Tales of the Unexpected: Will the Lebanese Uprising Stay Clear of Attempts at Geopolitization?

Helle Malmvig, Danish Institute for International Studies and Tamirace Fakhoury, Lebanese American University[1]

It is October 2019 and Lebanon’s popular protest movement is in full bloom. At Beirut’s Ring Road a young activist holds up a bottle of tequila and a hand-written placard: Sponsored by the Mexican embassy. Another protester hands out Lebanese bread, while declaring that the Manakish are supplied by the Qatari government. Lebanese activists have from early on sought to humorize and diffuse predictable allegations of foreign backing and infiltration. Key political leaders and party-run media and TV stations, as well as foreign powers, have however routinely uttered allegations of external interference. Iran’s supreme leader for instance, accused the Lebanese protest of “being instigated by the US and Israel.”[2]

Lebanese domestic politics, including mass mobilization, is usually depicted as exceptionally permeable and susceptible to regional geopolitics and foreign interventionism.[3] This is partly the result of the fractured nature of Lebanese politics, which enable ruling elites to draw competing external powers into local politics, while external powers can use the fragmented order as a battleground for their own rivalries.[4] Since 2005, following the departure of Syria’s military troops, Lebanese politics has been largely polarized into two blocks usually framed as the pro-Syrian March 8 versus the Anti-Syrian March 14 Alliances. These alliances have been reinforced, and partly reproduced, by wider regional cleavages namely the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the Hezbollah-led Resistance axis versus the West binary. Lately, though, Saudi financial support and overt interventionism seem to have taken a back seat, since the infamous pressure on former premier Saad el Hariri to resign in Riyadh in 2017.

Given this proneness to foreign interventionism and the permeability of the state, it is remarkable that the Lebanese protest movement (called the Thawra or the Revolution by Lebanese protesters) has managed at least in the first stages to remain anchored in domestic politics. By domestic anchoring we refer to a three-fold dynamic 1) Protests erupted as a result of domestic grievances 2) Protesters have voiced domestic or “home-grown” demands, as opposed to foreign policy demands, 3) There are no indications of direct or material external backing of protesters.

In Iraq, demonstrators have called for an end to Iranian and US influence, as Marie Louise Clausen also shows in this issue. In Lebanon, however, the focus of the protests has thus far been determinedly domestic. This makes the current protest movement different from previous Lebanese episodes of contention that were quickly captured by overlapping external and internal dividing lines. In the 2005 Cedar Revolution, for instance, massive protests called for an end to Syrian predominance in Lebanese politics, and eventually forced Syrian troops to withdraw. Protesters at the time also denounced Lebanon’s sectarian political system, but bottom-up contention was soon co-opted by Lebanon’s polarized political coalitions: The Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition which is supported by Iran and the Syrian regime, and the contending March 14 Coalition led by  the Sunni Future Movement and backed by Saudi Arabia and Western governments.

Against this background, the domestic anchoring of Lebanon’s current protest movement arises as a real achievement, but also one that may be difficult to sustain. Below we outline three ways through which the protest movement has sought to anchor itself in a widely domestic context; exploring how protest tactics, framings and narratives have centered on cross-sectarian mobilization and nation-wide issues. Yet, we also show how such modes of domestic anchoring have been challenged by what we call geopolitization[5] and sectarian meddling, thwarting protesters’ attempts at forging national and collective appeal.

By geopolitization, we posit that geopolitics, rather than being a ‘natural’ or inevitable part of international politics, is a discursive process, or even a speech act, whereby political elite actors seek to lift an issue from the realm of national politics into the international realm of brute force and particularistic interest. Geopolitization for instance occurs when ruling elites try to delegitimize contestation and challenges to their authority by pointing to foreign strategic interests and meddling or to the geopolitical implications of change for disrupting the status quo (e.g. framing change as an opportunity for outside powers and rivals to leverage and benefit from a changing scene). In this sense, geopolitization borders concepts such as securitization and internationalization[6], being a discursive move which – if successful – overrides domestic (presumably low politics) concerns with geopolitical (presumably high politics) ones. Geopolitization is also a powerful speech act, in so far as it draws on ‘Arab regional norms’ of non-intervention/sovereignty and anti-imperialism[7], and the embeddedness of such norms in historic memories of colonialism and foreign intrusion. Within this normative order, geopolitization versus domestic anchoring act as centrifugal or opposing forces in the context of a mass uprising: On the one hand, successful geopolitization constitutes an effective way of undermining an uprising’s popular support and legitimacy. On the other, mass mobilization that is convincingly anchored in domestic politics and particularly successful at countering attempts at geopolitization will be likely perceived as particularly legitimate.

The domestic anchoring of Lebanon’s protest movement


In the wake of wildfires to which the government inadequately responded, an announced WhatsApp tax spurred hundreds of young men from poorer backgrounds to riot in the center of Beirut.[8] Protests rapidly expanded both in terms of participation and demands. In contrast to the 2015 YouStink movement, which largely focused on staging protests in Beirut, demonstrations this time acquired a nation-wide base. They spread to cities and rural areas in the North and South of Lebanon, and united citizens across geographical, social and generational divisions. The Northern city of Tripoli witnessed some of the largest demonstrations ever, but protest and roadblocks also spread to unlikely sites of contention such as Nabatiyeh in the South.  Women and feminist actors emerged as key curators of the “thawra”. Mobilizing at the “frontlines” of the demonstrations, they sought to prevent police or militia thugs’ violence. On several occasions, women were organizing marches that re-articulated and gave direction to the demands and narratives of the “Revolution”, for instance the ritual of banging of pots and pans every evening at eight.

Collective action also took on multiple creative and innovative forms. Protest spaces spread from streets to university campuses, guilds and professional associations. Tents and new activist platforms hosted various talks to debate economic and political strategies of change. Revolutionary art and creative content went viral on new social media platforms such as ArtofThrawra, Megaphone and more recently The public square. Graffiti, drawings, and slogans have adorned city walls and facades. At the heart of Beirut, “the revolution fist” and the so-called “egg” were used as collective art installation emerging as iconic symbols of the uprising. To signal national unity and disrupt the use of party flags and salutes, protesters waved the Lebanese flag from shop windows and private homes. Singing the national anthem in protest spaces became a widespread ritual of the “Thawra”.

As Salloukh also shows in this volume, the broadly formulated demands and national frames of the uprising succeeded in attracting supporters from various localities and sects. Protest framings targeted the entire political and economic elite and the corrupt and defunct economic policies associated with the sectarian system. Protesters have tirelessly chanted the widely adopted slogan kellon ya’3ni kellon (all of you means all of you). This slogan epitomizes the outright rejection of the entire sectarian political class even targeting figures such as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah who previously enjoyed an almost sacrosanct status above the mundane horse-trading of Lebanese politics. Indeed, the slogan was soon adapted to “all of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them”. The use of profanities, ridicule and provocative satire against ruling incumbents was described by some protesters as a liberating act or a form of emancipatory catharsis, while inevitably alienating others, especially older generations.  Notwithstanding this, protest framings, which targeted failing governance and called for recovering “looted public money”, managed to resonate with various population segments irrespective of class, background and confessional affiliation. Through talks and teach-ins, protesters debated a plethora of issues ranging from family law issues, capital controls to re-appropriation of public spaces along the coast. They moreover carefully calibrated their slogans to avoid partisan demands linked to Lebanon’s polarized political coalitions or to foreign powers.

Shying away from sectarian violence and polarization

Early on, protesters were conscious that safeguarding the peaceful character of the demonstrations and avoiding sectarian violence were paramount to sustaining the uprising. One of the protests’ tactical repertoire consisted in anchoring narratives of peaceful coexistence and refuting the scare tactics of a return to the civil war era promulgated by some political parties. Multiple art works captioned “Lebanese Civil War 1975-2019” framed the current uprising as one marking the end of sectarian divisions and the emergence of a new national identity. In response to politicians’ veiled threats that mass protests would lead to the outbreak of civil war, activists chanted “we are the future and you are the civil war”.

As protests however stretched in their second month, the use of disruptive, confrontational and violent tactics became more frequent. Still, protesters sought to defuse tensions through a variety of ways. In November 2019, militia thugs destroyed the protest tents and the “revolutionary hand” in Ras al Solh in downtown Beirut. Nocturnal clashes between protesters and party supporters who were shouting Shia Shia Shia scared off many demonstrators in Beirut, threatening to alter the composition and peaceful character of the protests. At this juncture, anti-government protesters voiced outcries of anger against the so-called shabiha. Still, many activists insisted that preserving the uprising’s peaceful character remained a core priority. Here, they argued that “party supporters” were victims of sectarianized politics as much as the “rest of us”, and that efforts should be made to reach out rather than to condemn them.   In Ain al Rummanah, the local district where the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, stone-throwing clashes threatened to erupt into an episode of sectarian violence. However, one day later, Muslim and Christian women met right at the Chiyah-Ain Rummaneh dividing line exchanging white roses and hugs, thereby diffusing sectarian tensions of the night before.

Avoiding partisan alliance and rising above the Iran-US binary

In response to allegations of foreign financing and meddling, protesters have from the outset abstained from siding and negotiating with international actors.  In October, civil society organizations refused to meet with a French official, suspected of striving to facilitate negotiations between the political establishment and protesters. The Legal Agenda, a prominent grassroots organization, published a communique countering rumors that the French embassy had appointed it to negotiate on behalf of the uprising. Reacting to official statements of US, Iranian or Russian officials who back different political actors, protesters have stressed the “home-grown” character of the uprising and its embeddedness in Lebanon’s domestic plight.

However, allegations of external partisanship have seeped in public spheres and online discussions. A Fulbright scholar who criticized the Lebanese political establishment on TV was accused of being a US agent. Some tents that hosted talks discussing contentious issues such as the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel closed in the light of allegations that they had evolved into tools of divisiveness. In the wake of Iranian General Soleimani’s slaying by US forces, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech in which he argued that “you are with us or with the US” , and in the South in the border town of Maroun al Ras, Hezbollah erected a monumental statue of Soleimani pointing his finger towards Israel, while holding a Palestinian flag, signaling not only that Hezbollah stands in solidarity with the Palestinians, but also is the only protector of Lebanon from Israel.  Against this backdrop, public figures who voice support for the revolution report that they often find it difficult to refute binary logics such as “either with us or the US” or either “with us or with Israel”

The inevitable geopoliticization of the protests?

Protesters have sought to distance themselves from external alignments and to concentrate on the endogenous rather than the exogeneous character of Lebanon’s plight. Still, attempts at geopolitization have been widespread and aided on by the formula of sectarian power-sharing that favors external patronage and alignment. Politicians have continuously resorted to and drawn in scenarios of external entanglement either to justify their survival, turn a blind eye to their failings or to buttress external alliances. In his TV appearances, President Michel Aoun for instance insisted that the lack of support from the international community was key to the deterioration of Lebanon’s situation. At the outset of the protests, Nasrallah warned protesters of the looming dangers of civil war and exploitation by Israeli and US Forces. In the context of the escalating Iranian-US conflict following Soleimani’s assassination, Hezbollah’s leader focused in his speeches on the primacy of external alignments in determining Lebanon’s fate, thus engaging in a prime example of geopolitization by relegating the protest to low politics being trumpeted by the high politics of Lebanon’s external alliances.  In January 2020, amid increased security measures that involved setting up metal gates and barbed wire in Beirut, security forces confronted protesters with intense tear gas and water cannons under the pretext that the protests were “infiltrated”.

Counter-narratives accusing protesters of acting as trump cards for external actors have resulted in discrediting and polarizing some “thawra” initiatives. By mid-November, competing groups accused protesters who had orchestrated a “thawra bus ride” from North to South Lebanon of benefitting from US funds. Vociferous debates gained ground on social media though the US embassy rushed to deny the news. That same month, a small-scale demonstration was staged in front of the US embassy in Awkar. Demonstrators burned Israeli and US flags and called for an end to US meddling in Lebanese politics. Initially the protest was framed as part of the ‘thawra’, yet it turned out that it was not the protest movement who had staged the anti-American demonstration, but political party supporters.

Domestication versus geopolitization of Lebanon’s thawra: what may lie ahead?

Attempts at geopolitization have not succeeded yet in disrupting the domestic anchoring of the Lebanon uprising. The framings, public discourses, and repertoires remain anchored in Lebanon’s domestic plight, thus going against the grain of Lebanon’s presumed exceptional permeability and vulnerability to foreign interventionism.  Worth noting is also that the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has played little role and that the contending blocks of March 8 and March 14 may cease to frame Lebanese politics altogether.

Yet there are also signs to the opposite. Lebanon’s economy is on the verge of collapse and in policy debates, the thorny issue as to whether a Hezbollah-led government will be able to access international restructuring and Gulf economic aid have taken the forefront. Already Western governments have expressed reservations towards funneling money to the current government, though Iran continues to channel funds through its local allies. Similarly, if US-Iranian tensions flare up again, or if Israeli-Hezbollah military confrontations in Syria or Lebanon break out, geopolitization will likely overtake the domestic character of the protest. However, protesters have so far remarkably managed to anchor their protest framings and activities in Lebanon’s endogenous plight. As one Lebanese journalist and activist puts it: “This is truly a local moment. It is a domestic accountability story and a rejection of foreign interference”[9]


[1] This piece is partly based on the two authors’ interviews and fieldwork with activist in October and November 2019

[2] Protests in Lebanon: A View from Iran, 20 November 2019, https://lobelog.com/how-the-supreme-leader-shaped-irans-view-of-the-lebanese-protests/

[3] See for instance Bassel Salloukh & Rex Brynen eds, (2014). Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East. Rouledge; Are Knudsen & Michael Kerr eds (2012). Lebanon after the Cedar Revolution, Hurst and Company, London. Zahar, Marie-Jöelle (2012), Power Sharing in Lebanon: Foreign Protectors, Domestic peace and Democratic Failure in  Rotchild and Roede eds. Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil War pp. 219-240 Itacha Cornell University , Geukijan, Ohannes (2017), Lebanon after the Syrian Withdrawal Routledge London, Seaver, Brenda ( 2000)  The Regional Sources of Power-Sharing Failure: The Case of Lebanon Political Science Quarterly, vol 115, no 2 pp 247-271

[4] See also Bassel Salloukh (2017) “The sectarianization of geopolitics” in Hashemi and Postel eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the new Politics of the Middle East, Hurst and Company, London

[5] Fakhoury & Malmvig forthcoming

[6] On securitization and Desecuritization se OleWæver, On Security. ed. / Ronnie D. Lipschutz. Columbia University Press, 1995. p. 46-87

[7] Michael Barnett, (1998). Dialogues in Arab Politics, Colombia University Press

[8] Majed Rima and Lana Salman (2019), “Lebanon’s Thawra,” Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019). https://merip.org/2019/12/lebanons-thawra/ and Tamirace Fakhoury. (2019) “The Unmaking of Lebanon’s Sectarian Order? The October Uprising and Its Drivers”, Instituto Affari Internazionali working paper, https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaicom1966.pdf

[9] Timour Azhari and Ronnie Chatah on the Beirut Banyan, 20 January,