Lebanon: this Week won’t be the same as last week for Protestors

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By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai

After less than two weeks of generalized, impulsive and unorganised protests on the streets of Lebanon, a huge amount of money has been invested – by undeclared donors – in recent days to provide protestors with food, drinks and necessities so that they will stay in the street until “the fall of the political regime, the government and the rule of bankers- in particular the Central Bank”.

Most Lebanese agree with the protestors’ concerns about the corruption of the political-sectarian system which helps a handful of political leaders control the entire country. These figures have power over everything in Lebanon and can do anything without accountability or control. No wonder, because the judicial system is controlled by these same politicians who suspend any “unsuitable” judgement. Moreover, all top military and security officers – without exception – are appointed by the same political leaders who divide power amongst themselves. They spend their careers standing at the doors of the politicians they “belong” to (depending on their religion), asking for better and more senior positions within the security apparatus.

No one in Lebanon ever imagined this corrupt sectarian system could be shaken and that people would confront it on the streets. No political leader believed he would ever feel anxious about keeping his “throne”, constructed over decades for the next family generation to take over when their fathers retire.

However, even though the protests have now taken on another dimension, the rightful demands of protestors will not be achieved by bringing down the entire political system. Lebanon needs legislative authority to modify laws and a government to execute and implement them. If the people appointed by the system fall, who would take over? The President? The protestors are asking for his resignation. The Army? Its high-ranking officers are appointed by the same politicians accused of corruption. It is not difficult to imagine a possible split inside the army, leading the country into total chaos.

This would be exactly the result desired by countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, who would be happy to watch Lebanon sliding deeper into chaos. This would entangle Hezbollah, their fiercest enemy, in the internal situation of the country and would prevent Hezbollah from directing their efforts to stop Israeli ambitions in Lebanon.

Israel may not have considered that chaos in Lebanon would push Hezbollah to control the south of Lebanon and protect it, including the Bekaa Valley, the suburbs of Beirut and maybe other places in the country. Israel would certainly not be able to sleep peacefully because total chaos is never predictable. Nevertheless, it is not to the benefit of Hezbollah to control specific areas. Hezbollah members, families and supporters are Lebanese and most of them have no other country to go to. They represent the majority of poor working-class society and are among the most affected by the corruption Lebanon suffers from. It is to Hezbollah’s advantage for Lebanon to remain united and avoid chaos.

The example of the chaos in Libya is still vivid in memories; the US occupation of Iraq, the control of ISIS and its consequences are still ongoing, and the regime-change attempts in Syria and its long war are not over yet. Lebanon would not want to slide onto a destructive path subjecting it to the law of the jungle, with a consequent increase in poverty. Most protestors would not want this, not even if the price is tolerating some politicians accused of corruption.

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In Syria, the protests started peacefully enough in Dara in 2011, when the security forces arrested some kids and people asked the central government to render the security forces accountable. Not long after that, the protests took another turn, asking for the fall of the regime and taking up weapons. Organised groups spread all over the country through the Islamists, who were laying down the ground in mosques for an Islamic revolt. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent his commanders, led by Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, an ISIS emir who turned against his boss and linked himself to al-Qaeda to then form his own jihadist group that follows the same Takfiri ideology. The Ansar (local supporters) were armed and the innocent protest turned into a devastating 8 years of war, all but destroying Syria and killing many Syrians. But the central government in Damascus remained in place.

Events of recent hours in Lebanon are important: according to well-informed sources, the army “was given 48 hours to open all main roads without necessarily attacking protestors. If the army fails, the government will take over and appoint a new Head of Army who will have the power – away from politics (because the current army chief General Joseph Aoun aspires to become President) – to keep the roads open.”

“The political Druse Leader Walid Jumblat and the Leader of the “Lebanese Forces” Samir Geagea were about to reach their objective to force the resignation of the Foreign Minister and son-in-law of the President Gebran Basil and the Amal-appointed Finance Minister Ali Hasan al-Khalil. Last-minute contacts stopped this process: it would only have served the objectives of those willing to ask for even more resignations and lead the country into chaos by asking for more and unstoppable concessions. A reform process in the government has been established but a small government will not be able to handle the crisis because it will require the Parliament’s approval. Moreover, a new electoral law with all of Lebanon as one district was rejected by Geagea and the Patriarch el-Ra’ei because it would give Christians 20%-25% of the Parliament, a proportion which is considered to break the al-Taef agreement. A technocrat government is a good step and a necessary one. Nevertheless, they will be appointed and approved by the Parliament and therefore will need to have its blessing”, said the source.

The presence of protestors in the street is positive as long as they don’t close access to streets and businesses. The goal should be to keep the pressure on the government, to closely watch the reform process, and ask for more once the first reforms are implemented. It will be a long journey because, contrary to popular demand, centuries of corruption cannot be removed in a few weeks. The 1789 French revolution’s guillotine cannot be implemented against Lebanon’s feudal system even if the country does need to redesign its political landscape.

Hezbollah took upon itself to fight terrorism, a very ambitious objective, no doubt. Hezbollah and the protestors have the same demands but differ in the timing for the satisfaction of their objectives. The protestors’ demand is the downfall of the entire system, whereas Hezbollah is against chaos and is aware that a miracle would be needed to change the entire regime from one week to the next- that is unless all the warlords (from the1975-1989 Lebanese civil war) vanish or voluntarily leave for exile.

Hezbollah’s political partners are blamed as responsible for corruption and are accused of protecting them. According to the source, “this is not accurate because Hezbollah selects the lesser evil and is working against corruption step by step. President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri have their supporters on the streets (even if Hariri’s fans have been shaken by the Saudi anti-Hariri position). All politicians have their faults and are co-responsible for the present situation. Reforms start with patience and immediate reforms announced by the Prime Minister are a good but insufficient start. We judge according to the practical steps of the government but certainly not by promoting total chaos”.

Lebanon is built on public relationships and on loyalty to politicians and security leaders whose portraits are in many homes. Outside the Middle East, the names of security officials are unknown: this is not so in Lebanon. Every Minister has power, every member of the parliament has connections and can facilitate services: thus people venerate him. It is a country built on favouritism and the exchange of services. Lebanon needs years for this to be reformed, with a new generation willing to make serious changes.

The task is complicated and the road is mined with obstacles and foreign interventions whose countries are willing to spend millions to “hit Iran’s influence in Lebanon”. In fact, the danger is that these same forces would not at all mind seeing Lebanon destroyed. The following weeks, therefore, will be decisive.

Proofread by:   C.G.B and Maurice Brasher

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