Many Lebanese regard the city of Zahleh with a mix of admiration and envy. An oasis of picnic spots, cafes, and nightclubs, it is seen as a city of poetry and freedom. It enjoys the unusual blessings (for Lebanon) of round-the-clock electricity, abundant water, and municipal cleaning services at a relatively low cost.
However, the majority of its residents, fed up with Lebanon’s grinding economic and political crises, were sympathetic to the October 2019 uprising against official corruption, waste, and ineptitude. Like many, they hoped for the fall of the ruling class and the creation of a government capable of bringing about change and truly representative politics.
Zahleh saw large demonstrations in the early days of the uprising. School students protested, lawyers rallied outside the main courthouse, and doctors organized a march from a hospital to the central Manara roundabout. Protestors walked along the main road chanting slogans in favor of the revolution, and reached the main Shtaura-Ba‘lbek highway on the edge of the city where they were met by people from villages and towns across the governorate—citizens with a variety of political outlooks and confessional affiliations. Some activists erected tents and stalls on the roundabout. But Hezbollah and its allies voiced annoyance at the cutting of the road between Beirut and Ba‘lbek. The protestors were dispersed with brutal force by the security forces, and their tents and stalls were cleared. Hezbollah made its presence felt as events unfolded and some of its provocative statements sparked reactions that were as violent. The two sides then held back to avoid further flare-ups.
Many of the city’s youth repeatedly visited Beirut at key moments of the uprising, playing a central role in events. They demonstrated at Martyrs Square and the nearby Ring highway, and in front of parliament. Activists from Zahleh were also prominent on social media, sometimes sparring bitterly with supporters of President Michel Aoun (who had staged their own protests). This led many people to make new friends of various political persuasions from across Lebanon.
It was not new for the people of Zahleh to voice Lebanese patriotic slogans, honor the flag, and sing the national anthem, as protestors elsewhere were doing. The city regularly held Independence Day celebrations comparable to those of the main Christian holidays. But most people were wary of Lebanon’s political parties, both ideological and non ideological, making them reluctant to become more deeply involved in the uprising.
The youth-led nature of the protest movement quickly took precedence over its popular dimension. The Lebanese Forces, reportedly the most pervasive party in the district, sent members to participate in the movement in an unannounced move and without any of its officials appearing publicly, given that many members took issue with the protestors’ widespread and uncompromising slogan against the political elite: “All of them means all of them.” Protestors even ejected a longtime political figure and her supporters from an early demonstration, accusing them of opportunism.
After shrinking during Lebanon’s 1975–1990 war, Zahleh experienced a period of rapid growth, with modern buildings and villas spreading into the hills and the adjacent plain. The city’s industrial sector also grew after the Zahleh municipality took administrative charge of the Ta‘nail area, home to many workshops and factories. The city also nurtured a tourism sector with hotels, cinemas, and cafes.
However, a stubborn economic downturn affected the city in the years before the uprising. Zahleh lost administrative control over a large area of the Beqa‘ region to the new governorate of Ba‘lbek-Hermel. Zahleh residents also lost their privileged positions in the local administration. Local shops faced new competition and banks set up branches in nearby towns, not to mention the contending appeal of the more glamorous shopping malls in Beirut. While Zahleh’s schools and hospitals maintained good reputations, they were not the only ones in the area—nor were they always the best-equipped. Finally, many people from Zahleh only remained in the city for short periods of time, such as summer breaks or for large celebrations. All this was in addition to the huge impact of the general decline in Lebanon’s economic activity.
Politically, the city has been facing a deep crisis of leadership. Melkite Greek Catholics, who make up the majority of residents and hold a prominent symbolic and historical position in Zahleh, “the Catholic capital of Orient,” lost their two parliamentary seats there in the 2018 elections to candidates from smaller towns. The first was from the town of Rayyaq and was a Lebanese Forces member, while the second was an industrialist from the nearby town of Ferzol.
It should be mentioned that the Greek Catholic leadership in Zahleh had been a dominant presence in the central Beqa‘ from the time of the Mutasarrifiya (1861–1918), throughout the French Mandate, and into the post-independence period. Greek Catholic leaders led electoral battles and formed electoral lists, as well as ensuring that state services were available to their voters. During the civil war and throughout the years of the Syrian presence (1976–2005), a council was formed of the city’s Greek Catholic, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox bishops, which played a major role politically and in providing services. However, today it has lost much of this role due to a dispute between one bishop and members of his sect.
Zahleh supported last year’s uprising, however it was not totally open to its neighbors, despite the economic hardships common to everyone, the crisis in living standards, and the supposedly shared goals driving the protests. The city tried, but it was unable to move beyond the seclusion, sense of superiority, and traditionalism of most of its residents. Zahleh did not coin its own slogans to express its positions, nor did it propose answers and solutions to its deep problems. Its youth did not create organizations appropriate for the magnitude of the events, and the Zahleh elite did not unify within innovative new frameworks. The protest movement in the city did not generate new leaders with new ideas and initiatives, but rather relied on speakers brought in from outside. The debates attracted people affiliated with the Lebanese Forces as well as a founding member of the revitalized National Bloc, who is from the city. An elite from outside the traditional Christian political parties tried to spur new initiatives, but these lost momentum despite the organizers’ good intentions and serious efforts. Existing organizations were unable to put in place a context that could have brought together university students, along with comrades from both the left and right, to work together to change the system and solve the disasters it had created.
One group with a major presence at the protests on the edge of Zahleh was made up of young demonstrators from nearby towns, particularly Sunni towns. Some reports said that they even formed a majority of protestors. But the “revolutionaries” from Zahleh had little presence at the rallies in nearby towns, and their participation at the huge demonstrations in Beirut took place on an individual basis. One did not find groups there that had travelled to the capital together, but rather educated individuals who were there on their own initiative, appalled by widespread corruption, state bankruptcy, clientelism, and oppression, and wanting to express their anger and their hopes by taking part in the wider revolutionary movement.
But Zahleh as a whole never abandoned its conservative political outlook. Rather, it retained pride in its slogans and national values, becoming even more convinced of them as Lebanese from all regions and sects marched in defense of those slogans. It saw the uprising as an opportunity to break down the barriers of sect and create a new, stronger, and healthier Lebanon. But residents were also annoyed by the arbitrary blocking of roads. Lebanon’s independence is Zahleh’s obsession, followed by worries over living standards and getting rid of the corrupt and coercive ruling clique. But the inhabitants’ efforts to reach these goals were not as radical as the goals themselves, and fell short of the need for creative thought and organization, effective strategies, and the huge sacrifices required.
That said, the uprising has left marks on the people of Zahleh. While these marks may have sometimes faded, they will not be erased.