Lebanon’s WhatApp intifada

We know more or less what constitutes Lebanon, but we don’t know how it works. If we had to send into space a country capable of containing the world, Lebanon would fit the bill. If we had to send one that did not contain what is needed to make a real country, Lebanon would also be the answer.   Lebanese author Dominique Eddé

The sparks which that lit the fire of the current protests in Lebanon were an increase in the price of using the WhatApp messaging, which many Lebanese preferred to the high rates charged by private telcos, and destructive wildfires on the iconic Chouf mountains which could not be tamed because the authorities had grounded the firefighting helicopters for want of routine maintenance. But the root of Lebanon’s autumn of discontent go much deeper.

Almost thirty years of stagnation characterized by high unemployment, particularly among the youth, increasing inequality, limited opportunities, rampant corruption, meagre infrastructural reform, and decaying administrative, social, and educational institutions, are bringing young and old from across Lebanon’s many confessional fault lines and clan and party loyalties (often the same thing) onto the streets of major major towns all over this tiny but divided country. They accuse the government being preoccupied with enriching its members and their supporters and neglecting the needs of ordinary Lebanese. See longtime Beirut resident Robert Fisk’s article in The Independent: I don’t blame the Lebanese rioters setting Beirut alight – they are hungry, poor and furious; and Beiruti journalist Samah Hadid’s piece: The protests in Lebanon have bridged social divides – now everyone is fighting against the corrupt elite.

There are many left-wing social media tropes that are blinkered by an obsession with theories of US, Saudi and Israeli conspiracy, accusing them of manipulating the Lebanese street to bring down the Hariri government. They are letting Lebanon’s corrupt and dysfunctional sectarian political establishment off the hook.

Other media are talking excitedly about this being Lebanon’s version of the 2011 Arab Spring – as illustrated by our featured image and the lass sporting the word thawra or ’revolution’’ on her tee shirt – a sure way of drawing the invidious “evil eye’ to the the Lebanese’ peaceful (so far) and convivial (again, so far) intifada, for we all know how the Arab Spring ended. And none have yet allocated this putative revolution a colour like those that popped up from Kiev to Kazakhstan in the early years of this century (the ‘Cedar Revolution’, anyone?). Which is probably wise, because we all should have learned by now to avoid the trap of false analogies.

The party atmosphere and the images of unity among Lebanese of all classes, clans and confessions can be deceptive. Three decades since the end of a brutal civil war, which left over 120,000 propel dead, and tens of thousands “disappeared”, and almost eighty years since the National Pact of 1943 laid the foundations for Lebanon’s shaky and perennially challenged multi-faith political dispensation, divisions run deep. Not only traditional clan and sectarian lines, and the inequitable distribution of power and wealth, but also, the deliberately indeterminate status of upwards of 170,000 Palestinians (the refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants), and upwards of 1.5 million increasingly unwelcome Syrian refugees.

There are many amongst the party faithful and their never quite disarmed militias who at a signal from above, could let lose the dogs of violence with infiltrated provocateurs or strategically placed snipers – we’ve seen this before, in Sarajevo and Kyiv, in Tahrir Square, and in Syria in 2011 when demonstrations had yet to morph into violence and civil war. This it is already happening in Iraq, where security forces and lone wolves affiliated with Iranian interests are alleged to have fired on protesters.

The Lebanese National Army and police force have been ordered to disperse the protesters, but as yet, are merely holding the line. Many on the streets are no doubt anxious about the role the powerful Shia Hezbollah will chose to play in the coming days. Its reclusive but undisputed leader Hasan Nasrallah has declared that the status quo should stand, that the government should hold firm because it would taken too long to form a new one, thus delaying the reforms that the demonstrators are demanding. Hezbollah, with thirteen seats in the parliament and three cabinet posts, is the most powerful political and military and an army stronger than the national army, and whilst bankrolled by Iran, is itself part of the establishment that the protesters and one of the parties that many protesters are demonstrating against – as part of the problem and not of the solution.

Calling for a non-confessional government of technocrats appointed on the basis of experience and not patronage and clan connections, the protesters paint Hezbollah with the same brush as the the Christian Phalange, the Shia Amal, and other self serving confessional parties – quite apart from its constant provocation of what many see as needless confrontation with Israel (and its western backers), and its deep involvement in the Syrian civil war.  Whilst there is no doubt a traditional prejudice towards the country’s Shia minority, many Lebanese resent Hezbollah for exposing their country to potential destruction at the hands of Israel, and for dragging it into the conflict in Syria, a country and a regime for which for which they retain bad memories and harbour little affection.

Meanwhile, there have been indications that Hezbollah’s hitherto uncritical mass following in the south is fraying somewhat as economic hardship bites, tarnishing even Hezbollah’s credentials as a provider of social and educational services. But there are now reports from Beirut of Hezbollah supporters attacking protesters. Dressed in black and wielding batons, they are chanting that their boss is not like the others, whilst he has declared that the protests are being fomented by his enemies (it’s all about him!) and that it could reignite the fifteen year long civil war that ended in 1990. There is also talk of supporters of Hsiang part Amal and of Hezbollah coming to break up the demonstrations. Ominously, they are being called ‘shabiya’, Arabic for ‘ghosts’, and also the name of the murderous Alawi militias unleashed by the regime in Syria. 

There is also talk of supporters of Hsiang part Amal and of Hezbollah coming to break up the demonstrations. Ominously, they are being called ‘shabiya’, Arabic for ‘ghosts’, and also the name of the murderous Alawi militias unleashed by the regime in Syria. 

As I watch from afar, I am reminded of the words of celebrated Lebanon’s national poet Khalil Gibran: “Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block”.

 © Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved


For more on the Lebanese civil war, and the full text of Gibran’s poem, see In That Howling Infinites Pity the Nation

For other posts about the Middle East, see: A Middle East Miscellany

Afterword:  Lebanon’s  huge smallness

In a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books, The Compatibility of Opposites, Lebanese author and novelist Dominique Eddé  writes one of the most profound and insightful descriptions of her homeland, that you could ever read  – a portrait of what I would describe as Lebanon’s  huge smallness (after Walt Whitman’s  “I am small, I contain multitudes”):

“Every Lebanese invents a personal Lebanon for a country that does not exist”.
A Lebanese author writes … Lebanon is both the center of the world and a dead end. The broken little village of a planet that is sick. Chaotic, polluted, and corrupt beyond belief, this is a country where beauty and human warmth constantly find ways to break through” …All extremes and all clumped together. It is like a magician’s trick handkerchief: you simply unfold one end and it will stretch ad infinitum. Individual memories are rich and compelling while the collective memory is nowhere to be found, impossible to recount”.

She continues: “It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in Lebanon, everything can be explained and nothing can be understood. All the decisions made for this country are made behind its back, and all that happens here epitomizes the rest of the world: the mix of populations, the vulnerability of borders, political lying at its worst, building the present by destroying the past, an utter lack of perspective … “With a total population of 4 to 5 million, Lebanon is home to 1.5 million refugees. Between a quarter and a third of the population is foreign: Palestinians displaced by the wars of 1948 and 1967, Syrians and Palestinians fleeing repression and the war in Syria that began in 2011, Iraqis displaced by the two Gulf wars. Lebanon’s degree of absorption and hospitality is almost proportional to its degree of intolerance. Ambivalence is everywhere, in everything”.

Postscript – the autumn of our discontent 

Last Sunday, a million people marched in London, demanding a second people’s vote on Brexit. In Britain and in Australia environmental protesters are disrupting city centres and enraging commuters. The “law and order brigade” in parliaments, press and social media have called down fire and brimstone upon climate activists’ heads, one television host going so far as suggesting that they should be used as speed bumps.

But in far-away places around the globe, popular protests are far from peaceful.

In Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador and Chile, people of all ages, genders and political affiliations are on the streets. There are many common themes, including demands for education and employment, and an end to the incompetence, self-interest and corruption of ruling elites. Bolivians are on th streets protesting the ruction of its president. In Spain, Catalans protest jail sentences handed down to their separatist parliamentary leaders. And in Hong Kong, there is no let up to months of demonstrations against China’s relentless chipping away at the city’s tenuous autonomy. Young Indonesians have been on the streets of Jakarta protesting new laws that undermine civil rights and endemic corruption amongst elites, and in Indonesian-occupied Papua, calls for independence have been met with predictable brutality.
In most of these each these outbreaks of popular outrage and protest, the authorities are responding with heavy handed police tactics, tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon, and mass arrests, and in some instances, deadly live fire.
See The Washington Post’s  The Common Factor Uniting Protesters … ; an Patrick Cockburn’s insightful analysis of the changing nature of the Middle East’s many ethnic and sectarian conflicts: Mass protests against corruption and deprivation are replacing an era of sectarian civil wars. 

The Children of the Revolution

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.

Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town  of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.

The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s  late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.

Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.

So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.

I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.

But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.

Back to the days before The Fall when pundits were asking whether Bashar would be Hammersmith Man, reflecting his former career as a successful ophthalmologist in London, and his glamorous, cosmopolitan, former merchant banker wife, or Hama Man, recalling his father’s crackdown on an Islamist rising in Hama in 1982, in which uncounted tens of thousand are believed to have perished. We discovered very soon whom he was destined to become.

To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.

image

The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.

The days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.

Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.

See also, Bombs and Babies

Children of the Revolution

On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.

Bosra Bosra 2

 

Bosra