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Analysis: Lebanon at a crossroads

What are the prospects of Lebanon’s protests, asks Hassan Al-Qishawi

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Thursday 31 Oct 2019
Lebanon at a crossroads
Anti-government protesters form a human chain as a symbol of unity, during ongoing protests against the Lebanese government, on the Mediterranean waterfront promenade, in Beirut
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A “dead end’ was the words of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri as he submitted his resignation on Tuesday declaring his failure to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against Lebanon’s ruling elite.

 “I am going to the Baabda (presidential) palace to present the resignation of the government. To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy,” said the Sunni politician in a televised address  to the nation.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Al-Hariri said in his speech.

A couple of days earlier, Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave his second speech , which seemed more like threats, however, Lebanese protesters insist on staying on the streets amid concern about how this impacts the economy. Media reports said banks remained shut Monday, and that blocking roads is ruining the economy, especially the delivery of fuel and flour to bakeries.

On the political front, it is obvious that some political forces are trying to ride the revolutionary wave, such as the Lebanese Forces Party and Progressive Socialist Party led by Waleed Jumblatt, as Hariri tries to appease both the street and politicians. It is notable that the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has remained silent despite being a main target of protests, especially since its leader Jibran Bassel is the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.

Meanwhile, it is clear that Hizbullah’s Nasrallah is confrontational with the protests, saying that the demands are legitimate but the demonstrations are being penetrated by foreign agendas. His position exposed Hizbullah in front of its Shia and non-Shia supporters, especially since the left is playing a role in these protests and has always supported the resistance, namely Hizbullah. The group is also risking losing any remaining respect it enjoys among intellectuals.

Even if the sectarian political system is able to contain protests, Hizbullah’s moral loss is huge and its popularity will continue to fall.

While Iran’s plan was to showcase the conversion of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq into a new Hizbullah, events on the ground have shown that Hizbullah is becoming a new PMF instead. Gradually, Iran’s rule in Iraq and Lebanon is transforming from a rule that takes advantage of loopholes in democracy and uses force against its foes only (such as the Sunnis when Hizbullah raided Beirut on 7 May 2008), to a de facto rule using force against anyone, even allies and Shia grassroots.

Many in Lebanon are worried that they are on the threshold of a new Lebanese “order” that is upheld by oppression, demagoguery, and a ban on dissent. This threatens any form of “consensus” in Lebanon built after independence.

Hizbullah and all political party leaders know that the political system is stronger than to collapse under these protests, or any others, but what is happening now is seriously damaging the economy. They also know there is a price to pay to protesters, but they disagree on how much. Overthrowing any political leader or delving into corruption issues will raise the question, why only this official when everyone is involved in corruption?

Protesters are especially angry with the FPM, specifically Bassil who is a close ally of Hizbullah and cannot be removed. Sacrificing Bassil alone will stir Christian sensitivities, especially among Aoun supporters. According to media reports, Bassil prevented the government resigning and a cabinet reshuffle that would remove him from power. Reports also said that Bassil interfered in Hariri’s proposed reforms and took electricity off the table, which usually features in reforms. Power supplies in Lebanon are abysmal with daily outages that last at least three hours in Beirut, and longer in other parts of the country. Lebanese citizens pay an average $40-$100 a month for power from generators in their districts.

What is even more risky than politicians avoiding reform is making offers to protesters that harm the economy in the medium term. The option of overthrowing the regime is not very realistic, since demonstrators have not presented any alternatives to the incumbents. Demands for a technocratic government or advisory council are also unrealistic because these urbane technocrats will be swamped by the maze of the Lebanese state, packed with wheeling, dealing and corruption.

Calls for early elections will not only revive debate about gerrymandering and the election law, which will resurrect sectarianism that protesters pride themselves that they have abolished. The outcome of elections would reproduce the incumbent ruling class due to weak civil society and non-sectarian political parties.

The Lebanese people must end this crisis through deep, realistic, structural reforms that reduce corruption and increase reason, allowing secular and non-partisan forces to oversee and correct its course.

Lebanese sect leaders will not assist protesters in destroying their thrones, but they could agree to assist them in reforming the condition of the country. The uprising needs to make realistic demands that bring about progress without the country falling into chaos.

For example, protesters should demand reform of the judiciary and end sectarian quotas, and blatant party and militia control of state institutions, such as groups associated with Shia parties controlling the borders and smuggling routes. It must demand an end to sectarian quotas at universities, reduce the sectarian tint and bolster rational decision making in key country institutions that could confront corruption and enforce the state, not dismantle it.

All this requires reasonable demands and activists must know that they are facing the oldest and strongest system in the world. It is multi-leader system implanted everywhere for hundreds of years through a network of social ties, ramose sectarianism and hundreds of thousands of supporters in a country with a population of no more than four million.

It’s easy to chant on the streets, “All of them means all of them,” but would Druze accept removing the Arsalan clan from the helm after them leading for 1,000 years? Would they abandon Jumblatt whose family led the Druze for two centuries and fought under this leadership no matter how often it switched alliances?

Would Shias abandon Hizbullah, which some view as the representative of velayat-e faqih? And no matter how Aoun’s supporters detest his son-in-law they will protect him for the sake of his father-in-law, under whom they fought even though he always entered losing battles. And Geagea supporters, who went to battle alongside him even against their own Maronite kin, will not abandon him for the sake of protesters they don’t know in Beirut. The people of Qadaa Regreta will not remove Suleiman Frangieh who knows their families on a first name basis.

Sunnis, who are the least sectarian, are the most willing to abandon this system. Unlike most other sects, Sunnis in Lebanon are not a minority in the Arab world and sectarianism only appeared among them when confronting the sectarian composition began by the Druze and Maronites in the mountains. There are indicators that the Future Movement could be the sectarian element that suffers the most harm from developments in Lebanon in recent years; it is not enough for only one sect to abandon sectarianism while others persist in upholding it.

In fact, if events in Lebanon weaken the Future Movement while all other sectarian political parties remain strong, this could lead to weakening the Sunni camp and give rise to a radical alternative that tries to fill the vacuum.

Yes, there is a new generation of Lebanese youth who are less partisan to their sects and factions, and angry towards the failure of their leaders. This generation must learn to win their battles on solid ground. Reforming the system could be the most realistic option, on the condition that they gain genuine compromises from the leaders of the regime regarding the structure of the system, and not merely populist gains that destroy both the system and the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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