Saria Francis – Beirut
The Arab Spring was a true testament of the power of youth. In a matter of months, young Arabs had accomplished what their forefathers couldn’t for decades. Now, Lebanese youth are taking on the cause towards change. But theirs is a different fight. In their thousands, young Lebanese are calling for secularism and the abolition of the sectarian system.
They are broadcasting their desire for change virtually, via Facebook mainly, as well as through blogs and Twitter. Lebanon’s youth are making their voice heard. Today, they are connected like never before; they have the power to create and publish media aimed at local and global audiences. This is the era of bloggers, graffiti creators, photographers, facebookers, and twitterers.
The youth’s demands are clear: they want, among other things, a secular state, civil marriage, non-discriminating laws based on gender and religious affiliation, a personal status law that guarantees women’s rights, and fair and transparent election laws that represent all communities.
In the past few months, Lebanese activists have marched and attracted thousands of members on different facebook pages. Slogans such as “Civil marriage, not civil war” and “What about freedom of opinion?” have been seen on huge posters, along with Lebanese flags, in protests. People wore white T-shirts with statements that read “What’s my religion?” on the front and “None of your business” on the back.
Remi Maalouf, a secular Lebanese activist, explains that she and other pro-change activists have used social media tools to form different committees, nominate representatives and agree on their next steps. “We disagreed on the details, but we had one target in mind: the abolition of the sectarian system” she asserts.
Ali Fakhry, a Lebanese blogger for the “anti-racism movement”, says his role was mainly to mobilize people and attract supporters. He explains: “Facebook remains an essential tool to connect people from different parts of the country. Facebooking is easier and less complicated than twittering or blogging.”
Easy or not, Lebanese youth are insisting their voices be heard. In the real and virtual world they are calling for a secular democratic state. “People should not be afraid of secularism,” Maalouf explains. “We can’t burn steps before achieving our main common goal and safeguard a large united movement.”
She argues that unlike other Arab countries, Lebanese youth don’t have one oppressor to overthrow, “we have 18,” in a reference to Lebanon’s top 18 political leaders.
According to Khodor Salameh, a blogger, more than one million Lebanese are using Facebook and there are around 400 bloggers. The most famous political blogs, says Salameh, are Trella.org and Kharbachat Bayroutiya or Scratches about Beirut.
Imad Bazzi, of Trella.org, has co-founded the League of Lebanese Bloggers – or Lebloggers – a group of more than 20 bloggers and e-activists. The league is dedicated to stirring “the pot” for positive change. One of their first projects was covering the Lebanese Municipal elections, where they used Web 2.0 technology to engage citizens and deliver live news feeds.
Lebanon has the best press freedom in the Arab world – ranked 78th in the Reporters Without Borders 2010 report – but many Lebanese bloggers argue the opposite. “Blogs are competing with mainstream media by providing the Lebanese audience with an authentic approach to Lebanese politics,” Salameh claims.
Maalouf and Salameh state that their goal wasn’t to change mentalities, but to “make people aware of the consequences of the sectarian political system.” Salameh recalls that their first protest was an important step and succeeded in getting people’s attention.
“People were surprised when they saw hundreds of youngsters walking in the rain. Many of them had not even heard about us,” says Salameh. “People threw rice and rose petals from the balconies expressing their happiness,” and that was a turning point.
The way forward
Despite the low awareness of pro-change movements, these young and dynamic bloggers, activists and twitterers have a social responsibility today to pursue what they started. How they can help in directing the winds towards positive change remains a key question.
“It is important for social media activists to analyse what is happening in the region. Lebanon wouldn’t have witnessed protests calling for secularism if it wasn’t for Egypt and Tunisia’s revolutions,” Salameh says.
“We shouldn’t give up just because we are confronting a slow-down. The movement has just begun,” Maalouf notes. Fakhry agrees with Salameh and Maalouf, concluding: “The key to change is to keep blogging and not fall victim to self-sabotage.”