The Other Lebanon: Grassroots and Civil Society Thrive


Lebanon is currently facing one of the most difficult periods of its history. A country known for its instability and civil wars, Lebanon has yet to overcome the postcolonial legacy of a country divided between 18 religious sects and ethnic groups, which include Christian, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Druze, and Armenian.

In addition, the July 2006 U.S.-backed Israeli assault against Lebanon eviscerated civilian infrastructure, causing $3.6 billion worth of damage and wiping away 16 years of reconstruction from Lebanon’s civil war in just one month.

Though most known in the West and the United States for a turbulent past and present, Lebanon should be recognized as an oasis of political activism, civil society, and progressive politics in the Middle East.

Lebanon has historically been a place in the Arab world where political activists, intellectuals, artists, and academics have flourished. Unions, activist organizations, NGOs, and political and social groups have contributed to a high level of political consciousness that exists in very few places in the world. Protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, cultural events, and political talks are not relegated to the intellectual class. A wide spectrum of the society takes part in these activities.

During periods of real need, like during the Israeli war on Lebanon last summer, grassroots organizations proved to be more responsive to the needs of ordinary Lebanese and more effective at mobilizing thousands of people than much bigger political forces, including the Lebanese state itself.

Political activism is woven into the cultural fabric of this small country. Today, traditional small left political parties, environmental groups, women’s groups, postwar relief groups and organizations that advocate the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community are all contributing to a vibrant civil society.

Postwar Relief Organizations
As a result of last summer’s war in Lebanon and in response to a more recent crisis—aiding refugees from a Palestinian camp called Nahr el-Bared—postwar relief organizations and NGOs providing assistance and support for victims of armed conflict have grown in Lebanon.

For the past year, many progressive activists in the country have been involved in organizing or volunteering for the groups that have provided material aid and support for the mostly southern Lebanese who were the targets of the Israeli war last summer. The humanitarian crisis that was created by the war was catastrophic to the civilians of the villages of the south and many working-class Lebanese.

During the summer war, the Israeli Air Force launched more than 7000 air attacks, while the Navy conducted an additional 2500 bombardments, killing more than 1200 and injuring at least 4000 Lebanese civilians. More than 30,000 residential properties, offices, and shops were completely destroyed. Two government hospitals were demolished and three others were seriously damaged.

Airports, ports, water and sewage treatment plants, and electrical facilities have been completely or partially destroyed, as have around 80 bridges and 94 roads. An estimated 4 million cluster bombs were dropped on Lebanon in 33 days, of which 1 million did not detonate, creating a continuing problem of unexploded ordinance that endangers civilians.

Samidoun is one of the many grassroots organizations formed after the war to deal with the more than one million people displaced by the bombing of the south of the country. Its genesis was a small group of activists, gathered on July 12, 2006, to carry out a sit-in in solidarity with the people of Gaza, who were facing dire conditions as result of international sanctions and an Israeli embargo.

July 12 was the first day of the Israeli war on Lebanon and the activists quickly transformed their mission into providing emergency relief to displaced villagers coming from the south of the country and those directly affected by the war.

Samidoun helped bring together grassroots activists and volunteers to provide relief to internally displaced people who had fled southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut due to the ongoing Israeli aggression. What was initially a handful of activists organizing the sit-in turned into a network of over 300 volunteers and 15 associations.

Samidoun helped provide food rations, day care, and emergency relief to 31 schools in Beirut where more than 10,000 refugees stayed. Their work took on the many effects and consequences of war. Probably the most significant was the work done with youth.

Samidoun set up a psychosocial support unit at the relief center focusing mainly on child care and on psychosocial needs that arise in crisis/war circumstances. Its purpose was to provide assistance to the war-affected and traumatized children by focusing on expressive, recreational, and creative activities.

The work of groups like Samidoun did not stop with services and support to those affected by the war, but is very much connected to political work. Events and meetings were meant to bring people to organizing instead of just providing services. Appeals for money and support by Samidoun were made in a way to educate people about Israeli war crimes and to encourage people to be active and educate others.

Samidoun has since wound down most of its work even though many of the activists have stayed involved in other political and social work. A year after the war, representatives of the group participated in an evaluation of their work with several other postwar relief groups.

Since the 2006 war with Israel Lebanon has faced another major crisis. Around 40,000 Palestinian refugees have been forced to flee the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon, where a militant Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, has engaged the Lebanese army in an all-out battle. Relief organizations deployed since the early days of the fighting have offered help to the thousands of refugee families living in crowded conditions in public spaces or with relatives. Many of these refugees have gone to a nearby refugee camp, Beddawi, which was already overcrowded and impoverished.

The Nahr el Bared Relief Campaign was spontaneously formed following the tragic events in the Nahr el Bared camp. It has been organizing support and relief on behalf of those refugees not getting NGO aid. The grassroots effort is made up students, professors, and activists with the goal of providing relief, but is also engaged in political and civil action to end the violence in the camp.

Doing Away with the Confessional System
Lebanon’s volatile “confessional” system of government, set up by the French colonial government, requires political offices to be divided unequally among the country’s religious groups. The system has created two civil wars and many conflicts, as different sects compete for power. As a result of this sectarian system, Lebanon has been vulnerable to outside manipulation by regional and global powers like the United States, which occasionally backs one group against another in order to push its own agenda.

Groups working to end the confessional system, which separates people and governmental power by religion and sects and prevents people from working across community lines, are probably among the most important in Lebanon.

A group focused specifically on doing away with Lebanon’s confessional system is the Civil Society Movement (CSM), whose purpose is to “build a free, democratic, secular citizenship and a humanitarian society.”

As its suggests, CSM’s goal is to create a movement for secularism in Lebanon.

The secularization of Lebanese politics is a crucial issue for progressives and all groups on the left. This might seem like a very preliminary stage for a politically developed country like Lebanon, but the reality is that the system put into place by the French colonizers still haunts the country. Changing this will require challenging not just the state but the majority of its institutions, which exist and survive as result of the confessional system.

The CSM holds cultural awareness programs and conferences that bring together groups and individuals to deconstruct the confessional system and fight for a secularized state. Their broader goal is to get at the root of political problems that plague the country; many of these are directly connected to a state with a divided citizenship based on sect or religion.

The CSM hopes that restoring sovereignty, democracy, transparency,  and equality in the country will help build a free society in Lebanon.

Civil Rights Work/Protecting Human Rights
Helem, the Arabic acronym for “Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders,” is a group leading a peaceful struggle for the liberation of the LGBT community in Lebanon from legal, social, and cultural discrimination

Founded in 2004, Helem gets significant support from activists in Canada and now has established support groups in Australia, France, and the United States. Helem membership is open to any person who shares the group’s values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The group’s primary goal is “the annulment of article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which punishes ‘unnatural sexual intercourse,” according to its website. This law is primarily used to target the LGBT community by violating the privacy of its members and by denying them basic human rights. The abolition of this law will help reduce state and societal persecution and pave the way to achieving equality for the LGBT community in Lebanon.

Helem’s other main objective is to counter the AIDS epidemic and other sexually transmitted diseases while advocating the rights of patients. Helem hosts cultural events for the LGBT community, does work on HIV/AIDS-related issues, engages in advocacy for prosecuted LGBT individuals, and lobbies with other human rights organizations for the advancement of human rights and personal freedoms in Lebanon.

Toward a Free Middle East
Lebanese politics and society are truly complex. There are multiple layers of interests competing in every situation and crisis in Lebanon. In addition to internal players there are regional and global actors constantly working for their interests and, in many cases, against the interest of ordinary Lebanese.

Civil society and grassroots organizations in Lebanon are the front line of defense against oppression and Western control of the country. Historically, the United States has never supported indigenous movements for democracy and freedom in the Middle East. The current U.S. administration’s policies towards Lebanon, and toward the regional as a whole, work directly against these independent civil society groups.

It is critical at this time when the United States is imposing its will from the top down—using militarism, sectarianism and puppet governments to control the Middle East—that progressives support grassroots movements in countries like Lebanon and the Arab world as whole.

Rayan El-Amine

Rayan El-Amine is an editor of Left Turn magazine. He teaches Politics of the Middle East at City College of San Francisco and is a member of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) in San Francisco