The Lebanese state is going after social media activists
Since last October, the people of Lebanon have been taking to the streets to protest against the dire economic situation and to call for an end to sectarian political rule and corruption in the country. In all this time, protesters' demands have largely remained the same but the government’s response has slowly shifted, no longer putting up with dissenting voices.
The government and party leaders have launched a campaign to clamp down on activists and demonstrators, especially those active online, eating away at basic liberties, such as freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully.
This weekend, protesters in the Chouf area were assaulted by supporters of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who wields power over the region. Supporters of other traditional political parties, from Hezbollah to the Christian Lebanese Forces, have been assaulting anti-government demonstrators since October, without being held accountable.
In addition to these clashes, which have unfortunately become routine, there is a growing trend of using the state's security and legislative apparatus against activists.
Last month, activist Kinda Al Khatib was arrested along with her brother Bandar and taken to an undisclosed location. The arrest was not explained. It was only five days later that Al Khatib was charged with collaborating with Israel. In the meantime and before the charges were even made public, the hashtag “Kinda Al Khatib is a collaborator” started trending on Lebanese Twitter and was being used mostly by Hezbollah supporters. Her family told The National they believed that she was arrested for being a vocal online critic of Hezbollah and its political allies.
Collaborating with Israel is a serious offence in Lebanon. The two countries are still technically at war, although a truce has held since 2006. Ms Al Khatib faces jail time and ruin to her reputation.
The move has been decried by protesters as an attempt to silence critics of Hezbollah, especially as the charges held against Al Khatib, namely that she travelled to Israel via Jordan, do not seem to be supported by any evidence.
Ms Al Khatib’s detention is only the latest in a string of arrests targeting protesters and critics of Hezbollah and its allies. In April, demonstrators in Beirut and Sidon were arrested and reportedly tortured by internal security forces.
In the latter part of June, more than 50 activists in Beirut, Tripoli and Baalbek were arrested on charges of vandalism. The arrests have been denounced by a group of Lebanese lawyers as the “ruling elite’s continued scapegoating of protesters”, according to Megaphone, a citizen-journalist media platform.
The inspiration for the state's most recent clampdown on dissent may have come from prominent figures close to the Syrian regime within the new government. In the past month, Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmi, who was head of intelligence during Syria's occupation of Lebanon, told Hezbollah’s Al Manar television channel that he killed two people in 1981, and that Michel Aoun, Lebanon's serving President, protected him. His televised confession bears the signs of a warning.
In a similar fashion, Member of Parliament Jamil El Sayyed, who is aligned with Syria, told reporters that politicians should shoot at protesters demonstrating in front of their houses.
The clampdown has also, in part, been led by the Lebanese judiciary. Instead of safeguarding the rights of citizens and acting as an independent institution, some prosecutors have gone to great lengths to justify political arrests.
Lebanon's state prosecutor, for instance, called on the police to identify social media users who "insult" the president, a move that would make it easy to bring charges of slander and defamation against Mr Aoun's critics. Article 384 of Lebanon's penal code allows for those who "insult" the president, the flag, or the national emblem to be imprisoned for up to 2 years, although it is rarely enforced. This outdated law is now being used to go after those who criticise Mr Aoun.
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As a result, activists such as Pierre Hashash and Michel Chamoun have been arrested for posts criticising Mr Aoun and his entourage. Prior to his arrest, Mr Chamoun posted a video on social media asking the President to stop going after those who criticised him and to think instead of the reasons why many Lebanese now disapprove of him.
Social media has become an arena where government supporters and pro-revolution users debate and clash. It is also a space that activists and civil society groups use to vent their grievances and to mobilise. Since the early days of the October movement, dozens of pro-revolution pages have popped up on Instagram. Facebook is used to plan demonstrations and activists have made their demands heard through Twitter hashtags. The political elite, especially those currently in power, seek to dominate this virtual public space – to prove they still enjoy a popular following. But most importantly, they want to quell dissent.
Last week, Dorothy Shea, the US ambassador to Lebanon, commented on Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon’s current crisis in a televised interview. In response, a judge from the southern city of Tyre banned her from talking to local media.
The Lebanese people are witnessing their lifelong savings melt, while their leaders remain impassive
While Lebanese leaders have devoted considerable effort to stifling dissent, the same cannot be said of their work toward resolving the country's dire economic situation. Over the past couple of weeks, Lebanon’s financial crisis has spiralled out of control. The Lebanese pound, still officially pegged at 1,517 to one dollar, is now approaching 10,000 to the dollar on the black market. The prices of necessities have skyrocketed while the minimum wage, which was roughly equivalent to $450 (Dh1,652) previously, is now valued at less than $80.
Sixty per cent of Lebanese will be destitute by the end of the year, according to the World Bank. And with borders closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is a growing fear among citizens of being trapped in a permanent state of crisis.
The country’s wartime elite has remained in power for 30 years, a time during which living conditions have severely deteriorated. Now, the Lebanese people are witnessing their lifelong savings melt, while their leaders remain impassive.
On top of that, the right of the people to vent their frustrations – online and offline – is now under threat. Amid hyperinflation, power cuts and worsening conditions, the clampdown is only likely to intensify as it becomes more difficult for Lebanon’s political elite to spin the narrative in its favour.
Aya Iskandarani is a staff Comment writer at The National
Updated: July 8, 2020 03:33 PM