Friends and relatives carry the coffin of slain Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir in Beirut in June, 2005. (AP Photo / Hussein Malla)
Friends and relatives carry the coffin of slain Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir in Beirut in June, 2005. (AP Photo / Hussein Malla)

Samir Kassir in Lebanon’s October 17 uprising

In light of the 15th anniversary of his assassination, young activists filled the online space with quotes and statements said and written by the late journalist and intellectual Samir Kassir.

As a journalist, Kassir played a role in breaking the cycle of fear with his critiques against both the establishment and security apparatus at the time.

A daring writing style, coupled with his later experiences as a political organizer, contributed to setting the cultural foundations of large sections of the movement which rose against the Syrian occupation in the early 2000s.

Commenting on the prospects for change in Lebanon in an interview with the Daily Star in June 2004, Kassir said, “I am sure the Lebanese deserve a better future. At least, they deserve to find their own way, in accordance with a rich history that cannot be reduced to mere violence.”

It is generally acknowledged that Kassir’s hardened criticisms against the Lebanese-Syrian intelligence services, alongside attempts to mobilize students and youth under a daring, bold, and strategic political discourse, motivated his assassins to initiate their cold-blooded act on June 2, 2005.

At the time, Kassir took part in a battle between two increasingly contentious poles, both of which included sectarian and neoliberal formations which subsequently grabbed power following his assassination. For his momentary considerations, the priority back then was independence, and potentially, freedom.

Since then, a change in circumstances induced a shift in battles, with many of Kassir’s comrades and young readers revisiting what it means to be a democratic leftist in today’s context. Nevertheless, Kassir’s battles and priorities in 2005 cannot possibly erase his philosophical and political relevance to emerging forces in 2020.

Embarrassing the military boot

In the view of several activists today, October 17 represents a milestone partly due to many letting go of an exclusivist pro-army fanaticism which had prevailed in the national scene for more than a decade.

With the excessive use of military repression and coercion as a method to silence protesters by Lebanon’s current government, the slogan ‘askar ‘ala min permeated the streets once again following detailed testimonies of torture and abuse. The slogan comes in response to the ways that the military imposes itself on those most vulnerable.

I say “again” because it was (rightfully) recycled from older chapters of Lebanon’s contentious history, once as a title for Samir Kassir’s article, published on March 16, 2001 as a response to widespread crackdowns on protests and unjust military court decisions at the time.

In a sense, Samir Kassir’s spirit “reappeared” as a counter-hegemonic force against an increasingly degraded military boot, now widely known for its patronage and use of force against dissidents and refugees.

Today, ‘askar ‘ala min is one of the most common chants and slogans used, most recently by demonstrators in front of the military court.

In a context increasingly reminiscent of the pax-Syrian days, i.e. one in which the most detestable use of force is left unaccountable, it only makes sense to see the military man who followed Kassir around and confiscated his passport become an MP with the audacity to threaten to shoot protestors in front of his house.

Disappointing chauvinist xenophobes

In the month of February 2005, following the assassination of former PM Rafik al-Hariri, recurrent protests were organized in Central Beirut by various groups, many of which were youth and/or student organizations.

At the time, a growing left-wing current, of which Kassir was a part, found itself collaborating with right-wing Christian groups with the common goal of ending the Syrian occupation.

While many have now critically reflected on the strategic choices of that era, said to have been done in the pursuit of an independent Lebanon, Samir Kassir’s daring move to read a statement by Syrian opposition intellectuals standing in solidarity with Beirut’s protestors remains unforgettable.

Standing in front of an increasingly racist and exclusivist crowd, whose anger against the Syrian regime manifested in the unjust abuse of Syrian workers, his strategic considerations at the time would not allow him to forfeit his basic principles.

On that note, Kassir’s support for Lebanese independence did not take a hardline nationalistic turn, but one which stressed on solidarity and the shaping of bonds between those striving for democratic rule in an authoritarian Levant.

Today, that one right-wing group, once standing in opposition to the Syrian regime’s occupation, presides over a dysfunctional state as its leaders continue to scapegoat refugees for their failures.

Given the challenges ahead, Kassir’s stance informs an ever needed addition to any progressive project challenging the station quo: rejecting the force of hate and exclusion, instead embracing exchanged solidarity.

Critiquing the liberal experience

Today, a socioeconomic urgency prevails over the protest movement. Why, then, would it make sense to highlight the relevance of an intellectual who shared his battle in 2005 with neoliberal forces?

It’s still up for debate whether momentary concessions and bloc-building robbed Samir of his leftist identity. Nine years prior to that contentious reality, Samir founded L’Orient Express, a monthly issue some may have considered marginal and elitist.

It nevertheless critically tackled the neoliberal reconstruction of Beirut, however within a larger ideological scope unfriendly to those who wanted to impair the democratic process at the time in the name of putting an end to neoliberal corruption.

“There is space for this secular movement that has become frustrated with the liberal experience. In my opinion, there is a need for an effort that helps the establishment of social justice while taking into consideration all the qualifications and reservations against the welfare state,” he expressed in an old interview with Al Siyasah.

On one hand, his overwhelming focus on the security state drove him away from orthodox class-based analysis. On another hand, it motivated him to take part in a project aimed at recreating the Left at a time when leftists felt a loss of purpose.

Today, in the era of a technocratic government providing a package constituting army force, the IMF, and Jamil Al-Sayyed, recreating the Left into a force which rejects the old dichotomy between freedoms, social justice, and independence becomes a necessity.

While it is far from clear how the excessively polarized events of 2005 may relate to 2020, it is now needed more than ever to incorporate the daring, hardened, and renewed democratic spirit of a fighter who would have had many things to say about the battle the country is currently facing.