(October 31, 2019 / JCPA) For the first time since the “Arab Spring” in 2011, protests in Lebanon are being directed against Hezbollah and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, and against Hezbollah’s ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement led by Nabih Berri.
Protesters attacked the offices and houses of deputies affiliated with these two political factions, burned posters of Berri and Nasrallah and expressed their anger over what they perceive as Hezbollah and Amal corruption. Specifically, they claim that the organizations are plundering the coffers of the Lebanese state and skimming the budgets allocated to their ministries, at the expense of the Lebanese people.
Protesters have singled out Hezbollah deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem, Nasrallah and Berri as being deeply involved in corruption and stealing public funds.
Hezbollah’s reaction to the events in Lebanon is understandable; any change in the governmental structure could put Hezbollah’s control over the Lebanese government at risk. The election of President Michel Aoun, for example, was only attained after months of strenuous effort and lobbying by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is not interested in changing the political situation in Lebanon. Nasrallah vehemently opposes the dissolution of the government despite an insoluble political and economic crisis, because it would create “chaos and a political vacuum.” The reforms announced by Prime Minister Saad Hariri—who resigned the next day—on Oct. 21, are too little, too late, and frankly impossible to implement in the immediate future.
The Lebanese public, unlike its politicians, has lost confidence in the system and is appealing for a radical change (such as a technocratic government and bringing all officials accused of corruption to justice), a situation which the country’s political factions refuse still to digest. Across the country, massive rallies chant, “The people want to bring down the regime.”
Illustrative of the stalemate reached in the Lebanese crisis, consider the reaction of the Arab states to the events in Sudan and Lebanon. Sudan, which was experiencing a severe constitutional, economic and political crisis in the aftermath of the coup against President Omar el-Bashir, received a quick bailout of three billion dollars from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In Lebanon’s case, none of the wealthy Arab donors have expressed readiness to assist financially. The reason is obvious: supporting Lebanon would mean bailing out Hezbollah, which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and most other members of the Arab League have designated as a terrorist group. From this perspective, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states may withhold aid to weaken Hezbollah or at least curtail its arrogance, belligerence and regional aspirations in the service of its Tehran patrons.
Nasrallah declared on two occasions, on Oct. 10 and Oct. 26 (with only the Lebanese flag behind him, and not Hezbollah’s as is usual), that he opposed the resignation of the government and very bluntly announced that he would do all in his power to prevent such a development. “We will not allow the country to be dumped or destroyed,” he said.
In the Oct. 10 address Nasrallah painted a very bleak picture of what would happen if the government were to resign. According to him, an intolerable vacuum would result; the country would drift into chaos, no one would receive a salary, and the country would be left with no future and no solution.
Nasrallah even went a step further by questioning who was behind the financing of the protests, insinuating that the American CIA and Israel were behind the current unrest. The United States and Israel were inciting the demonstrations to defeat Hezbollah politically, he claimed, after their failure to do militarily with Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.
As a proof, Nasrallah pointed to the fact that members of the defunct South Lebanon Army living in Israel had demonstrated in solidarity with the protestors in Lebanon at the Lebanese-Israeli border, at “Fatima Gate” near the northern Israeli town of Metula.
The protesters were not convinced by his diatribe and continued with their demonstration while chanting anti-Hezbollah slogans and denying any foreign funding. The message was clear to Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s response was to dispatch on Oct. 21 a convoy of 200 motorcycles driven by thugs armed with bats and branding the flags of Amal and Hezbollah to confront protesters in the Beirut’s Riad Al Solh and Martyrs’ squares. The tactic mirrored that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to curb the protests in Tehran in the summer of 2009.
The Lebanese Armed Forces deployed immediately and succeeded in blocking the convoy and sending it back to where it came from in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Hezbollah and its ally Amal then turned against the protesting crowds in the Shi’ite hinterland south of Beirut, in Tyre, Sidon and Nabatieh, where operatives and agents of both organizations attacked and tried to disperse the protesting crowds, but were again stopped by the army.
A new foray followed in Beirut, with Hezbollah supporters dressed in black shirts and waving portraits of Iranian ayatollahs Ruholla Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, as well as of Nasrallah and Berri, and chanting slogans praising the Iranian leaders and the Islamic Revolution and swearing allegiance to Iran, again attempting to confront demonstrators. The demonstrators took refuge behind army lines, and the military once more dispersed the rally, as well as the tents that had been put in place in preparation for a sit-in.
Undeterred, Hezbollah planned a huge rally of thousands of its supporters to fill the protest squares to boost the government and show the Lebanese political factions that Hezbollah is ready to fight for the survival of the present Lebanese nation-state. However, in a surprise move, Nasrallah on Oct. 26 ordered his supporters to retreat from those rally points. Hezbollah supporters left the main squares in Beirut, but still paraded in the Shi’ite areas of Beirut and major Shi’ite cities.
The specter of civil war
Until Nasrallah’s Oct. 26 speech, no Lebanese political figure had dared raise the specter of another civil war. However, after Nasrallah’s pronouncement and the protraction of the political stalemate, such a war is increasingly being seen by many in Lebanon as almost impossible to circumvent.
Any change significant enough to mollify the protestors, such as the formation of a new government after the resignation of the present one, would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Hezbollah and its allies, with potentially dire consequences for the stability of Lebanon. It would overturn the Taif Agreement of 1989, which served as “the basis for the ending of the civil war [which broke out in 1975] and the return to political normalcy in Lebanon.”
Indeed, a radical change in the political landscape triggered by the resignation of the government would probably provoke Hezbollah to resort to manu militari, or force of arms, to preserve its grip on Lebanon. Lebanon could then find itself in a renewed military conflict with no foreseeable outcomes. The two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon could be among the first to suffer—they are already a target for all Lebanese political factions, who demand their repatriation to Syria.
Algeria’s political experience may present a stop-gap solution. Exactly as in the Algerian case, the army can be engaged as a buffer between the parties by declaring a state of emergency and handing government rule to the army until political order is restored. Such an outcome, however, would not fit Hezbollah’s goals and plans.
In the meantime, the Lebanese are contemplating once more the possibility of “exporting themselves.” In times of dire crisis, Lebanon has witnessed waves of emigration: between 1850 and World War I, a third of the Lebanese population emigrated from Lebanon. In the 1970s, a million more left the country during the first years of the civil war.
This option is not to be underestimated, extreme as it is. It would mean an erosion of the human richness of Lebanon, but on the other hand, were it not for the remittance payments of Lebanese expatriates to their families in Lebanon—which amount to almost $8 billion annually—Lebanon would not have survived as long as it has.
IDF Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article first appeared on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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