What do you think of Lebanon

A country stands up

Tripoli on a cold, wet January day. In the second largest city in Lebanon, white tents are lined up on the central Sahet el-nour, the place of light. The 30-year-old activist Youssef Youssef is sitting with six young people around a makeshift table made of two car tires with candles under white tarpaulins stretched around wooden frames, warming their hands on a small charcoal grill. The group discusses their experiences during the protests in Beirut. Some of them regularly drive the almost 80 kilometers to the capital to protest around the government building and parliament.

Since October 17th, the Lebanese have shown themselves united as never before in their protest against the corruption and mismanagement of the government. On that day, thousands of people spontaneously took to the streets to protest for an end to nepotism and politics for the rich. The information minister's plan to impose a tax of $ 6 a month on short messaging services like WhatsApp had broken the barrel. It was the latest announcement of political decisions at the expense of the population in order to avert national bankruptcy. People of all social classes, genders and religions took to the streets for weeks to demand the overthrow of the political elite that has ruled the country for 30 years. They waved the red and white national flag with the green cedar tree, sang the national anthem together and shouted: "From north to south, the revolution will not die."

The unity of the people, the feeling of belonging and the union under the Lebanese flag are not a matter of course. There are 18 recognized religious communities in Lebanon. From 1975 to 1990 various militias fought each other along their denominational lines. When the guns finally fell silent, the division of society into the various religious communities persisted, as did mutual prejudices. The former militia leaders secured power through clientelism after the end of the war. They use this power to take money from the country through corruption, which they then redistribute in smaller portions to their respective religious community. Now the protesters are opposing this sectarian system.

The real end of the civil war?

"At the beginning of the uprisings, the slogan was that the civil war ended on October 17, 2019," says Soha Fleyfil, project coordinator in the forumZFD's program "Coming to terms with the past". The events of the civil war in Lebanon have never been overcome, partly because the war crimes have not been prosecuted through an amnesty law, explains Fleyfil. “In Lebanon, people still believe that 'me' and 'the other' exist. And there are still regions that Lebanese don't go to because 'the others' live there and they are afraid of them. ”The forumZFD project coordinator organizes training sessions in which the participants talk about various narratives of the civil war. "It's not about naming the perpetrators and the victims, but rather we talk about collective trauma."

The blind spots in the country's collective memory stand in the way of a better future, said Fleyfil. “I was born in the civil war myself. We don't talk about our experiences. We are a forgotten generation that is just content that the war has ended. And we haven't dealt with our trauma. ”Fleyfil says she doesn't dare to go out into the streets for the protests because the crowds and the screams at the rallies brought back bad memories.

Emotional support on the squares

The chaos on the street can be scary and frustrating. That is why Youssef Youssef sits in the tent on the Sahet el-nour in Tripoli every day from two noon until late in the evening. Cardboard signs hang on the entrance side. "How are you?" And "we offer empathy" it says. A battery is painted on a sign that is charging. “We are here to give psychosocial support,” says Youssef Youssef. He works for the non-governmental organization "House of Peace", a partner of forumZFD.

"This situation arouses feelings that were previously asleep," explains Youssef. “Our society taught us that you shouldn't express feelings because it shows weakness. We listen to people and create a safe place where they can feel comfortable talking about anger or fears. ”Sometimes he hears depressing stories. “Three former fighters from Babl el-Tabbaneh, a district of Tripoli, came to me. They told me how their brother was killed, their sister raped. And I asked myself: why are you telling me this story right now? I think there is a connection: the situation reminds them of the war, groups fight each other, and everyone can do what they want. "

"Many people feel helpless"

Youssef listens patiently, even when it gets personal. "Once a man attacked my religion because he fought this religious group in the past." With forumZFD, Youssef completed four training courses in non-violent communication as part of the "Developing Skills" program. He feels emotionally strong and prepared for such conversations: “I feel good, I can deal with it. I focus on the feelings and needs of my counterpart. ”For some, he gives contact to a psychologist who offers free sessions.

Youssef supports people during the protests with mental health care. “I think this space for discussion is urgently needed. In these crazy, uncertain times and the bad economic situation, many people have already taken their own lives because they felt helpless, ”he says. Many of his friends organize clothes, food and medicine, which they distribute in the nearby tent. One of the organizers tells of the scramble in the queues for free food. According to a 2015 study by the United Nations, more than half of Tripoli's residents live below the poverty line.

Lebanon is in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the end of the civil war thirty years ago. The Lebanese pound has lost a lot of its value. The usual power outages last longer than usual and there is a risk of Internet outages. The frustration of the citizens about the government's austerity measures had initially discharged in peaceful rallies since October 2019.

A new phase of escalation

But in the course of the protests, the anger of the population increased because the economic situation continued to deteriorate and the political leadership took its time to form a new government. At the end of October, the then Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in response to the mass protests. His successor Hassan Diab may have formed a new, technocratic government, but it is not independent enough for the protesters. They continue to take to the streets and call for new elections.

Street fights instead of sit-ins

"We are now in a different phase of the protests," says forumZFD country director Hillenkamp. “The demands were formulated, but they are not met. That is irresponsible. ”The atmosphere on the streets has changed. In downtown Beirut, where thousands of people waved the Lebanese flag and organized peaceful sit-ins at the beginning of the protests, disgruntled protesters smashed the windows of bank branches with metal bars, and threw stones and firecrackers. The police responded harshly with rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas.

When the 27-year-old Mariam Al Kotob sees this erupting anger, she is initially divided. “You see people demolishing the banks and you think: that's what I want! But then you think: No, it's not what I learned. ”The trained graphic designer is an activist at the organization“ We Love Tripoli ”. As part of the “Common Future Now!” Project, she received further training in non-violent conflict transformation at forumZFD Lebanon. In the first days of the protests, organizations donated tents for activists. With friends, Al Kotob organized whiteboards, posters and pens. She encouraged people to come into the tent and write down their thoughts there. “The people were outside, but did not formulate any visible demands. We thought: people should write down their desires and remember why they are on the street. "

One day a reporter from the Lebanese television station MTV came by. “She asked me why I am here and what we are doing when suddenly a man came into the tent. He was very angry, so he looked for the camera and called for everyone to go to the Presidential Party headquarters and burn everything down. We were on live TV and the reporter got him to sit next to me. ”Al Kotob was supposed to try to use non-violent communication to convince him that arson was not a solution. "So there's this angry man in front of me wanting to burn down the offices, and I know if I tell him not to do this, he won't listen to me." She chose to show empathy. “It's not about telling him what to do. I don't need to tell him that. What reassured him was the way I communicated: I understand what you are saying and how you are feeling. Let's think together whether this will lead us to our goal. "

Before the uprisings, for example, Al Kotob organized film evenings and excursions for people in the neighborhood so that they could develop a new sense of unity in the city. The protests have strengthened the new sense of community, especially in Tripoli. The coastal city is located in the north of the country near the Syrian border. In 2014, the war in the neighboring country also led to new tensions in Tripoli. The predominantly Alawite population in the Jabal Mohsen district supported Syrian President Assad, while the people of the predominantly Sunni district of Babl el-Tabbaneh turned to the Syrian opposition. This conflict sparked violent fighting.

The "heart" of the revolution

"Tripoli has long been seen as a city of terror," says activist Al Kotob. The protests have given the city a new image. The Sahet el-nour has long been the center of the largest and longest-running protests in the country. Before the idea even came up in Beirut, a DJ was already playing for the masses in Tripoli. The city quickly gained the reputation of being the “bride” and “heart” of the revolution. "People have danced out their anger."

The tents, in which Mariam Al Kotob and Youssef Youssef are also active, became meeting places and new friendships developed. “We made music and sang, talked and discussed together. Before, there was never a room in which we could have met, ”says Al Kotob enthusiastically. It is still unclear what political consequences the protests in Lebanon will have. But even if the violence on the streets increases and the situation threatens to escalate, lasting memories remain that have created opportunities for positive change.
State director Bernhard Hillenkamp says that people's political awareness is now more pronounced. “People have learned that they can pull together politically with 'the other', that is, with people of other religions. Peace work can be built on this experience, especially when working across denominational lines. "

The author Julia Neumann is a freelance journalist in Beirut.

The forumZFD in Lebanon

ForumZFD has been active in Lebanon since 2009. The work is divided into three program areas:

Dealing with the past: We support the active coming to terms with the civil war, for example by bringing young people into conversation with contemporary witnesses. Our specially developed handbook helps teachers to include diverse perspectives on the past and present in their lessons.

Developing skills: Local organizations in Lebanon are often highly motivated, but there is a lack of specialist knowledge about methods of non-violent conflict management. Our comprehensive range of training courses sustainably strengthens the capacities of civil society.

Mobilize community: Our projects specifically promote social cohesion. Among other things, we support our local partners in the conception and implementation of neighborhood campaigns in order to reduce tension and overcome prejudices.