Skip to content
A folded, washed out portrait of Abdul Rahman Zakaria hangs above a mechanical shop in Tikrit.

The Aftershocks of the “October 17” Uprising in Lebanon 

Four years after the cheers of Lebanon’s mass movement faded, what remains is an unsatisfying symbiosis with the regime.

Words: Hantong Wu
Pictures: Hantong Wu
Date:

Four years after the “October 17” uprising in 2019, Lebanon is still a protracted failing state.  Hyperinflation grows steadily along with its poverty rate

The “October 17” uprising saw mass protests across the country demanding social and economic justice, an end to corruption, and the resignation of the sectarian ruling elites. Once the hope of a new Lebanon founded on cross-sectarian unity, the “October 17” uprising has slowed down. Now activists are taking small steps toward the civic nation they envision, and the revolution continues to make itself felt through occasional protests, grassroots organizations, and — after the last parliamentary elections in May 2022 — the 13 “Forces of Change” members of parliament who align themselves with the movement.  

Amid an ambiguous transition from street to formal politics, the “October 17” uprising is evolving, but is it still the “thawra” — the revolution — that it wished to be? And despite the divisive slogans by the revolutionaries, what is the thawra’s relationship with the sectarian regime? I took a road trip to find out.

“John Cena” Wrestles State Failure 

As we drove up twisty mountain roads, a misty green replaced the dreamy blue hue of the Mediterranean below us, but beneath the calming breeze was one of the most lawless regions in Lebanon: the northern governorate of Akkar. After passing through a Christian village, colorful summer villas disappeared, and following dusty roads between poorly maintained houses, we entered the village of Tikrit. 

A warm greeting from Mohamad Roustom broke the aura of abandonment. I had first met Roustom at a protest in Beirut, and he had invited me to his hometown. Now we sat down in the spacious front yard of his modest, two-story family house. Along with Roustom, we were joined by his curious family and a man in his thirties, whose camouflage shirt and a hunting hat instantly set him apart.  

“Abdul Rahman Zakaria,” Roustom introduced him to me, “but we call him ‘John Cena.’” 

Roustom was pleased to see my surprised look. “He wrestled with the security,” Mohamad said. Before he could explain more, Zakaria had asked for my phone and asked me to type “Lebanese ‘John Cena’” into the search bar. A short video on Facebook popped up. On the stairs to the front door of the Akkar branch of the Banque du Liban, a small crowd of protestors demanded to retrieve their deposit that was illegally held by the banks. As they clashed with the police, standing above and outnumbering the crowd, the officers had an advantage. But just before they pushed down the crowd, Zakaria sprinted to the side, leaped on top of a car, and — in a dramatic wrestling move — dove onto a security officer.

The Facebook video, captioned “Lebanese John Cena,” was circulated around by a local news page “Al Danniyeh 24” with 65 thousand views. 

“Everybody knew him,” Roustom said. He spoke of the act with awe, as if Zakaria did not just wrestle security personnel but the goliath that is the country’s failed state. But the move wasn’t just about Zakaria, and he is not alone: his leap of frustration reflects the ethos of the revolution. 

The Thawra

The thawra began in 2019. Amid a worsening economic meltdown, wildfires engulfed Beirut in October of that year. Then the government imposed a new tax on the usage of messaging applications including WhatsApp. It was the last straw. 

On Oct. 17, 2019, mass protests broke out across the country. “Kullun yani kullun” (“all of them means all of them“), the protestors chanted, demanding the downfall of the entire spectrum of the country’s political elites. The protestors believed that Lebanon’s sectarian political system — in which political power is shared between the major religious groups — is dysfunctional, and that while ostensibly the political leaders compete with each other, they mostly work together to maintain the political status quo and appropriate resources for their clients through rampant corruption.  

The thawra succeeded in ousting the government at the time, but before reforms could be  implemented, the pandemic worsened the situation. Attempts to implement an emergency rescue program by the caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab also proved futile. To make matters worse, improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the Port of Beirut exploded in August 2020. One of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, the tragedy claimed 218 lives, according to Human Rights Watch, and caused more than $3 billion in damage, according to the World Bank.  In the aftermath of all these crises, the prime minister resigned with a damning sendoff: “The corruption is greater than the state.”

By the summer of 2022, when I visited Mohamad and “John Cena,” the Lebanese Lira had gone down to 30,000 Lira per dollar on the parallel market from the official 1,504 Lira per dollar. The poverty rate had already doubled between 2019 and 2021, according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, and public service delivery had reached new lows

The “John Cena” wrestling move, though dramatic, was not an isolated act of passion. “He also took a shower at Electricité du Liban,” Roustam pointed to “John Cena,” as he poured us coffee. Realizing the absurdity of what he just said, he explained, “There were four people, including ‘John Cena’ and me, but I waited outside. He broke into the Electricity company [Electricité du Liban] building because there was electricity inside. They have everything inside. They have hot water when we don’t have electricity or hot water.” 

Unlike the “Forces of Change” parliamentarians, the duo was not looking for systemic change through dramatic acts like these. “What ‘John Cena’ did was good because we were becoming more famous,” Roustam said frankly. 

For many, stealing electricity from the government is a necessity. Electricité du Liban has not provided enough power for decades. Almost all Lebanese power their daily life via a network of generators and diesel providers — that many protesters believe to have connections with the sectarian party leaders, profiting off of the people’s dependence. 

“Now, we only have two hours of electricity in Tikrit every week,” Roustam fumed. 

Although this level was unusual in urban centers like Beirut, it was the norm in Akkar, Roustam said. Government water supply was also unstable across the country and three months after my visit, cholera broke out in Akkar. 

Faced with these crises, Roustam and Zakaria are doing more than eye-grabbing acts. “You need to take matters into your own hands,” Roustam said, referring to their role in service provision in Tikrit. 

1 (3)
In the summer of 2022, Abdul Rahman Zakaria (right 1) speak to villagers of Tikrit who are installing a water pipe that would be connected to the government water pipe in order to supply water for parts of the village. It is one of the ongoing projects led by Mohamad Roustom and Abdul Rahman Zakaria to provide basic services for Tikrit. The workers are volunteers, according to Mohamad, and the projects are funded by donations that the duo ask from villagers.

In order to provide more electricity to the village, Roustam and Zakaria were also retrieving smuggled diesel. Roustam explained briefly, “People smuggle diesel to Syria even when we don’t have any, so we go stop them.” Because diesel was subsidized in  Lebanon, the price difference prompted an illegal trans-border trade, which many blamed for the fuel shortages. Once they retrieve the diesel, they give it to the people of Tikrit for free, Roustam claims. 

Sometimes, these operations can turn deadly. “Remember the fuel tanker explosion last year?” “John Cena” asked me. The incident in 2021, which killed 28 and injured 79, immediately came to my mind. The explosion came after the central bank had announced the impending end of the fuel subsidy and troops had deployed to stations to force station owners to continue sales.

Abdul Rahman claimed he was there to stop the smuggling, although it was unclear if and how he was connected to the explosion.  

Wrestling security officers, intercepting smugglers, and occupying government buildings — Mohamad and “John Cena” were not the typical activists in the thawra, which were largely peaceful, but they all shared the same goal: to fundamentally restructure Lebanon’s politics.

Ripples of Revolutions

The last major revolution in Lebanon was the Cedar Revolution in 2005. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, people took to the streets to protest against Syrian political and military presence in Lebanon.  

The revolution saw quick results: the pro-Syrian government was dissolved and within three months, the Syrian military completely withdrew. The revolution also led to major changes in Lebanon’s domestic politics. Parties aligned themselves into two cross-sectarian blocs based on their alliance with Syria.  

Similarly, the thawra also in part aspires to bring about “Freedom, Sovereignty, Independence” — the slogan of the Cedar Revolution. But between 2005 and 2019, the “enemy of the people” had drastically evolved.  

Calling for the “downfall of the sectarian regime,” the protestors wanted to change much more than just the status quo within Lebanese politics. They wanted to bring a change to the system, fundamentally shifting the rules of the game away from the sectarian one. With this slogan, they sowed the seeds for a revolution. 

“People demand the downfall of the sectarian regime,” protestors chanted during the Arab Spring in 2010, quickly adopting the popular slogan — “people demand the downfall of the regime” — with a Lebanese twist. These ripples of regional upheaval soon dissolved in Lebanon, but the new slogan changed who the “enemy” was. Calling for the “downfall of the sectarian regime,” the protestors wanted to change much more than just the status quo within Lebanese politics. They wanted to bring a change to the system, fundamentally shifting the rules of the game away from the sectarian one. With this slogan, they sowed the seeds for a revolution. 

While the Lebanese Arab Spring protesters did not have a domestic focusing event to mobilize the people, in 2015 garbage became the surprising centering force. Years of poor waste management turned into piles of garbage littered all over Beirut and its surrounding municipalities. The indiscriminate smell gave all residents — regardless of their sects — something to hold against the ruling elites. “You Stink!” people fumed, referencing both the physical pollution and what they saw as the root of corruption. 

There, “all of them means all of them” — words that would become a famous slogan four years later in the thawra — made its first appearance. The idea was that people cannot say, “all parties are bad except mine,” activists say. Through this simple tactic, the movement tried to become not only anti-sectarian in its aim but also cross-sectarian among its constituents.  

When the “October 17” uprising took place in 2019, “all of them means all of them” immediately took center stage, and the wave of crises catalyzed the division between “them” and “us,” sharpening the revolutionary aim of toppling the sectarian elites. Meanwhile, a future vision towards a secular state began to form, with an aim to change Lebanese from sectarian clients into secular citizens. 

Between “Us” and “Them” 

The problem with the “Us” and “Them” battle cry is that “they” are not only the ones who live in the presidential palace or the prime minister’s residence. Politics reaches into everyday life and relationships with Lebanon’s deep-rooted inter-sectarian divisions and extensive clientelist networks. How Roustom and “John Cena” help their community is sometimes similar to that of the clientelist patrons in the sectarian system.

After coffee, the duo offered me a tour of the village — to show me their grievances: the trees illegally cut down for fuel, trash on the streets, and the lack of water sources, along with their contributions to their community. They were armed as we drove around the village, and said they did some small security work in the town such as “breaking up fights.” 

We received a warm welcome from locals as we toured the village. The activists showed me a water pipe they were installing, and a hospital they were helping to fund. 

6 (1)
Youth in Tikrit get ready to play in a river. Mohamad claims that the water from the river is being used for everything and is not clean. He dreams that one day he would be able to help build a swimming pool for the kids, so they can play in clean water like the kids in Australia, where he used to live.
4 (3)
Abul Rahman Zakaria takes a photo of a tree that has been illegally cut down. Due to the lack of fuel, some villagers have resorted to illegally cutting down trees for firewood–for both self-consumption and selling them. Abdul Rahman and Mohamad claim that they have been working to stop these illegal activities.
7 (1)
Abdul Rahman Zakaria (right 1) returns to explain his contribution to Tikrit after speaking with three young men (left) who were helping him collect donations from people.
2 (1)
Mohamad Roustom points to the overflowing garbage on the street. The Lebanese government had consistently failed to collect garbage from the village in a timely manner.

In addition to providing services, the duo also intervene through advocacy that is tinged with intimidation. For example, patients from Tikrit who cannot afford the hospital bills would reach out to Roustom and Zakaria. The duo would then go directly inside the hospital and intimidate the staff with the threats of “burning the hospital” and “breaking everything,” while livestreaming the process to pressure the hospitals to provide the necessary care for the patients.

Other times, the duo finds money from Lebanese expatriate communities abroad and pays the hospitals. “‘John Cena’s’ family helps out sometimes,” Roustom explained but said little about how these channels of funds work. 

“We hope one day ‘John Cena’ will run for mayor,” said Roustom. 

I was surprised that these activists calling for the downfall of the entire political class were themselves harboring political dreams, but they hoped to change the system from within. Still, their methodology even at the local level felt remarkably parallel to the clientelist networks of the elites: they were trading services for growing support, albeit without visible sectarian implications. Who, then, was the “Us” or the “Them”?

National Renown

A month after my visit, the activists’ fame expanded when they participated in another Rambo-style activist stunt. They assisted Sally Hafez, another activist, when she held up a bank — not to steal other people’s funds, but to withdraw her own savings which had been locked down in financial restraints. “John Cena” was arrested in the encounter, which brought them into the national spotlight as supporters protested his arrest for over a week. When Abdelrahman was finally released, he was greeted by a crowd of chanting supporters

Their robinhood-style vigilantism both contributed to their revolutionary goals and also boosted their renown as local patrons. As their example shows, the revolution co-exists with clientelism, cynicism, and other elements that make up their enemy — the sectarian system.

However, Roustom seems to see the problems with their activist style. “They [the activists] are just making drama, drama, drama in the revolution–everybody in the revolution. It is not a revolution, because nothing has changed, and life is becoming more difficult,” Roustom reflected when asked if their activism is changing thawra. 

Still, Roustom said if another activist needed their help to break into a bank and retrieve their deposits, he and Zakaria would do it again.

Symbiosis 

Four years after the “October 17” revolution, the call for change has interwoven with politics. It’s not just “John Cena” and Mohamed, garish activists vying for a mayoral post. Political parties have begun to include the activists’ demands in their political programs. For example, Samir Geagea the party leader for the Lebanese Forces — a Christian party that began as an umbrella organization for the right-winged Christian militias during the civil wars — has expressed his support for the movement, as he attempted to rebuild a popular base for the party. Leading to the 2022 elections, the Kataeb Party — an ally of the Lebanese Forces — also continued to distance itself from other traditional parties, posting topics popular among thawra activists, including civil marriage laws and environmental problems, on its social media pages. 

Many of the 13 members of parliament known as the “Forces of Change” that were elected in May and who directly claim to represent the thawra, have political backgrounds in other parties. Cynthia Zarazir, who won the minority seat in the Beirut I district, was a stout supporter of the Free Patriotic Movement, the establishment political party of former president Michel Aoun. In 2016, just six years before her election, she called for a “genocide against the Syrian people.” Now, a member of the “Forces of Change” coalition, she has reversed her stand: “Refugees are the first to suffer from being here.” Following the bank hold-up by Sally Hafez, Cynthia went to her bank and demanded access to her savings. Though in a lower profile, the MP’s action seems to give her nod of approval to the more radical approach by Roustom and “John Cena.”  

The Citizens in a State (MMFD) is one of the first grassroots organizations to formulate a path to a secular Lebanon, which had become an objective of the thawra. Rather than a radical purge of sectarian leaders, its plan describes an alternative that allows a mutually beneficial coexistence between the leaders and a secular state. 

Beyond the alliances, how people organize themselves has begun to change. Today, grassroots organizations associated with the thawra have strived to create more democratic, horizontal networks instead of the vertical structure of clientelism. Mada (مدى) is an example. The network is a product of secular clubs at universities in Lebanon. Instead of setting up a hierarchy, it limits itself to a platform that ensures equal participation from all clubs and helps them coordinate events. Four years after the shouts for the “downfall of the sectarian regime” the revolution appears to be incremental. Instead of a zero-sum game with the regime, the thawra is in a positive-sum game and will likely maintain this way. Although the ongoing crises continue to unite the disparate groups with different demands under the thawra, radical systemic changes are unlikely in this symbiotic state. 

All photos by Hantong Wu, Summer 2022.

Hantong Wu

Hantong Wu is a freelance photojournalist based in Hangzhou, China, and Beirut, Lebanon. He is currently writing about great power competition in the Middle East as a Creative Capsule resident at the InkStick Media. Hantong received his bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies from Amherst College in 2023, and he is looking to offer an independent perspective on foreign policy issues through humanistic storytelling.

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTERS