I would say that appointments would be a major test, if they do appointments in the same manner as before, then we basically can write this government off entirely.

0:11:43.4 JA: I’m curious as to your thoughts as well about how the sectarian parties, which we just associate with the government usually, especially before Hassan Diab, I guess, I agree with you that Hassan Diab is sort of a new, brings a new dimension for better or worse. How have you seen them react? So the parties we’ve seen, for example, Hezbollah announced some weeks ago that they’re going to mobilize people to tackle the Covid-19 crisis, we’ve seen you know FPM people putting their logos on… I don’t know what it was like hand gel or whatever it was, that kind of stuff. They seem to both be maybe feel that they are under threat in one way or another if they don’t do something, because as you said, the poverty line is, the poverty level are pretty bad and getting to almost half the country now, which is quite a starking thing to think about. They seem to feel probably, I would guess the heat in some way or another, but at the same time, historically it’s been that, that’s also been the strength that there is a sort of co-dependency between them and quote-unquote “their supporters.” They certainly believe that. The question, I guess, is, is it still working? Because in the post-October 17th landscape, one thing that we said early on, and even a few months into the protest movement, revolution, whichever words we want to use, is that there’s a certain way of doing things that isn’t working, the whole clientelism, wasta, corruption, all of that it’s still happening, of course, but there’s something about it that was fundamentally broken, like a spell that was broken or something whichever terms we wanna use…

0:13:35.8 JA: How have you seen [Prime Minister] Diab react in the past few weeks, whether to the financial crisis or to the Covid-19 crisis, which at this point, they’re interlinked as well.

0:13:44.4 TA: I would say in the same way that this Coronavirus presents an opportunity for the government to gain the legitimacy, it also provides a space for parties to reassert themselves in their traditional role, and their traditional role is basically to sort of provide what the state can’t provide, but let’s be very clear here that it’s not the fact that, “Oh we happen to have a weak state, and therefore these parties are filling a gap,” it’s no, it’s that these parties are the major constituents of the state, you know the leaders of these parties are the overlords of the country, and they systematically undermine the state in order to create a space for them, and I think it’s very important to point that out because I’ve seen some analysis that basically says, “Oh yes, these parties are filling a void…” Well, we need to finish the thought there, which is that, yes, the void is created by them in the first place, so that they exist, so that they have a place to exist and so that they can build networks of allegiance and what the crisis like Coronavirus crisis does and the economic crisis together really is, it provides an opportunity for them to strengthen those networks.

0:14:48.4 TA: Now, the big question is whether their finances have taken a hit, from what I’ve sort of gathered over the past months of reporting this and speaking to people is, yes, these parties have been hit financially over the past the years, not just now, and are less able to do this, but they still have, you know resources on which they can fall back. And so I mean it really… you know, during the uprising, we were talking about how, you know basically like somehow people had emerged from this… basically people had to realize people have woken up and said, “Oh wait, actually, What the hell have we been doing?” And you know, unity was sort of powerful in making people think that, “Oh yes, I mean, if we are all united in this way, we no longer lead those structures, let’s build a new Lebanon.” The problem is that now a new Lebanon, I mean seems very difficult to build, honestly, because you just have so many things that you have to… I think it’s important that to realize that we need political change along with the economic change at the same time, but sadly, I think that what we’re gonna go for more is more of the economic solution because to change Lebanon’s political system, you need to ask of the people benefiting from the system…

0:16:03.7 TA: To stop benefiting from it, right? And so basically, I think I lost my train of thought there a little bit, but the point is that during the Revolution, we thought… I think that maybe we thought it would be too easy to make these party structures irrelevant, and now the crisis we are seeing sort of present an opportunity for those parties to exist, and so I think it’ll be very difficult. We’re going into a difficult period, I’d also just like to comment, just going a bit back to Hassan Diab and the government and why parties might feel threatened in some way; Hassan Diab, you put everything aside, he is a much more confidence-inspiring and competent Prime Minister than Saad Hariri, Ithink we can all agree to that already, because when you watch a speech by Hassan Diab, Hassan Diab’s Arabic is good, first of all, which goes a long way, he has good speech writers or he himself is a good writer. I don’t know, maybe he got a lot of practice writing his CV, which is 137 pages, but… no, he is a good speaker. You have to give him that. And when he comes up to the podium, and I think of myself as a critical person, and I’ve covered a lot of politicians in Lebanon since I became a journalist here, but sometimes I- when you see a prime minister of a country give a good speech amid a crisis, I’ve gotten goosebumps and it’s like…

0:17:34.0 TA: Very quickly in my head, I’m like, Okay, like, No, but it happens. And so he is a rousing speaker, he is a confidence-inspiring speaker, and I think that goes a long way because of what we’ve dealt with in the past. What we’ve dealt with in the past really was complete incompetence, and so just on that level, I think that Hassan Diab is a very interesting character, much more interesting than I thought before previously, and I think a lot of protesters people who are on the streets, will also see this now, I don’t think it’s a black or white picture anymore that this guy is completely behold to parties, yes, he has red lines and yes, he’s not structural change, but I think he’s an interesting character who will be around in Lebanese politics for a long time, because he has shown to at least do the basics of what a politician is supposed to do, and I would say on the whole, this government also has shown that the information minister, for example, is Harvard-educated, has I think a PhD is a very good speaker, always has an answer ready, which compares very well to a Jamal Jarrah and the last government who is sort of this…

0:18:46.1 TA: Random politician appointed by Saad Hariri and just was not someone who you want as your information minister. So the government on the whole is much more confidence-inspiring, they still haven’t really had their big test, and so we need to wait for one of those big tests to come around in my opinion.

0:19:04.9 JA: And those big tests, you think, will come like what will they, how would they, what are some of the ways that they might manifest themselves and, because I think it’s safe to say that we are heading toward something, as usual, this is not a sentence that is uncommon whenever we talk about Lebanon, there always seems that we’re heading towards something and usually it’s not a good something, unfortunately, but that’s just the fact, as you said, the poverty line is, the poverty levels are pretty high, the Covid-19 crisis just made things worse on that front, as one would expect, and there are certain black… I don’t know how to describe them, but the kind of areas of concern that I think have been highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis, one of them is, as you mentioned, the obvious financial repercussions, another one is how… And I’d like to get your thoughts on how the even more vulnerable groups of people, so those who don’t even have the citizenship, migrants, refugees, migrant domestic workers, how they have been, how they have had to deal with this Covid-19 crisis we’ve seen, and you’ve written yourself on this, that how it’s affected, migrant domestic workers, it’s affected that pretty badly, so yeah, just your general thoughts on the…

0:20:31.4 JA: Let’s call them the undercurrents of the main trends that we’re seeing in Lebanon that don’t seem to my mind and maybe… I haven’t paid enough attention, I don’t know, but to my mind, haven’t been addressed by either… not necessarily by protestors, I don’t wanna sound too harsh or anything, as we said in the beginning, none of this is easy in the first place, but there does seem to be kind of a blind spot in one way or another towards a pretty big segment of the population of those who actually reside in Lebanon, that kind of is easily removed, or easily hidden away from the narratives of “This government is good, bad, the policies that they will implement are good or bad,” it seems to more often than not, simply not include them in the equation, if that makes sense.

0:21:26.8 TA: Yeah, yeah, I mean I think that you’re right about saying that it wasn’t at the forefront of the protests, sadly, this is something that happens around the world, I think when you have movements or crises is that people basically think we Lebanese right now are in this huge bind with so many problems, how can we even possibly work to save other people when we can barely survive ourselves, that’s something you’ll hear over and over, but no, I think it is a national issue that we really need to address, because in Lebanon, the question of citizenship has always been this difficult thing, right, since very soon after Lebanon was formed, when you had Palestinian refugees come here and you had a lot of… you have a Christian community who are very sort of sensitive to a large influx of Muslim people because it dilutes their power, and that’s sort of… you can sort of understand that on that level, not that I’m saying I agree with it, but you can sort of understand the rationale behind that and… I mean yeah, it is, just as an aside, it is sort of troubling because the Lebanese uprising actually started with the deaths of two Syrian people, and that’s an important note that you don’t usually see anywhere, and when you see tallies of the martyrs of the Lebanese revolution, you don’t see those two men in there, and these men were basically in a building that…

0:22:54.4 TA: And it’s very inconvenient and very unfortunate to say, a building that was torched on the first night of the uprising in this big sort of chaotic outburst of anger, and these two people suffocated, they were two Syrian men who were living in the building and suffocated to death and we sort of didn’t hear anything about that, and they’re not sort of part of the narrative, they’ve been completely excluded, and I think that’s sort of a good starting point to understand how the Lebanese uprising really, I think, failed to address that issue of the people in this country who, Syrians and migrant workers, I know that sometimes migrant workers would take part in protests and be welcomed, and I also know that the issue of Lebanese who can’t pass on citizenship. So this is like Lebanese women who married Palestinians, that was there, that was actually quite center stage, the question of being able to give our nationality, that was one of the major demands, I think, or one of the… you know if you had a top five or 10 demands, it would be there, but definitely I think it was missing. And so that’s point 1, and then it is also important to note how much the condition of these people in this country has depreciated or become sort of untenable over the last six months.

0:24:11.5 TA: I mean it’s important to note here that the currency began devaluing before the uprising began. It began devaluing in August of last year and summer, and had already devalued quite a bit before the uprising took place, and even before the uprising, there were stories of how, you know migrant workers- basically migrant workers, whether they come from Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Southeast Asia, most of them, why they come here is they wanna make money for them for themselves to save later, but also to send home to their families, and what that depends on is the exchange rate from lira to dollars, because basically, if you’re paid in lira and you’re paid a certain amount and the currency depreciates, it will reflect and less dollars for you to send a home, so that was already an issue before the uprising, then the banks closed and this whole crisis came to a head and today the currency has lost half of its value, and basically it’s become an untenable situation for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people in this country. We’ve already seen mass repatriations notably, the Filipino embassy has done a free program where they’ve repatriated… I think it’s about 600 women and children and a few men till now, and so yes, so you have a certain amount of people who can get back home, but the vast majority of these people are sort of stuck here in a way because they’ve paid a lot of money to come here…

0:25:38.6 TA: They wanna leave with at least something to show for it, but many are being laid off- laid off, and so I wrote a recent story where I spoke to a number of women, one of the women basically lived in an apartment with 14 other migrant workers, and someone in the apartment had had Coronavirus symptoms, and so they went to Rafic Hariri University Hospital, which is sort of the heart of Coronavirus treatment in Lebanon, it’s the main hospital that was doing treatment at the time, now many more hospitals have sort of opened up, but back then it was this hospital, and when she went there, she was turned back because she doesn’t have any papers, and so you can imagine that a migrant who lives in an apartment with 14 other people, they’re sleeping three people per bed, really tight cramped conditions. If the coronavirus spreads in such conditions, then sort of, it would be unspeakably bad. And so the Coronavirus crisis basically came on top of the economic crisis itself, which has seen their wages now worth half as much, and many migrant workers because of the kafala system, because of the abuse that it sort of entails or the abuse that it allows…

0:26:55.1 TA: Many women, thousands of women in Lebanon live sort of on the fringes of society or in a state of limbo where they don’t have legal residence, and so they’re scared. Basically, if they’re abused, they’re scared to go to the police ’cause they could be arrested and deported, if they feel sick, they’re scared to go to the hospital because the hospital could call the police, they really live in the state of limbo and conditions for these people has become so much worse. There are some initiatives, not actually, there are Lebanese initiatives, notably the anti-racist movement and their migrant community center, but also an initiative from a migrant worker herself and a group of migrant workers who used to be in Lebanon, and I think you had her on, Banchi Yimer, I think it was last week, to talk about what she’s doing in the country, obviously extremely helpful, and I urge people to support them really, however you can, because these people really are… If you think things have gotten bad for Lebanese people, then it’s just… it’s so much worse for these people… for migrants in Lebanon.

0:28:02.2 JA: We’ve seen recently, unfortunately, a number of stories, I think two… so far, and correct me if I’m wrong, or actually three possibly, men have poured gasoline over themselves. I think one actually died, and I think another one actually also died from it. Can you talk a bit about the symbolism of this because I mean any- not just the symbolism, first and foremost, it’s a tragedy for what it is for those people’s lives and for their families and what it represents, but there’s also the fact that we will know that people pouring gasoline over themselves is quite a symbolic thing to do in the context of the post-2011 or since the 2011 uprisings in the region, it’s something that… even I, if I’m honest, when we started the protest, I knew things were bad and the statistics were pretty clear, but I was sort of hoping that we might achieve quote-unquote “a bit more,” especially in terms of economic reforms that might spread around… how do you say this like, redistribute wealth in a certain way, I wasn’t expecting much. My expectations in Lebanon tend to be fairly moderate in the first place, as you might guess, but I am a bit shocked to see that it’s only taken six months, not even since the start of the uprising when we’re already seeing these stories and…

0:29:39.9 JA: My worry is that… And I’d like to get your thoughts on this, like my worry is that we might see these becoming quote-unquote “normal stories,” and that’s what really scares me.

0:29:52.5 TA: It’s obviously super tragic, I mean imagine, just take a second and imagine what your life conditions would be for you to actually pour gasoline over yourself and set yourself on fire, it’s just sort of unthinkable. And as you sort of mentioned, this is an act that was really sort of gained in a way popularized by the Arab uprisings from 2011 onwards, obviously, credited for being sparked in Tunisia by a man setting himself on fire. In Lebanon, we saw this actually happened in February of last year, where a Lebanese man, George Zreik set himself on fire and then died from his wounds because of an inability to pay for his child’s school, and it was sort of a… foreshadow, I think when I look back to think back to that moment and reporting that story and just the level of poverty that I didn’t think existed in this country, even among Lebanese, and I’m even gonna go a step further and be moralist here, even among a Christian community, because you get this from people in Lebanon, sometimes you get the sense that all the poor are from one community or another, and I think that that filters on even subconsciously to us or to me, and so it was just completely out of what I thought existed, just a man killing himself because he’s unable to pay for his…

0:31:11.4 TA: To pay for his child’s tuition, and sort of the fact that he did that and then there was no safety net to go to, so really a tragic story, and then obviously, now we’re seeing that much more widespread now, I mean we had the last week, Bassam al-Hallak, a Syrian man, self-immolate in the Baqa’a, he did it right near a hospital and still died, and the state media still reported that as being living conditions. Abby Sewell, who’s also a Beirut-based journalist, a colleague of mine, formerly The Daily Star, she reported on the story and basically talked to his family, and they said that like, “Yes, it was living conditions.” And then this week we have two attempts, one man outside of a bank and the other man outside of a municipality, both in the south, the security forces stopped it from happening, but… No, I really take your point that when we were on the streets less than five months ago, you really hope that this wouldn’t be happening and that we would be somewhere completely different today, and it is sort of sad just on a human level, to see that this is happening around us now, and to people in our communities now. I think that to some extent, we might have underestimated the extent to which…

0:32:32.4 TA: Or let me say it this way: I think it’s important to sort of see the uprising as caused by economic issues, and it’s the whole context of the Lebanon uprising is this collapse of the state’s finances, corruption, the government and politicians moving towards austerity, and this sort of question of why should we pay for what you’ve done. And so the Lebanese uprising erupted in that context, but I think it’s very difficult to escape the context, right? The context remains, and so while you had those beautiful weeks where it really seemed like change was possible and where the country was shut down and it was really this amazing sort of show of people power, I think inevitably that dies down and then you come back to the same sort of question, okay, but the money is not there, and then the money won’t be there by simply going out on the streets and having great conversations and trying to bring down the government, even as we, as the protesters did. So what I would say is that you have to… there are certain things that… where it fell short. I think that organizing to this day, from the conversations I’ve had with people sort of independent organizing, while it did get a boost, it seems to have lost a little bit of steam now, roles are sort of a bit…

0:33:58.1 TA: Ill-defined, the idea of, Where do we wanna go with this? So do people wanna basically ready themselves for elections in two years, or do they want to take a different path and become watchdogs? So I’m not sure that really the uprising has very clear definable outcomes yet, but generally on a national level, I would say that there’s much more awareness, I would say that this government feels much more like It has to respond to what people are saying on the streets and an online, on social media, you can almost sometimes draw a direct thread between the sort of general conversation in the country and then a statement that comes out, and so I would say that basically this government seems much more… To have much more of an ear to the streets and to what people are saying, but again, it’s sort of like we haven’t really had a big test yet. We’ve had the interior minister, for example, order the tents to be destroyed in downtown and Tripoli, which many people sort of took as a big betrayal, and I would say that it was completely unnecessary and like, Why would you do that? It’s clearly seemed like a miscalculation, if you’re trying to show that you’re the government of the people, and just a condemnable move, but I don’t think that we’ve had a big sort of test, which I would say is like appointments, I would say it’s the kind of plan that the government really puts in place the kind of quote-unquote “rescue plan” and who was going to bear the losses, and I think that…

0:35:35.0 TA: So as it seems to be the case with many uprisings including in Lebanon in 2015, but also in other countries, you see, things take a little bit of time to settle, and then if you’re planting seeds now taking a while for them to grow, so I think that we need to wait and see. But I think that as soon as this Coronavirus issue is over, we will see activity come back, whether it be protests, whether it be organizing, because it seems like the whole world is on a freeze now, not just Lebanon, everywhere, and it seems like we’re all kind of taking it day by day, week by week, waiting for things to go back to normal. And then we can talk.

0:36:18.3 JA: Yeah, yeah, that’s definitely the case. One thing that I was thinking of before, when we spoke about the more vulnerable groups, you reported on this as well, if I’m not mistaken, but there have been quite a lot of… Very few riots in prisons, a number of the same questions related to some kind of amnesty or clemency or really anything that might… ease the burden of the system, which is already pretty bad and on a purely human level, because many of these people are there for petty crimes, for small, relatively small misdemeanors or whatever, the fact that now you have concentrated populations in small spaces, obviously poses an additional health risk for the obvious Coronavirus-related questions. I personally, and this is my opinion, of course. I do see the lack of… let’s call it intersectionality among protesters, in here I would include myself, because I was on the streets and everything, here is one of the major failures. It’s something that I hope that we would be able to tackle. We’ve seen it with the Families March, for example. There was a bit of that… We’ve seen some move towards that, I’ve seen a bit more… How do you say this? I’ve seen a bit more of a willingness to tackle the kafala system, although it’s just incrementally more vocal than before, and I think part of it, or a big part of it is that migrant workers themselves are increasingly well-organized, which is also obviously contributing to this, but the question of the prisoners in Lebanon, can you speak a bit about this? Because me personally, I feel that…

0:38:14.6 JA: And this, again, for my experience, most of the people I know, including protesters, including people who came from fairly working class- very working class backgrounds actually do not know how bad it is in Lebanon’s prisons. They really don’t know how bad it is, unless you have a relative or a friend or a neighbor who himself, usually himself or herself, was sent to these prisons, you don’t actually know how bad it is. 

0:38:41.3 TA: Yea I mean well so… to describe that a little bit, I mean in prisons currently are at over 200% of their capacity, so more than double what they were designed to… double the number of people they were designed to hold, and people again, they sleep pretty much like the migrant women I was describing.  Sort of very cramped conditions, people are sleeping, sort of head-to-feet, and in a number of these detention centers, you have to sleep and basically shifts because everybody can’t be lying down at the same time, so some people will have to sit or stand while others are sleeping, perfect conditions for a virus to spread. So thankfully, we have report- you know the government says that now there’ve been no cases found in the prisons, although it seems that people also haven’t been tested in the prisons, but there’s… basically, what they say is there’s been no reason to suspect this yet. And the government has begun this program of releasing people, the interior ministry said that 559 were released as of a few days ago, but this is mostly people who were just sort of arrested in that jail and then let go. So they’ve been clear, the-the justice ministry has been very clear to judges, they shouldn’t arrest people, and unless it’s serious crimes, and it’s very interesting because in a way, this crisis has forced the Lebanese justice system to modernize in a way, where now judges, judges are holding interrogations and hearings over WhatsApp call or Zoom, and also the Justice Ministry has requested, or the French government has actually said that they will be giving us these, those sort of e-bracelets that you see on those shows where the guy has it around his ankle, and basically it allows for people to sort of let home- let out of the prison system, so they’re not clogging the prison system, but you can still keep tabs on them. So those things are moving sort of in the right direction, it’s a very difficult thing letting people out of prison and sort of the way that it’s supposed to happen now is people with under six months left in their sentence are supposed to be put on a list and in Lebanon, the president has to sign off on an amnesty, and so that we expect that the president will be given a list of names at some point and he will either sign off or have reservations, but the broader idea and what prisoners and people who are prisoners, but even more so people who are wanted have been calling for for many years is a general amnesty, and that would be like an amnesty for certain kinds of crimes, which would really see thousands of people release, but also in Lebanon, you have, I think something like in the very high, tens of thousands of outstanding arrest warrants for people, and so you have many people in the Baqa’a, many people in the South, many people in the North, for various different reasons over the years who have arrest warrants out for them and are sort of, again, living in limbo, they can’t do basic things that you need to do in the state, because they have arrest warrants out for them, and so there have been these long-standing demands for this amnesty. Politicians have always come and promised the amnesty near election time, so I was covering the last parliamentary elections, there were promises from Nabih Berri and from Saad Hariri that they would be passing an amnesty very soon.

0:41:57.1 TA: And people in the Baqa’a were actually saying that they won’t vote for political parties that- the establishment parties, if there is no amnesty… The amnesty didn’t happen. And if you talk to the legal professionals you have in Lebanon, like the people at Legal Agenda, they’ll say that what we need to do is basically do a very well studied amnesty, where you really look at each case and you determine based on the case, whether this person should be released and whether or not, also more broadly, to prevent this happening in the future, where you have thousands of people for drug crimes a year, I think it’s something like 3,000 people are arrested for cannabis just alone in Lebanon per year. Obviously, what you need to do is reform the drug system, and so it’s not just an amnesty and you let people go because very quickly you’re gonna fill up to prison again and re-clog the court system again if you don’t change the laws. The laws are the main problem in that regard. But for a lot of these people, you can really understand where they’re coming from, it’s mostly like young men who grew up in very impoverished areas, if it’s in the Baqa’a, they entered into the drug trade or they…

0:43:03.3 TA: Did petty crime basically, because of the situation they’re in. In the north, you had things more related to quote-unquote “extremism” people, when the Syrian war was spilling over into Lebanon, we had a lot of men from very low socio-economic backgrounds who basically joined the kind of groups that you don’t wanna be joining, and did some things which they now regret and they will blame it on the situation in the country basically sectarian tensions at the time. And so in a lot of these cases, you can understand it, but you really do have to study this, because the problem is, you can’t… you can’t as a state simply be seen to leave crimes unaccounted for… because the main issue that we have in Lebanon, right, is that the Civil War ended with this general amnesty that allowed all of the warlords to enter to government. And so I think it’s important that we learn from history and sort of study things in a way, and that’s one thing that successive Lebanese governments have shown that they don’t like to do… They don’t like to put in the work to actually study things properly, to actually get things done properly, they do everything like a kid who’s studying right before his exam in the last two days; they leave everything for years, and then they realize, “Oh shit, there are elections…

0:44:17.6 TA: Okay, let’s do something.” And that’s how everything has been addressed in the past, and what you would hope for is that now things take a bit of a more measured kind of… Obviously, there’s urgency here because the Coronavirus issue is serious, but you really have to study things and go about a process of reform of the country’s laws. 

0:44:40 JA: On that note, if we can end on sort of me asking you a relatively tough question, I would assume, but imagine we are having this conversation again in six months and it’s a one-year university of the start of the uprising, whatever for symbolic reasons or not, we like to keep these dates, what are some things that you think we would have… I’m not asking you to predict, but what are some things that you think are in the near future that are for sure going to happen or that we can realistically expect is going to happen, or that we might… we should at least, us who are, let’s say, activists, protesters, progressives, people who just want something better for the country: what are some things that we should be on the lookout for? You as the journalist, as the analyst, as someone who’s just trying to take in as much of this information as you can.

0:45:40.5 TA: Yeah, I mean, it sort of as a little bit of what we’ve talked about, it’s basically what we need to see is a real change in just the way that the work of governing this country is done. And that means much more transparency and public consultation on things. I mean, October is only six months from now, the anniversary of the revolution, the uprising, October 17th. I think by then conditions in the country, honestly, will be worse because we’re basically in this period now, where we’re going downwards and we’re in negotiations with the creditors over restructuring the debt, the currency is devaluing, we have no aid incoming from anywhere, and so I think that on the whole, the economic conditions, the living conditions in the country will be much worse in six months, and I know that that’s not a very… it’s not optimistic at all. But I think it’s… honestly, it’s realistic. If we look at the trends of where things are, I think that for a lot of people, life is gonna become a lot more difficult, and for many people, they might not even sort of be able to see that, and we already see it anecdotally now with just food distribution. There were stories done where people…

0:47:02.1 TA: Journalists have spoken to people at food banks in the country, and I’ve seen many times these people at food banks saying, people are coming in now and they’re sort of ashamed, and there are people who never thought that they would ever need food aid in their life. And now they’re coming in and doing that. And so I believe the word is pauperization, you’re gonna see basically what remains of the middle class of Lebanon and even the upper middle class just becoming poor and you will… and wealth inequality is going to skyrocket because people who have income in dollars, people who have money from abroad, suddenly their money is worth so much more, they can trade 100 dollars into… into 3-, what is it? 300,000 Lebanese lira. While people who have all of their money in Lebanese lira suddenly have half as much money. Imagine you’ve worked all your life, you’ve saved up 10,000 dollars and suddenly it’s worth 5,000 dollars, that changes everything, and it’s probably gonna get worse in terms of depreciation of the currency. If I look away from sort of the economic story for a bit, and I think that’s gonna be the main story, I think that on certain issues, at least the government has promised, whether it’s in its First 100 Days to tackle certain issues or within its first year, just to tackle certain issues like the nationality issue, like looking into amnesty and importantly, reform the judiciary, independence of the judiciary.

0:48:29.3 TA: If we get those things, if we get a law whereby judges elect judges rather than politicians putting in place the judges, that will be a massive leap forward because it breaks the chain of dependency between the politicians and the judges. So that would be a major thing to look forward to, and on the whole, I think that what we can, to a certain extent, look forward to is just being in a country where accountability is much more centre stage now, whether it be the nerds on Twitter, sort of this group of economic people who have studied economics or work in economics, who have come together and basically become sort of an online Fourth Estate, just checking things that most journalists don’t understand because journalists aren’t experts in economics or finance. I think that at least we can find some comfort in the fact that there are more eyes on Lebanon now, whether it be Lebanese in Lebanon or people- or Lebanese abroad, there’s more eyes trained. And I think the reason is simply what we saw in October from October 17th onwards was so beautiful and so profound and so motivating in the sense that we really saw the best in people…

0:49:46.0 TA: The best in the country. I think that people abroad who ran away from Lebanon because there were so few opportunities here, the emotional bond was strengthened, and there was a sense of, we really have something that is worth fighting for to a degree, and so there’s gonna be more eyes trained. I think that there’s gonna, you know, fostering a sort of culture of accountability, and I think that will be one of the main takeaways going forward, and so I hope that at the one year anniversary, we can at least point to some sort of small victories, whether it be pushing away bad decisions, or maybe even holding some people accountable, I don’t know, that might even be too much to wish for, but I don’t see massive institutional change by October 17th, 2020, nor do I see the political class going… the main figures of the political class, unless it’s via natural causes, which a lot of them are getting close to. Obviously, I don’t wish that on anybody, but let’s just say that. Thank you very much for having me on and yeah, I wish you all the best with this podcast, it’s great that this in and of itself is, I think, for you somewhat inspired out of what happened in Lebanon, on October 17th, no?

0:51:13.3 JA: Absolutely, and that’s a good way for me to plug the next episode and tell everyone that… I’m actually going to have a number of guests to talk specifically on some of the topics that we brought up today, and as well as more specific issues like looking at migrant domestic workers, looking at refugees, looking at vulnerable communities throughout Lebanon as well, to kind of help out with as much as I can, the sort of work that you yourself are doing and what other people are doing, whether they’re online or offline. So thanks again for this Timour and… yeah, good luck on everything.

0:51:49 TA:  Thank you very much. Wish you all the best. 

One reply to “08. Lebanon’s October Uprising, Six Months Later

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