Rebel Populism describes the Syrian uprising and civil war through the eyes of Syrian migrant workers and refugees in Beirut. The book relies on many years of participant-observation in Lebanon, hundreds of semi-structured interviews, as well as life history collection, image and video cataloguing, and focus group analysis. Based on this data, it describes, first, how the same socio-economic pressures that pushed the people to revolt against the Syrian government can be located in the transformation of labour migration to Lebanon from a once temporary means of accumulating future-directed savings to a faltering survivalist strategy unable to keep pace with a growing gap between wages and prices. Syrian workers expressed their bottom-up insurgent anti-regime politics through the circulating protest art, anti-regime video clips, and alternative news sources. However, as the uprising collapsed into today’s bloody proxy war, the book then moves to chart how the men began to instead seek to build lives for themselves in Lebanon despite intense social, economic, and legal uncertainty. "
The introductory chapter sets the tone of the book by focusing on key moments in the life of Abdullah, a 26-year-old migrant worker from rural eastern Syria. From day-to-day encounters over five years, the introduction places his life within the fieldwork context and the Syrian uprising more generally. I highlight key themes and literature through his life history. And my aim is to avoid a dry and static introductory chapter by instead pinpointing the book’s core contribution through the ethnographic context itself. The reader learns about Abdullah’s social network, how he first encounters the promise of revolution, and the diverse range of grievances he holds toward the state. As the uprising spreads across Syria, Abdullah begins to see himself not only as a “migrant worker” but now part of “the people” and fundamentally opposed to “the regime.” He frames his support not as a mechanical “bread-riot” reaction to impoverishment, but specifically through what his impoverishment means for the reproduction of his socio-cultural world – like his inability to display generosity during Ramadan, or the loss of educational opportunities due to excessive working hours. It is in this style that the book’s more extensive engagement with debates on art and aesthetics, neoliberalism, new technology, masculinity, the economic basis of the revolt, and revolutionary participation, are also introduced – but always with the intent of helping make sense of Abdullah’s emergent political commitments.
The dominant narrative of the Syrian uprising is that regime violence suppressed mass protests calling for “freedom of expression and democracy,” and that, consequently, a movement once liberal and democratic degraded into a sectarian civil war. Stepping back from a sarcastic joke from a worker dismissing the Ba’athist ideological pillars – “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” – this chapter examines transformations in Syria’s political economy. We learn that what’s being objected to here is not only the violence of the state’s repressive arm but also its abandonment of a welfare pact between the city and the countryside. The chapter examines, in turn, how the “Populist Authoritarian” Ba’ath state did enact material transformations that coalesced around its those initial headlines – “unity, freedom, and socialism.” However, we then see how, due to a series of liberalising reforms in the 1990s, deepened in the 2000s, anti-poor outcomes began to constrain the future of the men who made that joke. Thus, in a bid to understand their sarcasm that this chapter moves gradually toward the book’s central analytic framework. We learn how the Ba’ath party’s social contract snapped, lost its remaining populist credentials, and exposed workers and peasants to the increasingly unfettered capitalism. Labour migration thus shifts from a means to build a future to a mechanism of survival. The Assad government, under a global push toward market liberalisation, thereby lay its own populist powder keg.
This chapter examines what migrant labourers said about the uprising, what kinds of socio-economic antagonisms they wanted resolved, and what shape their idealised future post-revolutionary society might take. It argues that men’s oppositional politics are neither a mechanistic material “bread riot” response to low wages and high prices, nor are they wholly an emotionally or “affect-driven” response to “shame and indignation.” Drawing on the work of Ernesto Laclau, I argue that Syrian labourers’ horizontal anti-regime demands and ideas are indicative of a populist rupture in Syrian state-society relations. I show how workers took time to reflect on their material conditions. Then they identified who they felt responsible for those conditions (what they called “the regime”) and decided on what was to be done (“support the revolution”). I show how their opposition to the Assad government is thus not only down to some threatened sense of “identity,” but that sense of threat, and even those identities, always emerge through a specific interplay between their objective material conditions under (neo-)liberal capitalism (as migrant laborers) and subjective understandings of the politically possible (“the people” having overcome the “barrier of fear”).
This chapter explores the pro-uprising images that workers shared over WhatsApp and imagine. I argue that their political aesthetic is distinct from “Arab Spring artwork” displayed in regional and Western capitals – art produced by self-recognised (and institutionally-recognised) “artists.” When I talked to my informants about why they shared any given image, it was evident some idea of political “intentionality” is at the heart of aesthetic choices. We learn in this chapter that workers are not interested in pictures that (re-)present aspects of regime violence – like scenes of smashed bodies, or mutilated flesh. Rather, images set as profile pictures on WhatsApp, or passed to each other over Bluetooth, appeared to always intend to do something within the context of an emergent revolutionary commitment. They broke with the barrier of fear and asserted everyday people as a new political force. Worker artwork brashly traverses prior limits of what could be said and not said. And this was achieved not by presenting visceral images capturing of regime violence, but by superimposing a donkey’s face over the president’s head.
As the uprising turned ever more violent, death became an unavoidable presence in the lives of my informants. Men lost friends, kin, and comrades. Some died in battles with government forces, and Islamic State later murdered others. These tragedies produced deep longings for a return, with a dream of enacting vengeance. But men knew it was their work in Lebanon, and whatever remittances that work generated, that kept families back home afloat. In this chapter, digital is once again central. Academics writing on the Arab Spring have elsewhere drawn attention to the importance of cheap consumer communication technology in democratising martyrdom image-making, and that this meant commemoration could fall away from the state into the hands of the people. Rebel Populism goes one step further by revealing how technology facilitated a time-space compression, allowing for men without skill in graphic design, and little free time, to deploy user-friendly image creation apps on their mobile phones. Through these techniques, workers were able to produce posters and videos that celebrated lost friends and kin, placing them within a pantheon of the people’s eternal and heroic rebel-martyrs.
Chapter 5 is about what it means to be “a man” in Beirut. My argument is that what it meant to be a “man” and how far one can achieve socio-culturally specific ideas of “manhood” was impacted by the high degrees of pauperisation witnessed in Syria before the uprising. Contra literature that stresses the “crisis of masculinity” argument is “exoticist” or “orientalist,” I show through ethnography that my informants were very much concerned about their ability to live up to certain gendered expectations. However, I argue this concern is not at all uniquely “Arab,” for gender scholarship has revealed instabilities within hegemonic masculinity as emergent within similar conditions of economic austerity and neoliberal pauperisation across the word. I classify three models of masculinity to which Syrian worker-rebels aspired, and around which they recognised themselves and others: (1) al-shabāb [lads], (2) al-kibār [elders], and (3) al-thuwwār [rebels]. The chapter deploys ethnographic vignettes to reveal how al-thuwwār, as with the martyrs in the preceding chapter, upset traditional patriarchal power relations between younger and older men. An earlier generation of Syrian men working in Lebanon generated savings and transitioned from a period of youthful indulgences (al-shabāb) in the city to finally become heads of household back home (al-kibār). But as this pattern collapsed, Syrian labourers had little option but to begin building lives for themselves in Beirut. Now they do so without the economic means to anchor values associated with being an older man (i.e. providing for a family, building a home or raising children). This transition became, I argue, something like a performance without a stage.
The final chapter examines how Syrian labourers in Beirut circulated, from the edges of the civil war, a range of “conspiracy theories” that purported to make sense of what – by 2014 – appeared a chaotic and persistently tragic series of events. Arguments ranged from accusations concerning masonic plots ushering in the end of times to the suggestion of an elaborate Shia plan to engulf the entire region. As foil to Chapter 1 and 2, this final chapter shows how the arguments men made during after-dinner conversations still, even at this late stage, attempt to retain and reinforce core populist political identities carved out during 2011’s populist rupture: al-shaʿb [the people] and al-niẓām [the regime]. But these conspiracy theories, especially when they take on sectarian logic, tidy up loose ends despite evidently complicated political splintering. I show how these popular political theories worked to constitute and extend political borders, identities, and territories from the Syrian conflict into workers’ daily lives in Lebanon. But also, how, as the revolution was lost, political theories from the 2011‒2012 period, that men once based around dignity, class, solidarity, and rural resentment, became increasingly anchored in notions of “Shia plots,” sectarian duplicity, and reified socio-religious identities. I conclude that this is an evident degeneration in political beliefs and commitments and represents a late-stage, conflict-driven mutation of rebel populism itself.
In this concluding chapter, an anecdote is relayed about a youthful rebellion that exists as a wider metaphor for the differences between individual acts of rebellion and a greater insurrection, as related to Syria. By centralising rural-to-urban workers and the development of a rebel populist rupture, this book concludes with hopes to help pinpoint those overlapping political, economic, and even technological conditions that generate support for oppositional forces and to illustrate what is to be gained from really focusing on the mass component of emerging social movements. From France’s yellow vests to renewed civil demonstration in Lebanon, the world is now awash in unruly insurrections. These movements all have particular contextual demands, yet they appear united in some key structural features similar to what, in the Syrian context, the book labels “rebel populism.”