Fear on the Streets: Hezbollah and the Protests in Lebanon

Photograph Source: Freimut Bahlo- CC BY-SA 4.0

Those tens of thousands of largely young protesters demanding a non-sectarian Lebanon were joyful, filled with happiness, determined that this time they would change the wretched confessional nature of their state forever. Then the Hezbollah turned up, a truckload of them, dressed in black and shouting through loudspeakers and holding up posters of their all-Shia militia heroes. Squads of Lebanese interior ministry police appeared in the side streets.

It was perfectly clear to all of us that the Hezbollah, heroes of the Lebanese resistance until they began sacrificing themselves on the battlefields of Syria, were attempting to sabotage the entire protest movement. The young men and women in the street shouted as one: “The government is corrupt, the sectarian leaders are corrupt, all members of parliament are thieves — thieves, thieves, thieves.” But they never – deliberately – mentioned the name of the Hezbollah chairman Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah serves in the Lebanese government.

And two of the men jumped down from the truck – big, tough figures towering over the younger protesters – dodging the police line and moved into the demonstrators, shouting and demanding they end their curses about sectarianism. “The Sayed [Nasrallah] is the only one who is not corrupt!” one of them screamed. These men did not come to talk to the protesters or discuss their objections or even argue. They preached at them, raising their voices and bellowing their words. For a moment I wondered if I was perhaps in the holy city of Kerbala or Najaf. There is in fact no evidence that Nasrallah is corrupt; but thanks to US sanctions on Syria and Iran, the Hezbollah may be running out of cash.

Then the cops, all riot shields and batons, formed two ranks between the Hezbollah and their adversaries.

“I have come from Nabatieh and I have been here eight days and nothing has happened,” the Shiite – no friend of the Hezbollah even though Nabatieh is in the militia’s effective area of control – shouted back.

So is this to be the new pattern of Lebanon’s “revolution”? Will the attacks start now, as they did in Nabatieh this week, when Hezbollah supporters used batons to clear the town’s central square of protesters?

The signs of government decay are everywhere. When the elderly president Michel Aoun gave a short pre-recorded speech on television on Thursday, it was noticed at once that he had been unable even to complete a short series of sentences in one take. The leather-bound books behind him – none of which, I suspect, he has ever read – suddenly changed their position on the shelves between his sentences.

Then a Lebanese journalist, claiming to know all about the broadcast, said that Aoun had fallen asleep between his sentences.

Aoun and prime minister Hariri had earlier told the country’s interior minister, Raya al-Hassan, that she must order the interior police to use water cannons to clear the streets of Beirut and the country’s main highways.

“I will not give this order,” she replied. “This matter is political. It is not a security matter.” Hassan, needless to say, is perhaps the only popular government minister in this country. Nor are the cops or the army unsympathetic to the protesters. Two soldiers were caught on camera weeping with emotion.

Then came the video of minister Akram Shayeb leaving his downtown office to find protesters outside the door. His bodyguards raised their rifles – some of them apparently fired shots in the air – and one pointed his gun at a young woman. “Don’t you threaten us,” she cried, ran forward and kicked the gunman in the testicles. The image of her now famous kick is spray-painted on the walls of central Beirut.

In Martyrs’ Square, the tens of thousands of demonstrators had no time for talk of government “reform”. Nor was there a word about a proposed tax on WhatsApp. The men and women here were highly educated, many with their children, and in many cases professionals: doctors, lawyers, university staff. If this protest fails – and what they want, of course, is constitutional change – they will in many cases leave their country forever, impoverishing Lebanon for generations.

But they were not all rich. I saw poorly dressed farming men and women, in plastic shoes, no socks and dirty clothes. When the sky poured, an old man with a crumpled face and a clutch of plastic umbrellas over his arm ran to me and offered to sell me a brolly for 5,000 Lebanese pounds – about £2.50. When I gave him the money he put it to his lips and kissed the banknotes over and over again, the poor man’s way of expressing his thanks for good fortune.

The crowds here were deeply impressed by a Shiite cleric whose sermon in Beirut told the people they were right to demand freedom from a sectarian government. “Your religion is between you and God,” Sheikh Yasser Audi said. “Freedom must be exercised, the Prophet said this.” The Lebanese army commander, General Joseph Aoun – no relation to the near-speechless president – ordered his soldiers to use no violence against any demonstrators. If they were to be forced back, it must be by pushing them with their bodies, and not by drawing weapons.

I saw several Lebanese soldiers ostentatiously shouldering their weapons with the barrels down and the butts up, a traditional symbol of military personnel when they wish to show they do not intend to use violence. But then again, I saw this in Cairo during the 2011 Egyptian revolution – and look what happened to that.

Amid the government – or what is left of it since the Christian Lebanese Forces ministers have resigned – there was talk of Gebran Bassil, the deeply unpopular foreign minister who is indeed the son-in-law of the near-speechless president, being prepared to resign if the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt withdrew his cabinet members from the government.

If this is window dressing, the idea is clearly intended to let the mass protests simmer down. I’m not at all sure, however, that this would any longer work. The bolder street demonstrations become, the greater their demands. And the cry for an entirely new constitution that will utterly abandon the sectarian system of government in Lebanon has grown stronger and stronger. There are many in the Arab and Muslim world who will wish them to fail. Bashar al-Assad for one, Sisi of Egypt for another. Certainly Iran. And the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, whose petty “reforms” are now utterly overshadowed by the real shout for freedom in Lebanon.

You can see why all the Arab dictators and kings fear this. If Lebanon’s people – especially its young people – succeed in their vast undertaking, then the millions of suppressed and poorly educated men and women across the Arab world will ask why they too cannot have these same freedoms. France supports the Lebanese demonstrators – which is a bit odd since it was the French after the First World War who imposed this vile sectarianism upon Lebanon. The Americans claim they are on the side of the protests. But I suspect this is because they want the Hezbollah to be disowned by the Lebanese – rather than a new free nation in the Middle East.

Well, we shall see.

In the meantime, we will also find out what Hezbollah has in store.

There is a palpable fear on the streets of Beirut. More than one of the interior ministry cops, I noticed, were wearing black face masks to hide their identity. More powerful than the Lebanese army, the Hezbollah obviously fears for its own popularity, and worries that it will in the future be cast into the outer darkness of Lebanon’s sectarian world rather than hero-worshipped. Their appearance at the demonstration in Riad Solh Street was extremely sinister. And be sure it will happen again.

Who would have thought that the winners of the 2006 war with Israel would align themselves with the political and corrupt elites of Lebanon?

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.