Lebanon and Algeria: Lessons from the Uprisings

Friday, October 30, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

The rise of popular movements across the Maghreb and in Lebanon in the past decade is no coincidence. Aside from the shared experience of French colonialism, these countries also share many social, economic, and political characteristics, making for an interesting comparison of these movements across the region. Tunisia is moving towards greater democracy on the basis of negotiations among key players in civil society, while political elites dig in their heels hoping to maintain their preferential economic benefits; and the army is not a key player in the governing formula. Morocco, by contrast, has a king and long tradition of a royal culture that is sustained by deferential behavior from its people as it moves slowly towards broader citizen empowerment.

It is Algeria’s hirak or “movement” where there are the greatest similarities to what has been happening over the past year to Lebanon’s thawra or “revolution.” Both are popular uprisings challenging the vested interests that dominate the country, abet corruption, and drain the country’s economy. They both brought about leadership change; avoided clashes with the military; and crossed sectarian, demographic, and regional identities. They both have also diminished in strength and sustainability due to similar reasons: incremental, largely cosmetic leadership changes which diverted some supporters; the impact of the pandemic; maneuvering by traditional elites to maintain their prerogatives; and eroding commonality of interests, priorities, and tactics.

A deeper analysis may yield some lessons learned as much as how well-intentioned and determined opposition movements were unable to develop momentum to bring about systematic reforms and inclusive societal change.

Algeria’s Hirak
There is a recent opinion piece by Abed Charef in Middle East Eye offering his perspective on the current status of the hirak. He begins with the statement that “the Hirak as a political movement is a thing of the past. The time has come to look at what we have learned and to make adjustments for the country’s new political landscape, a situation requiring the examination of possible new perspectives and means of political action.”

Charef begins by contrasting the hirak to the previous Front de Libération National (FLN) merging from a revolutionary nationalist movement to a status quo political entity that lacked democratic values. He notes that “The Hirak movement is an altogether different beast, born of a mindset and an objective, and lacking any organizational model whatsoever.”

“Beginning on February 22, 2019, in response to the attempt by incumbent president Bouteflika to endow himself with a fifth term, millions of Algerians took to the streets, rising up against the humiliation of a fifth Bouteflika mandate – against the corruption, mismanagement, and injustice of the Algerian political system. It was a broad indictment; a rejection of both the ruling elite and the ham-fisted opposition.”

He goes on, “The Algerian people were marching for recognition, for dignity and freedom, for the right to voice their feelings and to realize their goals. For the first time since independence, the people had taken to the streets. Millions of Algerians of all walks of life, of all generations and persuasions, marched together to say: ‘Enough is enough!’”

The parallels to the October 19, 2019, uprising in Lebanon cannot be overlooked. Upset by the continued mismanagement of the country and its resources, and rebelling against yet another act of intimidation and erosion of their quality of life, millions of Lebanese across sectarian, generational, and geographic lines took to the streets demanding the end of the current government and its culture of cronyism, corruption, despoiling of the environment, and abuse of the financial system. They called for an overhaul of the country’s leadership saying kellon ya’neh kellon: “All of you means all of you.”

In Algeria, the army swiftly reasserted its role as the ultimate arbiter of political power, replacing Bouteflika; bringing corruption charges against many of his cronies and senior officials from the army, security services, and the government; and setting new dates for presidential elections. But a revolution was not in the cards. The hirak was unable to develop a coherent opposition or a political program based on concrete, well-reasoned and implementable policies, and in the end the army stood alone at the top of the power pyramid. To have a credible plan, Charef says ruefully, “This requires reflection, consultation, negotiation and compromise – qualities sadly lacking in Algerian political life.”

Lebanon’s Thawra
The demonstrators in Lebanon initially had a great rush of adrenalin from the vitality of being a national movement that brought hope to their dreams and dread to the oligarchy that controls the country. As Anthony Elghossain writes in the Middle East Institute’s special briefing on Lebanon a year after the uprising, “They attacked Lebanese leaders, learning the hard way that some are more sacred than others — and that sacredness tends to correspond proportionally to the power of any such leader’s partisans. They climbed out of oblivion — reminding their leaders that they existed and statespersons that stability and peace aren’t the same damn thing.”

Joseph Bahout uses the expression of “a mafia and a militia” to describe Lebanon’s union between elites and Hezbollah that bided its time before confronting the demonstrators. According to Elghossain, by the end of 2019, many demonstrators who had mobilized in a common statement of protest had returned to their routines and “left the streets to people who’ve dominated dissent over the past decade: reformists and revolutionaries, including serial activists, dedicated civil society organizers, academics, young professionals, and/or some of Lebanon’s youth.”

With the demonstrations weakened by the weather, the pandemic, and the increasingly precarious erosion of their standard of living, there were few who would claim progress despite the momentary disruption to the old political leadership. “Reformists and revolutionaries have not realized their demands. They’ve not achieved their envisioned change, inspired citizens to join them, or influenced practical politics. And they’ve not — not actually, not adequately — identified, assessed, and exploited opportunities to integrate immediate action into broad-based, long-range campaigns for political power, institutional leverage, and sociocultural influence.”

Yet, as in Algeria, the low level agitation and organizing continues. Civil society and the rapidly dwindling middle class better understand the challenges ahead and there is a growing understanding on what must be done to be better organized and empowered to upset the status quo. “And, regardless of their hopes, ambitions, and disappointments, some of them are doing what is necessary today so that others can do what is sufficient tomorrow.”

A casualty of the reduced energy of the demonstrations in both countries is that many Algerians and Lebanese are headed elsewhere to find a sustainable quality of life. As Elghossain observes that is apropos for both countries, “The Lebanese who desire change must learn from the leaders they’re struggling against. They must operate in the spaces between, understanding that their success is neither inevitable nor impossible. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty, compromise, piecemeal progress, and imperfect practice of politics, they must now do what they would have needed to do had they succeeded, anyway: reimagine their campaign for change as a long-range, ever-evolving initiative, through which they may work to forge the future they desire without losing themselves.”

Both Algeria and Lebanon are facing the inevitable decline that sets in when the social contract is no longer operable, relevant, or credible. The bankruptcy of the spirit is more damaging long term than the financial catastrophe in Lebanon or the lack of economic mobility in Algeria. But neither the protestors and civil society nor the government apparatus can do it without significant recalibration of the state’s role in the lives of its citizens.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.