Lebanon and Syria: The Manufacture of Dissent
By Rania Khalek
The US is desperate to ride the revolutionary wave in Lebanon, hoping it can fracture a governing coalition that includes Hezbollah, a top target of the Trump administration and its friends from Tel Aviv to Riyadh. To this end, political figures Washington has cultivated and parties the US backs have penetrated the protest movement that has swept the country and are now on the frontlines of blockades obstructing roads around the country.
In the first part of this report, I surveyed the role of the US in weaponizing NGO’s and civil society activists to co-opt the nationwide anti-corruption protests. In this installment, we will see how the influence of the US and its Gulf allies also extends to feudal lords and warlords from Samir Geagea to Walid Joumblatt to Saad Hariri, and how it is being used to destabilize the country.
When this seemingly conflicting cast of actors began lending its support to the anti-corruption protests, many common Lebanese citizens began to look upon the demonstrations with a jaundiced eye, precisely because these political figures are living embodiments of the corruption that spurred the protests in the first place.
By joining the roadblocks around Beirut, the protesters have inadvertently allowed themselves to be used by these US-allied parties. Whether they know it or not, the media-friendly artists and students at the ring road in downtown Beirut have given cover to the Lebanese Forces roadblocks in the north and the PSP and Future Party roadblocks in the south.
Lebanese citizens in the majority Shia south have expressed outrage at the roadblocks. They have been especially frustrated with those in the town of Khaldeh, south of Beirut, because they made it difficult for residents of the south to drive up to Beirut.
The blockades only deepened the divide between the protest movement and Hezbollah’s working class base. Lebanon lacks the infrastructure for public transportation, so road closures infringe on everyone’s freedom of movement and leave no alternatives for getting to work. No one despises the road closures more than taxi drivers.
On more than one occasion angry youths associated with Amal, who are typically working class and poor, have physically attacked the middle class ring road protesters due to the inconvenience caused by the closure and out of anger over insults to their revered symbols.
They may have also been dispatched by Amal’s leadership to send a message to protesters, as they have repeatedly attacked and burned down their tents. Although Hezbollah was not associated with these acts of violence, youths nevertheless waved Hezbollah flags as a show of muscle and defiance. Some of the ring road protesters are Lebanese Forces supporters, so the two sides have at times further provoked each other with intentionally provocative chants.
Each time clashes like these have broken out, Western media has wrongly identified the Amal attackers as Hezbollah supporters or have erased Amal’s involvement when both party’s supporters participate in intimidation tactics. Hezbollah supporters now worry that their reputation will suffer if Amal makes good on its threats to attack the protesters.
There is also a clear class antagonism that many protesters are reluctant to admit. The protesters in downtown Beirut are mostly middle class while Hezbollah and Amal’s base are poor and working class.
There does not appear to have been any attempts on the part of the downtown Beirut elements to reach out to Hezbollah or Amal’s base of support. Instead, when these youths have attacked the protest encampment, the demonstrators have often condescendingly called them animals and thugs who fail to appreciate their sacrifice. Naturally, this middle class savior complex has only compounded the sense of alienation between the two sides.
Car accidents and several scuffles have also taken place at the roadblocks, including one that turned deadly. A man called Alaa Abou Fakher, a Choueifat Municipality official and member of the PSP, was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances by a member of the army following a verbal altercation over the roadblock in Khaldeh. He is believed to have helped organize the roadblock.
The man who shot him was the driver of a relative and member of Mount Lebanon army intelligence. They “knew each other well,” according to local media reports. In conspiracy-riven Lebanon, many privately speculated that Joumblatt had him killed.
As tensions escalate, suspicion and conspiratorial speculation have become prevalent. No one believes the official story about anything. A week after his death, massive billboards of Abou Fakher were erected in downtown Beirut calling him “the martyr of Lebanon and the revolution against the oppressors.” There is speculation that Joumblatt himself paid for these billboards.
At Nahr El Kalb, Lebanese Forces supporters began erecting a cement wall inside a tunnel to block the highway as they did during the civil war. This sparked panic that a new civil conflict was about to erupt.
The roadblocks are organized and coordinated through WhatsApp groups. They ebb and flow depending on the latest outrage of the day. As of this writing, the roadblocks have ceased, but that could and will likely change tomorrow or perhaps next week. When these roadblocks receive coverage, those behind them are always referred to as “protesters” but their political affiliations are almost invariably omitted, as are their acts of flagrant intimidation.
What earns one the title of protester in the media is all about political affiliation. FPM, Hezbollah and Amal supporters are routinely castigated by their opponents as thugs and hooligans while the protests in their support are dismissed as marginal. For example, when some 20,000 FPM supporters drove to Baabda with several convoys that took up some five to ten kilometers of the highway to show their support for the President who is the leader of their party, local media mocked and dismissed them.
When an FPM supporter shot in the air at protesters comprised of Lebanese Forces supporters who had been blocking the highway in Jal el Dib, his political affiliation was reported and he was branded a thug. Yet the political affiliation of those blocking the highway has scarcely ever been disclosed in media accounts. They are simply referred to simply as protesters.
In private quarters, it is well known which parties are blocking which roads, but scarcely anyone dares to speak the truth publicly because of the fear of delegitimizing the movement as a whole. By refusing to name the bad actors, members of the movement are essentially opening up the protests as cover for the dangerous game carried out by the political parties doing the blocking.
None of these parties want a war, yet they are using the threat of a war to pressure their adversaries – especially Hezbollah and FPM – into making concessions. It is brinksmanship at its most cynical.
And it is likely being encouraged by the US, which makes no secret of its ambition to reverse the political gains made by Hezbollah and its partners in the 2018 elections. Perhaps all the street pressure will translate into concessions. But there is also the chance it could lead to an all-out war.
And then there is the role of the army and army intelligence. In Lebanon, everyone is vying for power.
Joseph Aoun, the head of the Lebanese army, has ambitions for the presidency. It is widely rumored that he has not spoken to President Michel Aoun in weeks. The tension between the two highlights another friction point that the US has sought to exploit.
The Lebanese army is trained and equipped by the US and dependent on Washington and the EU for its survival. Over 32,000 members of the Lebanese army have received training from the US and 80 percent of the army’s equipment comes from the US. The belief in the US – as argued recently by the former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman – is that by empowering the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah will become obsolete.
When Trump’s national security council announced a hold on $105 million in aid to the Lebanese army, hawkish pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers Eliot Engel and Ted Deutch urged the administration to reconsider. “As Hezbollah grows in sophistication and capability, it is critical the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] continues to grow and serve as the sole legitimate defender of Lebanese sovereignty and security,” they argued in a letter to the White House that clearly signaled their desire to isolate Hezbollah.
On December 2, the Trump administration ceded to the pressure and released the military aid package.
In the South, Hezbollah and Amal clash
Western and Gulf media have attempted to portray the protests as an uprising against Hezbollah, losing themselves in an anti-Iran fantasy. There may be some elements of the protests that have chanted against Hezbollah and their weapons, but they reflect a small minority. Despite all outside attempts to co-opt the movement, the protests remain solidly focused on opposing corruption and the government as a whole.
Meanwhile, the international media has continued to erase the Hezbollah supporters who were crucial to the first two days of protests. The Western press has also ignored the ever-present chants against Israel and burning of American and Israeli flags.
When Amal supporters from a nearby Shia neighborhood beat up protesters in downtown Beirut for blocking the main road, Western media falsely identified them as Hezbollah.
And when clashes broke out in Nabatiyeh, a town in southern Lebanon that is dominated by Hezbollah and Amal, Western and local media zeroed in on the violence. Local protesters, with communists among them, had been violently cleared out by local municipal police, including supporters of Hezbollah and Amal.
Hezbollah and the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) have a notoriously antagonistic history. Some in the LCP blame Hezbollah for being complicit in the government’s corruption and they were outraged when Hezbollah supporters in the municipal police attacked their comrades in the Nabatiyeh protests. Hezbollah supporters maintain that LCP holds a grudge against them for fighting the communists and absorbing much of their Shia base during the 1980s.
With this background of conflict, it is no surprise that the LCP has been harshly critical of Hezbollah throughout the protests, as have many leftist groups.
This bickering has been exploited by the Western press and Gulf-funded outlets, which also celebrated the resignations at Al Akhbar, one of the most widely read newspapers in Lebanon and a rare outlet that is explicitly pro-resistance and anti-imperialist.
The disproportionate focus on these rifts obscured the reality of southern Lebanon, where tensions have been brewing between Amal and Hezbollah. Amal and Hezbollah were rivals in the civil war. These two forces have already engaged in a conflict referred to as “the war of the brothers” – its name inspired by Shia families in the South turning against one another according to their members’ allegiance to Amal and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has been compelled to maintain a peaceful alliance with Amal in spite of the rampant corruption of its rival’s leadership. It is determined to avoid another Shia civil war and maintain a powerful coalition in the government. Meanwhile, Amal leader Nabih Berri, a civil war-era warlord who has been speaker of the parliament since the end of the civil war, has enriched himself on the back of his community. Many Shias are angry about Berri’s corruption and during the protests openly chanted against him and his wife Randa.
Berri has also demonstrated his willingness to side with the US and Israel against Hezbollah, at least behind the scenes and for purely opportunistic reasons. According to Wikileaks cables, during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, Berri told the US ambassador at the time that the war’s potential to weaken Hezbollah was a positive development and he decried how few Hezbollah fighters Israel had managed to kill.
Fear of Amal, hatred of corrupt leadership, and lack of ideology
In Tyre, protesters tore down Berri’s posters and torched the Tyre Rest House Resort, which they believe is owned by Randa Berri, though Nabih Berri denied it. When I visited Tyre two weeks later, hundreds of new posters of Berri had been erected that read, “the guarantor of Lebanon” and “we are all with you [Berri].”
The posters surrounded the small protest encampment located in a roundabout on the beach road. The protest was part art fair, part concert for families, with liberals and a few leftists filling the ranks. Demonstrators were careful not to name leaders like Berri in their chants and when interviewed, they often spoke in vague terms out of fear of Amal. Later in the night, Amal members provoked the protesters in a familiar attempt at intimidation.
Scenes like this are playing out in smaller towns too.
Residents of the southern town of Machghara say Amal is taking names of protesters, deterring many from participating. As in Tyre, Amal emblazoned posters of Berri and new Amal flags around the streets to intimidate.
At the protest in Tyre, blaring music made it difficult to have a meaningful conversation with any activists. But I managed to interview a few organizers, none of whom liked one another.
One woman rushed to me after I interviewed a protest organizer to insist to me, “He’s not a legitimate protester. He left when the Sayyad [Hassan Nasrallah] told people to leave. So he has no right to speak for the movement.” Everyone I spoke to at the Tyre protest was supportive of Hezbollah as a resistance organization to Israel. All they wanted, they said, was a secular government that could provide basic services – hardly a rebellion against Hezbollah.
If there is anti-Hezbollah sentiment to be found, it would be in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and the site of ongoing sectarian violence. It is also one of the poorest areas of Lebanon. Yet in Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square, no one seemed to be protesting Hezbollah. Like virtually everyone else around the country, they were railing against economic inequality.
The overwhelming majority of people at this protest were unemployed. And they had erected an odd mix of banners: one outlining the values of the protest (nonviolent, nonsectarian, etc), another listing important sites in the city, and then one by families of Islamist prisoners demanding the release of their loved ones.
Of the dozens of people I spoke to, only one mentioned Hezbollah. “Part of the problem is we [Sunnis] don’t have anyone but Hariri, and he doesn’t have guns like Hezbollah and Amal. We have nothing,” said an unemployed 28-year-old father of three. There was also a great deal of praise for Turkey’s President Erdogan, but this is nothing out of the ordinary for conservative Tripoli.
It seemed that everyone in this protest had a complaint about the high cost of living and inability to provide for their families or pay for necessary medical procedures. Unlike the protesters in downtown Beirut who insisted on having a leaderless movement, people in Tripoli were desperate for a charismatic leader. And while they yearned a fresh face to vote for, they had no one in mind.
When asked if they would vote for any of the alternative groups involved in the protests, they responded in the negative. One of the demands of the protests has been early elections. But it is unlikely that early elections would produce results much different than those in the 2018 elections, in which the civil society alliance of alternative parties won only one seat in parliament, which ultimately went to a woman in Sabaa.
There was little political organizing to be found in these protest camps, except perhaps for the LCP holding a discussion in a nearby garden about the importance of opening up public spaces. Otherwise, people just sat around chatting about the revolution, waiting to be organized.
As the festivities filled up, vendors whipped out cotton candy, the music started pumping, and a protest instantly transformed into a nighttime carnival. The almost instant depoliticization of the event made me wonder who exactly was behind the music.
Scenes like these help explain why protesters tend to be so short on political education. They are desperate for a better life but there are few organizations with the capacity and resources to organize them on a massive scale, especially in a leftist direction that highlights the root causes of their plight: neoliberalism and imperialism. A man in the protest ranks highlighted the problem when he exclaimed to me, “Please someone save us, even if it’s America. I don’t care.”
Cooperation and integration versus the West’s recipe for fragmentation
The Lebanese economy is facing imminent collapse. Unemployment is spreading, prices are spiking and the street price of the Lebanese lira continues to devalue. There is little that can be done to avoid the collapse, which has been thirty years in the making.
The implosion of the Lebanese economy is spilling over into Syria, which was already teetering on the edge of economic collapse due to eight years of war, government mismanagement and US sanctions designed to collapse the country. Syria was relying on Lebanon as its access point to purchase goods for imports. Now that too is gone. Lebanon’s economic crisis is also affecting Syrian elites who placed their money in Lebanese banks during the war and cannot access it now due to the collapse of the banking sector.
One solution being floated for Lebanon’s economic woes is greater cooperation and economic integration with Syria. Syria, unlike Lebanon, has the capacity to produce with thousands of factories and a labor force. Lebanon produces nothing but has the ability to market and distribute without being hindered by international sanctions. Unfortunately none of this is on the reform agenda of the protests.
Iraq, too, could be a market for Lebanese dairy and agricultural products, which would transit through Syria if the Americans ever unblocked the Tanf crossing between Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has mentioned this in his speeches. The solution for Lebanon and its neighbors is cooperation and integration, not further fragmentation as is promoted by the West.
One figure involved in the protest who is pushing the idea of regional economic integration with Syria is Charbel Nahas, secretary general of the political party Citizens In A State (CIAS). While CIAS refrains from identifying itself as left or right, it is clear from its platform that the party has a leftist progressive bent. CIAS has influenced some of the protest discourse but not when it comes to Syria, which is viewed negatively by the dominant forces on the ground in the protests.
The Lebanese Communist Party, for its part, is advocating nationalization of the banks and the cancelation of the public debt as well as other debts, though this too is not a part of the mainstream discourse.
Meanwhile, the US has been scheming to exploit Lebanon’s economic desperation against Hezbollah.
After Hariri’s resignation, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Israel think tank, hosted a panel discussion on the protests sweeping Lebanon. The event was moderated by WINEP fellow Hanin Ghaddar, a native of Lebanon who has devoted her career to lobbying against Hezbollah. She was elated by Hariri’s resignation.
Among the panelists was Makram Rabah, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut and consultant with Quantum Communications, a marketing firm that played a crucial role in the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2005 that ousted the Syrian army from Lebanon and birthed the pro-American anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition.
Rabah was joined by Lokman Slim, who runs Hayya Bina, a Western-backed NGO that has partnered with an array of US government-funded entities, including the National Democratic Institute, a subsidiary of the National Endowment for Democracy and partner of the US Institute for Peace, which were both founded under Reagan to push regime change in adversary countries under the cover of “democracy promotion.”
“The USG has been working quietly with Slim for some time” according to Wikileaks cables, which also showcased Hayya Bina’s close coordination with the US embassy.
Through Hayya Bina, Slim runs the website Shiawatch.org, which supposedly monitors the malign activities of Shia groups the US doesn’t like. It’s difficult to imagine Western support for a website called JewWatch, but anti-Shia bigotry has been normalized by Western governments as a tool against Iran.
The WINEP panelists emphasized the need for the US to harness the protests against Hezbollah.
Mike Pompeo expressed his support for the protests, claiming that protesters “want Hezbollah and Iran out of their country.” Hezbollah is Lebanese, so Pompeo’s declaration was essentially a call for expelling Lebanese people the US does not like from their native country.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also threw his support behind the protests, framing them as a movement against Hezbollah.
Statements like these encapsulated the danger the protests pose against an imminent economic collapse. So far, American involvement has been minimal and the protests have remained focused on the organic concerns of ordinary Lebanese citizens. But if the US chooses to escalate its involvement, the situation could take a nasty turn.
Rania Khalek is an independent journalist living in Beirut, Lebanon. She is the co-host of the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast.