Alice Boustany Djermakian is a Lebanese teacher and freelance editor. She is the author, most recently, of Liban 2019: Chronique de la Révolte (L’Harmattan, June 2021), a diary of Lebanon’s uprising in 2019. She is also the author of Une Saga Libanaise, La Famille Kettaneh. Boustany Djermakian has a DEA (Diploma of Advanced Studies) in literature and a Master’s degree in information and communications from Université St. Joseph in Beirut. Diwan interviewed her in mid-July to talk about her book, and more generally to discuss the situation in Lebanon today, as the country faces a major economic collapse.
Michael Young: You have written a book on the uprising in Lebanon of 2019. It covers the period between the widespread protests against the country’s corrupt political leadership and the start of its economic crisis—in other words the period of October–December 2019. What is the main lesson from that time?
Alice Boustany Djermakian: The October 2019 protests were an expression of the anger of the Lebanese against an oligarchy that has divided the national cake among its members, has squandered and stolen public funds, has hijacked foreign funding, and has divided the Lebanese in order to reign with total impunity. At the time, tens of thousands of people from diverse sectarian and social backgrounds took to the streets to denounce the rampant corruption and overthrow the regime. It was an awakening, an awareness of the reality in which we were living. This peaceful uprising transgressed the sectarian divisions of society and united the Lebanese around a noble cause. Over several weeks we saw national unity against the political system, freedom of expression as people engaged in public debates in tents set up in downtown Beirut or through media outlets. They highlighted the importance of social solidarity, while the young demanded their right to a future in a country that offers little. People expressed their interest in judicial matters, as part of their desire for legal accountability of those in power. There was also a focus on the essential role of women, who were central actors in the uprising. We understood that the divisions nurtured by the politicians could eventually dissolve, and that our collective lethargy could be transformed into revolt.
MY: Today, Lebanon is in a far worse situation than during the time covered in your book, yet the protests are fewer. What explains this paradox—that even though over half the population has fallen under the poverty line, the Lebanese have shown little inclination to return to the streets against those who robbed them?
ABD: Since January 2020 the protests have diminished due to the violence perpetrated against demonstrators. We cannot forget that many people were beaten with truncheons, wounded by rubber bullets, or detained by the security forces. Some lost an eye, others were tortured and received death threats. In my book I mention all this. As soon as the regime’s thugs infiltrated the protests to cause bloodshed, we women stopped going to the streets. It is true that today poverty affects over 50 percent of the population. It is also true that there is much anger, but it has become difficult to protest amid a devastating economic crisis. Those who are not politically committed are exhausted and lack the means to stand against a repressive political system that is backed by judges, the security forces, the media, and public institutions. It is David against Goliath.
MY: Next year Lebanon will be holding parliamentary elections, the first major opportunity that those who emerged from the protest movement of 2019 will have to punish the country’s political class. What do you think the results will be?
ABD: How can the voice of the free be heard while the Hezbollah-controlled leaders are in power? How can legislative elections be organized by the same people who imposed an electoral law that benefited their interests? We have already seen the consequences previously—votes being bought, ballot boxes disappearing, fraud, dead people voting. It is this political class that, through the Interior Ministry, organizes and supervises the elections.
On another note, the electoral campaigns are likely to be funded by foreign powers, since Lebanon’s politicians often benefit from foreign sponsors. Let’s not forget, to borrow from Etienne de La Boétie, the “voluntary servitude” of the partisans of the sectarian chiefs who were so desperate to cleanse the honor of their idols by relentlessly harassing and attacking the demonstrators. Under these conditions, can we really expect the emergence of a civil society?
MY: Many Lebanese say that even the civil war years were not as bad as what they are living through today in the country. Do you agree?
ABD: I understand those who say this. I lived through the 1975–1990 war, and despite the violence, the demarcation lines, and the economic crisis at the time, banks never stopped functioning and there was no absence of money. Today, the political crisis is compounded by a financial crisis in which our old, pre-1975 civil war economy has been replaced by a rentier economy, based on importation and on hindering investment in productive economic sectors such as agriculture and industry. Moreover, since October 2019 the banking cartel has been preventing depositors from accessing their accounts by imposing unilateral and illegal measures. In my book, I describe the hours spent waiting in line in front of my bank to withdraw a mere $100, and the aggressive response I received from the bank when I asked a volunteer lawyer to intervene to allow me to withdraw my own money. Over the months the bank restrictions worsened and the condition of the middle class began to deteriorate. Many people lost their job, including me, so that 40 percent of the population is unemployed today.
MY: On a personal level, are you still active in the protest movement and do you still see a point in opposing the political class, or have you given up hope? How do you think that you can make a difference?
ABD: Because of the violent reaction of those in power, like most people I rely on social media to denounce the mafia-like practices of the political class, protected by Hezbollah’s illegal weapons. The smuggling of subsidized essential products, such as flour and fuel, to Syria, a country under international sanctions, continues in plain sight. We are witnessing with dread the total collapse of Lebanon without being able to do anything about it. Yet we must pursue our struggle and not surrender to the criminals who are trying to escape responsibility for their crimes, including the August 4 explosion in Beirut port last year. Certainly, there are moments of doubt and discouragement when we only have a single desire—to leave and abandon everything.
Yet the revolution continues. We want to tear down the sectarian system. We want to dismantle the sprawling gang that presides over Lebanon’s destiny. We want to see implementation of United Nations Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701 that call for the disarmament of militias. To reinvent Lebanon we need to dismantle the myths that have been adopted in the country’s politics and history. This is the message that we need to convey to the youth.