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Lebanon must strategise and turn these peaceful protests into a win in the long run

Lebanese actress and film director Nadine Labaki (centre) with fellow demonstrators in the second week of anti-government protest in the centre of Beirut on October 26. AFP
Lebanese actress and film director Nadine Labaki (centre) with fellow demonstrators in the second week of anti-government protest in the centre of Beirut on October 26. AFP

Lebanon’s wonderful, civilised protests have induced panic in the ranks of sectarian leaders, warlords and oligarchs and will bear more fruits if the protesters consolidate gains and pocket demands. What is happening is historical, not a fleeting outburst that will be contained, as many political leaders falsely and arrogantly believe.

Yet in order to remove the rot from a regime that has become accustomed to disregarding people and their rights, it will not be enough to disobey and overcome fear. The Lebanese must fasten their belts and be vigilant of those trying to overturn the uprising into dangerous populist demagoguery. To prepare for the next round, the people must insist on reforms and adopt a strategy of calculated perseverance. For now, however, we must congratulate the Lebanese for their demands, their insistence on their rights and in their refusal to fall into sectarian traps and be appeased.

More than a week after the protests started, threats by political leaders have failed. The unity and spontaneous organisation among protesters has been astonishing. The message is: the Lebanese have woken after a long coma. It is clear to the people that greed and stupidity drive the decisions of Lebanon’s rulers. The people will now accept only those who they can trust to occupy government posts.

Persisting with peaceful protests is the people's strongest card. They must continue in their refusal to be drawn into clashes as this will protect the uprising against corruption, sectarianism, crony capitalism and the deliberate impoverishment of the country. It is crucial for protesters to develop a strategy to thwart agendas to turn Lebanon into a failed state that could become an arena for proxy wars.

This is not a revolution of the hungry, as some like to characterise it. It is a revolution to take back the state from a clique that thought it could subdue its people through sectarian fearmongering and treating them like cattle in a herd.

One after the other, Lebanon’s leaders have spoken with contempt, believing the uprising will be short-lived. President Michel Aoun’s belated bungled speech prompted pity for him and anger against those who allowed the presidency to fall so low. The prime minister’s office is in no better shape, thanks to the performance of Saad Hariri, who falsely believes he can appease people through half measures and that stalling would be in his favour.

Refusing to be drawn into clashes will protect the uprising against corruption, sectarianism, crony capitalism and the deliberate impoverishment of Lebanon

For his part, parliament speaker Nabih Berri believes he is above accountability, even as people accuse him of being at the heart of corruption.

It wasn't enough for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to tell the people that he alone controlled the decision of whether or not the government would resign. He had to shake his famous index finger in the face of the Lebanese, threatening that they would have to pay a price for protesting. The people’s response came quickly. From the southern coastal city of Tyre to the north via Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, they refused to back down.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt thought that he could engage in political acrobatics once again, but people again responded. His fear of Nasrallah would no longer be an acceptable justification for realpolitik. Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister, spoke from Baabda Presidential Palace as though he was the acting president, and declared his continued allegiance to Hezbollah. The street protests have pledged to prosecute him.

Yet none of these men will step down easily. Many of them believe they must stay to ward off total collapse. Some of them will try to convince the army to suppress protests. Some will take it upon themselves to have their thugs assault protesters and divide them.

So far, the world has watched the events in Lebanon from a distance. Washington has been keen to reject calls by some Lebanese leaders to advise them on whether to resign or stick to their posts. Washington has rejected playing the puppet master. The US in its refusal to make decisions for Lebanon’s leaders is a good sign.

Washington says it will not back those who have sought half measures rejected by the people. Washington will not save the banks, will not offer immunity and will not stand in the way of a peaceful anti-corruption uprising. Washington will not intervene to save Mr Hariri’s government or the Aoun-Bassil presidency. It is clear in its support for the army and its neutrality. Washington’s decision is that the uprising belongs to the Lebanese alone, and its achievements must be protected against accusations of American meddling.

If this anti-corruption uprising survives attempts at sectarian infiltration, it could topple the entire political class. Further, the protests could hinder Hezbollah’s project to dominate the future of Lebanon, and avoid US sanctions crippling the group's operations and targeting its funding sources in Tehran.

The protests have dented Hassan Nasrallah’s halo as a man who is above accountability and left him scrambling. Nasrallah at first dismissed the protests. Then he issued threats, betraying his anger and panic at a mass revolt that could decimate his project and the project of his masters in Tehran. He has to either cave to the protesters’ demands and stop blocking the government’s resignation — allowing it to be replaced by a technocratic government that he would not control — or spill blood, including among Shia Lebanese protesters.

Hezbollah may decide to destroy the whole temple on top of everybody’s heads if it senses that it has been structurally weakened. Hezbollah will not easily relinquish control of its domination of Lebanon, the presidency, and the government thanks to the ‘accord’ between Hariri, Nasrallah, and Aoun, midwifed by Bassil, the accord which has pushed Lebanon off the cliff and into the abyss. In other words, Nasrallah may decide that turning Lebanon into a failed state serves his interests, and pushes the country in that direction.

It is therefore imperative for the Lebanese uprising to adopt a counter-strategy to prevent the state’s collapse while insisting on binding social, political, and economic reforms that range from the immediate to the gradual. The uprising must adopt a tactic of “take and demand more” in order to consolidate its gains and push for accountability.

Right now, the most important matter is to persist in the protests and protect them, by avoiding the trap of provocation. Indeed, charging people amid the collapse could lead to riots, and attacks on homes and properties, which must not happen.

It is important to understand boundaries and factor them into tactics in order to achieve strategic wins against corruption and greed festering in the ruling class. If the public interest is best served through a technocratic government formed by Mr Hariri with figures acceptable to the people, then this would not count as a strategic concession but a tactical move as part of a broader strategy to prevent total collapse. It would count as a battle won among many coming battles.

A gradual approach is necessary. The first stop, after the revolution achieved historical gains by rising up against the ‘government of accord’, is to stabilise the economy in order to cope with political shocks. This does not mean giving up the demand for fundamental rights such as new parliamentary elections on the basis of a new law and a broad campaign to prosecute the corrupt and restore looted public funds. But pragmatism is important, and pragmatism at this stage requires protecting the uprising from Hezbollah’s weapons and any bid to collapse state institutions.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and president of the Beirut Institute

Updated: October 26, 2019 06:41 PM

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