Sara Fregonese (University of Birmingham; [email protected])
La tahriqū Lubnān be l ta’ifiyya (“Don’t burn Lebanon with sectarianism”)
– Sign at fire rangers’ protest, Baabda, Lebanon, March 2018
Since 17 October 2019, cities across Lebanon have experienced unprecedented widespread protest against the country’s political establishment. Compared with previous years, data collected by the civil society group Lebanon Support show a stark increase in the number of collective actions in late 2019 and early 2020 before the Covid-19 global pandemic hit the country (Lebanon Support 2019). The data also indicate a shift in objectives: between 2015 and 2018, collective action in Lebanon was mainly centred around partisan goals, such as support for a specific party cause or member, or demands by some parties against specific government policies (Figure 1). However, as of late 2019, protest goals shifted towards a generalised demand for radical change across the sectarian political system (Figure 2).
Lebanon’s thawra 17 tishrīn al-ʾawwal (“revolution of 17 October”) developed amidst an unprecedented financial crisis, continuous political paralysis, declining infrastructure and basic service provision, then the Covid-19 emergency. These overlapping crises, and the already severely deteriorating living conditions in the country, were then intensified by the catastrophic explosion at the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. The situation has resulted in a sharp contraction in real GDP growth (-6.7% in 2019; -19.2% in 2020) and what the World Bank (2020) describes as a “dangerous depletion of resources”.
While the thawra’s collective actions since October 2019 have spread mainly across Lebanon’s cities, they were sparked by events outside the city. In the Chouf mountainous region, extending from south of Beirut and into the Mount Lebanon area to the east, a chain of about 100 wildfires raged from 13 to 16 October 2019, damaging 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of forest (Azhari 2019). The fires killed one person, saw people evacuated from homes, and threatened local livelihoods, schools and businesses (Haddad 2019). If the fires were, at least partly, caused by natural events like higher temperatures (in turn linked to climate change) and strong winds, their destructiveness was anthropogenic and political. While the fires raged and other countries provided professional help, three crowdfunded firefighting aircraft sat idle and useless at Beirut’s international airport, due to failure by the Ministry of the Interior to fund maintenance and repairs (Haddad 2019). Moreover, Lebanon had experienced a shortage of fire rangers across the previous year, as appointments of successful public tender applicants were delayed, allegedly in an attempt to fill sectarian quotas in the sector despite the constitution not requiring sectarian balance for generic public service jobs (The Daily Star Lebanon 2018).
In this Intervention, I offer an elemental perspective on the current crisis in Lebanon. I argue that, in order to trace accountability and harness political change in the current impasse, analyses of Lebanon ought to focus on physical elements and the politics they mobilise, and highlight forensically their entanglements with sectarianism, neoliberalism, and resource extraction.
Elements of Contestation
Traditional geopolitical interpretations of Lebanon as a country suffering chronic flare-ups of sectarian violence funnelled by regional geopolitical rivalries (notably between Saudi Arabia and Iran) have become a limiting frame of analysis. Instead, where scrutiny is needed is at the intersection between sectarian politics, neoliberal economic networks, and environmental degradation. At this intersection, we find natural resources or even individual elements – such as sand, rocks and debris, water, and hydrocarbons – whose (mis)use at the service of neoliberal markets, and sanctioned by government ineptitude and sectarian corruption, imperils the population’s right to life and, in many cases, right to breathe (Nieuwenhuis 2018).
For example, Lebanon’s concrete and construction industry, booming after the end of the civil war, has depended on illegal and unregulated quarrying. Lebanon has seen urbanisation of mountain areas, and changes to irrigation routes have increased the risks of lethal mass land movements like landslides, scree, and debris falling on inhabited areas (Abdallah and Gillette 2019). There is also evidence of increasingly frequent mudslides and flash floods due to further anthropogenic factors, such as illegal construction, and the filling of waterways with debris and even waste (Abdallah 2019). Finally, hydrocarbons are present beyond international safe levels, especially along major highways. As the government moved away from public transport at the end of the civil war in the 1990s, the number of imported private vehicles doubled since (Verdeil 2019). Dangerous levels of other atmospheric pollutants from combustion like Benzo(a)Pyrene “are higher by 60%-99% than those in most cities around the world” (Baalbaki et al. 2018: 261).
Ecological and elemental issues like those above are gradually replacing religious and political causes as factors of collective action in Lebanon. Already in 2015, a garbage crisis was provoked by landfill saturation and by the absence of alternative sites and sustainable waste management strategies. This mobilised the population into #YouStink, one of the widest secular protest movements of post-war Lebanon. At the crux of the problem were accumulated failure and inequality in municipal services and public waste management, after the sector was disrupted in the civil war years.
Political ecology “recognizes resources and the environment as complex socio-material objects reflecting a diverse range of practices and discourses, but also as subjects endowed with certain forms of agency” (LeBillon and Duffy 2018: 248). As the forest fires raged in October 2019, new social partition lines developed, together with new ways of mobilising. On one side stood a corrupted and ineffective state system fuelled by sectarian rivalries and favouritism since the end of the civil war. The emblematic representation of this was Lebanese MP Mario Aoun arguing live on television that the fires were set deliberately to target Christian villages. On the other was a movement of connected and organized citizens mobilising in non-sectarian ways to help the fire-damaged communities. What started to appear was a re-alignment of the axes of political contention: this no longer saw supporters of political parties co-opting protest movements (like with the 2005 “Cedar Revolution”), but instead saw lay citizens organising against a sectarian elite which, de facto, put its own population at risk of death by fire.
In this context, a sustained ecological approach to the study of Lebanon’s politics is needed, which recognises how environmental governance (or lack thereof) and wider political and economic power assemblages are linked, and how these links expose the wider structural violence where those elements are embedded (LeBillon and Duffy 2018). In Lebanon, structural violence, the overlapping socio-material crises it fosters, and its ramifications into political sectarianism and more and less recent political violence essentially blur distinctions between conflict and post-conflict phases.
Political ecology obviates the limitations of geopolitical perspectives on Lebanon’s revolution, as political ecology accounts “for a broader range of violence than geopolitical and mainstream political perspectives, … grasping a wider and more nuanced set of relations between conflict processes and forms of violence” (LeBillon and Duffy 2018: 246) – including forms of slow environmental violence like that caused by pollution and toxic materials (Davies 2019). Human geographers are increasingly displacing purely orthogonal and cartographic understandings of territory and politics, inviting us to account instead for more-than-representational agencies and for natural elements that “have political capacities and the capacity to be harnessed politically” (Peters 2018: 16).
Lebanon is often portrayed by mainstream geopolitical analysts as a “weak state”, but is actually a solid sectarian sovereign system born out of modern Western colonialism, radicalised during the civil war, and now increasingly exposing its own citizens to environmental and livelihood vulnerabilities. This became painfully manifest on Tuesday 4 August 2020 when a fire at Hangar 12 in the cargo area of the Port of Beirut triggered the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate (H₄N₂O₃). Analysing the evolution of the smoke and fire preceding the explosion, Forensic Architecture (“a research agency, based at Goldsmiths, University of London, investigating human rights violations including violence committed by states, police forces, militaries, and corporations”; see https://forensic-architecture.org/) has made publicly available their modelling, showing that ammonium nitrate had been hazardously massed in the port warehouses together with other substances and materials including fireworks. These elements are in themselves not to blame, but their agency must be seen in relation to failing management, absent oversight and legal negligence over the space of the port, as well as the lucrative networks of maritime trade that brought ammonium nitrate into the port in the first place (Khalili 2020). This assemblage of human agency and nonhuman elements (and their specific behaviour determined by their unsafe storage) directly placed the city and its population in a deadly embrace with its own port. Again, political mobilisation was harnessed by the explosion of ammonium nitrate: widespread protests and further government denunciation, more recently followed by overwhelming victories of independent and secular parties in student elections at two major universities, in a country where student elections are considered an incubator of national political trends.
Regional geopolitics (even critical geopolitics) alone, as a discursive kind of scholarship, is becoming a limited framework for understanding state/society dynamics in Lebanon and leading to accountability. What is needed is a (geo)political ecology approach that can unravel forensically the political mismanagement and (mis)accumulation of elements in ways that lethally expose the population, and understand how specific elements – in light of their (mis)use – become agents of collective human action. This geopolitical ecology poses direct questions about the agency of things. As Jo Sharp (2020: 11) recently noted, it is key, for a feminist and grounded geopolitical approach, to trace how elements are assembled around bodies in ways that foster new political actions and space: “objects do not naively speak for themselves, … and so new political spaces are opening up, with new advocates for those the objects represent”.
Thus, decolonising Lebanon’s political sectarianism, beyond recognising the religious sect as a social construct (Makdisi 2000), must also account for the agency of elements and recognise political sectarianism as a system of extractive violence, as a “quasi-hegemonic truth discourse … that sustain[s] and seek[s] to legitimate resource-based processes of capitalist accumulation in the form of enclosure of the commons and other exclusive rights of access (Robbins 2012)” (LeBillon and Duffy 2018: 248). Political violence and resource extraction are of course intimately entangled via the territorialisation of resources and the violent impacts on local populations (Mbembe 2019), but in the case of Lebanon, following the elements of contention – water, sand, waste, micropollutants, among others – allows us to draw deep linkages that connect Lebanon’s civil war and post conflict phase within the same sectarian political and economic dispositif.
An earlier version of the essay was published as Fregonese S (2020) Elements of contestation: Sectarianism as extractive violence and Lebanon’s revolution. In S Mabon (ed) Urban Spaces and Sectarian Contestation (pp33-40). Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation (SEPAD) Project, Richardson Institute, Lancaster University https://www.sepad.org.uk/files/documents/Urban%20Spaces.pdf (last accessed 15 December 2020).
The image above is by Shahen Araboghlian (Beirut protests 2019 – 1.jpg on Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0).
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