Lebanese army soldiers pass by protesters on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon, on October 19, 2019, one day after demonstrations swept through the eastern Mediterranean country in protest against dire economic conditions. Photo: Joseph Eid / AFP

The leadership of the Lebanese armed forces was carefully gauging a nationwide protest movement on Tuesday — as ruling political factions scrambled to contain a massive eruption of discontent.

A video showing Lebanese soldiers forcefully stopping dozens of young men on mopeds – purported supporters of the Shiite party Hezbollah and its ally Amal – from attacking protesters in central Beirut late Monday night, went viral on social media, spreading from mobile phones to the airwaves. 

Hezbollah quickly refuted any link to the group, seen waving their party flags and heard shouting expletives against the uprising in a thuggish display more characteristic of Amal (which also denied participation).

But the confrontation was quickly characterized as a critical intervention on behalf of the overwhelmingly peaceful movement, earning the praise of television presenters, social media influencers, and even a DJ playing music for the protesters. 

The army had earlier pledged to protect the protesters, who have taken to the streets in the geographic bastions of every major Lebanese political faction in the country and likely have topped one million in total  or a quarter of the population of the country.

“There was always going to be a key test: what would the [army] do if elements – including Hezbollah – decided to take provocative street actions,” said Aram Nerguizian, a specialist on civil-military relations in Arab states at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The composition of, and support for the Lebanese army, cuts across sectarian lines, and it is seen as a clean institution in comparison to the corrupt political class. It also enjoys the backing of the United States.

“There is little doubt that the [army] may be called upon to act in favor of civil peace again, and decisively,” said Nerguizian. 

The army is already deeply involved in managing and monitoring the situation, with “all operational units currently involved in internal stability operations.”

Beyond Nasrallah

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose group represents the most powerful armed force in the country, on Saturday gave a televised speech expressing empathy with the protesters, but also arguing early elections would be futile and that the current government should remain.

“Should we swap some names for others? At the end of the day it will still be the same political forces behind them,” he said.

Instead, he called on his allies to enact swift reforms and respond in a significant way to the protests. His party, he warned, does not seek to get involved, but will do so if necessary.

“If we take that decision to take to the streets, the country will take a different direction,” Nasrallah said. “We are a big party and our movement is not insignificant.”

“Hopefully this time does not come,” he said.

The current protests broke out on Thursday when mostly young and poor Lebanese – angry at new taxes on gasoline and the free internet calling service Whatsapp, the nation’s default phone plan – shut down key intersections in and around the capital.

Demonstrators burned tires, couches, and anything they could find, bringing the country to a standstill by Friday – and compelling schools, banks and businesses to shut their doors in the face of a mushrooming movement.

By the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people of all economic and religious backgrounds had taken to the streets of Beirut and cities across the country, from Tripoli in the north to Nabatiyeh in the south, calling for the departure of their ruling political dynasties and an end to endemic corruption.

The last time Lebanon saw protests of this scale was in 2005 when hundreds of thousands demanded an end to Syrian occupation. But that was a highly polarized movement, according to Karim Makdisi, director of the Pubic Policy and International Affairs program at American University in Beirut.

“There was no Shiite representation to speak of, or that mattered … and it was very much centered on Beirut,” he told Asia Times.

Nasrallah’s words, while read as a warning by many, may represent an acknowledgment by the powerful leader that he may not be able to keep his own supporters home indefinitely, Makdisi said.

“This may get beyond even Hassan Nasrallah … Or we may be close to this point, and he’s read it well.”

“He’s telling those in power: ‘Look, I may not be able to control my people much longer,’” Makdisi added.

All of them

On Saturday night in Baalbek, under the gaze of Nasrallah’s image, a small but spirited demonstration of several hundred people called for the “fall of the regime.”

“My daughter is in a private school because we have no good public schools. My nephew has special needs and there is no school for him in Baalbek,” said Diana Felaha, 33, whose husband held their young daughter on his shoulders.

Asked whether any party was clear of responsibility for the situation of the country, she told Asia Times emphatically: “No, no, no.”

“The whole system needs to change from its roots: the parliamentarians, the ministers, everyone. We don’t want a sectarian system.”

“All of them means all of them,” said another demonstrator, Mohammed Arafat, borrowing a protest phrase referencing political leaders that were previously untouchable.

Arafat, a student at the Lebanese American University in Beirut said he had returned home to Baalbek to witness the movement in his home city, the largest in the economically repressed Beqaa Valley.

“Lots of my friends are here, and they elect those politicians,” he said, referring to the leaders of Amal and Hezbollah, the dominant political forces in the city. “They’re fed up … it’s amazing.”

Still others stayed home.

A resident of a western Bekaa Valley village loyal to Hezbollah said he believed the protesters, despite their very real economic grievances, were unwittingly serving as a tool of the United States, which he put on par with corruption in terms of responsibility for the current crisis. 

Washington has mounted pressure on Lebanon’s financial system in recent months as part of its economic campaign against Iran, leading to a rush to change accounts from Lebanese currency into US dollars or to transfer money out of the country. 

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