A Lesson for the Lebanese Thawra from Algeria’s Hirak
In his telling analysis for the Middle East Institute, “Algeria’s opposition after the Hirak: Limitations and divisions,” Zine Labidine Ghebouli focuses on Algeria since the popular uprising of February 2019 hoping to both derive lessons from which to move forward and posit considerations for other opposition movements in the Arab world. Actually, I did a blog at the end of October 2020 comparing the Algerian hirak to the Lebanese thawra; not much has changed. However, the differences hint at a way forward, at least for the Lebanese.
Ghebouli first tackles the question of why the protests faded during 2020, noting that “The gradual fading out of protests in 2020 amid the surge of the pandemic was the result of both the system’s political maneuvers and the opposition’s own organizational and political weaknesses.” One hears this repeated by Lebanese activists who point out that the pandemic both robbed them of the physical stamina to continue and allowed the politicians to feign health concerns as a reason to restrict the people’s capacity to mobilize.
Lebanon shared something else with the Algerians. “As promising as this democratic endeavor [Hirak] seemed, the political and social actors of the Hirak movement faced a powerful, rigid, and resourceful establishment.” In Lebanon, even without the pervasive control of the Algerian security forces, dissenters were harassed, beaten, subject to arbitrary arrests, and even shootings by thugs and paramilitary police linked to the Parliament. In Algeria, “The authorities resorted to intermittent arrests of activists and journalists on terrorism charges to paralyze the protest movement. The government also introduced new regulations that were ostensibly to fight hate speech, but in practice limited freedom of expression.”
In instances when demonstrators were subject to military rather than civilian courts, the degree of complicity by the judiciary in Lebanon’s disregard for human rights was most obvious, especially regarding the rights of appeal or due process. In the case of Algeria, “For its part, the judiciary threatened both traditional and emerging political parties and dissolved some civil society organizations.” Similarly, civil society actors, particularly those seeking to evolve their political agendas, were circumscribed by arcane laws regulating the formation of groups and associations, leading to the disenfranchisement of proactive groups. In both Algeria and Lebanon, “All efforts to confront this strategy proved unsuccessful because of the fragmented nature of Algeria’s opposition and limited public awareness.”
What is consistent in both cases is that the traditional leadership quickly mastered social media, surveillance techniques, and preemptive actions to isolate and divide the opposition, ultimately assuring a higher degree of survival. Ghebouli adds that “The resilience of the ruling elite [in Algeria], however, is largely a consequence of the opposition’s inability to provide a viable alternative.”
The challenge is whether those opposed to the status quo can mobilize across self-imposed labels and boundaries. More from Ghebouli, “the opposition bears responsibility, whether it acknowledges it or not, for its lack of vision and inability to remain a transparent political force amid the struggles between rival clans within the Algerian system.” While clans in Algeria can be compared to sects in Lebanon, the challenge is the same: how to avoid being tarred with labels that degrade their commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.
Lebanon may seem more fortunate not be ruled by a security oligarchy, but it is not. In essence the results come out the same; a non-responsive and corrupt leadership class is just as intolerant to challengers of the status quo as a hyper responsive police state.
The bottom line for Gheboli and for the Lebanese opposition is, “As long as activists lack a coherent plan and clear leadership, the establishment will retain control and remain the only relevant and capable actor in Algeria [or Lebanon].” Although the date for registration of new political actors is approaching, particularly in a Ministry of Interior system that is notorious for blocking rather than fostering greater political participation, it is not too late. Nevertheless, pinning too much hope on the results of the election may lead to a further exodus of skilled and talented people, delivering the most damning outcome for Lebanon.
P.S. As an aside, I want to recommend to you the Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom on which Lebanon has continued to regress. The visuals are quite useful as it allows you to construct comparison of various countries along a number of indicators.
P.P.S. Our colleagues from the Lebanese International Financial Executives (LIFE) included this data in their latest newsletter. Yes, it can and did get worse…
In 2021, real GDP shrunk by 10.5%, following a 21.4% contraction in 2020. This translates into a plummeting of Lebanon’s GDP from close to $52 billion in 2019 to a projected $21.8 billion in 2021, marking a 58.1% contraction, the sharpest economic contraction in the world.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.