Lebanon’s Non-State Actors and State Authorities: The grass-roots of the October 17 Revolution

This blog sheds light on the way understanding non-state public authorities could give way to understanding the October 17 Revolution events in Lebanon

A revolution to topple the dominant political elite in Lebanon has just united the Lebanese people. Given the relative ineffectiveness of urban social movements during the past years, how was this unity possible within a leaderless revolution?

Drawing on the findings of the Public Authorities and Legitimacy Making project (PALM), this blog sheds light on the way understanding public authorities could give way to understanding the October 17 revolution events in Lebanon, and roots it in the dynamics of legitimacy making practices of state and non-state public authorities.

The blog claims that structured practices belonging to state and non-state authorities in Lebanon shaped a recent history that led to the creation of popular affinities around universal values, and reconstituted citizens’ perception of state authority, leading to the unique condition in which the Lebanese were able to stand united for change against growingly unpopular traditional state authorities.

October 17 Revolution: A New Context

Unlike the  2015 uprising which was predominantly driven by the intellectual elite in Lebanon, the October 17 revolution comprised all Lebanese social classes. The governmental intention to collect a 20-cent tax on Whatsapp calling sparked protests as Whatsapp is the primary means of communication in the country, meaning that impoverished people in Lebanon were equally and immediately affected.

The confessional consociation system in Lebanon has often paralyzed the citizens’ constitutional right to change, jammed vital solutions to environmental crises, and rendered the system ineffective. Following increasing disenfranchisement and disenchantment with this power sharing system, the Lebanese people revolted.

The disenchantment with the current state authorities and with their ability to reform is the result of authority practices over the past 30 years during which the same governing authorities failed to successfully address the most critical governance issues in Lebanon. However, it was a particular kind of authority practices, as follows, that contributed to people’s recent shifts in allegiance away from state affiliated authorities.

Roots Of Change and Conditions for Authority Shifts

Social urban movements in Lebanon largely comprise left-leaning marginalized groups that developed from the 2015 Harak, where various regional (sub-national) groups protested environmental crises and ineffective governance.

The surge of the Harak protests in 2015 did not qualify then as a grassroots social movement. A division existed within the Harak groups on the source of the issue and the requisite solution, as some protested governmental irresponsibility, some lack of transparency or accountability, while others were only motivated to find environmental solutions. Though out of this initial movement, starting in 2016, civil society organizations and social movements made initial strides in contesting the elitist political system in municipal and parliamentary elections. The proportional representation electoral law in 2017, and the 2018 election results -which equally maintained the confessional and partisan nature of state authority- situated the existing movements as challengers to the classic unitary authority formula. The October 17 Revolution contested the latter for being a formula for power sharing agreements put in place by the richest 1% political elite in the country.

Conditions that crystallized this challenge are:

  1. The depletion of the service based allegiance to authority.

Until recent events, socio-economic vulnerability and a heavy reliance on hybrid authorities to ensure social safety nets stood as a barrier between people and social movements for change in Lebanon. Under weak state governance, vulnerable communities turn to their political affiliations for services and employment. Many public authorities during Interviews with OCCLUDE identified service provision as the main source of legitimacy for public authorities.

This means that the legitimacy of authorities is proportionally linked to the rendered services. The economic losses Lebanon suffered throughout the Syrian crisis –estimated at 13$Billion- has exerted pressure on service provision. Interviewed respondents with PALM maintained that service coverage was shrinking in Tripoli and in Beirut. While money is reserved to buy election votes, post-election service provision is weak, and together with it the legitimacy of the authorities which reduce the communities to an on call electoral stock.

  1. The emergence of new substitutes for the existing political structure.

The refugee crisis in Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian influx in 2011, and the need for emergency humanitarian aid has led to the creation of many NGOs and civil society organizations, largely involving the population as beneficiaries across Lebanon. These organizations challenged patronage politics as alternative welfare providers. The growing inclusion of Lebanese populations under the international response to the Syrian crisis has challenged patronage politics through alternative welfare provision.

New civil and political movements and cross-sectarian coalitions like Qawem, Hezeb7, Watani emerged against traditional civil war authorities prior to the October 17 Revolution. Other political platforms and environmental activists with diverse political structures and a rather urban political outlook also emerged. Despite diehard regional sensitivities, and incapacity to form pan-regional coalitions, these movements maintained presence and active involvement with constituents in Beirut and in Tripoli, shifting people’s perception of the legitimacy of state-affiliated authorities.

  1. Lebanese State policy shifts inciting the October 17 Revolution

The protracted displacement crisis also contributed to new governmental policies that demonized state authorities. Employment restrictions for Palestinians have been long standing in Lebanon. In August 2019 the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs together with municipal authorities enforced these restrictions along with restrictions on Syrians as well as any employer employing refugees. Palestinian refugees heavily protested these decisions in camps all over Lebanon. The violent protests in August 2019 were instances that broke open future possibilities of protesting economic insecurity, creating precedents for the October 17 protests.

Other state authority practices and discourses against the refugee community in Lebanon and against the international humanitarian community rendered some Lebanese State Authorities unpopular. Growing sectarianism and a distrustful outlook to the international humanitarian community underlined these practices and contributed to the growing unpopularity of certain state authorities. The discourse of the Minister of Foreign affairs is one example that reflected on the legitimacy of state authorities, especially when, per key interviews conducted, the most vulnerable Lebanese communities share feelings of vulnerability and marginalization with other displaced populations. While some state authorities were making what they thought were popular statements to pander to their constituents, they were generating sympathy among host and refugee populations, and a sure identification with the suffering of the most impoverished in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the international community was pushing forward economic and social reforms, and shaping an ideal space for citizens to scrutinize the otherwise ineffective state authority role.

Conclusion & Recommendations

Coupled with insecurity, corruption and the challenges of an urban crisis, the emergence of new apolitical service delivery actors and the shifting policies reshape perceptions of authority and help unsettle and reconstitute long established allegiances to state affiliated authorities. The economic crisis, the emergence of new non-state actors as substitutes to state affiliated authorities, and the exclusive practices and language of certain state authorities all contributed to attracting a wider participation in a grassroots urban movement inclusive of all social classes.

During the first days of the October 17 revolution different activists and social movements leaders among others were demanding basic human and citizenship rights. They claimed a neutral stance to their religious and social differences, independently from any political affiliation. These principles –humanity, neutrality and independence- are universal values that were heavily promoted during the Lebanese response to the Syrian displacement crisis by different activist groups involved with humanitarian programs; notwithstanding, these principles are shared by a multiplicity of movements leaders, civil society actors and political activists co-leading this revolution. Such affinities and principles are therefore not only instantaneous creations of the revolution, but of a rather long process of non-state public authorities –activists and civil society- practicing humanitarian work and activism under the Lebanese response to an economic and a political crisis, which were continuing to worsen concurrent to the wider displacement crisis.

The environmental crisis and the huge fires that hit Lebanese forests earlier in October 2019 remain equally important motivations to the October 17 Revolution as the government proved incapable of addressing neither emergencies nor long term development. Yet, the contexts where crises are mostly felt are urban contexts as these have the highest demographic pressure, and bear the brunt of poor urban services and economic crisis. The relegation of displaced communities to the most vulnerable urban peripheries in Lebanon, which already are impoverished homes to other displaced communities, augments urban crisis in such precarious living environments.

Historically antagonistic urban centers and confessional groups in Lebanon such as Tyre and Tripoli stand today united against state authority. These cities whose populations were major subscribers to the consociation political system are today equally important revolution hubs, demanding a governance system that is effective and not exclusive. If state authorities governing such fragile urban contexts in Lebanon want to maintain authority they need to begin with ensuring civil rights, equitable development, inclusive welfare and security provisions and they need to maintain a negotiable and a reasonable political discourse.

The Public Authorities and Legitimacy Making (PALM) project was commissioned and financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands through WOTRO Science for Global Development of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-WOTRO). It was developed in collaboration with the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law (KPSRL) as part of the Ministry’s agenda to invest in knowledge and to contribute to more evidence-based policymaking. It was carried out in 2018-2019 by a consortium of partners: IDS-(lead), ACTED, Impact Initiatives and OCCLUDE. Views expressed and information contained in this document are the responsibility of the author(s).


Occlude is an independent private advisory agency, offering expert research, design and development consultancy in the areas of Architecture and Urban Design, Urban Ecology and Urban Sociology, especially in the context of Lebanon.

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