Lebanon at the crossroads

For over a month, protests have been taking place in Lebanon with road blockades. Every day, thousands of Lebanese, from the north to the south of the country, go to the streets to make their displeasure over the circumstances of life air. They've crippled the whole country. However, in times of a devastating economic and financial crisis, where the popular uprising will lead, is completely open.

Where will Lebanon go?

Much more than WhatsApp or FaceTime

On this day, Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Mohammed Choucair announced a new fee for voice calls to the Voice-Over internet protocol used by applications such as WhatsApp, FaceTime or Skype. Telephone services are extremely expensive in Lebanon. The sector, like almost all lucrative sectors, has been monopolised by governmental large-scale industrialists.

For a Sim card with 5 GB of Traffic, you pay around 46 USD. Not enough: the use of a mobile phone number is limited on a monthly basis, so that additional costs are incurred for an extension. The cheapest Option is a SIM card with pure WhatsApp flat rate for about 4 dollars. Many Lebanese use this option to maintain contact with their families abroad.

Since the second Lebanese Civil War (1975 to 1989), a large proportion of the population has emigrated. For this reason, a large Diaspora exists in the Arabian Peninsula, in Europe, North America, Latin America, Oceania and West Africa. Official statistics do not exist, but the Lebanese Diaspora is now considered larger than the local population with about 6 million inhabitants.

Against this background, the taxation of internet communication hit the people in the Mark. Ironically, spread the pictures of the demonstrations, especially through WhatsApp and Facebook, so that on the evening of the 17. October thousands more to the protest March on the Central martyrs ' square and Riad al-Solh square in front of the Parliament headquarters in Beirut, joined.

In the Beirut area, the demonstrators, who had been summoned, set up burning street barricades, some of which were out of control. In the luxury District of Downtown, two buildings still under construction were on fire. Two Syrian construction workers died in the fire inferno. When the convoy of the minister of Higher Education Akram Chehayeb approached a road blockade, dozens of protesters prevented it from continuing. One of his bodyguards shot wildly with a machine gun into the air to pave the way for the convoy. A woman, unknown to this day, entered his genitals despite his machine gun. The recording of this scene should become the symbol of the Lebanese uprising.

Large fires were lit in front of the Blue Mosque and the Orthodox Church near the martyr's square. The adjacent church houses symbolize the peaceful coexistence of the 18 religious communities in Lebanon.

This scale of protests already made clear on 18 October that this is a matter of much more than just WhatsApp or FaceTime. The Lebanese population is in turmoil. On the Riad al-Solh square, it came again to violent clashes as hundreds of protesters tried to storm the seat of the President of the Baabda Palace.

Where will Lebanon go?

On the first two days of protest there were in many places severe violent clashes. Already on 18 October, the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) treated over 100 injured protesters, while the Ministry of Interior stated that around 40 security forces and 60 policemen were injured.

Where will Lebanon go?

The old guard is supposed to be the devil

After the first days of violent protest, the riots should initially pacify. On the weekend of October 19 and 20, there were national mass protests. In many places parents and their children participated in the demonstration trains. Many protesters waved the national flag and chanting Slogans reminiscent of the arabell ion of 2011: “Ash-Shaab yurid Isqat-Nizam” (The people want the fall of the regime) and “Thawra, Thawra” (Revolution, Revolution) or “Kilun yani Kilun” (Everyone means everyone; this refers to the demand of resignation of the government) and “Hela hela ho, Gebran Bassil, kis emo” (Hela, hela ho, Gebran Bassil, to the genitals of his mother).

The latter is a disgrace that offends the Foreign Minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Gebran Bassil by cursing the fertility of his mother. The most prominent among Protestants is, in general, the insult that he should be the devil.

The Protestants accuse him of reviving sectarianism in the country to make political capital out of it and condemn him for his political alliance with Shiite Hezbollah. In addition, Bassil stands for many demonstrators like no other for the clientelism and the nepotism of the political Elite, especially since he is the son-in-law Michel Aouns, the FPM founder and at the same time Lebanese President.

However, it remains to be questioned whether this is a reason to offend him in this way. In the Arab-Islamic world, such a public disgrace to a politician and his mother is more than just a taboo.

Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, there has been no comparable cross-community demonstrations in Lebanon. An absolute novelty is the fact that the civil society movement has formed inwardly, cross - party and cross-party, i.e. against its own government. Sunnis send Shiites protest greetings from the north to the south of the country, although both parts of Lebanon are divided by economic and religious conflict lines. On the other hand, in 2005 the demonstrations were directed to the outside, against the deployment of the Syrian armed forces in Lebanon (1976-2005).

Although the protests of 2005 ended the Syrian supremacy in the country, a series of years of attacks followed with political murders. This is deeply rooted in the consciousness of the population, yet a large part of it continues to protest tirelessly.

The Cedar land just before the collapse

The introduction of the new tax would have cost the citizen “only” six US dollars a month. But it is not about this WhatsApp tax alone-it was just one of the recent announcements of various political decisions at the expense of the people. The government had already proclaimed the “economic crisis” on 3 September 2019, after the country had slipped into a deep recession, which was further exacerbated by an additional financial crisis. For many years, Lebanon has been regarded as the country with the highest debt rate worldwide.

According to the Ministry of finance, the public debt is about 86 billion dollars. This corresponds to more than 150 percent of the gross domestic product. In addition, the Lebanese struggle with a massive garbage and environmental crisis. The unemployment rate is 25 percent, among young people even 37 percent, without Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the country. Even well-educated young men find hardly any work.

For the government, it is therefore nothing less than to protect the country from a complete state bankruptcy. However, although Lebanon is currently already in one of the most serious crises for years, the population seems to be torn by patience.

It is much more than just lip service for new reforms. It calls for fundamental political changes: a functioning state with transparent representatives who are not corrupt and take care of the interests of their people.

The fact that the population suffers enormously from the financial and economic crisis is demonstrated by the fact that the Beirut neighborhoods such as Hamra and Gemmayze have been deserted long before the protests. Beirut was famous for its exciting nightlife, because Lebanon was considered the most liberal country in the Region.

How serious the crisis actually is was revealed by the violent start of the uproar. Only a week earlier, the government had once again demonstrated its inability to cope with the forest fires in the Damour and Chouf regions in the eyes of many Lebanese.

As a result of the lack of equipment, the Lebanese crisis unit, consisting of four expert panels, had not been able to extinguish the fires for more than a week. The Director-General of the civil defense Raymond Khattar described the fires as “the worst for decades”. But only after the interior minister Raya El Hassan had asked for international aid, the fire could be brought under control. Not only did thousands of square metres of forest and hundreds of houses fall victim to the fires, but they had claimed more than 100 casualties and at least three deaths. The destruction of the historic forests was symbol of the government's inability, if not of the country's decline, especially as the Cedar adheres to the national flag of Lebanon.

For decades, Lebanese politics has been dominated by confessional trench warfare, rampant corruption, and rampant fatherland and mismanagement. In addition, oligarchic structures have been blocking reforms for years.

For this reason, the government is unable to provide basic services to the people, ranging from bread, drinking water, fuel and electricity, to waste collection and the use of public funds close to the people. Due to the shortage of electricity, even in the university building, the power supply is adjusted every day for several hours. There is no running drinking water in Beirut at all. This is usually delivered by Truck in plastic gallons to all households, and this supply is currently hindered, in addition to the road blockades.

Where will Lebanon go?

But a new beginning?

The Taif agreement had been able to end the civil war by balancing power after the proportion of religious groups in 1989. The consensus in the multi-session state has since been that the president of Parliament always had to be a Sunni, the head of government always had to be a Shiite, and the president of the state always had to be a Maronite Christian. Although Taif was supposed to overcome the sectarianism of the war, it itself enshrined a confessional block formation on the religious right to vote, which was contradictory in promoting the political separation of religious communities. Last but not least, the Taif agreement did not prevent the former warlords from dividing power in the country according to their religious affiliation. At the end of the day, after the war, the Warlords only went on to plunder the country through their positions in the state, not through their militias.

The proportional System has often been used as a pretext to cover up corruption, the nepotism and the waste of public money under the overarching preservation of religious peace. For this reason, many of the young protesters today insist on completely abolishing Taif's denominational System. In talks with young men during the protests, it can be heard that this must be done in the event of an emergency using violence. A demonstrator wearing an Anonymous mask justified this by the fact that “violence was the only language” that would “understand the corrupt Warlords”.

Despite the many peaceful protesters, it is completely unclear how many people actually share such positions. At least the older Generation seems to be very afraid of this incalculable violence scenario, especially since they have experienced the Civil War themselves in their own bodies. To date, the remains of the war are visible in Beirut.

It should be stressed, regardless of such threats, that the protest movement for Lebanese conditions to date has in fact remained mostly peaceful. The government-critical Journalist Makram Rabah explained that the" decentralized and civilian movement “after the riots of the first days would have understood that” their strength lies in peaceful Protest". According to the proponent of the protest movement, the protesters knew very well that in a violent confrontation they had “the powerful militias of the political leaders as their opponents”. On the other hand, the protesters had also proven that they “are not afraid and are ready to continue their fight”.

On 27 October 2019, symbolically for the peaceful protest culture, there was a huge chain of people from hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, reaching 107 kilometres from the northern Tripoli to the southern Tyros. An impressive and peaceful Symbol of national unity in times of uncertainty.

Where will Lebanon go?

Politics at a dead end

Inevitably, the civil society movement is facing a mammoth task. Although she has a long list of political demands, in particular, the complete resignation of the unity government and the dismissal of the entire political class. However, she lacks representative personalities. For this reason, it also lacks a long-term viable approach to which the entire mosaic Society of Lebanon can agree.

In talks with protesters, they would like to stress that they do not want to name any representatives themselves. They justify this with the fear that the new heads could be co-opted by the political elites. On the central Martyr square there are almost every day several speakers, on which everyone is allowed to speak. A well-meaning action, in which every individual can put forward his or her conditions. However, the speakers often speak at the same time and loudly outperform their demands. Often, the only consensus is to finally overthrow the government. But what actually happens if the entire unitary government actually resigns?

The experience has already shown several times that the leaders are able to mobilize their loyal masses, including their armed militias, within the shortest possible time. To this end, they are too happy to resort to sectarian rhetoric in order to seize religious loyalties and defend their claim to power.

On 29 October, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered Rafik al-Hariri, announced his resignation because of the street's pressure. He explained that he had reached a “dead end”. At the same time, he urged to preserve the “protection of civil peace” in the country and to “protect the protesters on the streets”. Hariri's departure was after the Lebanese Forces (LF) party had removed four ministers from the Cabinet on 19 October, ten days earlier.

Shortly before Hariri's resignation, violent street battles between protesters and supporters of the Shiite movements of Amal and Hezbollah had occurred at the central Martyr square in Beirut. In particular, Hezbollah, which is both a militant militia and a political party and provides two ministers in the Cabinet, is considered to be the strongest force and more powerful than the National Army. On 29 October, several hundred Shiite supporters attacked the protesters under sectarian Slogans. They devastated their tent camps, which had grown Day by day at Martyrs Square in the past few weeks. The National Army, which is secretly said to be sympathetic to the protest movement, was overwhelmed by the attack. With their poor equipment and inferior in coordination, the soldiers became mere spectators of the violent orgy on the streets of Beirut.

Where will Lebanon go?

Hezbollah's follower was against the resignation of the prime minister, and some of its supporters tried to prevent this step by fleeing the Protestants and completely destroying their Camp in the capital. To this day, both Hezbollah and Amal are holding to the government. The Christian President, Michel Aoun, who is affiliated with them, had been able to break a two-year political Blockade three years ago in October 2016 by forming a single government with two main rival groups.

On the one hand, this is the 8th-March coalition, which includes Aouns FPM as well as Hezbollah. On the other hand, it is the 14.-March-coalition, led by the Future Movement (FM) under Saad Hariri. While the FM has traditionally united the Sunnis behind it, Hezbollah mainly includes the Shiites, which are estimated to represent more than a third of the total Lebanese population. After the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, had initially described the protest movement as ‘spontaneous’ and welcomed her demand for ‘unprecedented reforms’, on 25 October he assumed that it was being manipulated by foreign and enemy forces. Last, he rejected the government's resignation in the words that" a vacuum leads to collapse “and warned of a"civil war”. At the same time, there were in Beirut again violent street battles.

In spite of Hariri's resignation, President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri, along with Nasrallah, made it clear that they do not intend to resign. Aoun insisted that the single government should remain in place until a new cabinet was formed. In the current government, the Shiite Nabih Berri, the leader of the Amal Movement, has held his Position since 1992-whole 27 years. One reason why many protesters are joking about his term of office is macabre. One of these is that Berri intends to take not only parliament, but the whole of Lebanon into the grave. Already on 18 October in the coastal town of Tyros, a family-owned holiday residence of protesters was burned down and completely destroyed.

Although the protests are generally directed against the political Establishment, a lot seems to be at stake for the Amal Movement and Hezbollah. Not only did demonstrations take place even in Shiite areas, even in the Hezbollah Nabatieh stronghold. This was so far an absolute rarity, not only because of the strong support of the militias among the Shiites, but especially because of their unchallenged dominance. After all, the protesters not only demand the resignation of the government, which is part of Hezbollah, but a completely new state system. In talks with protesters, it was repeatedly opened that they either demand the takeover of the Independent National Army or, better still, a technocratic government.

In fact, an independent state would put the old guard out of politics, which the protesters do not expect in a mere new government formation. However, in the next step, the elimination of the proportional system according to Taif, which has at least allowed the religious groups to live in peace for 30 years, would change the power relations to the detriment of Hezbollah. As a state in the state, through its alliance with the Christian forces around Michel Aoun, it controls Lebanon not only politically but also militarily.

Whether the Shiite militias will allow such a loss of power without fighting, seems more than questionable. After all, an independent state would inevitably challenge its monopoly on arms. In the end, this would deprive Hezbollah, with its presence in Syria and the open state of war with Israel, of the livelihood.

Iran's supreme leader, Sayed Ali Khalemeni, has already accused Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia of being behind the protests in Lebanon and Iraq that would be directed against the Shiite resistance axis. After an Israeli drone was shot down by Hezbollah near Nabatieh on 31 October, Russia immediately asked Israel to withdraw from internal Lebanese affairs as soon as possible.

In my Interview, Makram Rabah also stressed that the demonstrations in Lebanon occurred almost simultaneously with mass protests in Iraq. Although the protests in Lebanon did not openly oppose Iran's influence, the unrest in Iraq would inevitably do so. Since 15 November, violent protests have been taking place in many places, even in Iran. These manifest themselves at a time when the Baath Regime in Syria, which is allied with Iran and Hezbollah, is shortly to head, to get the last remaining province of Idlib under its control and thus to be able to decide the war against the interests of Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia.

Against this background, there is a real danger that the protest movement itself will soon become a game ball of international interests. First signs are already pointing in this direction. While the nationwide road blockades still acted spontaneously in the first week of protest, they now appear well organized.

Where will Lebanon go?

On the streets burning the barricades

The protesters have been pursuing the strategy of blocking the central streets of the country with burning barricades since the beginning of the uprising. On the one hand, this was effective in bringing the whole country to a standstill. On the other hand, this was the suffering of those who no longer come to work due to road blockades, even though they are more dependent on their salary in times of crisis than usual. Not a few ATMs are now running out of cash, the second currency of the country, the US Dollar, is almost impossible to get and not a few petrol stations have already run out of fuel.

Lebanese acquaintances, on the way from Beirut to Tripoli instead of two hours had a seven-hour odyssey behind them, reported that the road blockades are no longer erected at any point by residents. Almost all burning barricades had been “professionally erected” and were guarded by “supporters of various parties or militias arriving”.

While the streets to the South would be blocked by the supporters of the FM, Christian Falangists would prevent the passage to the North.

According to a security officer, it is an “open secret” that the “vast majority” of those who block the streets in the north belong to the FM. Her demand is that no one other than Saad Hariri should form the next cabinet. At the same time, this attitude reveals the view of many Sunnis that with Hariri's resignation alone they would have paid the price of the crisis, while the Christians with Michel Aoun and the Shiites with Nabih Berri would continue to hold on to the old structure of power.

Michel Aoun, together with his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who was hated by the protesters, mobilized in many places against demonstrations. For their part, their participants announced that they would soon open the roadblocks themselves. The blockades in particular have recently revealed more and more the division of the population with regard to the protest movement. In many places there have already been attempts by local residents or the army to forcibly open the barricades. This happened despite the sympathy for the protest movement and against the narratives that all Lebanese were united.

While many Western media talk in their view of the events in Lebanon of a “united popular uprising” against the warlords or Hezbollah and of a “peaceful October Revolution” analogous to the misleading concept of the Arab Spring in 2011, however, remains to be seen where the protest movement will actually lead the Cedar in times of severe economic and financial crisis.

Despite mostly peaceful protest actions, violence has repeatedly erupted throughout the country. The LRC announced on 3 November that it had treated more than 1,700 victims since the beginning of the protests. The Ministry of Interior spoke in the same period of over 100 violating security forces. The last sad climax of the escalation of violence occurred on 12 November, when a soldier shot Alaa Abou Fakher in Khalde south of Beirut. He was a member of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and had tried with other protesters to block the Khaldeh-Highway to Beirut's airport. Fakher was already the fifth fatality in the demonstrations. However, since he was killed by a representative of the state, he is now revered as “the first martyr of the Revolution”.

The last formation of the cabinet after a government crisis in 2014 had led to a political paralysis that lasted over two and a half years. On the one hand, the economic Situation does not currently allow such a political vacuum, especially since the economy is about to collapse. On the other hand, the creation of a new cabinet, which does not meet the demands of the road, will lead to a rapid increase in anger. This was evident on 16. On November 11, Saad Hariri, together with Amal, Hezbollah and FPM, agreed to designate ex-finance minister Mohammed al-Safadi as the new prime minister.

When Nabih Berri convened a cabinet meeting on 19 November, hundreds of protesters blocked the access routes to the cabinet and, as a result, attacked the car corpses of the arriving politicians with flagpole, bottles and stones. Due to the loss of confidence in the political staff, which it had not been able to adequately meet the basic needs of the people for 30 years, there seems to be no return to the status quo with the Old representatives for the protest movement.

In the truest sense of the word, Lebanon stands at a crossroads of a political upheaval, and / or an economic and Social-Social fall. So the critical question remains: Lebanon, quo vadis?