How the US should respond to the protests in Lebanon John Hajjar/American Mifeast Coalition For Democracy/November 12/2019
I came back to the US from Lebanon less than one month before the October protests began in Beirut and started spreading throughout its cities and towns, shaking the foundations of a regime that spent 30 years in corruption and backing Hezbollah. During my field trip to my ancestral land, mandated by the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy (AMCD), I met with students, politicians, journalists, former military, religious leaders and civil society activists. I also met with ordinary people in different places. The three major issues of discontent among all people I met were:
1-Frustration with the economic and financial situation, crumbling under the heavy corruption eroding most of Lebanon’s institutions, both public and private; 2-Fear from the constant domination of Hezbollah and its peace through intimidation of their partisans and those opposed to their domination; and, 3-Loss of trust in the ruling political, economic, and clerical establishment of the country.
Warnings from the people During my field trip, I heard warnings that the people had had enough of corruption and militia thuggish behavior and were about to explode. I also heard criticism of US policy, particularly from America’s friends. “Where are you?” they asked me. “We are being eaten alive by Iran and its lackeys in this country.” As someone who was part of the Lebanese American community efforts in 2002-2004 to produce UNSCR 1559, I surely understood the message. Lebanon’s population, except those who are supporters of the Iranian regime, is generally not only friendly with but feel close to the United States.
I included my observations in a report I submitted to the Trump Administration, which I also detailed in a meeting at the State Department a few days after the uprising exploded in Lebanon. I stressed the importance for the United States to be prepared for what may be a tidal wave of protests. And, indeed, that is exactly what is happening.
The protests: “All means All” On October 18, tens of thousands of Lebanese filled the public squares in Beirut in ardent anti-government demonstrations accusing all the leaders of “stealing the people’s money” and of abandoning the poor to their destiny. At first, the demands were socio-economic, but then the protests got larger and the official goal became bringing down the entire system: the Saad Hariri cabinet, Michel Aoun’s Presidency, and Nabih Berri’s Parliament, accused of being behind the mass corruption that the country has been suffering under for decades.
Soon enough, the protests spread to Tripoli, the second largest city in the country with a Sunni majority, then along the coast to Batroun, Jounieh, and Sidon. But the major political events were demonstrations hitting the hometowns of Hezbollah in Tyre, Nabatiyeh, and Baalbeck.
The core of the protests was organized by a network of liberal, patriotic, mostly civil society groups; among them a newly formed political party called “Seven.” Traditional political parties were asked not to join, though their members were welcomed. Hence the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, and Jumblatt stayed away.
It is imperative to note that a group of leftwing militants also installed themselves in the center of downtown Beirut and gradually attempted to seize the political and organizational command of the leaderless protests.
The uprising was cross-sectarian, including youth from all religious communities, and displayed clear signs of a civil society kirmess as the gatherings were quite celebratory in nature. At one point, organizers claimed that close to two million people participated in the rallies.
Hezbollah, regime and far-left tactics Hezbollah, the de facto ruler of Lebanon, perceived the protests as directed against its power. The demonstrators chanted that “all leaders should be forced to resign, all of them,” which in practicality included Hezbollah. The retaliation of the Iran dominated militia came fast. Hordes of militants stormed the rallies, destroyed the stands and dispersed the protesters. But the protestors would not be kept down. They came back after each act of violence perpetrated against them.
The regime, unhinged, refused to resign as Hezbollah rejected a change of system. Nasrallah’s network, which has been suffering financially from US sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration, threatened mass violence if the revolution ejected them from the state. The Secretary General, Mr. Nasrallah, even alluded that he would cut the wages of the Lebanese Army, immobilizing it, and unleash his militia on the protesters. Clearly, Hezbollah was and is a threat to the Lebanon protests.
Hundreds, if not thousands of Lebanese called on the Diaspora to help, particularly Lebanese Americans to intercede with the US government. But Hezbollah was monitoring any attempt to bring in US pressure on the Lebanese Government. One incident was very telling.
In response to a tweet by former Trump advisor, Dr. Walid Phares who simply called on the US to hear the voices of protesters in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “electronic army” staged a massive wave of attacks and smears against the scholar – who was also an architect of the UNSCR 1559 in 2004 that supported the Cedars Revolution the following year. The pro Iran targeting of Phares lasted days and aimed at hitting a link that could bring international support to the rallies in Beirut and other cities. Interestingly enough, a network of far-left Twitter accounts linked to far-left figures in the US, such as George Soros and Bernie Sanders, joined Hezbollah’s savaging of Phares. The incident showed two matters: (1) Hezbollah is backed by American “Stalinist” networks and (2) the organization fears a Trump Administration endorsement of the popular movement in Lebanon, unlike Obama’s abandonment of the Iran Green Revolution in 2009.
Trump Administration’s position Of course, I note that the Trump administration proceeded with caution regarding the Lebanon protests. One parameter was clear as the first statements from the State Department underlined: “The rights of the Lebanese people to express themselves should be protected.” Another parameter was to ask the Lebanese Army to protect the rallies from Hezbollah and other militias. But it was days after the Phares tweet calling on the US to stand with the movement before statements were issued by important US leaders like Secretary of State Pompeo, Senate Majority leader McConnell and other administration officials and Congressional voices.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, the Hezbollah propaganda machine and its far-left allies in Lebanon blasted any potential Trump statement as “meddling” but welcomed supportive statements from radical politicians such as Bernie Sanders as “progressive.” Hezbollah is also the only group in Lebanon that is under direct foreign control – by The Islamic Republic of Iran – thus completing the circle of Leftist-Islamist complicity.
The protests’ future The popular forces on the streets seem to be resilient and willing to take the political fight through to the end, that is, until a full change is achieved. Despite the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the public backing the protesters has expressed its will to continue the “revolution.” Though many roads closed during the protests were re-opened by the Army and security forces, rallies continue in Beirut and other cities, most notably Tripoli. The uprising is discretely backed by anti-Hezbollah leaders such as Christian politician Samir Geagea, Sunni leader Achraf Rifi, and Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, but is practically led by a federation of NGOs, primarily Hezb 7 (with organizer Jad Dagher in the center) and with a new leadership of an old party – the “National Bloc” – who seem to have moved to the front of the youth revolt.
It is my view (and the view of experts and activists I’ve consulted with) that the “movement” won’t stop, even if attacked by Hezbollah. The sustainability of the protests, rest on several factors:
a-The protection by the Lebanese Armed Forces; b-International and US solidarity, but not direct meddling at this point; c-Support coming from the Lebanese Diaspora, numbering in the millions; d-Formation of a technocrat cabinet; and, e-Deterring Hezbollah from physical attacks on the rallies.
US Policy towards Lebanon The question now is, what should US policy be regarding Lebanon’s protests? Should we intervene in this crisis? Refrain? Or design strategies to contain Hezbollah, empower the country’s civil society, and enable Lebanon to free itself from terror and break loose from corruption?
US interests always include national security and regional stability. So when it comes to Lebanon, we as Americans need to look at the threats that are in, and could emanate from, Lebanon at this stage.
There is no doubt that Hezbollah and its radical allies are at the core of threats against the US. Since 1983, this terror organization has targeted US citizens and personnel in Lebanon, Iraq and other locations. Thus, it is in our national interest make sure Hezbollah is checked and eventually disarmed in Lebanon.
Regionally, Hezbollah has attacked our allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen and has served as an ally to the Iranian regime for decades. It is involved in worldwide drug dealing and smuggling, even in our hemisphere. The terror group has been listed on our terror lists, and Washington has leveled many sanctions to deter this organization from pursuing its aggression against the US and our allies.
But more importantly, Hezbollah has assassinated, kidnapped and threatened many Lebanese politicians, military, journalists, students and other members of Lebanon’s civil society. Recently, during the October 2019 protests, it launched several thuggish raids against the protesters, all well documented online.
On all these grounds, it is clear that Hezbollah seems to be the bad guy menacing our national security and the safety of our allies, particularly the Lebanese. Thus, a chief component of US policy should be to contain the organization in Lebanon, work with the bodies that can help in this containment, and partner with the protesters to protect them from the actions of Hezbollah. However, the precarious balance between all Lebanese populations should be preserved while ensuring that the will of the majority of protesters is respected. Washington should proceed with caution as Hezbollah is lethal and can take the population hostage.
On another level, the US has an interest in seeing the Lebanese fight against corruption in their own country as a means to end such corrupt practices in the region and around the world. We want to encourage good governance and state sovereignty. Tangentially to countering terrorism and corruption, the US has an interest in seeing Lebanon stabilize and join the community of nations engaged in peaceful behavior, trade, and diplomatic efforts to resolve common issues.
From a domestic American perspective, let’s also remember that close to one million Americans (some believe 1.5 million) are from Lebanese descent with a few hundred thousand of them born in Lebanon. Many of these America-loving citizens have given a lot to this country, from holding public offices to financial contributions to involvement in American arts and sciences. Many have served in all the wars America has fought since WWI. The Lebanese American community is overwhelmingly in support of a US policy that would promote a free and pluralistic Lebanon with whom the US would partner.
Recommendations Based on these considerations, in the wake of the October protests, I would advance the following considerations for a US policy towards Lebanon. The United States should:
Clearly state that the protesters have a fundamental universal right to express their views and organize peaceful demonstrations; Warn the authorities in charge not to suppress these protests and call on the security forces, and particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces, to protect these demonstrators from thugs and militias; Ask the regime to acquiesce to the demands of the protesters and resign from power, leaving it in the hands of an interim nonpartisan Government whose only mission is to organize legislative elections; Extend support to the new Parliament to develop new legislation for the country; Partner with the next Government to implement reforms and apply international resolutions including UNSCR 1559 and 1701; and, Assist the Lebanese Armed Forces and the security forces to protect the citizens of Lebanon and to disarm militias. A new US policy should also form a special team to handle the Lebanese crisis both in Beirut and in Washington, DC, in light of the dramatic events that have taken place and continue to evolve.
*John Hajjar is the Co-Chair of the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy.