Middle East Solidarity December 2020

In October 2019, a massive popular uprising shook Lebanon, triggered by rage at the corrupt elite’s attempts to make ordinary people pay for the economic crisis. We asked university lecturer and trade union organiser Rima Majed what are the prospects for collective resistance, a year after the people shook the neoliberal sectarian regime.

This article is from the Middle East Solidarity magazine – download a pdf copy here

It’s been over a year since the popular uprising, which brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. Why are the same elites still in charge?

The revolutions we have seen in the region recently have taken the shape of social explosions. We’re not talking about revolutionary coups, where there is a party which is organised or there are defections in the army. There is no project ready to take over, politically. This question of the lack of political organisations and parties, and also social and labour organisations is clear throughout the region.

In the only revolutions which were able to create some sort of transition; Tunisia and Sudan – we saw that the Sudanese Professionals Association, and the UGTT Union Federation played an important role. In Egypt, for example, during the first period after the revolution it was the Muslim Brotherhood which took that on, not because they were the most popular but because they are the most organised.

There is a question of organisation on the side of the revolution. People are trying to organise, but there are internal and external factors which made it difficult for radical change to happen in the first year.

Internally, one can talk about the problem of organisation, the lack of leadership and sometimes the rejection of leadership. At the beginning of the Lebanese Revolution, there was a very strong narrative of rejection of leadership and an idea that political involvement was just about raising demands in the street, but that it was not our role to think about the transition.

But it has also been an exceptional year for all revolutions in the second wave of the Arab uprisings. In Lebanon specifically, within ten months of the start of the revolution there was a deep financial freefall that really transformed society and class relationships. Rates of unemployment have almost doubled this year. More than 50 percent of the population are living at the poverty line. We are also experiencing a pandemic, which is a very exceptional coincidence, for a revolution to be faced with this. The virus has brought all sorts of questions about how we mobilise in the context of a lockdown.

And then of course, we had the third greatest explosion in history in August this year. It created an immediate reaction during the first few days as people poured into the streets and showed all sorts of social solidarity. It culminated just four days after the explosion on August 8, there was a huge demonstration of tens of thousands in Beirut, it was so heavily repressed that we have not seen a major protest since then.

There is also a general feeling of defeat, of fatigue, as people are trying to make sense of those huge transformations. We have had 300,000 people displaced, and there are around 6-7,000 who have suffered permanent injuries. The social implications of these external factors are very important to understand what is happening to the revolution.

The country is experiencing what is really an exodus, and people are just feeling that we have failed and nothing will change. This is also affecting our chances of organising, of convincing people we need to carry on with the struggle.  

Saad Harriri, the Prime Minister toppled by the street movements last year is back in power again but he still is unable to form a government. Still, for some there’s a feeling that we are back to square one. I don’t agree, I think the regime has been weakened this year, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. 

There were times when they could have crashed. There were opportunities we could have taken if we had been organised. After the explosion on 4 August there was an opportunity. The weakness was on our side. 

In the past month, we have seen a renewal of ‘hope’, with secular and independent university students winning student union elections in all universities that held elections. This was followed by the declaration of a new student front and forming new student unions across universities. Similarly, university professors have also been organizing and mobilizing on various campuses. The elections in the professors’ association at the Lebanese University resulted in about 40 percent of the seats going to the independent professors list. This is an important development. Similarly, adjunct professors at the American University of Beirut have called a strike in protest at their poor working conditions. Their salaries have lost more than 80 percent of their purchasing power because of the financial depreciation, and the inequities in salary adjustments within the institution. This move has been supported by Faculty United, an independent faculty association that recently mobilized to defend adjunct faculty members’ right to strike. 

Who is on the side of the revolution?

The revolution has several streams. For example, those who are liberal, and these are the ones who are probably the most organised with the most resources. We have political movements like Saba’a, which is founded by businessmen, it is purely liberal and mainly asking for reform.

Socially we’ve seen one of the strongest, most organised and well-funded organisations which is called ‘Ana khat ahmar’ (I am a red line). This was created by owners of marketing and advertising companies who started with the slogan ‘the private sector is a red line.’ They are very clearly saying we have inflated state employment, we need to support the private sector. They are saying that Lebanon is a liberal economy and that these leaders, because of their sectarian clientelism, have not respected that.

They have directly or indirectly halted the organisation of workers, by deploying a rhetoric saying “We and our employees are together in the fight against this ruling elite. Our businesses are unable to flourish so we are unable to pay our employees.” They are blaming politicians for the economic situation and using this as an excuse either to cut salaries or not to respect labour rights. These are people who are clearly richer than everyone else, who have the resources and who are mobilising for their own interest.

On the other hand there is a broad spectrum of centre-left, and more radical left, feminist movements, the student movement. They are also trying to organise and mobilise and are shaping the discourses and the different trends within the uprising.

There are several nascent labour unions or alternative unions or workers’ associations, which were created last year. I am part of that effort. It is difficult. But yes, there is power in our collective organisation.

There are growing voices criticising or blaming activists, saying that the revolution has failed. I think we need to move beyond the success and failure paradigm. There is a lack of historical materialism in understanding what was possible.

This is a country where we always talk about freedoms, and how there is a very vibrant civil society, but it took the shape of NGOs. We have not seen any serious political party being created in the postwar era, a serious opposition party.  There were attempts but it has always remained modest and marginal. There’s a very heavily individualistic culture, which is a product of neoliberalism over decades.  

During the uprising, the graffiti around Beirut and especially on the banks, people were spraying ‘Give me back my money’. It wasn’t ‘give us back our money.’ I’ve seen repeatedly that this creates an organising problem, a difficulty in retaining people beyond their individual interest.

There is also another material problem in that all of us, especially with the financial crisis, are part-time activists facing a full-time regime. We all do what we can in the time but otherwise we need to work to survive. We don’t want leaders but we don’t have the time to do it ourselves.

What went wrong with the unions that were founded a couple of generations ago, and what alternatives are people trying to build?

Lebanon was somewhere with strong labour unions before the civil war started in the 1970s. And we saw them being very active in the first few years after the end of the civil war in the early 90s. At that time there was a deep financial collapse and a currency devaluation. It was mainly the unions that mobilised and pushed for an adjustment of salaries.

There was a very active movement back then. With the neoliberal policies of reconstruction with Rafiq al-Hariri who came to power in 1992, there was a clear decision to put an end to the labour movement because they knew this would be an obstacle to their policies of neoliberalisation, but also because this could have been a problem for sectarian clientelism.

There was a change in the composition of the political elite in Lebanon during the postwar era whereby most politicians were either bankers or businessmen. Therefore, they employ people in their companies in return for their political allegiance. It is an indirect agreement, what we call wasta. There aren’t a lot of jobs, and the few jobs that are there, are mainly controlled by politicians.

There were still big sections of the labour movement, specifically the teachers’ unions, taxi drivers, that were still very active. So what happened in the 90s was a process of co-optation of the General Workers Union Federation. The attempts initially failed but then what we saw was a mushrooming of hundreds, if not thousands of unions, which were all fake.

According to the rules of the Federation, all unions had equal right to representation on its bodies, regardless of their size. So there was a mushrooming of unions created by political parties in order to take the Federation over from inside.

The official General Confederation of Workers did not mobilise during the uprising in 2019. But there were alternative unions that we have seen before the uprising, including the public sector employees and teachers’ movement with the Union Coordination Committee (UCC), but also other, smaller movements such as the workers employed by the state electricity company, EDL. And we’ve also seen previously a strong movement of Middle East Airlines workers, the pilots.

There was also the struggle of the Spinneys’ supermarket workers for union rights, that also ended with the defeat of the workers. All the active members were sacked from their jobs. In the end it was a failure for the workers, but it was an important movement, an important attempt at organising. The UCC movement succeeded in the end in guaranteeing a salary and scale adjustment, despite it falling short of the initial demands. The movement quickly came to an end and was unable to continue organizing.

We’ve also seen how workers in the telecom companies were the first to strike at the beginning of the uprising last year. The Mobile Operators Employees Syndicate declared an open strike in November 2019 to protest at the deprivation of their benefits which formed around 30 percent of their income. They went on strike again in summer 2020 with demands related to their working conditions and their salaries. 

Similarly, after a wide mobilization in October 2019 against telecom companies charging mobile bills in US dollars, the Ministry was pressured to issue a circular forcing the two mobile operator companies to only charge in Lebanese lira. This was one of the successes of the revolution, that with the pressure and the mobilisations in front of those companies, we forced those companies to bill in Lebanese lira, at the official rate, which is not the real rate.

There was another success over parking meters. Street parking in Beirut is run by a private company, which is actually owned by politicians. But after a campaign everyone parks for free – until today. Most of the machines are not functioning anymore after campaigners smashed them up. These are not exactly strikes, but more like civil disobedience.

There is a new dynamic of labour organising and this is a promising start, despite the many obstacles of course. It’s a difficult context but there are these different groups which were created. We started the University Professors’ Association and we’re still organising and working on it now. 

The alternative union for journalists, that was also very active. Doctors are also organising, and a campaign is underway in the Engineers’ Order to push for elections to the leadership. These are all important dynamics of labour organising that need to be supported.

Have there been any new efforts organising around workplaces?

At the beginning we declared the Professionals Association and many associations were formed: journalists, teachers, university professors, doctors, engineers, workers in the arts and culture sector, and so on. But there were internal divisions. Now we are back to organising each sector separately, and we just create an alliance when we need to.

Lebanon has 36 private universities, in a society of only 4.8 million people. There is only one public university, the Lebanese University which is underfunded. Professors at the private universities do not have a syndicate, so there is no legal body that can negotiate collectively. As for professors at the Lebanese University, they are public sector employees and therefore are legally unable to establish a union.   

There have been several occasions where professors went on strike, the latest one in the private sector is the part-timers strike at the American University in Beirut (AUB) in December 2020; and the Lebanese University student and professors’ strike in summer 2019. . As I explained, the Lebanese University  can’t have a union, but they have an association. In the private sector universities there is also no active union. The only organisation we have is the one at the AUB, Faculty United, which is a chapter of the American University Professors’ Association, because it is an American university. This is the one which is the most organised in the country.

We are trying to set up similar organisations in the various other universities. There is a big debate at the moment about whether we should unionise legally or just form associations. We are all employed on consultancy/fixed-term contracts. We are not entitled to social security. We also pay higher brackets of tax from our salary and the university pays lower tax for employing us. 

There is also the fact that they can fire anyone at any point. Contracts are usually short term and renewable.

Do you have zero hours contracts?

We do have this, mainly for part-timers and adjunct professors. These are now the most active and organised among the Professors Association. Full-time professors have contracts that are usually 3 years. Both AUB and LAU, the two American universities have recently introduced a tenure system. People who got tenure, still don’t have a contract, so it does not mean they cannot fire you. We have very few tenured professors in our movement because most people who get tenure don’t want to be involved.

It has also been a difficult year to organise. It has been difficult to meet, difficult to agree on priorities. Some professors joined because they want to preserve the profession, from a very technocratic perspective, rather than because we are workers and we want to defend our rights.  But there are others who are more radical and see this as a labour issue. These are the ones who are pushing more for unionisation.

Are other similar things happening in other sectors or professions?

Yes, among the engineers. In their field it is less radical, because they have a professional order, not a workers’ union. But they also have elections which are very important nationally. For decades this order has been co-opted by the political elite. After 2015, the last elections were the first breakthrough as the new head of the order was not affiliated with one of the political parties.

However at the beginning of the revolution he refused to call for a strike and therefore this created a lot of tension and divided people. A new group of younger architects and engineers emerged. Those people have created a new organisation which has worked very hard for the elections and they have candidates running in all the different regions.

There are also journalists who have set up the Alternative Journalists’ Union. They have been very active because the past months have seen a very intense crackdown on journalists.

We have also seen pharmacists striking, because the big pharmaceutical companies will not provide them with medication as they are being forced to sell them at the official exchange rate so they consider that they are losing money, since the real exchange rate is much higher. So they are simply not supplying the market, which is a catastrophe in terms of public health. This is what was behind the one-day strike in October 2020.

All of these groups have been active in different ways, whether they have said they are revolutionaries or not, they have been active in terms of demanding labour rights.

How might different struggles develop, especially around any bail-out deal which is tied to attacks on the public sector and assault on jobs?

It depends whether those fights intensify or not. There is such a high level of youth unemployment which means they should organise as unemployed but we haven’t seen this happen yet. The same can be said for informal workers.  It will be very difficult for the economy to pick up again in the coming months or even years. This is a new social and economic reality, where struggles will intensify, but not necessarily taking the shape of unions. What we are seeing in our own efforts at organising is that most of the very active professors have left the country. We’re losing our most active and vocal unionists. I think this is happening in many other sectors. There is a sense of general fatigue: people are scared and want any kind of stability.

But at the same time, in some sectors people might become even more angry, and it might take the shape of more violent mobilisations.

Organising is a difficult task in circumstances where you have few resources and little protection. It is a difficult setting, but it is not impossible.

Rima was speaking to Anne Alexander. Edited by Almaas Yahye