Dreams and reality in Lebanon

Hany Ghoraba
Wednesday 30 Oct 2019

The dreams of the young people protesting on the streets of Lebanon are in danger of colliding with the realities of the old political establishment, writes Hany Ghoraba

October was a hot month in Lebanon, though not in terms of climate. Instead, it was a month of political strife that reached its peak after over a decade of political uncertainty and economic deterioration.

A new uprising in Lebanon, believed to be the most massive since 2005, has been taking place in the country and is still ongoing. As with many such uprisings, this was triggered by protests against economic hardships and increasing taxes, in this case social-media applications such as the WhatsApp messaging app. It is for this reason that the uprising has been labelled as the “WhatsApp Revolution”.

Nevertheless, the WhatsApp tax was only the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it triggered an assortment of other protests against the growing economic hardships and political strife in Lebanon. The Lebanese state’s mounting debt has reached 151 per cent of the country’s GDP, which makes Lebanon the world’s third-most indebted country by GDP. The calls for removing the new taxes turned into calls for the resignation of the entire government, seen as being to blame for deteriorating livelihoods.

The protesters have also chanted calls for a non-sectarian political system that does not include the quota system stipulated after the Taif Agreement of 1989 in Saudi Arabia that helped to end the horrific civil war that ripped Lebanon apart from 1975 to 1990, killing hundreds of thousands and causing the migration of millions of others.

The Taif Agreement, or National Reconciliation Accord, divided the executive powers of the nation among the representatives of various sects, including a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament. The Agreement also called for the disarming of all the factions and militias in Lebanon, with the exception of Hizbullah, which remains today as the “resistance force” in the face of the previous Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Hizbullah has continued its possession of arms and developed its military capabilities even after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

The political spectrum in Lebanon has been characterised for years by the likes of President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry, along with Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. These political figures represent the powerhouses of the Lebanese political spectrum, and many of them have been accused of serving foreign powers and not Lebanese interests.

The calls to end the sectarian political system in Lebanon come amidst growing weariness among many Lebanese citizens, who feel that the system, though it has ended the war, has retained and deepened the divisions within the nation without providing a roadmap to end sectarianism. Moreover, the terrorist-designated group Hizbullah, once hailed as a hero by the Lebanese for defending the country’s southern borders against Israeli incursions, has abused its political power over the past two decades.

Hizbullah has effectively become a state within a state in Lebanon, and it has funding from Iran amounting to some $700 million annually. The growing allegiance of Hizbullah to Iran, serving that rogue nation’s agenda, has irked Lebanese politicians and citizens alike for years. Nasrallah has openly said that he is proud of his group’s allegiance to Iran and that he has no plans to cease cooperation with his paymasters regardless of the pressure to do so.

He has always stressed that Lebanon is “safer” with the presence of Hizbullah bearing arms, taking the pressure off the Lebanese armed forces in facing Israel or other external threats such as the Islamic State (IS) group.

During last month’s protests in Lebanon, shadows of the country’s civil war darkened the mostly jubilant scenes in the Lebanese capital Beirut and other cities. While joy and pride has imbued these Lebanese cities, scenes of clashes between protesters and army forces were also recorded. Yet, far more dangerous were the clashes between elements from Hizbullah that attempted to hassle protesters in many areas around the country.

Nasrallah has declared that he rejects the demands of the protesters for a new political system in Lebanon distant from the Taif Agreement. He has even warned that today’s tense situation may lead to renewed civil war, a concealed threat after the eruption of the protests. Nasrallah commands one of Lebanon’s most highly trained militias. His troops have raised their arms against their fellow countrymen before, and his threats cannot be taken lightly.

However, if the ongoing protests continue at the same pace and Nasrallah decides to tackle the uprising with violence, it could spell the end of the flimsy credibility gained by Hizbullah and place the Lebanese army in the conundrum of having to decide whether to face it with military force. This would run the risk of re-igniting the civil war and attracting other belligerents, including the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Gegea or the Druze.

At the moment, the dreams of the young protesters in Lebanon are colliding with the realities of the old political establishment. It would be a great achievement if the “sectarian” system of government in Lebanon were got rid of once and for all, but the question remains of whether the country and its citizens are prepared to do that. Given the fact that many of the protesters are not politically experienced or even involved in politics, which means they have no parties or political figures to represent them except from the current line-up of politicians, they run the risk of letting the more organised political parties fight for power once again, but this time with no quotas to keep each of them in place.

If the older parties lose seats in democratic elections and are unable to retain similar powers as under the Taif Agreement, the ensuing conflicts might open the door to another civil struggle in Lebanon if not a civil war.

The protesters dream of reviving the golden age of Lebanon between the 1960s and the early 1970s, when the country enjoyed peace as a cultural, financial and touristic hub in the region. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and wishful thinking. The scenes we have seen from the Lebanese uprising are reminiscent of some of the scenes we saw from Tahrir Square in Cairo in January 2011, when dreams got the better of protesters who failed to grasp the realities of the political situation and eventually became pawns in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups seeking power in Egypt.

The rest is history, but Lebanon now is risking taking the same path if reality does not halt it from doing so and new political entities do not emerge from the current political uprising.

While it is 30 years since the signing of the Taif Agreement, and the deal itself is far from perfect, it remains the glue that ties the nation together and prevents it from slipping into sectarian violence. Hasty decisions about the sectarian character of politics in Lebanon should be avoided, whether these come from Nasrallah or others. Hastening elections is always a bad idea, as Lebanese citizens will then require forming new political entities outside the current political spectrum. These parties will require massive grassroots efforts to flourish and stand on their own two feet in any elections, if they are effectively to challenge the existing powerhouses.

The Taif Agreement should remain in effect in Lebanon until the country’s new political forces have organised themselves and shown that they will not be simply tools for extremists to take power in a country that has had its fair share of extremism.

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

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

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