Interview: Mutual aid in Lebanon in the wake of disaster

As riots threaten to topple government control in the wake of the Beirut explosion Freedom talks to a Lebanese radical who is witnessing another side of the event – society-wide, grassroots solidarity that has inspired them to become an anarchist.

The blast which destroyed Beirut’s docks and devastated the city on August 4th has instantaneously changed the face of Lebanese society, pushing an already challenging situation into outright catastrophe.

The government has been widely condemned both for its long history of corrupt incompetence and its failure to deal with the immediate aftermath of the explosion, with anger bursting into huge protests and riots over the weekend. Ministries have been stormed, the headquarters of the hated Banking Association was torched, and tens of thousands of people have filled Martyr’s Square swearing “revenge” on the ruling class.

Hundreds have been injured as riot police attempt to gain control of the city, and effigies of political leaders from the government and Hezbollah have been hanged and burned. In an effort to assuage the citizenry Prime Minister Hassan Diab is promising early elections, and this likely won’t be enough.

But while furious citizens are storming government buildings on the one hand there is an inevitably under-reported second reality on the ground – as the State tries to save itself, the people of the city are saving each other.

A day after the explosion a Lebanese radical went to try and help in the city’s ruined streets, and was inspired by the scenes. Writing afterwards, they said:

“I went today with a bunch of comrades to help people on the streets to clean up the mess. What did I see? Only pure solidarity and mutual aid. People helping each other, giving free food and water. Workers – plumbers, carpenters, etc… – proposed to offer their labour for free. Immediately after the bombing, social media was flooded with posts saying “if anybody needs shelter, I have a place, please don’t hesitate” because 300,000 were homeless.

“What did the State do? Nothing. The cops were looking at us. A friend asked a policeman for help. ‘We’re only following orders’. Yeah, fuck you too. Not a single soldier, not a single policeman, not a single statesman has helped, people were helping themselves.

“This is it, I have become an anarchist.”

In an interview with Freedom they went into more detail on the situation, and how the public’s shattered faith in the State is driving a wave of mutual aid.

Are you from Lebanon/Beirut? What was the immediate explosion and its aftermath like for you? How has your community been affected by it?

I’m from Lebanon, but I don’t live in Beirut. I live next to Aleyh, so we were far enough from the blast. Nevertheless, the ground was shaking, and seconds later, the blast occurred – my ears rang for 15 seconds. Immediately after the explosion, social media was flooded with messages saying “if someone needs shelter, I have a place”, “if someone needs food, I’m willing to help”, “if you know a person that hasn’t been found please contact us”. It was Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid unfolding before me.

I am devastated, to be honest. I’m thinking that life was beautiful before the explosion, and trust me, it was beyond horrible even before it, we really didn’t need that. The entire community is angry at the rulers, except for some blind sheep who still follow them. However, the tragedy made us realise that we do not need the government in order to govern ourselves: if solidarity among us was strong back in October [a reference to last year’s protests], it got even stronger on August 4th.

In the direct aftermath you wrote about how people immediately started to work in solidarity while the State did nothing. Can you go into a bit more detail about what you saw in the first few days?

On the 5th, a day after the blast, a former school teacher, now a friend, sent a message to our WhatsApp group saying that help is needed in Mar Mkhayel, Beirut. I grabbed my shovel and went with her and three other friends.

When we first arrived, the entire ground was blueish because of the glass. We walked a bit, arrived at a stand which was giving out free food, juice, water, and their phone numbers in case we need help. A man immediately asked me if I needed anything. I told him that I’m fine. I helped for two days: August 5th-6th.

I haven’t seen a single intervention from the government to help us, I posted a picture on Reddit showing a policeman smoking a cigarette while watching people cleaning up the mess, but that photo wasn’t by me. I saw three police officers: one was cursing on his motorcycle, the second was sitting doing nothing, the third was protecting the doors of a bank. The state did absolutely nothing to help us and is even refusing foreign aid because it wouldn’t go through the hands of the untrustworthy government.

The people were helping themselves: every 15 minutes a citizen would come and ask me if I needed water. On the 6th, a man shouted from the window of his car “our government is incompetent.”

You mention you went with comrades, what sort of a radical left is there in the city and how has it been reacting to the situation?

There is an anarchist movement called كافح (Kafeh, meaning something like “struggle”, my arabic isn’t really good). They opened a communal kitchen called Food Not Bombs on the stairs facing EDL [Electricité du Liban].

Now that the State has had time to mobilise itself, what are you seeing in terms of its reaction?

The Lebanese Armed Forces’ primary missions include defending Lebanon and its citizens against external aggression, maintaining internal stability and security, confronting threats against the country’s vital interests, engaging in social development activities and undertaking relief operations in coordination with public and humanitarian institutions. They’re not letting rescue dogs near the port. Smells fishy, no pun intended. If you want my opinion, I believe the soldiers, as well as policemen should remember that they are, first of all, citizens like us, so it’s for them that we’re doing this, they’re also concerned.

What is the feeling on the ground about the State’s actions over the last few days?

Absolute hatred for the State. They’re not listening to us, we’ve been asking them to resign for ten months, we’re telling them we want reforms. They’re not moving a finger. Instead, they want to build a dam in Bisri despite massive opposition from the people. Not to mention they refused foreign aid. This government is the very embodiment of kakistocracy.

So far the Lebanese “government” has refused:

  • Aid from Médecins sans frontières ( as it was apparently “not needed”)
  • Help from a Dutch team with trained dogs to look. For the victims
  • Help from the UAE, who insisted on distributing the aid through their embassy after the scandal of the Kuwaiti aid being sold in the markets.

What opportunities do you think there might be to encourage community self-organisation in future?

I believe people are realising that the state is an illusion, an illegitimate coercive institution that exercises an arbitrary, irrational limiting effect on the people and slowing its progress. We don’t need it to govern ourselves. It’s been four days (at the time of writing), still no help from the government.

I also believe every one now should take a look at Rousseau’s idea of the General Will as well as the ideas of prominent anarchist thinkers, especially Kropotkin. While Mikhail Bakunin and Rudolf Rocker are also good, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid is a must-read in those times.


Pics by interviewee