Since October 17, 2019, unprecedented popular protests have erupted in Lebanon motivated by demands for socio-economic rights and the reform of a highly corrupted and sectarian political system. The deterioration of economic and social conditions in Lebanon has also affected the 1.5 million Syrian refugees as well as the Palestinians and other communities of displaced people living in the country. Syrians, in particular, expressed an exceptional empathy with the Lebanese revolution and although with a diversity of responses, many have taken part in the uprising.
An extension of the Syrian revolution
One of the most widespread opinions among Syrians in Lebanon is that the Lebanese revolution is an extension of the Syrian. The perception that the two uprisings are linked results from Hezbollah’s growing role as de facto ruler in Lebanon and its affinity with the Syrian regime. Displaced Syrians consider the ruling class of Lebanon allied with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As a matter of fact, over the past nine years Syrians in Lebanon have perceived the connections between the two political frameworks especially in relation to policies addressed to them – they understand the anti-refugee policies of Lebanon as led by the Syrian regime, with the purpose of pushing them back into Syria. For this reason, the uprising against the Lebanese political system became for many a way to resume the revolution against the Syrian regime. In this sense, opposing the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon and demanding its disarmament together with the Lebanese protesters was also an indirect way for Syrians to pursue their interests in changing their situation in displacement. The belief that the two political systems are connected was particularly felt when, in January 2020, the Ministry of “Displaced Syrians” moved from Mu’in al-Marabi, a member of Hariri’s Future Movement who rejected Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria, to Saleh al-Gharib, an Aounist close to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, who demands the repatriation of refugees.
The Lebanese revolution as an inspiration for pan-Arab unity
In addition to this narrative, another widespread perception among Syrians is that the Lebanese uprising is part of a wider pan-Arab movement, led especially by young people. Although Syrians have engaged on different levels in the Lebanese uprising, many of them do not consider it their own revolution and rather they acknowledge its specificity as a separate movement with its own reasons and dynamics. They particularly observe the different roots of the Lebanese and Syrian uprisings; the former mainly related to economic reasons, the latter more politically grounded. However, Syrians see in the Lebanese uprising a great opportunity for Arab unity especially in relation to those issues affecting youth all over the Arab world – the lack of freedom and political representation, the patriarchal and religious foundations of Arab societies etc. In this sense, Syrians support Lebanon today as they would support any other Arab revolution in a more global pan-Arab view.
A diversity of participation
The participation of Syrian refugees in the Lebanese revolution has taken different forms. Some people participated actively and publicly, while others have chosen indirect involvement out of fear of being persecuted, targeted, or scapegoated. Many refugees found in the Lebanese uprising a safe environment to speak out about their difficult conditions and many have helped out the revolution in different ways. However, when the unrest intensified and various attempts of repression came from different political parties, the most vulnerable groups of Syrian refugees stepped aside, while continuing to largely support the ideals of the Lebanese revolution.
Active and public participation
Syrians have taken an active part in the demonstrations in many cities of Lebanon. Despite the continuous discrimination they go through in their daily lives, many Syrian refugees feel part of Lebanese society. Especially with the uprising they started feeling close to the Lebanese population because they suffer from the same socio-economic issues. In this sense, they perceive themselves as part of Lebanon’s revolution. Along with the Lebanese they have chanted slogans against the regime. For example, many have sung the popular anthem of the Syrian revolution Yalla erhal, ya Bashr (Come on, leave, oh Bashar), at times replacing Assad’s name with those of Lebanese politicians. Among those who participated enthusiastically were the activists and intellectuals of the Syrian revolution, who had taken part in the protests in Syria. These people perceived the revolts in Lebanon as an opportunity to rekindle their demands for human and civil rights in displacement. Nonetheless, some of the Syrian participants had never been involved in protests in their home country because they were either too young during the revolution, or there were no demonstrations occurring in their area. Hence, the Lebanese uprising is an opportunity for these young Syrians to speak out too.
Hidden and online participation
Alongside those who engaged on the front line, some Syrian activists have chosen to take part in the revolution in a more covert way, mostly through the use of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been the main means of expression for many of those who decided not to take to the streets, but to support the Lebanese regardless. The decision to step aside was primarily related to the fear of being targeted or persecuted by the Lebanese authorities, which for those who did not have a regular residence would have meant being identified as irregular and arrested. This fear intensified after the al-Hamra riots, in January 2020, in which eight Syrian nationals were arrested among others and detained longer with the accusation of not having regular permits to reside in Lebanon. Nonetheless, Syrian activists have also decided not to take part in the demonstrations in public in order not to negatively affect the Lebanese revolution or to be scapegoated by the populist narratives blaming Syrians for any socio-economic problem in Lebanon. The idea that the Lebanese protests were funded, supported, or driven by “foreign powers” has been part of the establishment discourse throughout the whole revolution. In fact, the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, the Ministry of Foreign affairs, Gebran Bassil, as well as the leaders of the Amal Movement and Hezbollah have repeatedly considered Syrian refugees responsible for many of the government’s failures. For this reason, in order to avoid being called instigators, some Syrian youths participated in the demonstrations by faking a Lebanese accent in order not to be identified as Syrian.
The Syrian revolution as a model not to be replicated
The fear that the Lebanese revolution might end up like the Syrian and be repressed by violence is widespread among Syrians. In this sense, their engagement in Lebanon’s uprising can be also understood as aimed at not forgetting the bad example of the Syrian revolution. Many Syrians participated in protests in Lebanon with the hope that the mistakes of the Syrian uprising would not be replicated. Nonetheless, for many, the open and public character of the Lebanese revolution and the greater freedom of expression in Lebanon compared to Syria was a promising element that reassured against the possibility of a violent turnout. Finally, the sense of hope that many Syrians feel towards the Lebanese uprising is also a way to encourage a successful outcome of the events. The peaceful character of the demonstrations in Lebanon, something the Syrian revolution was not able to maintain for long, together with the cohesion of the various groups of protesters under the unity of the national flag and the collective refusal of the sectarian discourse are all ways to lay the groundwork for promising opportunities for Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and other communities of (forced) migrants in the country.