Since October 17, the Lebanese have risen up against their ruling elite, whom they accuse of having failed to provide economic prosperity, liberty, and stability. Early on, the protestors recognized the role of institutions in any reform process. However, in the absence of early elections, the protest movement has shifted its attention toward advancing their goals through professional syndicates and labor unions, which have been largely coopted by the political class since the 1990s.
In this battle for syndicates and unions, the protest movement has advanced on two fronts. In the elections to certain syndicates, it has run against candidates backed by the traditional political class. In parallel to this, it has sought to establish independent syndicates or unions to better embody the demands and spirit of the uprising.
The battle for the presidency of the Beirut Bar Association was the first clear institutional win for the uprising. In elections on November 17, the independent candidate Melhem Khalaf defeated a rival backed by the political parties. This represented a shift in the association, which in recent years has been presided over by politically-backed members. To be sure, the growing desire among professionals to back independents had started well before the uprising, notably in April 2017. At the time another independent, Jad Tabet, had been elected head of the Beirut Order of Engineers. However, Tabet had enjoyed the support of a traditional political party, the Kataeb Party, and only won by a margin of 21 votes, much smaller than the 800-vote difference in favor of Khalaf.
Khalaf’s win also held more meaning as it came at a critical time when the ability of the protest movement to translate its street power into an electoral victory was being questioned. Andrea Makary, a young graduate who worked with Khalaf on his campaign and who recently passed the exam to join the Beirut Bar Association, described the atmosphere during the runoff with the candidate backed by the parties. “When the results were posted, you can’t imagine the amount of joy that filled the Palace of Justice! We literally burst into tears,” she told me. With the odds against Khalaf, the win was especially emotional for his supporters.
Khalaf has become known as the uprising’s candidate. Following his win, lawyers in the Palace of Justice held up their fists, shouting “Revolution! Revolution!” and sang the national anthem, echoing the chants of protestors around the country. Since then, Khalaf has taken a stance in defense of the uprising, marking a significant departure from his predecessor, Andre Chidiac, who had been backed by the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun. Under Chidiac, the Beirut Bar Association had failed to support the demonstrators, remaining silent while arbitrary arrests and detentions took place. In fact, the association upheld a rule banning lawyers from protesting in their robes without permission. Making good on his promise to represent anyone in need of a lawyer, Khalaf took to the streets on November 20 when a dozen protestors were arrested in Riad al-Solh Square and he played a crucial role in securing their release.
The independents’ win symbolized hope for the many young lawyers disillusioned with the ruling parties. Lawyers in Lebanon, like many other professionals, often affiliate themselves with political parties to get ahead in their careers. A recent law school graduate, Romy Boulos, recounted her experience to me of interviewing with a major law firm. After she told her interviewer that she had no political affiliation, that person said, “You have to be politically affiliated to succeed as a lawyer in Lebanon. You have to choose a party or else you’ll fail.” Refusing to go against her beliefs, Boulos took a job abroad. However, the independents’ victory gave her hope for a career at home.
Makary also described a clear generational gap at play, which she experienced while acting as Khalaf’s representative in one of the polling stations. Young lawyers were moving away from traditional politics, while middle-aged lawyers were still clinging to their political patrons and dismissing the uprising. Yet what was striking was the number of retired lawyers who support the independent wave, after years of experiencing the dominance of the parties.
Aside from scoring electoral wins in established syndicates, independents are creating alternative syndicates and associations that are actively partaking in the uprising. One notable example is the Association of Professionals (Tajammu‘ al-Mehaniyyat wal Mehaniyyin), which describes itself on its Facebook page as “a gathering of professionals from different sectors … that took an active part in the October 17, 2019, uprising against the ruling class.” It acts as an umbrella organization for independent professional associations, such as the Association of Independent University Professors (Tajammu‘ al-Asatizah al-Mustaqileen fi al-Jami‘at), the Alternative Press Syndicate Group (Tajammu‘ Naqabat al-Sahaafa al-Badila), and the Gathering of Independent Employees (Tajammu‘ al-Muwazafine al-Mustaqileen), and also promotes their activities and initiatives. The Association of Professionals also holds its own public discussions and organizes marches and protests related to the independence of syndicates and unions and their role in the current uprising. It hailed Melhem Khalaf’s win as “a victory for the revolution and a loss for the ruling parties” and the beginning of the process of liberating syndicates and unions from the dominance of ruling parties and their system of clientelism.
The battle for independent, representative, and democratic syndicates and labor organizations is a microcosm of the larger struggle in Lebanon’s streets. The electoral victories of independent candidates symbolize small wins on the road toward bigger ones in future parliamentary elections. Syndicates and unions have the potential to play a larger role in the uprising. They can unify members, rally support, and show their force in the streets, as they have done historically and have been doing during the current protests.
Most important in the coming weeks, they can take on more of a leadership role and channel the demands of the uprising to any new government, which may be especially necessary as the economic situation deteriorates. Time and time again, history has shown the power and value of united and independent professional and labor movements in demanding and enacting change.