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Nicholas Frakes

Lebanon's post-Civil War generation flock to the streets without fear

Younger people have been constantly on the front lines of the protests

Date of publication: 20 February, 2020

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Since the start of Lebanon's massive country-wide protests, youngsters have been constantly on the front lines of the protests calling for economic and political reforms following decades of alleged corruption.

The light fog from dozens of tear gas canisters filled the streets of Downtown Beirut, stealing the oxygen from the areas that is reached. Hundreds of men and women with their faces covered with masks and goggles stood at its border, staring down a small group of riot police slowly approaching them in the distance.

"Yalla [Let's go]," a young man called out as he and dozens of other young protesters charged at the security forces, firing fireworks and throwing rocks.

Since the start of Lebanon's massive country-wide protests on October 17, 2019, younger people have been constantly on the front lines of the protests calling for economic and political reforms following decades of alleged corruption.

"At first, the youth was always the majority of the revolution," actor Abdelrahem Alawji told The New Arab, "But lately, even younger generations joined, like school students. They take that intensity of what they see on TV and social media and poverty and money issues as their motivation."

Alawji also explained that through the internet and social media, it has given the youth a chance to see the rest of the world, as well as their own country, and has led to a massive spark being lit in them and taking many of them to the streets to call for change.

They don't want to follow the steps of their families and friends who migrated. They want to stay and prosper here because they believe they can make a change

"I've heard from young people that they don't want to leave the country," he said. "They don't want to follow the steps of their families and friends who migrated. They want to stay and prosper here because they believe they can change the system and the situation."

For many of the protesters, they continue to say that they are tired of the current system and that they unable to make a life because of it. This was something that protester Wissam Moussa reiterated when he spoke of how he is unable to find work despite having graduated from university.

"I'm a 28-year-old that still lives with this parents and takes allowance from them because there is no job and that's not okay," Moussa told The New Arab. 

"These politicians are still the same since my parent's generation. They didn't do anything to change the system, so I feel like I owe it to my generation to try to change things.

"When we see the younger school generation getting beaten up by the police, it gives you more drive. I'm not saying I'm very positive about change in my time, but I really just want youngsters to grow up to see and know that we did try to give them a better Lebanon."

One major aspect that the protest has accomplished is the uniting of Lebanese citizens who have begun to set aside their sectarian differences in order to unite against the government.

"We have been waiting for a revolution of this type all our lives," protester Clara Matar Sinn explained to The New Arab. "A revolution where we all stand united as Lebanese regardless of our religions and backgrounds against the corrupted government."

A revolution where we all stand united as Lebanese regardless of our religions and backgrounds against the corrupted government

Sectarianism gained traction in Lebanon, a country home to 18 different religious sects, following the end of the Civil War in 1990 with the signing of the Taif Agreement. This restructured the National Pact so that Lebanon's president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

"In Lebanon we have 18 sects and their leaders have been feeding us since the 90s how, right now, we should be afraid of the other," Moussa explained.

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"The Christians used to be the majority and now they're not. They used to be very weary of the Muslims, who were seen as the bad people because of their growing numbers. People feel like their parties protect us not only with armour but within the seats of Parliament.

"But people on the streets really just want to be one and not divided. In the revolution people are realising that we don't need protection, there's no difference between you and I. The Civil War ended in 1990, I was born in 1991. I got some of the residue but for the students of today, I hope they can get rid of all that mentality."

However, with the end of the Civil War came trauma that would affect the mentality of the generations that lived through it, and fearing anything that could potentially lead to another.

"These new generations are more accepting and open. Back in our days you had to make effort to be open and accepting," Alawji recalled. "Back then you were made to be afraid of the other and cautious of people from other sects and religions. But now the young socialise more and don't see what we used to see. That this person could kill me and maybe this fight will lead to another Civil War."

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Others believe that the Civil War mindset and loyalty to their group is what restricted a lack of change to the political system.

"I think it's more about what they lost during the wars: their families and properties," Matar Siin stated. "They lost dear things each for their 'cause' and to let go of that today means betrayal.

"The idea of a non sectarian government causes some identity crises. Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East with a Christian president and the rest of the government is split between sects. A non-sectarian government means all the leaders can be of any sect and that causes a lot of existential issues, especially in a small country like Lebanon, as some groups may feel unrepresented and others won't accept a Muslim president for example."

A consistent staple of the protests has been the massive insolvent of youth in each of the demonstrations despite having been raised either by parents who lived through the Civil War or had grandparents who did.

Young people decided to revolt against the war, sectarianism and our parents views by taking to the streets to express unity and put a stop to sectarian ideation

"Younger people are not as brainwashed as the older ones," Matar Siin said. "Young people are more open to the world and look to a better future. We have been raised all our lives in a sectarian environment because our parents lived the war.

"Young people decided to revolt against the war, sectarianism and our parents views by taking to the streets to express unity and put a stop to sectarian ideation. We believe in a civil society and the separation of church and state. We believe in the right of civil marriage and woman rights etc. We want to eliminate the religious system that is ruining our lives and our country."

Members of the older generation that lived through the war, such as Alawji who was a child during the years long conflict, have found it hard to comprehend why the younger generation is so willing to go to the streets despite the potential danger of being attacked or arrested by security forces.

"I don't know why people aren't afraid because I'm afraid," Alawji laughed. "Maybe they don't think of the possibility of a war. For us, we have that trauma of the Civil War and they don't. They don't know the feeling of living under bombs.

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"As they are young they don't see that their actions could lead to a war. Our generation thought it was just a fight before it escalated, but the young now don't think of that possibility."

However, for the youth protesting, they are afraid when they go into the streets and do not enjoy clashing with security forces because, to them, they are Lebanese just like them.

Despite that, many argue that they have no other choice but to do this.

"We're not happy to play war," Moussa stated solemnly. "I don't want to throw a stone at someone with a family. So we're not happy going to the streets not knowing if we're going to ever come back home or go to the hospital or even survive this.

"But you know what? If I don't die in the streets of Beirut, I will probably die of starvation or the bad air, or maybe in car crash because our roads are bad. We have nothing to lose anymore."

With the calls for an end to sectarianism, some from the older generation are proud that the youth are working towards what they could only dream of years ago and are proud that they are working towards changing the system.

"In the revolution, you can see a lot of people holding a Lebanese flag as if they're against another country occupying Lebanon," Alawji stated proudly.

"In the first few days people were cheering for people putting the Lebanese flag high above as if we're fighting occupation – which we are. We are occupied by warlords and we feel caged, which is why this revolution is for the youth. This new generation have discovered, maybe because of social media or something, that the system here has a plan to make you feel poor which makes you weak and in need of them to survive."

For Alawji, the youth helping to unite not only sects, but generations as well, is something that has filled him with hope that there will be a meaningful change in Lebanon.

"What is happening now is important because the youth have this new belief that they can go against the system that they were brought in to," Alawji said.

However, not everyone is as optimistic for the future as Alawji. Some are worried that despite their dedication to the protests and all that they are risking by continuing to come out to the streets night after night to clash with security forces, they may not see any meaningful changes in the end.

"I really don't know if I'm feeling hopeful anymore because we're putting our lives on the line here and I don't know if it's worth it," Moussa said solemnly. "I hope it is."

Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist who reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno

The New Arab is covering the protests day by day, offering news updates, analysis, commentary and much more. Click on Special Contents page below and follow this regularly updated section for the latest on Lebanon's uprising:

Lebanon Rises: Special coverage of Lebanon's historic anti-corruption uprising

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