Despite warnings from Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, promises by Lebanese President Michel Aoun and counterdemonstrations by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, anti-government demonstrations have surged again.
The protest movement had subsided somewhat after prime minister Saad Al-Hariri announced his resignation 29 October. At the same time, pro-government forces shifted to the offensive. The FPM and Hizbullah launched a counteroffensive in the media, staged counterdemonstrations in the street, and mobs loyal to Hizbullah and Amal violently attacked protester camps in central Beirut.
Also, on Sunday, thousands of supporters of President Aoun rallied on the road leading to the Presidential Palace on the outskirts of Beirut waving pictures of the president and the orange flags of the FPM to which he belongs. The pro-Aoun demonstration was the largest counterdemonstration since 17 October when a government proposal to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls triggered an eruption of nationwide protests calling for radical political and economic reforms.
In a televised address, President Aoun called on the people to unify behind efforts to stamp out corruption which he described as “deeply-rooted” in the state. Aoun, who now has to consult with parliament over the designation of a new prime minister, said that he had a three-point plan to fight corruption, reform the economy and build the civil state.
The Hariri government has continued in a caretaker capacity until a new one is formed.
In a speech to the crowd at the pro-Aoun rally, Gebran Bassil, foreign minister and Aoun’s son-in-law, vowed to uproot corruption and bring to justice all who squandered public monies. Wearing a T-shirt with his father-in-law’s face on it, Bassil, a frequent object of protesters’ sarcasm, said: “Take care, because we have long and difficult days ahead. We had to race with time in order to prevent a collapse. But corruption, waste and public debt preceded us.”
Following Hariri’s resignation, President Aoun seemed inclined to support the creation of a more technocratic government. Ministers should be chosen “in accordance with their skills and expertise, not their political affiliations”, he said. The problem is that, as president, he has few powers that he can exercise directly. He does not have leverage of his own to push parliament into legislating in favour of his reform plan.
The Iranian-backed Hizbullah, which supports Aoun, held that Hariri’s resignation would waste precious time needed in order to institute the measures required to reduce government spending and persuade foreign donors to release approximately $11 billion in pledged aid.
With Hariri’s resignation, and before that the criticisms levelled against Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the resignation of Lebanese Forces Party (LFP) ministers from the Hariri government, it is clear that the protest movement has begun to lock horns with Hizbullah and the FPM, which lead the pro-Syrian 8 March Alliance, while the anti-Syrian 15 March Alliance appears to be more aligned with the protesters.
Interestingly, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has been noticeable for his absence. An ally of Hizbullah, friend of both the Future Movement and Jumblatt, Berri has been described as the godfather of the Lebanese sectarian system. Yet, he appears to have taken a back seat, letting Aoun and Nasrallah deal with the protesters who maintain that Lebanon’s denominational system of government is at the root of the problems that plague the state.
One of the potentially detrimental side effects of the protest movement is that it has upset the historic reconciliations that rival Lebanese political forces had made during recent years. Divergent positions towards the movement have precipitated angry exchanges between the FPM, founded by Aoun and now led by his son-in-law Bassil, and the LFP led by Samir Geagea. The FPM and LFP, Lebanon’s main Christian political forces, have an acrimonious history dating back to the civil war period in which they fought over the leadership of the country’s Christian community. However, recent years brought a reconciliation between them which paved the way to Aoun’s election and the formation of the Hariri government. Still, tensions continued to ripple beneath the surface over various issues, the latest being the protest movement over which they have taken opposing stances. The result has been to dredge up old problems between the two political movements whose conflict had torn Maronite ranks for decades and sent fissures through the social structure of this Christian denomination.
In like manner, the relationship had improved considerably between the Future Movement and the FPM/Hizbullah axis, albeit to a lesser extent with Hizbullah. Here, too, tensions are likely to resurface and much will depend on the two sides’ positions on forthcoming steps to form a new government.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the resurgent demonstrations is the protesters’ determination to keep major thorough fares closed and impose a form of civil disobedience. On Monday, 4 November, it was reported that a protester was wounded by a rubber bullet in the course of the altercation between the Lebanese army and demonstrators who had formed a roadblock on Al-Bahsas-Beirut Highway.
The resurgent movement appears determined. “All of them, means all!” protesters shouted referring to their demand for the ouster of all the establishment ruling elites whom they charge with plundering state funds and driving the country to an economic crisis.
Some protesters have adopted new tactics to impose a general strike. They used heavy chains to lock some public buildings such as the South Lebanon Electricity Organisation, to prevent employees from entering the building. The Elia intersection in central Beirut is still open to traffic because the Lebanese army has kept it open, but the general strike has succeeded in paralysing much of the city and both private and public schools are closed.
Life had returned more or less to normal at the end of last week. On Friday, banks reopened their doors to the public for the first time in two weeks. There were reports of restrictions on withdrawals of foreign currency and money transfers abroad.
Salim Sfeir, chairman of the board of directors of the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL), told reporters that Lebanon’s banks did not see “any extraordinary movement” of money on Friday or Saturday. Bankers and financial analysts had feared a rush by clients to withdraw their assets from the banks. Central Bank governor Riad Salameh said the reopening of banks “in general... did not cause any disturbance at any bank,” Reuters reported.
The Lebanese economy, which is heavily dependant on tourism and remittances from abroad, has suffered from the repercussions of the upheavals in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The falloff in influxes of capital have aggravated pressures on the country’s foreign currency reserves.
On Sunday, the UAE announced that it was studying investment projects that were proposed at an investment forum in Abu Dhabi last month but has not yet indicated whether it would provide aid to Lebanon.
Before the demonstrations erupted, prime minister Hariri, who is backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, said that the UAE had promised investments and financial aid to Lebanon, but nothing concrete has emerged yet.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.