This picture taken on August 9, 2020 shows a noose and a gallows hanging from the Martyrs' Statue along with Lebanese national flags, at the Martyrs' Square in the centre of Lebanon's capital Beirut. (Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Shellshocked: Lebanon’s revolution falters again

Lebanon protests are futile as opposition lacks a coherent strategy

“So many puffy eyes,” wrote a former colleague of mine at the American University of Beirut, “no one is even trying to hide days of crying.” The two weeks since the massive 4 August blast that took upwards of 200 lives and left hundreds of thousands more injured, homeless, or traumatised have sent Lebanon into a paroxysm of emotions all the more acute after nearly a year of unsolved and ever more intractable economic, political, and public health crises.

Horror quickly yielded to anger. Assigning guilt became a priority almost as a great as tending to the victims. Government ministers who tried to visit the affected areas were chased off by enraged crowds. Within 48 hours of the tragedy, crowds tried to storm parliament. An online petition to restore French colonial rule drew over 60,000 signatures. Saturday, 8 August, was declared a “Day of Rage” against the Lebanese government, which arouses near-universal contempt for its corruption and inefficiency, and their now visibly deadly consequences, and against the country’s financial and managerial establishment, which enable and benefit from them.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square, where they built makeshift gallows and hanged cardboard cutouts of the country’s political leaders. In a matter of hours, militants stormed three government ministries controlled by or closely associated with Lebanese president Michel Aoun’s party, the Hezbollah-aligned Free Patriotic Movement, and with his almost comically hated son-in-law and former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, who serves as a kind of shogun for the 85 year-old head of state and stars in a popular and catchy revolutionary ditty that ends with the words “your mother’s [vagina]”. Other protesters set fire to the offices of Lebanon’s banking association; whose members are widely held responsible for a debilitating national fiscal crisis that unfolded while they helped the well-connected export billions to foreign safe havens. Documents and drives were seized, social media speculated about which institutions would be occupied next, and a huge red banner unfurled before the foreign ministry proclaiming it the revolution’s headquarters.

For a brief moment, it looked like the energised crowds might win the day. Twitter alighted with assurances that this time things were different, and that no one would back down. In case anyone missed the mock gallows, protesters boldly declared to the media that they wanted their national leaders dead. Solemn pledges were made to stand or perish. One demonstrator enjoined her fellows to move on over her corpse if she should fall in the struggle. An officer of the riot police was killed in the melee, mourned by the crowds as just another victim of the horrible system. But as night fell, reinforcements from Lebanon’s officially apolitical army poured into the contested areas, ousted the ministry occupiers, and put down the disturbances with what credible reports and photos I have seen show to have been live ammunition.

Ramifications for the government came quickly. Six of the country 128 MPs resigned their seats in protest, followed by four government minsters. Pictures of Aoun were preemptively removed from public display before they could be torn down by angry crowds. Facing further cabinet resignations and a possible parliamentary vote of no confidence, on 10 August Lebanon’s prime minister Hassan Diab, a former university colleague of mine who had a reputation for being unable to control his classes, announced the government’s resignation, pathetically declaring that corruption is “bigger than the state.”

People on the ground feel that something fundamental has broken and can never be restored

President Aoun accepted Diab’s resignation, but, following Lebanese practice, he and his cabinet will remain in place until a new one can be formed, a process that could take months and will be decided in backroom deals brokered by Aoun and his terrible son-in-law. To great popular disappointment, the heavy favorite to replace Diab is former prime minister Saad Hariri, who was himself forced from office following much larger but less violent protests that paralyzed Lebanon last October, and whose motorcade was stoned by angry citizens the day after the blast. Egged on by Hezbollah, Aoun may also simply decide that it is more advantageous to maintain Diab’s weak and easily controlled caretaker government ad infinitum. A nearly unanimous parliamentary vote swiftly approved a national “state of emergency” decree and handed sweeping authority to the Lebanese military, including powers of arbitrary arrest, search, censorship, crowd control, and trials of civilians by military courts. These measures are temporary, but the government can and almost certainly will renew them as often as desired. It did not take the angry populace long to realize that the only possible rationale for these measures is to shut down any future protests against the government.

As recriminations over the blast were hurled around with attendant conspiracy theories and careful documentation of who-knew-what-and-when, the government predictably arrested 25 mid-level bureaucrats, who will be scapegoated while the larger corruption issues remain unaddressed. Foreign powers with an interest in Lebanon quickly sent in high-level officials to buck up their respective partisans among the national leadership, who are sleeping peacefully again. An impressive amount of humanitarian aid is flowing in, but near universal appeals have called for it to go to trustworthy relief organizations rather than the discredited Lebanese government, which is widely expected to steal whatever funds or materials pass through official channels.

The Lebanese establishment show no signs of implementing all but the most cosmetic changes

The pressing national economic catastrophe will remain unsolved. The relevant foreign governments and financial authorities have candidly stated that without long-demanded major reforms they will still not extend the estimated USD 30 billion in aid that the country needs to solve its massive fiscal crisis, to say nothing of the spiraling reconstruction costs from the blast, which now top an additional USD 15 billion. The Lebanese establishment show no signs of implementing all but the most cosmetic changes and are already squabbling among themselves over how to investigate the blast without losing political advantage. On 18 August, they made a transparent and thoroughly unconvincing show of reconciliation over the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s long-awaited and frequently delayed verdict on the 2005 assassination of the popular prime minister Rafik Hariri, which found one of the four individual defendants guilty but absolved Hezbollah of any complicity despite considerable evidence to the contrary and following frequent Hezbollah threats of destabilising retaliation in the event of an adverse finding. And, to add insult to injury, after the protests Lebanon recorded its highest ever daily totals of new Covid-19 infections just as its already overburdened medical facilities were besieged by thousands of people injured in the blast.

There are some hints that the battle will resume. As my former colleague revealed among countless others, people on the ground feel that something fundamental and even existential has broken and can never be restored if any amount of the status quo remains intact. A pained, dismissive scorn now greets the overhyped trope of Lebanon’s “resilience” and the clichéd metaphor of a national phoenix arising eternally from its ashes. All of the country’s existing problems are still present and getting worse, and the government has taken no significant role even in the blast clean-up efforts, which are almost entirely in the hands of civil society groups founded from scratch and individual volunteers. People with the opportunity to leave the country are joining a new wave of emigration, with many among my friends and acquaintances saying that they intend never to return, a statement that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Increasing poverty and psychological devastation are growing among broad segments of the remaining population who have nothing left to lose, hold their government responsible for a massive atrocity against them, and possess firearms.

The frail intellectual opposition that might mobilise protestors is devoid of any institutional body or organisation

Nevertheless, the frail intellectual opposition that might mobilise them is purposely non-hierarchical, leaderless out of principle, and devoid of any institutional body or organisation from which it could conceivably draw leaders. Their only ballot achievements have been electing an annoying television presenter to parliament (she was one of the six MPs who just resigned) and choosing an anti-government attorney as president of Beirut’s bar association, a powerless position in a country with corrupt and unreliable courts. Its fractious “activists” emigrate, sell out, complain on Twitter, or just grow old without ever maturing into the pragmatic public servants the country sorely needs. They have no common goal other than the removal of the political and economic establishment, no coherent idea of either how to do that or of what should replace it, and no ideological consensus apart from a vaguely left-wing legalism naïve enough to suggest that a peaceful imposition of “social democracy” and its meaningless adjuncts like “transparency”, “inclusiveness”, and “sustainability”, will solve their problems even if they were possible to bring about, which they are not.

Many who were calling for blood on social media two weeks ago are now pronouncing themselves pleased with the long delayed and extremely limited Hariri verdict and thereby announcing that they may already be resigned to a staid incrementalism in changing their country’s bleak fate. Despite their early promise, even the encouragingly militant 8 August protests quickly divided into irreconcilable factions that could not agree on what to do or on what risks they were willing to take to claim their rights. The government that opposed them, however, was willing to use lethal force to deny them those rights.

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