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Activism in Lebanon: Post Ceasefire

Sami Hermez
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

Post-official-ceasefire Lebanon has brought many Lebanese together to work on grassroots efforts to help rebuild the country after Israel’s 33 day assault this summer. The groups and organizations formed after the war cut across sectarian and religious lines in this historically divided country and have created a new opportunity for progressive forces to work together. Sami Hermez looks at some of the organizations born from this effort, their politics, and future potential. The rise in consciousness and the increase of moral sensibilities during the July 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon spurred new organizations that continue to work hard in very difficult circumstances in this “post-official-ceasefire” Lebanon (“post-war” or even “post-ceasefire” do not reflect Israel’s continued belligerence, threats and killings in the country). The experiences and experiments of these groups provide a basis for progressives in Lebanon to develop a new political movement. It is important to assess this movement from the perspective of Lebanese activists within these new organizations and talk about the role of international activists that stand in solidarity with the Lebanese. Numerous organizations (too many to name here) are involved in working to rebuild, redevelop, and restart the South in the aftermath of the destruction. Of particular interest are three groups which formed as a response to the war that are composed of Lebanese and Arab youth, that have connections with international activists, and where many of their active members have progressive orientations. The groups that fit these criteria are Civil Resistance Campaign, Mowatinun, and Samidoun. What is of most interest, however, is not how these groups were formed or what they do, but how and whether they can convert their humanitarian work into political action. The Civil Resistance Campaign (CRC, was formed after a group of Lebanese and international solidarity activists came together in an attempt to organize a convoy of cars to break the siege on South Lebanon by Israel. This convoy was stopped by the Lebanese army as a security measure, but a smaller group emerged and moved to the South to do relief work after the August 13 ceasefire. Since then, the group has also been providing medical aid, working with children, and raising awareness about the boycott campaign against Israel and its supporters. Mowatinun ( began as a group of friends rolling sandwiches for refugees with an initial budget of $300, and now runs on a budget of over $100,000. They are working now in the relief effort and on a “Back to School” project in a number of villages in order to supply schools and students with needed equipment. Samidoun ( began as a gathering of leftist groups that intended to do a prolonged sit-in protesting the war on Gaza. The sit-in had been set for July 12, but by the third day of the war on Lebanon, Samidoun had to reconsider its goals. The umbrella organization quickly reoriented to supporting refugees fleeing Israel’s attack who were staying at schools. After the August 13 ceasefire, they moved into affected areas in Beirut and the South to do relief work, activities with children, and reconstruction of historic buildings in the village of Aita el Chaab. Mowatinun maintains that it has no political objective and is simply doing humanitarian work. In contrast, the other organizations see their humanitarian and development work as political work—since they are supporting Lebanese resistance and promoting the idea of perseverance in the face of barbaric Israeli aggression. CRC and Samidoun both believe that by creating a new definition of citizenship, they are simultaneously broadening the meaning of resistance, as well as providing Lebanese society with the social capital to resist Israel and other forms of imperialism. Formed in a time of heightened social consciousness, these groups may be well situated for turning their social work into political mobilization. All three groups arose from non-sectarian bases without the influence of communal leaders or monetary support that confines them to a certain politics. They prioritize social work on the ground in the neediest areas and have moved beyond the elitist setting of Beirut, the capital city, and into the rural areas in the South. Their ideas are being formed through internal conversations occurring on the ground through their experience. Lebanese left Some organizers within CRC and Samidoun, have been reiterating the need for a dialogue within leftist circles to rethink the meaning of concepts like secularism, sectarianism, democracy, and communism in the Lebanese and Arab context. A few common issues facing the Lebanese left have come up in conversations with some of these activists. Common issues that arise while reflecting on their work include the examples of South America. Many organizers question whether an Arab left can unite with religious institutions in the Middle East to build a progressive agenda. Other conversations center on the need to deconstruct the role of Marxist philosophy in the Arab world, or whether the notion of class needs to be redefined to make sense in the region. Perhaps class should no longer be a reference to a purely economic category but rather that we can have religious, regional, gender, or other classes. Another issue on the table is whether and how to include the traditional left parties, like the Lebanese Communist Party, in discussions of redefining the left. However, according to some organizers, the Communist Party is losing its opportunity to grab the moment by continuing to work exclusively on the political front, through demonstrations, and failing to get involved in the social service work needed in the South. The leftists in Lebanon can frequently be found wearing Che Guevara t-shirts or quoting Marx. This contrasts sharply with the presence of popular local figures and intellectuals within rightist movements, whether Islamic or not. For there to be a leftist people’s movement, intellectuals and leaders who can build and lead the struggle need to emerge from the people. Today, the left is lacking such individuals and is therefore substituting Che for Hassan Nasrallah; yet Hassan Nasrallah is no leftist. Though it was from leftist and communist parties that a resistance to Israel was born, and where Hizballah is only the most recent embodiment of this resistance, the Lebanese left today is somewhat lost. It finds itself supporting the military wing of Hizballah but not its social wing. It is pro-resistance, but not pro-Islamism. It is anti-US, but unable to find the social or intellectual power to fight back. Moving forward, groups working with the people on the ground, with fresh energy and a sense of newness, will be in the best position to find a space from which to tackle these dilemmas and begin to rebuild the Lebanese left. International activists Finally, in re-imagining a new political direction for Lebanon within our system of global capital and thus global politics, we cannot forget the important role of the international activists. Their presence often brings hope and feelings of solidarity, especially as happened during the war in July. However the role of internationals in Lebanon, needs to be revisited and reevaluated to make sure that their role is not counterproductive or igniting hostility. Some organizers within CRC, for example, have begun to feel that visiting internationals are actually serving more as war tourists than anything else, as the work in Lebanon can play into a romantic sense of adventure and revolutionary change. If internationals want to fight Israeli and US imperialism, so the argument goes, they could be far more effective working in their own country by targeting the US government and corporations profiting from the war through more intense civil disobedience requiring greater risk and sacrifice. Such actions may lead to imprisonment, but is risking being shot or imprisoned in Palestine or Lebanon more worthy than risking the same in one’s own country? These are the honest questions international activists should be aware of when planning to come and stand in solidarity. There have been many instances when internationals that arrived with clear projects in mind did fabulous work both in Beirut and the destroyed South—working as freelancers or through various organizations. Solidarity is built through such work. It cannot be built, at least in Lebanon, by wanting to directly confront imperialist/colonialist forces (whether Israel or the US). Neither can solidarity be built by internationals presuming to have a better understanding of how to resist, or by imposing their style of organizing on people in the host country and being inflexible with their ideas. This creates hostility, especially when the internationals team up with Lebanese elite who are themselves often out of place. In the end, political consciousness produced in times of war means little if it cannot be translated to a more permanent idea of social and political mobilization of a new kind. In the Lebanese context, organizers involved in social work need to begin holding working sessions to deal with the political issues facing the left. On the international stage, there should be more dialogue between local activists in the Middle East and international activists on what it means to be “in solidarity” with each other and how best to utilize each other’s time and skills. Here the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) might be in a great place to jump start this initiative and discussion. Today Lebanese and international activists need to persevere in their work, because while the Lebanese resistance (now largely Islamic) may have won this latest round against Israel, unless we are able to capitalize on the space that war opens up, we will find that the left has made no gains, neither in fighting Zionism nor in the greater battle against modern day imperialism. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Sami Hermez is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University. He moved back to his home country of Lebanon in June 2006 to conduct research and teach at the American University of Beirut. During the July war he worked in the relief effort and is currently active with the Civil Resistance Campaign. He would like to thank Rayane Alamuddin for her assistance with developing this article. You can reach Sami by emailing him at: [email protected]