Encountering “Allouchi”

Safa Hamzeh

Photo taken by Tariq Keblaoui on October 18, 2019 in Riad Al Solh, Beirut, Lebanon.

In Max Weiss’s In the Shadows of Sectarianism: Law, Shi’ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (2010), a scholarly exploration of the gradual “institutionalization of Shi’i difference” in Lebanon, Weiss quotes a passage from Lebanese film critic Mohammed Soueid’s interview with Omar Amiralay, in which the late Syrian filmmaker reflects on a childhood vision:

‘I saw a touring bear trainer in Jounieh,’ the coastal city just north of Beirut. When pressed further on the incident, Amiralay hypothesizes, ‘I think he was a Metwellite. Or maybe he was a Gypsy.’ Asked how he had come to that conclusion, he replies, ‘We were told that Metwellites showcased animal acts and roped their goats with bells.’ The interviewer asks, ‘Did you insist on calling Shi’ites Metwellites?’ ‘It was common practice then,’ Amiralay responds. ‘The referent Metwellite did not have a religious connotation in a sectarian mindset. In popular parlance, it referred to people who lived in misery. Before the emergence of Moussa el-Sadr, I did not know there were Shi’ites in Lebanon. In fact, for a long time, I did not even know there were Sunnis and Shi’ites in Islam’[1]

The image of the Metwellite touring with a bear, and its contrast against the glowing urbanity of the city of Jounieh, is engraved in Amiralay’s memory—a “fantastical” juxtaposition between civilization and coarseness.[2] The discursive construction of the Metwellite could lend itself to manifold readings in the filmmaker’s anecdote. It alludes toa supposed desolation, misery, and obscurity of Lebanon’s Shiite communities before their political and ideological mobilization under Musa al-Sadr and the Amal Movement. The story of the Metwellite that Weiss introduces his study with crisply captures the place Shiites found themselves in following the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. Thus, situated in its proper historical context, the referent was not far from capturing both the political and economic disinheritance of the Shiite communities of South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley.

The dreary figure of the Metwellite has since lost its semantic force, instead giving way to contemporary representations shaped by and seeping with excess power. Throughout the course of the October uprising, we encounter an unimaginative one: The figure of “Allouchi”, a figure spouting classist mockery and one that’s almost irksome to reproduce in writing. Not unlike that of the Metwellite, though stemming from a considerably different material reality, this discursive construction would prove to be symptomatic of the enduring hegemony of sectarian discourse in Lebanon, and would come to unveil an imaginary manufactured by protesters unable to escape sectarian relations they’d sought to destroy in the first place.

The election of President Michel Aoun in 2016 inaugurated al-‘ahd (العهد), thereby ending eleven years of axial politics organized around two competing projects embodied in the March 8 and March 14 movements.[3] This period witnessed the incessant grabbing of power by Hezbollah and its Aounist allies, the engineers and sponsors of the pact—who were both, ironically, outside the Taef Agreement—and consecrated the “Army, People, and Resistance” triad. A symptom of the crisis of the Second Republic, al-‘ahd itselfwas not short of co-producing frequent and irregular crises, be they environmental, economic, or political, enough in the first two weeks of October 2019 alone to lead to unprecedented, nation-wide protests. Following its catastrophic mismanagement of wildfires that erupted in the forests of the Chouf district, then Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his governmental cabinet rubbed salt into the wound by proposing a “remedial program” that consisted in a set of austerity measures, the least scandalous of which was a tax on free internet services. On October 17, thousands upon thousands stormed the streets of Beirut to demonstrate against what was dubbed ‘the WhatsApp tax’. The protests spontaneously spread from Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut to the entire country, and the centrality of the Lebanese capital was soon displaced. In many respects, cities like Tripoli could claim to be the center of the uprising; Beirut would only figure as a city in ebullition among many, and probably by no means the most important one. Even more noteworthy was the participation of cities such as Tyre and Nabatiyeh, long considered to be sect-party strongholds.  A revolutionary process, driven first and foremost by a collective will to de-sectarianize Lebanese politics and social relations, began taking root. At the conjuncture of economic crisis and environmental calamity, the October uprising exposed the etiolated connection between ruling political parties and their partisans. Notably, this would be the first significant, decentralized, and cross-sectarian protests to take place in postwar Lebanon. So much so that, to the onlooker, it seemed the protests would manage to undo the sectarian party machineries that were born out of the post-March Alliances politics.

That is how it seemed, at least,until Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, appeared in a televised speech to address the happenings—as had become customary—only a day after President Aoun had himself spoken to the Nation. Nasrallah began his speech by sermonizing the protestors of the uprising, which he termed a “popular movement,” and concluded with turning to the “resistance community” and their allies. Though he initially praised the protests as spontaneous, he ended up accusing them of being externally organized and financed. He then described the uprising as “protests of the deprived”, only to later charge them with being the protests of millionaires, political parties, and financier embassies. He told people to continue protesting, but politely; later, he would explicitly forbid insults and profanities, the destruction of property, and clashes with the Army. Nasrallah permitted the celebrations to go on, but only on the weekends. Blocking roads, he sympathized with, but then prohibited. Finally, he turned to the “resistance community” and asked them to leave the squares.

There was something undoubtedly sinister about the rhetorical devices deployed throughout Nasrallah’s speech, an ominousness shouldn’t strictly be attributed to the elusiveness of his statements. For, Amal and Hezbollah supporters did retreat on that day of October 25. Moreover, within hours of his second televised appearance addressing the uprising—and as if by sheer serendipity—some of the party’s supporters attacked protestors, destroying and burning down their tents. In a sea of sectarian emblems that organize Beirut, these protestors had carved an urban island for themselves within the emptied squares of its Downtown area. At that moment, however, they had found themselves surrounded by both violent counter-protesters and the riot police, trapped between the shabeeha that were inimical to the revolution and the Army guarding the carcass of a disintegrating era. The uprising’s defining slogan, “All of them means all of them,” could now be extended to include the supporters of the Triad.  It solidified the distinction Nasrallah had introduced between the protestors and Hezbollah’s supporters.

The October uprising’s redeployment of the “All of them means all of them” slogan bears witness to the delimitation of a political community that was long perceived to be in the making. Observers were quick to note the lineaments of a new social contract that repudiates the political legacy of the civil war and the logic of sectarianism. Equality and a decent life were to proceed from the right of the individual, as opposed to being mediated through the right of the sect. At the level of the individual, the “All of them means all of them” enunciation necessarily engenders its opposite: “I am not one of them.” By disavowing the ruling oligarchy on the one hand and declaring their extrication from ruling political parties—and by extension their partisans—on the other, protestors committed an act of excommunication. This excommunication gives way to the construction of a community of their own.

Theorizing on political immunology and its relation to community formation, Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito contends that:

[I]mmunity, as a privative category, only takes on relief as a negative mode of community. Similarly, when viewed in a mirror image, community appears to be entirely immunized, attracted and swallowed up in the form of its opposite. Immunity, in short, is the internal limit which cuts across community, folding it back on itself in a form that is both constitutive and deprivative; immunity constitutes or reconstitutes community precisely by negating it.[4]

What is thus being constructed through this excommunication of political parties and their base, is an attempt at a new community of protestors that distinguishes itself from the partisans, infiltrators and shabeeha who threaten to compromise the unity of the revolutionary body. This excommunication that the imagining of a new community has given rise to, has also posited an image of its other in contradistinction to its self-conception, as exemplified by the figure of Allouchi. Commonly a diminutive of the name Ali, it was widely deployed through local media discourse by many protesters and, in some instances, even came to be adopted by counter-protesters. By no means exhausting all other representations, Allouchi is a constructed figure that aims to profile the anti-revolutionary Shiites who left the demonstrations following Nasrallah’s speech; in other words, it refers to male Shiite individuals of a certain class who are hostile to the revolutionary project of the October uprising.

As the diminution of the term suggests, Allouchi is first and foremost a politically immature subject, as opposed to the protestor who has ‘come of age’, so to speak. He is granted political protection, solely by virtue of his belonging to the Shiite sect, and hence can commit lawless acts and continue existing outside of the law. He is unemployed, and drives a minibike, so he is uncultured. According to his opponents, he is both ignorant and compliant. But he can be violent, and that exposes him as a zealot. If he returns to the protest, he is only returning in his capacity as an infiltrator and should be engaged with as double-faced. Of course, he is also sectarian.

In an article published on Daraj, an Arabic-speaking liberal platform, this “caricatural” figure, which the authors recognize as such, is further taken as a paradigm for interpreting social realities.[5] The characteristics and ideologies of the Shiites thus become summarily embodied by Allouchi. The article then further essentializes Shiite communities by attempting a historicization of their political affiliations, and subsequently frames contemporary Shiite political homogeneity as being intrinsic and eternal to the group. This form of reasoning ends up propagating the narrative of Lebanese bourgeois ideology identified by Lebanese Marxist thinker Mahdi ‘Amil, though the article itself slips into confusion as it calls upon none other than ‘Amil to support its claims:[6]

‘Allouchi’ formulates a discourse derived from the heritage of tribal society: ‘If it wasn’t for the Party’s intervention in Syria, Daesh would have raped our women.’ In this environment, where truth is that of religion only, ‘Allouchi’ evokes his kindness to us and our exceptional conditions, in a country drowning in debt and waste but breathing dignity and power.[7]

Allouchi is a morally inferior subject who—in sharp contradistinction to the protestors who lift themselves out of the grasp of sectarian relations—is unable to escape his interpellation by ideology. Embodying the rabble of the “Resistance Society,” the power prescribed to this figure is meant to reflect and signify the power of the leading Shiite political party and militia, Hezbollah. At the same time, it is a unitary figure of a presupposed oneness of the “Shiite Duo,” Amal and Hezbollah, both of which are currently the sole political representatives of the Shiite sect in Lebanon. Allouchi thus encapsulates the militance of Lebanese political Shiism, the reactionary nature of Hezbollah’s politics, the “incomplete nationalization” of the Shiite communities forming a state within the state, and the propensity of Shiites for violence, ever consigned to healing the originary wound of Karbala.

The construction of the figure of Allouchi gestures toward a novel act of differentiation that is not separate, but in fact necessary, for the process of excommunication to take shape. Here, the protestor’s self-conception becomes the function of the image of the other. It seeks to see itself as the opposite of the other: while the opposite is perceived as corrupt, sectarian, partisan,  ideological,  and obscene, it experiences itself as pure, patriotic, unaffiliated, non-ideological, and virtuous. For Allouchi—initially deemed the ‘backbone of the uprising’ in the first few days of the protests, by way of mass participation as well as through acts blocking off roads and leading protestors’ motorcycle processions—to retreat after Nasrallah enjoined him to, supposedly proves his imperviousness to the revolution. The supposed withdrawal of most Shiite protestors on the third day of the uprising threatened to stymie the revolution’s tides. It disrupted a revolutionary imaginary being constructed, that of a community of revolutionaries in the process of freeing themselves of sectarianism.

One could claim that the critiques formulated within the uprising around the inexorably powerful Hezbollah and its reactionary politics inevitably takes the shape of othering, a clear discursive aspect of political immunology.  Glaring was the panic that the so-called infiltrators caused among protestors in Riad al-Solh, after stones came down hurtling at them from within. The designation of “Shabeb al-Khandaq”—or the men of al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq neighborhood, a Shiite and working-class neighborhood that borders central Beirut— became a euphemism for all Shiite men acting independently or by orders to attack protestors and target the uprising. This critique of the Shiite anti-revolutionary takes a new direction: that which has no commitment to a sect but nevertheless participates in the reproduction of a sectarian narrative—that of imaginaries around the figure of Allouchi—as part of the structure of sectarianism. Through that encounter, protestors performing demands for secularism end up reproducing sectarian relations—within and without themselves.

Protestors are here confronted with a problem. Given the current hegemony of Hezbollah over the political structure, they are compelled to reduce the regime to a sect. What are then the possibilities for the production of a non-sectarian political community that would allow these protestors to escape the social relations they are embedded in? How can de-sectarianization operate within these social relations when certain encounters inherently reproduce the logic of sectarianism? To answer these questions, the revolutionary subject should perhaps orient themselves to think through and produce new modes of organization and mobilization. In order to do so, they would look toward the future through a revolutionary lens, i.e. by having something to topple and another to construct. Within the Second Republic and its two pillars, confessionalism and Harirism, the uprising auspiciously recognized what was to be dislodged. However, there is no denying that, at the moment, Hezbollah presents an insuperable opposition to the revolution and its objectives. For one, the uprising’s central slogan, “All of them means all of them”, can be understood to run up against Hezbollah’s clasp on both the Lebanese parliament and cabinet, and to allude to the party’s arms. The perpetuity—indeed, the reproduction—of this regime, is materially conditioned by arms existing outside of it. Even when they continue, saying, “Nasrallah is one of them,” the memory of the “events” of May 7, 2008 still inhabits the protestors’ imagination and incites widespread fear.[8] Yet, al-‘ahd does not constitute the entirety of the regime but a mere instantiation of it. Locating it is more elusive than one could have imagined. How to define such a regime remains a different question altogether and is perhaps beyond the scope of this article; in addition, whether the uprising was able to articulate a full conception of what this “regime” actually is and what it includes would also be worthy of another discussion. Self-defense, while understandable, can be detrimental to the formation of a post-sectarian community. Instead, we are to identify patterns in the regime that help us negotiate Hezbollah’s hegemony—and certainly without unselfconsciously feeding up the party’s own narratives that are strengthening by the day through the partially self-imposed “siege”. But for now, let’s drop Allouchi.

Safa Hamzeh received her MA in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her current research explores contemporary Shiite mourning rituals. She works at Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research. 

[1] In the Shadows of Sectarianism explores the process through which the Shiites become more sectarian, adopt a subnational sectarian identity by the recognition and institutionalization demands, and are brought into the orbit of the Lebanese sectarian state. See Max Weiss, In The Shadow Of Sectarianism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 38-60.

[2] This pejorative representation of the  Metwellite, rendered other times as Métoualis”/ Matawalah or Metoualis, and believed to mean “mata waliyyan li-‘Ali,” was not an invention of the Republic and has been deployed since the 18th century by European travelers, Ottoman bureaucrats, and Lebanese intellectuals to depict the insulation of Shiite communities in Jabal Amil and the Beqaa Valley. Weiss, In The Shadow Of Sectarianism, 40-54.

[3] In Arabic, al-‘ahd translates into the Pact and era. Used in commentary to connote the Hezbollah-Aounist regime/alliance.

[4] Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The protection and negation of life (Polity, 2011), 9.

[5] Daraj.com. 2020. عن فائض القوة : “علوشي” الذي لا يهزم | Daraj. [online] Available at: https://daraj.com/46017/ [Accessed 10 July 2020].

[6] Briefly, this ideology sees sects and sectarianism in Lebanon as intrinsic to groups, not as a set of social relations, realized, institutionalized and mediated through the State, as ‘Amil contends. See: Mahdi ‘Amil, Fi al-dawla al-ta’ifiyya (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 1989).

[7] Daraj.com. 2020. عن فائض القوة : “علوشي” الذي لا يهزم | Daraj. [online] Available at: https://daraj.com/46017/ [Accessed 10 July 2020].

[8] The May 7, 2008 events refer to a political crisis over Hezbollah’s arms that prompted the party to swiftly deploy militiamen and surround West Beirut within the span of a few days. The crisis witnessed armed clashes around the capital’s neighborhoods, and later extended to other cities in Lebanon. It was resolved when the Arab League intervened, resulting in the Doha Agreement. This drove the March 14-led government to rescind its decision to intervene with Hezbollah’s telecommunication network and the ending of an eighteen months long political logjam in the country.