CIVICUS speaks to Lina Abou Habib, a feminist activist based in Beirut, Lebanon, about the civil society response to the emergency caused by the explosion on 4 August 2020. Lina teaches Global Feminisms at the American University of Beirut, where she is affiliated with the Asfari Institute, and chairs the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action, a regional feminist organisation working in the Middle East and North Africa. She also serves on the board of Gender at Work and as a strategic Middle East and North Africa advisor for the Global Fund for Women.
Would you tell us about the moment of the explosion?
The Beirut explosion happened on 4 August 2020, at around 18:10 Beirut time. I was at home and I had known for an hour that there was a huge fire at the Beirut port. When the fire started getting bigger the sky was blackened by fumes. I was looking out, and the first thing I felt was a very scary earthquake-like feeling, after which it took a split second for a huge explosion to happen. Glass shattered all around me. It took me a couple of minutes to understand what had just happened. The first thing everyone was call our family and close friends just to make sure that they were okay. Everybody was in a state of disbelief. The explosion was so powerful that each one of us felt like it had happened right next to us.
What was civil society’s immediate response?
It is important to note that alongside the civil society response there was also an individual response. Individuals took to the streets in an attempt to help others. Nobody trusted that the state would help in any way. The state was responsible for what had happened. People took the responsibility for helping each other, which meant addressing immediate problems such as clearing rubble from the streets and talking to people to find out what they needed, including shelter and food. About 300,000 people had become homeless and lost everything in a split second. There was an extraordinary reaction by ordinary people to help: people with brooms and shovels started clearing rubble and distributing food and water. Anger turned into solidarity.
This was an amazingly empowering moment that still continues. As we speak, there are volunteers and civil society organisations (CSOs) who are basically holding the fort and not only engaging in immediate relief but also providing all sorts of support to distressed populations.
However, these acts of solidarity and care have also been criticised. The main criticism has been that such acts are unhelpful because they relieve the state from fulfilling its obligations and performing its duties. I understand this critique, but I don’t agree with it. To me, the acts of solidarity performed by civil society and ordinary people were our main success stories: stories of power and resistance that we should talk about. We need to highlight the immediate response provided individually by people who themselves had been hurt or had lost a lot. Migrant worker communities, who live in dire conditions of exploitation, racism and abuse, went out there to clear the rubble and help others. I don’t think we should ignore the significance of these acts of solidarity.
Lebanon was already undergoing deep economic crisis, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion. Which groups were impacted upon the most?
The worst effects were felt by those who were already in the most vulnerable situations. A clear example of multiple forms of discrimination overlapping and reinforcing one another is the situation of female migrant workers in Lebanon. This is not new; this situation is decades old. First, migrant women work in the private sphere, which makes them even more invisible and vulnerable. Second, there are absolutely no rules that need to be followed to hire them, so they are basically at the mercy of their employers. They are kept in quasi-slavery conditions based on so-called ‘sponsorship contracts’. The air that they breathe is dependent on the will of their employers and they are completely bound to them. In sum, this is a population of women from poor countries of the global south who work as domestic workers and caregivers, positions that make them incredibly vulnerable to abuse. There are no laws that protect them and that has always been the case. Therefore, they are the ones left behind when there is a security issue or a political crisis.
Three consecutive events have affected their situation. The first is the revolution that started on 17 October 2019, an incredibly important moment that was the culmination of years of activism, including by women migrant workers, who were supported, nurtured and mentored by young Lebanese feminists. As a result, in the midst of the revolution there were migrant workers who revolted against the sponsorship system, which deprives them of their humanity and exposes them to working conditions that amount to slavery, and demanded dignified work and a dignified life.
And then there were the economic breakdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which hit as the protests were still ongoing. As a result of the economic crunch, some people choose to not pay their migrant and domestic workers’ salaries, or even worst, simply disposed of them on the streets during the pandemic.
And then the Beirut port explosion happened, which again affected migrant workers in particular. It was a succession of crises that hit migrant workers first and foremost, and particularly women, because they were already in precarious conditions in which they were abused, their labour taken for granted and then thrown away on the streets, forgotten by their embassies and ignored by the Lebanese government.
As an activist and a feminist, how do you view the government response to the explosion?
There hasn’t been any responsible government response. I would not even call what we have a government, but rather a regime. It is a corrupt dictatorship, an authoritarian regime that continues to pretend to be democratic and even progressive. The regime says it embodies reforms, but it never follows through. For instance, 10 days into the revolution, in October 2019, the president addressed the nation and promised an egalitarian civil family law, which feminist activists have been demanding for decades. This came as a surprise, but it turned out that it wasn’t serious, as nothing has been done about it. The authorities just say whatever they think people want to hear, and they seem to be convinced that the public is too ignorant to notice.
So we need to position the response to the explosion against the background of the recent uprising. The government’s response to the revolution has been to not acknowledge the problems that people were pointing at: that it had emptied the public coffers, that it continued to exercise nepotism and corruption and, worst of all, that it was dismantling public institutions. The only government response has been to close the space for civil society and attack the freedoms of association and expression and the right to protest. I’ve lived in this country for most of my life, including through the civil war, and I think there hasn’t been a crackdown on freedoms of the magnitude we are seeing right now under this regime. We have never witnessed people being summoned by the police or general security because of something they said or posted on social media. This is exactly what the regime is doing and continues to do. The president is acting as if there was a lèse-majesté law and is not accepting any criticism; people who criticise him are paying with their freedom. It is the first time we hear about activists being detained for this reason.
In short, the regime hasn’t done anything significant in response to the explosion. Sending the army to distribute food aid packets is in no way significant. They are even refusing to give food aid items to non-Lebanese people who were affected. This exposes the various layers of corruption, bigotry and mismanagement that are at interplay here.
Following the explosion, people took to the streets again to protest. Do you think protests have made an impact?
On the Saturday following the explosion there were people protesting on the streets. I was there and I was scared because of the deployment of violence by the security forces.
In the face of so many calamities, the only reason why people are not massively on the streets is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a gift for the regime. It has imposed curfews, broke up the tents set up by the revolutionaries at Martyrs’ Square and arrested and detained people, all under the guise of wanting to protect people from the virus. But of course, nobody is duped. The levels of contagion are increasing rather than decreasing. It doesn’t help that the regime is so corrupt that we basically don’t have any functioning health services.
The constraints created by the pandemic and the fears for one’s health are seriously limiting people’s actions against the regime, but I don’t think this is going to stop the revolution. People have had enough. People have lost everything. And when you push people’s backs to the wall, there is nowhere else to go but forward. The regime will continue to use brutal force, it will continue to lie and mismanage funds and resources, but this is becoming totally unacceptable to an increasingly larger proportion of the population.
I believe that street mobilisation has been successful on several levels. One can disagree and point out that the regime is still in power, and this may be true; it will take a long time for it to fall. But one immediate success of the protests is that they shattered a taboo. There was a kind of halo or sanctity around certain leaders who were believed to be untouchable. Now it's obvious that they don’t enjoy that protection any longer. Although the regime is not ready to concede, they are just buying themselves some time.
The way I see it, a major gain has been the leadership role played by feminist groups in shaping the country that we want, the rights and entitlements we are claiming and the form of government that we want. Alongside 40 feminist organisations we have released a charter of demands. We put our heads together and have stated what humanitarian reconstruction needs to look like from a feminist perspective and are using this as an advocacy tool for the international community. The way we are intervening indicates that this crisis should be handled with a feminist vision.
Additionally, for the first time the LGBTQI+ community has been part and parcel in shaping the reform process, the transition process and again shaping the country we want, regarding both the form of state and human relations. And the voice of the migrant community has been amplified as well. To me, these gains are irreversible.
What support does civil society in Beirut and Lebanon need from the international community?
There are a number of things that need to be done. First, we need tangible forms of solidarity in terms of communications to amplify our voice. Second, we need to lobby the international community on behalf of the Lebanese feminist movement so that the Lebanese regime is held accountable for every cent it receives. To give an example, we received about 1,700 kilograms of tea from Sri Lanka, and the tea has disappeared; it appears that the president distributed it among the presidential guards. We need influence and pressure from the international community to hold this regime accountable. Third, we need to bring these voices to the attention of international mainstream media.
I want to emphasise the point that international aid should not be without conditions, as the ruling regime lacks transparency and accountability. Of course it is not up to civil society to rebuild, or to reconstruct the infrastructure. But if any cent has to go to the regime, then it must be given with conditionalities of transparency, accountability and due diligence. Civil society must be empowered to play a watchdog role. This means that CSOs must have the voice and the tools for monitoring. Otherwise nothing is going to change. International aid will vanish; it will only help the regime prolong its rule while the city remains in ruins.
Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action through its webpage, and follow @LinaAH1 on Twitter.