Mona Harb, Ahmad Gharbieh, Mona Fawaz and Luna Dayekh, American University of Beirut
Two years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Lebanon, and amidst the multiple crises the country is experiencing, less than 40% of the population is vaccinated. Vaccination geographies are far from equal, and one can clearly read in the statistics published by the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) how vaccination excludes the most vulnerable areas and populations of Lebanon and is concentrated in main cities and towns. Despite this low figure, the vaccination plan implemented by the MoPH showcases one of the few functioning components of the state and of public policy. Although the vaccination process began randomly with some political leaders and aspiring politicians providing Chinese and Russian vaccines they imported privately to their constituents, the ministry rapidly took charge of the vaccination process which became freely available for everyone. The director of the Central Inspection Agency, who is a firm believer in the need to rebuild effective and accountable public institutions as a counterpoint to the sectarian political system that hollowed them out and used them for extracting rent, established for the first time an e-governance platform called “IMPACT.” This paper investigates the governance of the pandemic as it unfolded in Lebanon between March and August 2020. Contrary to the image of a relatively operational public agency able to somehow manage the pandemic, the first six months of COVID-19 in Lebanon reveals a very different governance picture.
The pandemic landed in Lebanon at a very opportune time for the government, which was already deploying new policing strategies to repress the uprisings that had unfolded in October 2019 and that were still marking the streets and squares in Beirut and Tripoli, in addition to several other cities and towns. In many ways, the virus provided the opportunity for the dominant sectarian political groups that make up the government to reposition themselves as key players. Lebanon is not different in that sense from many states across the world that have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an occasion to reassert their power and to consolidate their policing and repressive apparatuses, as Abouzzohour reflects on in this volume. However, rather than a mere expansion of state power, our study shows that the governance of the pandemic reveals tensions between powerful political parties, weakened public agencies, as well as multiple solidarity groups with diverging aspirations, colliding over the imagined future of the country. In other words, our work contributes to underscore how national patterns of COVID-19 responses collide with hyper local variations.
In this essay, we start by providing a brief overview of the research project and its methodology, and then discuss key findings regarding the territorial and political variations distinguishing the governance of the pandemic in Lebanon. The research aimed to unpack the actions of sectarian and non-sectarian actors who managed the early response to the pandemic, in order to underscore the imbrications of territories of sectarianism and solidarities, and to recognize the tensions between intersecting governance networks and the multiple allegiances that work in, through, and beyond neighborhoods, cities, and regions. More specifically, the study maps and analyzes the actions and initiatives of both sectarian and non-sectarian groups in response to the pandemic in Lebanon. In brief, sectarian political groups’ response was prompt and extensive: they deployed a variety of modalities, ranging from cash assistance through sister religious foundations, to the distribution of food and medical aid through their NGOs and foundations, to preventive hygienic measures via allied municipalities. In addition, their rhetoric and iconography rapidly dominated the geographic and media landscapes. Conversely, the response of non-sectarian groups was much more limited in scale, more spontaneous, and incorporated diverse modalities of intervention. They relied on social media platforms for outreach and communication, and the mainstream media reported on very few of them.
We relied on a variety of sources to document the actions and initiatives of sectarian political actors and non-sectarian groups: broadcast, print and online news media, social media, and, more rarely, personal observations on the ground. We recorded in a spreadsheet: the types of actors (governmental, municipal, political, religious, international, NGOs, INGOs, universities, campaigns, collectives), the types of responses (aid and relief, prevention measures, law enforcement, medical services, quarantine centers, agriculture, shelter support, moral support), and locations of actions (municipality, informal settlement, refugee camp). The spreadsheet served as the basis for the creation of an interactive online dashboard, a geoportal where the recorded data on actors’ responses was visualized across the Lebanese territory. At a time increasingly rife with COVID-19 lists, maps, graphs, diagrams and, indeed, geoportals/dashboards that mainly source their data from relevant government agencies and primarily focus on infection cases, contact tracing, testing and hospital capacities, we wanted to cut through the chart-noise and adopt a type of platform that, while prevalent, could inject a different reading of the pandemic into this statistical media landscape.
In terms of framing, our exploration of COVID-19 governance underscores an important and often understudied dimension of the sectarian political system: its territoriality. Building on the work of Diane Davis on Latin America, we conceptualize territoriality in relation to sovereignty as a lens that allows the analysis of the logics of ‘state’ action more productively than sectarian politics. Sovereignty permits a nuanced and productive framing of relationships between spatial patterns and political actors whereby governance logics can be apprehended through multi-scalar networks, body politics, and territorial locations that can be controlled by forces other than state actors, especially in violent settings. This is particularly relevant for Lebanon, where the “state” operates according to a power-sharing system that has been captured by sectarian political rulers and warlords who, with the support of banks and private firms, have hollowed out public institutions and extracted rents from most public and natural resources.
Additionally, we underscore the importance of moments of crisis in investigating territoriality and shifts in power. Whether they take the form of wars, natural disasters, financial meltdowns, or pandemics, crises disrupt apparently stable divisions, as actors can try to negotiate control over territories. Crises also trigger coercive responses that look to contain, control, or police population movements and/or goods and materials across territories. Crises thus render visible the otherwise concealed strategies that go into the defining and fixing of territories at multiple scales. Yet, we also emphasize how efforts to fracture, (re)configure, and (re)appropriate territories do not go unchallenged. From the Occupy Movements to the Arab Uprisings, alternative narratives and imaginaries still manage to contest hegemonic rule, urban divisions, and dominant forms of spatial organization. This came to the fore with Lebanon’s uprising in 2019, when the historically divided territorial organization imposed by sectarian political parties since the Lebanese civil war, was widely disputed through creative non-sectarian modes of spatial appropriations. These spatial claims were the outcome of decades of activism by a variety of organized groups contesting the sectarian political system. Indeed, these oppositional groups have been playing an important role in denouncing and fighting Lebanon’s corrupt political economy, in addition to sketching alternative narratives and blueprints for other potential social and political realities—albeit undefined and messy.
The entries compiled in the dataset revealed two sets of findings. First, political, religious, and governmental actors, in addition to international organizations (UN bodies, international religious agencies, or institutions funded by foreign governments) generally adopted a top-down and prescriptive approach in their response to the pandemic, in addition to strategically positioning themselves in specific regions. In contrast, and this is our second finding, NGOs, some INGOs, collectives and campaigns, universities, and private actors leaned towards bottom-up and community-led approaches, championing an agenda aligned on non-sectarian, humanitarian values. Sectarian/top-down actors formed about 70% of the total number of responses surveyed while the non-sectarian/bottom-up actors amounted to about 30%.
Our observations further suggest that the governance of the pandemic varies according to three modalities. The first is the actor-client nexus: top-down actors aim at sustaining people’s clientelist dependency on sectarian patrons, while the bottom-up groups prioritize a people-centered response, seeking to build capacities and organize communities. The second modality concerns the scale and scope of actions: while the larger group has enough resources to cover a wide scope of responses across multiple scales and territories, they do so on a more short-term basis, whereas the dominated group aims to work more durably, over a longer horizon, often focusing on fewer localities and on selected sectors and/or issues. The third distinction concerns the sources of funding: political, religious, and governmental actors finance their actions either through foreign state funding or through opaque channels, while bottom-up actors seek to self-fund initiatives, appeal to their networks within diasporic funds, or rely on grants through crowdfunding or international aid.
These varying modalities are captured in two maps we extracted from the dashboard. Map 1 marks the locations of all responses provided by sectarian political parties, and the chart here shows the quantity of their actions across districts (mohafaza). Map 2 shows all responses provided by the various categories of actors and gives a comparative reading of the data by quantity, type, and location across geographic scales. This reveals that there are territories of hegemony and territories of solidarity in overlapping geographies.
Concerning the solidarity-based and bottom-up approaches, we note that NGOs and CSOs mobilized quickly in response to the pandemic, sometimes in continuation of aid efforts to vulnerable groups that were initiated during the 2019 uprising, and other times as new solidarity and mutual aid responses. We documented 151 types of action. Some were organized and followed clear protocols. Others were loosely structured, more spontaneous, and took the form of campaigns and nascent collectives. For example, university responses included many initiatives, some oriented towards data collection and policy advocacy, others focusing on supporting dwellers in neighborhoods and camps, and still others invested in medical prevention and support, and in agriculture and farming – also across a large geography. Responses also incorporated actions that were openly supporting groups being discriminated against and labeled as health risks, such as Syrian refugees and migrants. These responses helped put invisible, vulnerable groups back on the territorial map, contesting the gray spacing process that excludes them from the cities and regions in which they serve and labor. Additionally, several groups organized support events for the medical corps with an artists’ performance celebrating public hospitals denoting the patriotic longing of some people for a functioning public service. Social media outlets were flowing with this outpour of love and support, which were reminiscent of the strong emotional bonds that were forged on the streets during the October uprising when people were providing free food and support to one another.
In terms of geographies, these bottom-up initiatives transcended sectarian boundaries and fiefdoms and operated either in a multitude of sites, across religious affiliations, or in one place, serving diverse religious groups—thus contesting established hegemonic territories, challenging divides and frontiers, and forging shared spaces among people. These responses also differed in their process as many organizations focused on beneficiaries as participants rather than passive recipients of assistance. Moreover, solidarity initiatives operated across new sectors that were not tackled by the top-down actors who privileged aid and relief, medical services, prevention measures, and the set-up of quarantine centers. In contrast, bottom-up actors provided kinds of support that sought to organize society and build capacity among people, recognizing their agency and capacity to self-manage their affairs. For example, NGOs and collectives set up shelter options for professionals in the medical field in ways that did not involve real-estate speculation. They secured food beyond the provision of food boxes, experimenting with local agriculture and farming. They built infrastructures of care, establishing online and WhatsApp networks of information exchange where mutual aid was deployed effectively in addition to providing moral support to a range of people in various ways.
In sum, our findings demonstrate that the early COVID-19 response in Lebanon operated through ongoing negotiations over the national territory in which small, yet visible, aspirations for a nonsectarian country confronted sectarian territorialities through back-and-forth cycles. The pandemic’s early days revealed furthermore a longing for the ideal of a nation, as evidenced through the intense and regular expressions of solidarity vis-à-vis public hospitals. Still, the COVID-19 response also reflects how sectarian political parties continue to be powerful territorial actors capable of using any opportunity to further spatial divisions and exclusions.
In closing, our work demonstrates the utility of a mapping methodology for the study of the governance of the pandemic in the context of contested sovereignties and territorialities. We showed how mainstream sectarian actors and other groups leveraged the pandemic to consolidate their hegemony but that this domination is not uncontested and that territorialities are imbricated and disputed, namely by non-sectarian forces who have been carving spaces for solidarity and for a sense of shared collective, albeit inconsistently and in fragmented ways. These findings matter as they underscore the ongoing tensions between a political system ruled by sectarian actors who have eviscerated the state and rendered it incapable of reform, and post-sectarian actors trying to redesign power-sharing in ways that reintroduce the principle of a shared public interest. On a practical level, our work underscores how policies towards the governance of the pandemic (and other crises) should acknowledge the interests of powerful groups in fragmenting territories into exclusive enclaves and explore ways through which networks of solidarities can be protected and expanded.
 This is a synthesis of an article by the same authors recently published with Middle East Law and Governance, with a new opening paragraph. See: Mona Harb, Ahmad Gharbieh, Mona Fawaz and Luna Dayekh, “Mapping COVID-19 Governance in Lebanon: Territories of Sectarianism and Solidarity,” Middle East Law and Governance 14, no. 1 (2021): pp. 81-100. https://doi.org/10.1163/18763375-14011293
 See Mona Fawaz and Isabela Serhan, “Urban Revolutions: Lebanon’ October 2019 Uprising.” IJURR Spotlight On “Urban Revolts,” (2020), https://www.ijurr.org/spotlight-on/urban-revolts/ urban-revolutions-lebanons-october-2019-uprising/.
 Diane Davis, “City, Nation, Network: Shifting Territorialities of Sovereignty and Urban Violence in Latin America,” Urban Planning 5, no. 3 (2020): pp. 206-216. https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v5i3.3095
 Hiba Bou Akar and Mona Fawaz, “Territories of Social Justice: Violence, Ruptures, and the Mapping of New Spatial Claims,” (unpublished seminar concept note, The Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, 2017).
 Mona Harb, “New Forms of Activism in Contested Cities: The Case of Beirut,” The International Spectator 53, no. 2 (2018): 74–93.
 The dashboard is accessible through this link: https://aub.maps.arcgis.com/apps/ opsdashboard/index.html#/3a5e6384d38b43d4b23a1ff6d3db9756
 Egna Legna Besidet (@EgnaLegnaDWU), “Members visiting out fellow domestic workers in hospital. Some are victims of abusive employers. Our girls brought food, water and sanitation pads.” Twitter, May 13, 2020, 9:51 a.m., https://twitter.com/EgnaLegnaDWU/status/1260462643921530880?s=20&t=Ea1my3ZsOAGSRmh7rLaUtQ
 Hussein Malla (@hmalla72), “Musicians from Ahla Fawda or Great Chaos, a Beirut nongovernmental organization, stand on a crane platform perform for nurses and Coronavirus parients at Rafic Hariri Hospital” Twitter, April 16, 2020, 10:33 p.m., https://twitter.com/hmalla72/status/1250869937498980352