The situation in Lebanon is becoming critical, as the protests that have been taking place in the country over recent months have now turned to unprecedented violence.
On Sunday, 145 people were injured during clashes between protesters and the police in the second day of violent protests due to the crushing economic and political crisis in the country. By the beginning of the week after two days of protest, 520 people had been injured. On Saturday, 377 were injured in violence unprecedented since the start of the demonstrations on 17 October last year.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary-General George Kettaneh said that “both sides suffered injuries,” meaning both the protesters and the police. Lebanon’s official National News Agency said journalists had been injured, while the Jadid TV channel reported that a cameraman had been injured by a rubber bullet.
Reinforcements from the army and riot police deployed in central Beirut, where protesters gathered on streets leading to the parliament building near Martyrs Square. They chanted “Revolution! Revolution!” and threw rocks and fireworks at police barricades preventing them from crossing the street. The police responded with water hoses, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
There are several causes of the violence, including protesters who are ready for so-called “revolutionary violence” influenced by anarchist or left-wing rhetoric. The violence has also resulted from the economic crisis and increasing financial burdens on citizens. Some of the violence is due to the goals of some of the country’s political parties, some of which are in power.
Media reports said that the attacks on banks and the smashing of windows that took place some days ago was orchestrated by the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah in an attempt to distract from the group’s role in the crisis and to take revenge on the banks, especially the governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salamé, whom it sees as complicit with the US in the financial crisis.
Media reports said that groups from Dahieh and Khandaq Al-Ghameeq, predominantly Shia areas, had arrived after the first clashes between leftists and security forces in front of Lebanon’s Central Bank. The reports said these groups were not affiliated with Hizbullah, but had entered the fray after directions to send out a violent message. There were similar moves in many Shia areas across the country.
The attacks on the banks were followed by violence against the parliament, a Shiite stronghold headed by Nabih Berri, a close ally of Hizbullah. The demonstrators used unprecedented methods, while the security forces used water hoses and tear gas.
Meanwhile, progress was made on forming a new government after Hizbullah pressured its ally Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law, to stop bargaining with prime minister designate Hassan Diab.
As a result, the Free Patriotic Movement announced it no longer insisted on controlling one third of cabinet seats plus one (giving it the upper hand in government). Hizbullah also faced problems with its other Christian ally, Suleiman Franjieh.
Hizbullah is seeking to form a technocrat government, which will neither appease most demonstrators nor its local rivals or the international community, especially the US and Saudi Arabia.
People view the cabinet as a Hizbullah window-dressing government, and it is known as a government of former cabinet advisers. The violent turn of the demonstrations and the international position embodies the dilemma facing the government, even if it is approved by parliament where Hizbullah and its allies have a majority, especially after Britain added Hizbullah to its list of terrorist organisations.
The British categorised Hizbullah and all its branches as a terrorist group and decided to freeze the group’s assets on 17 January. The decision came at a time when tensions were escalating between the US and Iran and its allies and as a crisis on forming a government in Lebanon was brewing, with this being seen as Hizbullah’s government.
The decision against Hizbullah will make it difficult to send economic aid to Lebanon while the group is in control. But in reality, the next cabinet will belong to Hizbullah, no matter what its official composition.
The Lebanese media reported that these decisions had several goals, notably ending funds Hizbullah and its institutions as the group attempts to increase its funding by expanding its networking with Shia businessmen around the world.
The decisions put pressure on this network and prevent such businessmen from funding Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Hizbullah views the developments in the country, including the Shia actions, through the lens of a Western conspiracy aiming to put the group under siege. Whether or not this is true, the group’s reactions have further entrenched such a conspiracy.
The allies of the West and the Gulf countries have left power, and Hizbullah and its partners are in control of Lebanon, a country on the verge of bankruptcy, even if they hide behind a technocrat cabinet or a government of former cabinet advisers.
It is likely that the stranglehold by the West of Lebanon will cripple Hizbullah, however. Britain’s decision shows that the US’s negative position on the group could become a European position at a time when Lebanon is relying on Arab and Western assistance to end its financial crisis.
As the status quo continues, Lebanon is struggling through a serious financial and economic crisis that could even cause its collapse, according to observers.
The British also sent a message to Hizbullah’s allies that the sanctions could also include them, amid reports that they would include cabinet members in the upcoming government.
This is also a message to Hizbullah’s supporters, who have started to suffer from difficult economic conditions, putting the group in serious trouble among its own supporters in areas under Hizbullah and Amal control.
Saad Al-Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s Future Movement, called for a new government to be formed quickly amid reports that he disapproved of the protests and the violent turn they have taken.
Al-Hariri may oppose Hizbullah, but he does not oppose the state and will not allow its collapse. The role played by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, associated with Future Movement, in confronting the violence by protesters, was widely noted.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.