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 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.