You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Government Response to Protests Reveals Clash of Cultures in Beirut

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 12/10/2015 Halim Shebaya
MOUTH TAPE © FL-photography via Getty Images MOUTH TAPE

There is a cultural clash in Beirut.
It is not a clash of religions or civilizations. It is a clash of cultural values and beliefs on key issues of identity, and conception of civil and political rights.
This clash did not begin with the 'You Stink' protests due to the garbage crisis. It is arguably the apogee of years of work on social and political issues spearheaded by activists and NGOs working on a wide variety of topics, including, among others: election reform, civil marriage, non-sectarianism, women's rights, children's rights, civil society engagement, access to justice and anti-corruption campaigns.
The recent protests and the merging of various civil society groups in the hirak al-sha'bi, which means the people's movement [henceforth hirak], have brought these issues to the fore. The hirak has been aided by unprecedented media coverage that has exposed the hitherto hidden, or less pronounced, cultural clash on several issues.
First and foremost, the self-identification of activists and protestors in terms of citizenship in lieu of sectarianism is in stark contrast to the Lebanese political system founded upon the notion of the co-existence of various religious traditions - whereby citizens identify themselves primarily as members of a certain religion. This is not just a mere spiritual matter, but one with legal significance given the autonomy accorded to religious courts in administering personal status laws.
Indeed, there is a visible departure from the notion of group privileges or grievances, i.e. calls for restoring Christian rights, dealing with Sunni grievances, or addressing Shii concerns. Instead, the core demands of the hirak are related to citizens' daily affairs: garbage, electricity, water, and so forth.
We can also see the clash in demands for a culture of transparency and accountability vs. a culture of secrecy, nepotism, corruption, and various other forms of abuse of power. This is evident in the hirak's initiation of a number of anti-corruption complaints for investigation by the Financial Prosecutor.
Furthermore, the movement promoted a culture of accountability and 'fact-checking' due to its diversity. The movement includes activists, lawyers, politicians, artists, historians, digital media experts and civil society organizations. They bring together a wealth of experience and expertise on various fields, as well as access to archives. Thus, near-instant fact checking of claims made by politicians, and public shaming - in the event of discrepancies or attempts to mislead the public - is becoming the norm.
As a result, this may be the first time in modern political media coverage that politicians are starting to feel the need to be extremely cautious with their use of words, especially in relation to public funds. It could be argued that the political elite were previously able to exert considerable control over the narrative of events. This is due to the fact that all major political parties have adequate resources at their disposal (TV channels, dailies, websites, pundits, and loyalists). It is only with the recent "adoption" of the hirak by two very influential TV stations that the public can regularly hear an untarnished different version from the state or establishment's narrative, i.e. from the perspective of non-partisan experts, debunking myths and lies perpetrated by loyalist propaganda media and commentators.
Moreover, there is a completely divergent understanding of human rights, and particularly the right to the freedom of expression. The culture clash is in relation to the limits and restraints that can be legitimately imposed by the state. This issue was in the spotlight due to the prosecution of various individuals on account of their opinions expressed on social-media - and even for posters held during the demonstrations.
Most notably, it is a difference of views in relation to the right to offend. When one of the leaders of the hirak was vilified for a tweet-joke about Easter, this cultural clash was apparent. There were those who considered it to be conclusive as to his inability and incompetence to lead a movement. In contrast, others understood it as an individual's right to freely express his views - even if on a religious matter that may offend some members of the Lebanese public.
Finally, the fact that the youth are galvanizing public support for the hirak , leading the street protests, and setting the general contours of the movement is considered an indication of its weakness. Calls for a clear leadership unmask, in some instances, a view that the youth cannot effect change and are not apt for public service. It further uncovers a general attitude in Lebanese culture whereby age in itself can be determinative of whether an opinion matters, is of value and should be heard.
That is, the appeal to age and authority in arguments, and shutting down opponents from the youth, is testament to a patriarchal culture, and an obsession with hierarchies and traditions. In the case of the hirak, it is the youth who are set as harbingers of the hoped-for Lebanese resurgence of state institutions, based on a respect for the rule of law and human rights. In fact, this new grassroots mode of operation for a Lebanese movement could be the reason for its expanding success and appeal.
In this regard, the 'obsession-question,' "who is behind the hirak", directed on a daily basis to its leaders is an insinuation that it is impossible for young people to have coalesced and formed an effective movement challenging the corrupt system - a system that has so far resisted any attempts of reform, accountability, or transparency, and where the culture of impunity rules. It is an implicit accusation that the hirak is an agent of a bigger project or conspiracy. According to the old guard's culture, there has to be an external hand that guides the young minds who are in need of a patron or guardian.
To sum up, my contention is that Lebanon is not just witnessing a popular expression of anger vis-à-vis the garbage crisis. It has become a stage for a cultural clash between an old guard, staunchly set in its ways, and a new generation of citizens with a vision for a new modus operandi, grounded in the notion of the state as a duty-bearer, and the individual as a rights-holder.

More from Huffington Post

The Huffington Post
The Huffington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon