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Beirut blast propels activist from street protests to political action

·13-min read

Lebanon’s economic woes and political mismanagement drove lawyer Hussein El Achi to take to the streets in October 2019. The devastation of the August 4, 2020, Beirut blast and the political interference in the investigation convinced him to join the fight for change from the inside. The question now is whether idealism, backed by political organisation, can challenge Lebanon’s sectarian kleptocracy.

On the evening of August 4, 2020, Hussein El Achi was in his office in Beirut’s Jnah district, around 8 kilometres (5 miles) southwest of the port, when he was shaken by the explosions that would shatter his city, rock his world and launch him on a path he never imagined he would take.

The 33-year-old activist and lawyer by profession immediately thought it was a bomb – as did many in a city that has endured wars, political assassinations and military strikes. He quickly checked on his loved ones and then headed down to the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, which was badly hit by the blast.

The next few hours were a blur of driving around, trying to help dazed, injured people, and locating missing friends. El Achi admits he wasn’t very effective that day – the situation was so chaotic and the needs so enormous.

But the very next day, the seasoned activist swung into action with colleagues from Lebanon’s protest movement. El Achi is the secretary general of Minteshreen, an opposition movement born out of the October 2019 anti-government protests that swept Lebanon. (The movement’s name is a play on words in Arabic: “Min” means “from” and “Teshreen” is October; Minteshreen as one word means “spread”.)

Putting years of organisational experience to use, El Achi and his activist colleagues gathered all the tents and equipment they had amassed during the 2019 protests and took them to a parking lot in the Mar Mikhael district right by the port.

“At that time, we were so disoriented and disturbed, we didn’t even think that there were big buildings all around the parking lot. We were just working and setting up our operations – putting the medics here, food distribution there, the engineers and architects, mental health doctors … and then glass started falling on us,” El Achi recalls with a laugh. “We moved the camp a little bit on the first day, but then we realised huge pieces of glass were falling with the wind and the buildings were shaking. So we moved to a new spot.”

Within days, a tent city – dubbed “the Basecamp” – had sprung up, comprised of NGOs and volunteer groups offering a range of emergency services in the absence of a comprehensive state response.

But it was the first weekend after the blast that brought a change that would transform El Achi’s life for the next 12 months.

A crackdown reveals the way forward

On Saturday, August 8, 2020, tens of thousands of people gathered around Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut to demand the ouster of the government. In an outpouring of anger against the corruption and negligence that protesters believe had enabled the port accident, they occupied ministries, set fires and faced off against security forces.

The crackdown that day hit unprecedented levels, with security forces using live ammunition and projectiles that caused massive injuries, according to rights groups. At least 492 people were injured, including 158 who had to be hospitalised.

The hospitalised protesters included 12 Minteshreen members, some severely wounded. The nature of the August 8 crackdown was different, according to activists. Security forces arrived at hospitals to get the names and identities of wounded protesters. In some hospitals, arguments broke out when doctors refused to comply.

With the government showing every indication of standing firm, and security forces cracking down on a mourning populace that had lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods in the blast, August 8, 2020, marked a turning point for Minteshreen.

“Before that day, and since our inception, we were an informal group doing protests and small events. Our numbers grew but we always wanted to remain a movement; we didn’t like the term ‘political party’. But on that day, all bloodied up, we met at a friend’s apartment and at that moment of desperation, we thought: The street is an important tool, but we are facing a regime that is ready to kill us to maintain power. This is why the only way to [bring] change is to get into organised political action – we needed to create a political party, and we all took a decision that Minteshreen needs to turn into a political party,” El Achi explains.

Birth of a political party – in the making

The group, which currently has 167 core members, immediately swung into action.

They split into three task forces: one to create internal structures and laws, the second to hammer out a political programme and a third to focus on organising elections. Town hall seminars were held on Zoom to discuss political ideologies, platforms and strategies. Coalition talks with other Lebanese civil society groups and political parties began, with an eye on parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

Sitting in his living room in Beirut’s predominantly Shiite Jnah neighbourhood, El Achi rattled off details of workshops, seminars and discussions with the frenzied intensity of a man on a mission. Lessons from his law school education, as a scholarship student in the UK, were put to use, including the value of time and alliance-building.

But the Lebanese state works – when and if it does – at a different pace.

Minteshreen’s party-building process complete, El Achi and his fellow members presented their dossier to the interior ministry earlier this year.

The dance with Lebanese bureaucracy and the intimate pas de deux with official stonewalling had begun.

At this stage, El Achi puts down his morning cup of Turkish coffee to fetch a folder of documents in Arabic to help explain the process. The authorisation process for NGOs and political groups can take a long time in Lebanon, with some LGBT groups still waiting nearly 10 years after filing their papers.

The interior ministry, however, has to supply a stamped receipt of applications. “That’s important because you can take it to a bank and open a bank account and be operational, because you really can’t do anything without a bank account,” he explains.

Last week, Minteshreen members once again went to the interior ministry to ask about the receipt. “They promised us next week we will receive them. Let’s see,” he laughs. “It’s just one small tool in their arsenal.”

‘We are all barely making any money’

While the Lebanese state tries to put the administrative breaks on political change, the kleptocracy has run the economy into one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 years, according to the World Bank. The Lebanese lira has lost around 90 percent of its value to the dollar, inflation is soaring and a liquidity crisis means people don’t have access to their savings while the government can’t pay for essentials such as fuel imports, making daily life miserable.

>> Read more: Lebanon’s neo-liberal train grinds the country down

Minteshreen has so far funded its operations with cash chipped in by its members, who have jobs and businesses in diverse sectors. But they are all hurting under the economic crisis and the lack of a bank account means they are unable to receive donations from a diaspora willing to fund projects working for change in Lebanon.

Several Minteshreen members have lost jobs while El Achi says he has lost “70 to 80 percent” of his legal accounts. “We are all barely making any money,” he smiles ruefully between puffs on an electronic cigarette.

Sectarian parties and Hezbollah’s hold on the Shiite vote

The son of a litigator, El Achi returned to Lebanon from the UK after his studies – much to his family’s surprise – to expand his father’s legal business.

Born in Beirut and raised in Dahieh, a Hezbollah stronghold of the Lebanese capital, El Achi graduated from Saint Joseph University of Beirut – the country’s leading Jesuit-run university – and is at home in many worlds.

But for Lebanese Shiites, running as independent candidates, particularly in bastions of Hezbollah support, comes with risks.

Hezbollah and Amal, the Shiite parties in a country run on sectarian political lines, have long had a stranglehold on the Lebanese Shiite vote. Hezbollah in particular has managed to achieve hegemony over the community using a combination of consent and coercion. On the one hand, the “party of God” provides services to a historically deprived community overlooked by the state, via patronage networks. On the other hand, the group adopts repressive measures against community members who do not toe, or who publicly question, the line.

During the 2018 parliamentary election campaign, independent Shiite candidates were attacked in southern Lebanon by “a bunch of Hezbollah thugs”, according to one candidate. Hezbollah, however, denied any involvement in the attacks. Speaking to FRANCE 24 ahead of the 2018 vote, Lokman Slim, a Shiite publisher and well-known Hezbollah critic, called the attacks “pedagogical assassinations” that “sent a message to all the other” independent Shiite candidates.

Three years later, Slim was found dead from a gunshot wound to his head in his car in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah once again denied involvement in the killing. In a country where political assassinations are rarely investigated, few expect justice in the case.

>> Read more: Attack on anti-Hezbollah candidate exposes Shiite rifts

Displaying the tact of a politician, El Achi sidesteps the question on the likely dangers of his political foray. He recalls instead the year 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in a defeat that granted Hezbollah resistance-hero status, which the movement continues to use to assert its dominance over Lebanon’s Shiites.

“Back in 2000, I was 12 years old, I had never seen my village – ever. Hezbollah liberated my village, and this is how I saw my village for the first time. So, for me, it was a huge achievement and I used to support them for that,” he explains.

“But after a while, Hezbollah made a series of very wrong decisions. In my opinion, the climax was in Syria.”

Hezbollah’s involvement in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has lost the party a lot of Lebanese Shiite support, says El Achi. “This is a resistance that turned into a cross-border army. For us, this is a big no-no. And after October 17 [2019] and the total meltdown of the [Lebanese] state, this is another reason to requestion, Who are our representatives? Are they taking care of our daily lives? Hezbollah is also losing popularity in the [Shiite] community. It may be not at the same pace as the other sectarian groups, but they are losing,” he insists.

A ‘model of what the state could never have achieved’

Discontent with the old political players who have divided the pie under a colonial-era confessional system has been mounting for several years in Lebanon. But it has not translated into political change, despite the country’s vibrant civil society mobilisation in urban areas such as Beirut.

El Achi is intensely aware of the challenges. “We have a lot of limitations and very big challenges. How do you change a society that has operated on sectarian fear?” he asks rhetorically.

His answers are being hammered out in town hall discussions, coalition talks and outreach programmes.

Minteshreen’s appeal as a potential political platform became apparent in the aftermath of the Beirut blast, he believes. “After an almost nuclear-level blast that devastated our city, we went to the street, we took care of the wounded, we rebuilt homes, we deployed lawyers to help people and we showed a model of what the state could never have achieved,” he says.

The Beirut blast and the subsequent crackdowns on protesters demanding accountability presents an important opportunity, El Achi believes.

“Crisis is a catalyst for change. And this crisis is unprecedented in the history of this country,” he explains. “Change has started. Now the pace of change is in our hands. So the Lebanese population now has a choice – either to tackle this really quickly and save what can be saved or have this slow change that will cost this country more and more.”

A shaming campaign to get justice

As Lebanon prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Beirut blast, Minteshreen’s focus is on seeking accountability and getting justice for the victims. At least 200 people were killed in the explosion.

A year after Lebanese President Michel Aoun promised “results within five days”, the investigation is mired in controversy and has been marked by “obstruction, evasion and delay”, including “flagrant political interference” in the process, according to Human Rights Watch.

>> Read more: Families of Beirut blast victims demand justice

“We want accountability, this is our main concern. Our people died on the streets, in their apartments, in their homes. Who’s responsible? The president promised us results within five days. And now, after a year, we see the same people who promised us the truth within five days protecting those who the judge thinks are responsible,” said El Achi, referring to an investigative judge’s quest to lift the immunity of Lebanese politicians under investigation.

Over the past few months, Minteshreen has launched a shaming campaign of politicians accused of stalling the investigation, including a gathering of demonstrators last month in front of the West Beirut home of caretaker interior minister Mohamed Fahmi.

Families of the victims have joined the demonstrations, which descended into clashes in July. The protest garnered international attention as a populace sick of the corruption and impunity challenged some of Lebanon’s most dreaded politicians and top security officials.

“For the first time ever, we did a huge campaign of shaming, and this is very important for us. It’s one of the biggest wins, maybe, that we’ve had,” recalls El Achi.

Birth of a son

On a personal level, that night heralded another cause for celebration for El Achi and his family.

El Achi’s wife Nour Bassam, who was nine months pregnant, accompanied him to the demonstration outside Fahmi’s house. Bassam, who works in a social enterprise dealing with recycling fabric waste, has been on the front line of the protests since October 2019.

“I told her, ‘Nour, let’s not do it.’ But she insisted and went with me and she got contractions that night and ... we got our baby,” he recounts with a laugh. “It was supposed to be a C-section delivery on July 23rd. I think Nour moved so much that she got her baby,” he smiles.

On July 15 at 4am, Rayad El Achi was born after his mother had spent the night on the street demanding justice for the victims of the Beirut blast.

For the 33-year-old new father, the birth of his son strengthened his commitment to a homeland that is witnessing an exodus of alarming proportions.

Lebanon's professionals began leaving during the late-2019 economic crisis, but that trickle has become a flood since the Beirut blast. Experts warn the “brain drain” – particularly in the critical health and education sectors – could further undermine this tiny Middle Eastern country, which lacks hydrocarbon reserves and relies on the services sector.

El Achi and his wife have had conversations that are being echoed in living rooms across the country.

“When we met in 2018, we had plans to go to either Canada or the UK. But then October 17 [2019] happened and we had a series of conversations – and we decided we need to give it a shot,” he says. “We decided to stay on and fight, until at least the next parliamentary elections, and see if this is a viable country.”

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