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A word of caution and a call for mobilization
August 1, 2018
Author: Carmen Geha
Source: The Daily Star

The Lebanese government’s cybersecurity apparatus has been cracking down on activists over social media posts.

This oppression triggered a mobilization – online and offline – in defense of freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

Last week, a couple of hundred activists, intellectuals, artists and students gathered in Samir Kassir’s Square expressing their solidarity with activists who had been called in for investigation.

The move calling for a sit-in against these oppressive measures was much needed. It was a call for mobilization cautioning against depoliticization of activism.

The sit-in calls for some reflections on the role of activists in protecting what remains of civil liberties in this country.

The first of these reflections concerns the effects of the mushrooming of NGOs, especially after 2005, in Lebanon.

Having spent some time in Egypt lately, I realized firsthand that Egyptian NGOs were part of the authoritarian apparatus before 2011 and then became part of the counterrevolution.

NGOs often become an extension of the state by co-opting people and offering goods and services through contractual agreements with ministries or foreign donors.

Criticisms of this trend are based on decades of research on the ineffectiveness of NGOs in the Arab world when it comes to social and political reform. Likewise after 2011, the mushrooming of social enterprises in Lebanon and the region has been largely disconnected from political realities.

In Egypt one lecturer recently told me, “we teach young people about social entrepreneurship so that they can be less angry and more engaged in their community.” But perhaps youth should be angry. Privatizing solutions to NGOs and social enterprises jeopardizes any chance for this anger to be a force of change.

The second reflection from the sit-in is on the inevitability of confrontation. The engagement of some civil society actors in the latest parliamentary election calls for caution against integration in a system that oppresses and discriminates against its citizens.

Ambition to join the political sphere and to be represented, especially for women, should be a welcome initiative. But the absence of a confrontational discourse meant these electoral campaigns faced challenges mobilizing activists and youth. In fact, during the lead-up to the elections, a group of activists, youth, artists, and intellectuals issued a petition distancing themselves from these electoral campaigns.

The lead-up to the elections caused tensions among activists from a spectrum of backgrounds, with voices blaming the NGO scene for lacking any confrontation with the sectarian system.

The sit-in was conversely positively confrontational, and brought back a sense of autonomy and freedom, not to shy away from being confrontational. This ability to confront is something our fellow activists in Egypt would wish for.

My third reflection is on leadership and mobilization. Experience in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world shows institutionalization always leads to demobilization. The more leadership is declared, evaluated, and acknowledged, the less it can claim credibility at the grassroots level.

On the contrary, leadership that is shared and loosely organized can create interpersonal networks of trust, even in movement abeyance. We saw this so well in the 2016 Beirut Madinati campaign where thousands of volunteers wanted to take part.

Activists, again and again, stay away from structures that centralize leadership through hierarchal structures. In Egypt, the leaderless uprising got millions to speak out against authoritarianism but the NGOization of the revolution came at the expense of any role for social movements, political parties, unions, and student clubs to emerge.

If Egypt is too far for them, Lebanese activists need only to look to their neighbors in Syria to realize what happens to societies where mobilization against the regime can lead to war and large-scale atrocities. Despite all Lebanon has been through, we still enjoy some margin of freedom. We need to guard against co-optation and demobilization.

Politics is the reason the state is threatened by some online social media posts and politics is the reason that we live in corruption and sectarianism. We need more political mobilization and less structures, institutions, and hierarchal forms of leadership. We get enough bureaucracy and top-down leadership from political parties.

If Samir Kassir were still alive I reckon he’d agree with this word of caution and, invite us to take to the streets once more to mobilize – figuratively and literally.