Opinion |

Lebanon's Intifada: Can the People Overturn Their Corrupt, Sectarian Leaders?

Lebanon is rising up: the Arab Spring is returning. But the six sectarian political leaders who divide and rule the country and its resources are in no rush to relinquish power

Yasser Alahwal
Yasser Alahwal
A protester waves the Lebanese flag during ongoing protests against the government, in front of the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon Nov. 9, 2019
A protester waves the Lebanese flag during ongoing protests against the government, in front of the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon Nov. 9, 2019Credit: Bilal Hussein,AP
Yasser Alahwal
Yasser Alahwal

Eight years after the Arab Spring started, the triggers for Arab rage have not changed: Corruption, sectarianism, human rights abuses and official state contempt for their citizenry. The ruling clases of the regimes and governments that survived the Arab Spring's explosion and implosion doubled down.

Now, as then, as the rage on the street rises again, from Iraq to Lebanon, those ruling class won't go down without a fight either.

In Lebanon, the popular anger that has erupted on the streets since October 17th directed at state corruption, inefficiency and injustice now has a particular focus: a revolt against the formalized sectarian structure of government that leads to economic and political paralysis, nepotism and intimidation.

But it's a commonly-held assumption that that sectarian form of government is what has saved Lebanon from another appalling descent into civil war. It's that foundational assumption that is now being challenged.

The Lebanese Civil War was both an internal Lebanese affair, and a regional conflict involving a host of regional and international actors. It revolved around some of the issues that have dominated regional politics in the Middle East over the latter part of the 20th century, from the Palestine-Israel conflict, Cold War competition, Arab nationalism and political Islam.

These conflicts intersected with longstanding disagreements within the Lebanese political elite, and in parts of the population, over the sectarian division of power, national identity, social justice and Lebanon’s strategic alliances.

What is referred to as the Lebanese Civil War was in fact a series of more or less related conflicts between shifting alliances of Lebanese groups and external actors destabilizing the Lebanese state from 1975-1990.

The conflicts can be divided into five main periods: the two-year war from April 1975 to November 1976; a long interlude of failed peace attempts, Israeli and Syrian intervention and a host of internal conflicts between November 1976 and June 1982; the Israeli invasion and its immediate aftermath from June 1982 to February 1984; the internal wars of the late 1980s; and finally the intra-Christian wars of 1988-90, which eventually ended the war.

Those 15 years of fighting exacted an enormous price. It is estimated that there were 120,000 fatalities – civilians and combatants. Much of Lebanon’s infrastructure was shattered, as was Lebanon’s reputation as a rare model of cross-sectarian coexistence in the Arab Middle East. The Lebanese Civil War was one of the most devastating conflicts of the late 20th century.

The Ta’if Accord that ended the war in 1989 failed to resolve or even address the core conflicts of the war, including the sectarian division of power in Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee issue.

The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 (widely accepted to have been perpetrated by Hezbollah), the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, and continued political instability in the country have added to the sense among many Lebanese that political violence is endemic to their body politic.

Lebanese army soldiers clash with protesters as they attempt to reopen a road in the southern coastal city of Saida (Sidon) during ongoing anti-government demonstrations on October 28, 2019Credit: AFP

Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional system of allocating power have been at the center of Lebanese politics for decades. Those religious groups most favored by the formula established in the National Pact of 1943, which established the ground rules for Lebanon as a multiconfessional state, fixing the government and military positions each community's representatives would hold, depending on their relative proportion in the population, sought to preserve it.

On the other hand, those who saw themselves at a disadvantage sought either to revise it – in the light of updated key demographic data - or to abolish it entirely. Nonetheless, many of the provisions of the National Pact were codified in the Ta'if Acoord, perpetuating sectarianism as a key element of Lebanese political life.

Since 1943, with ratification in 1989, Lebanon's ruling "troika" is distributed as follows: The President, a Maronite Christian; the Speaker of the Parliament, a Shi'a Muslim; the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim.

However, there are six leaders who really rule Lebanon. Following the civil war, in which each of them was implicated, they agreed to share power. Let’s have a closer look at them.

President of Lebanon: Michel Naim Aoun

Supporters of Lebanon's President Michel Aoun hold his poster during a rally to support him. Baabda near Beirut, Lebanon, November 3, 2019Credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/ REUTERS

Michel Aoun's political biography includes Lebanon's highest offices, war, exile and return. Appointed to head the Lebanese Army in 1984, he then served as prime minister from 1988 to 1990, having been nominated by the outgoing President Amine Gemayel. His apppointment was mired in controversy as his predecessor, Selim Hoss, refused to give up the premiership. That resulted in two rival governments simultaneously contending for power – one led by Aoun, and the other by Hoss.

On 14 March 1989, Aoun declared a "War of Liberation" against the presence of Syrian army forces in Lebanon. On 13 October 1990, Syrian forces invaded Aoun strongholds including the presidential palace, killing hundreds of Lebanese soldiers and civilians. Aoun fled to the French Embassy in Beirut, and was later granted asylum in France where he lived in exile for 15 years.

Aoun returned to Lebanon on in May 2005, eleven days after Syrian troops withdrew. In 2006, as head of the Free Patriotic Movement , he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah, initiating a major alliance that has survived ever since. Despite the bloody history with Hafez Assad's regime, Aoun visited Bashar Assad in Syria in 2009.

Aoun was elected a Member of Parliament where he headed the Free Patriotic Movement and the broader Reform and Change coalition which, with 27 MPs, constituted the second largest parliamentary bloc. After beating his main rival candidates - Samir Geagea, Suleiman Frangieh and Henri Helou – Aoun was sworn in as President of Lebanon in October 2016, breaking a 29-month deadlock.

There was hope, even among his many detractors, that his election would end the country’s long-running political crisis. That seems distant today. Aoun remains in office which his prime minister and other cabinet members have resigned, assailed by the nationwide protests but still enjoying support from dedicated followers who have rallied around the presidential palace in Baabda.

Even though he criticized nepotism in the past, Aoun annointed his son-in-law Gebran Bassil as foreign minister and party leader. Bassil has become a political ally of Hezbollah, and is one of the key tagets of protestor anger and ridicule.

Speaker of the Parliament: Nabih Berri

Barricades block a street during an anti-government protest with a billboard of parliament speaker Nabih Berri in the background. Nabatiyeh, southern Lebanon October 18, 2019Credit: AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

Backed by Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, Berri was elected leader of the largest Shiite party, Amal, in 1980 and has been a dominant player in Lebanon’s Shia political scene since.

Assad relied heavily on Berri and its 14,000 strong militia during the Lebanese civil war. Amal fought a bloody two year war with pro-Arafat Palestinian camps in Beirut and south Lebanon, indiscriminately killing thousands of people. Thanks to his strong Syrian backing and proximity to Syrian officials in Lebanon, Berri had outsized influence over the first Lebanese government formed after the Ta'if Accord.

He was elected parliamentary Speaker for the first time on 20 October 1992. He has since won elections to keep that post five times, always by an overwhelming majority.

Berrih has become a target for protestors even in Amal stronholds in the south. Amal, together with Hezbollah, have been accused of sending thugs to break up the protests there.

He has declared his support for Hariri's re-appointment as prime minister, warning that Lebanon couln't remain in suspended animation for much longer.

Former Prime Minister: Saad al-Hariri

An anti-government protester and graffiti painter draws Prime Minister Saad Hariri as a clown on the wall, during ongoing protests against the government, in Beirut, Lebanon. Nov. 9, 2019Credit: Bilal Hussein,AP

Son of an assassinated Lebanese prime minister, an ultra-wealthy businessman who was once reportedly taken hostage by the Saudis, Saad al-Hariri resigned the premiership on October 29, 2019, having held the post since 2016. It was his second round as prime minister, having served previously 2009 - 2011.

Saad has led the leader of the Future Movement party since 2005, taking over in the wake of his father's murder, and was widely seen as the strongest figurehead of the March 14 Alliance, opposed to Syrian intervention in Lebanon; Hariri called Bashar Assad a "monster" in 2012 for the blood he had shed "in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, not to mention the "slaughter of children and the genocide of the Syrian people."

While Hezbollah has various Sunni allies, Hariri – with his international backing and staure - was always seen as a critical player to facilitate Hezbollah's participation at the highest levels of Lebanese governance.

Hariri has also publicly resigned once before, only to retract his announcement. In November 2017, he was summoned to Riyadh, where he has a home, and after several days of house arrest was handed a Saudi-written script announcing his resignation that he read from on Saudi state TV.

The Saudis were angry at Hariri's intention to maintain a detente with the Iran-backed Hezbollah for the sake of Lebanon's stability. On his release and return to Lebanon, Hariri withdrew his resignation.

In the wake of the current protests, Hariri again announced his resignation, and that of his cabinet on October 29, throwing the country into political chaos. A day later, he declared that he would be prepared to return as prime minister of a new Lebanese government

Despite his resignation, the chances are high that he will be asked to form a new government, thanks to the lack of alternative candidates of sufficient influence within the Sunni community.

Hezbollah Secretary General: Hassan Nasrallah

Supporters of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah hold his pictures and waves Hezbollah flags in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Oct. 25, 2019Credit: Hassan Ammar,AP

Hassan Nasrallah is the third head of the Lebanese political and paramilitary party Hezbollah. He took over the leadership after his predecessor, Abbas al-Musawi, was assassinated by Israel in February 1992. Hezbollah is the only non-state group in Lebanon allowed to bear arms after the civil war ended in 1990.

Under Nasrallah, Hezbollah has upgraded its offensive weaponry, not least by acquiring longer-range missiles which would put not only northern Israel but also most of the country in range, Nasrallah claims.

Nasrallah has turned Hezbollah into a mafia threatening the whole of Lebanon by its force of arms, confirmed by Hezbollah's occupation of Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah gunmen surrounded the Lebanese cabinet building and detained then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers who were ratifiying their decision to disarm Hezbollah. The intimidation worked; Siniora's government has no choice but to backtrack on their decision.

Nasrallah declared Hezbollah was fighting on Assad's behalf during Syria's civil war against "Islamist extremists" and pledged that his group would not allow Syrian militants to control areas that border Lebanon.

Under his tenure, Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization, either wholly or in part, by the United States, the European Union and other states.

Hezbollah were strongly opposed to Hariri's October resignation: the party didn't believe he should give in to protestors' demands – among which was calling on Tehran to stop intervening in Lebanon's internal affairs - and had sent its thugs to intimidate and attack them.

Hezbollah is now under political pressure in Lebanon at a time when its generous financial support from Iran – the U.S. estimated in 2018 that Iran was transferring $700 million annually - has been cut, due to biting U.S. sanctions on Tehran.

Nasrallah has been unequivocably hostile to the protests, accusing them of fomenting chaos, raising the specter of civil war, of being foreign-funded provocateurs, and serially pivots towards Hezbollah's role as leading the "resistance" against Israel. Hezbollah activists have beaten up protestors in Beirut and also fellow Shia who have rallied in an unprecedentedly open way against Hezbollah in the south.

Lebanon's most powerful Druze: Walid Jumblatt

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt walks out of the parliament building in Downtown Beirut November 5, 2014Credit: Reuters

Walid Jumblatt is the leader of Lebanon's most powerful Druze clan and heir to a left wing political dynasty based around the Progressive Socialist Party.

He is seen by many as the country's political weather vane – and also a chameleon who shifts alliances to ensure he is always on the winning side – which he achieved even through the twists and turns of the 1975-90 civil war and its troubled aftermath, during which he led the People's Liberation Army, a powerful militia allied with the Palestinian Liberation Organization against the Maronites and Assad-backed militias.

He was a supporter of Syria after the civil war but, since the death of Hafez Assad in 2000, he has campaigned for Damascus to relinquish control. Jumblatt has spoken openly of the fear that he - like murdered former PM Rafik Hariri - may face assassination as a consequence. His relationship with Hezbollah has been changeable: in the past, he has forged alliances with it, at other times his Druze forces have engaged in armed conflict with them.

He commands the loyalty of members of the Druze community, estimated at less than 10 percent of Lebanon's population - and grudging respect from members of other religious minorities in Lebanon. He is also another prime example of the feudal and grifting nature of Lebanese politics, having "gifted" his parliamentary seat to his son last year.

Jumblatt has declared that the protests are justified and as part of a fading political generation he should support their anti-sectarian aspiration: "I am no angel, I am at the end of my political life. I have to give a message of hope to a new generation..This is the first time in the history of Lebanon there is such an upheaval away from sectarianism, from the north to the south."

Critics charge that Jumblatt has enjoyed the spoils of 40 years of corruption and sectarian power-sharing and that his recent pang of conscience is a bluff.

Maronite Lebanese Forces head: Samir Farid Geagea

Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces at his home in the Christian village of Maarab in the mountains overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh, October 31, 2014Credit: Mohamed Azakir/ REUTERS

Geagea heads the Lebanese Forces, the second largest Christian party in parliament. He is strongly opposed to Syrian intereference in Lebanon and to Hezbollah: "There can be no effective Lebanese state as strong as we want" as long as Hezbollah operates as an illegal parallel army, and the Lebanese state doesn't "hold a monopoly over weapons."

Once a member of the right-wing Phalangist party, Samir Geagea is is often termed a "Maronite warlord" for his role heading the Christian Lebanese Forces' militia during the Lebanese civil war in the early 1980s, where he commanded around 1,500 battle-hardened soldiers, drawn mainly from his native town of Bsharri and other towns and villages in northern Lebanon.

After the civil war, Geagea was convicted for his role ordering four political assassinations, including Prime Minister Rashid Karami in 1987. Sentenced to four death sentences commuted to life in prison, he was placed in solitary confinement for 11 years - the only Lebanese militia leader imprisoned for crimes committed during the war.

Parliament voted to grant him amnesty in 2005 and he issued a rare public apology a few years later: "I fully apologize for all the mistakes that we committed when we were carrying out our national duties during past civil war years...I ask God to forgive, and so I ask the people whom we hurt in the past."

Samir Geagea failed to win the presidency in elections due in 2014; a two year period followed without a president until Geagea backed his longtime rival Michel Aoun for the post.

The Lebanese Forces' four government ministers quit the Hariri government on October 20 and Geagea is now calling for a "shock" government of independent technocrats to address popular anger. Indeed, he has made great efforts to associate with the side of the protestors, and disassociate himself from the political elite that is a target of their anger, saying: "What is happening in Lebanon is a real popular revolution."

He has criticized the state's slow response to the political void: "Everything is collapsing and the officials are on another planet, taking their time." He also notes he would support Hariri's re-appointment as prime minister but as head of a government far more independent of Hezbollah and other vested interests.

Arabic graffiti reads, "Sectarianism is not your religion, strike it out," painted on a wall at a square where the anti-government protesters hold ongoing protests. Beirut, Lebanon. Nov. 7, 2019Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

The longevity, dynastic character and narrow sectarian agendas of so much of Lebanon's political elite mean Lebanese citizens are well aware of who they are dealing with, and the difficulty of achieving real change, cross-denominational solidarity, responsibility and accountability.

The Lebanese demonstrating on the streets know the risks of upsetting a political calculus - inefficient and corrupt as it is - that has kept a fragile civil peace for two decades.

Nonetheless protesters are not changing their minds. The protests' key slogan is "kellon yaani kellon," "all of them means every single one of them," - the male politicians from every sect and ethnicity are guilty, and they must all be held accountable.

Lebanon is rising up – and breaking the barrier of fear that once prevented its people from demanding radical change to the feudalism, exploitative sectarianism and corruption that rule Lebanon.

Yasser Alahwal is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam. He specializes in Middle Eastern politics and is passionate about writing and storytelling

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