Protests in Lebanon: An Ocean of Social Issues

Many say: “It’s only just begun in Lebanon ...” It is difficult to force yourself to use the words “Arab Spring” after it was discredited through its association with the wave of violence from both local militias and jihadist transnational forces that threatened several of the governments of the region amid Western intervention. Nevertheless, the positive aspect that was in the discourse of many enthusiastic observers at the outset of changes in the Arab world in 2011 is also clearly visible in the initial phase of the current Lebanese protests.

The wave of popular indignation that arose on October 17 does not look like an act of civil disobedience organised by any particular political force. It has embraced the most diverse strata of the Lebanese population – transcending the level of confessional communities and even parties. And this is the first, main feature of the present events.

With their socio-economic demands and calls for the abolition of the confessional representation system in all spheres of life, a quarter of the Lebanese population took to the streets. If we compare it to similar events in other countries, this did not become a nationwide confrontation between demonstrators and the authorities – with their monopoly on violence in the name of order. The police and the army, whose authority has grown significantly in recent years, have taken, when possible, the most minimal measures to suppress protesters (who have blocked the most important transport arteries of the country, especially in the capital). Instead, the forces of order have identified the most obvious cases of provocations (in which they have already suspected members of powerful, specific political forces within the country). This is the second important feature.

Political Islam and Conflicts in the Middle East
Mohamed-Chérif Ferjani
Political Islam, as Political Christianism and any other ideologization of religion everywhere in the world, is a reaction against modernity, democracy and secularization: It’s not the same thing as traditional forms of political instrumentalization of religion.


We can say that at least at the current, initial phase of the Lebanese protests hasn’t resulted in anything similar to the brutal events of 1958 (which many at the time, incidentally, called a civil war), or to ethno-confessional clashes in 1975. As long as the protesters are not divided by party and clan affiliation, until the confessional-party militias come into play, one needn’t fear the transformation of current events into a civil war. Another feature is that the political forces are making attempts to “exploit” the wave of protests, although these attempts are timid for the time being.

One can already foresee the danger of a showdown between pro-Sunni and pro-Shiite forces, this is the most relevant issue for modern Lebanon. The balance that was reached through a backstage agreement (democracy, of course, but a consociational one!) between the current president and the prime minister was good enough for the main Lebanese political forces.

However, many ambitious politicians were, as it seemed to them, pushed away from power. For example, Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, who seriously aspired to become president during the power “vacuum”, after just three days of protests approved the departure from the Council of Ministers (a giant government of “national consent” of 30 ministers) of four of his comrades-in-arms from the Lebanese Forces (from the “Strong Republic” bloc: the ministers of labour, social affairs, the state minister for administrative affairs and the deputy prime minister). This may indicate an attempt at revenge and a desire to gain political points through such a catchy populist decision.

In his own way, Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (in the government there are two representatives of the PSP – the ministers of industry and education), vividly commented on what is happening, calling to account the Cabinet members who had brought the economic situation to the breaking point.

From a purely political point of view, it is also understandable why the demands of the protesters were ardently supported by the Council of Christian hierarchs, who had hastily assembled at the residence of the Patriarch of the Maronite Church in Bkerke: the Maronite president was at one time a political opponent of a number of other pro-Maronite parties, and, most importantly, he was in a coalition with pro-Shiite political forces.

In turn, the Hezbollah and Amal parties are pursuing an openly protective strategy, advocating maintaining the current composition of the government, where they have strong positions: three ministers from the Development and Liberation bloc (Amal) and three from the “Fidelity to Resistance” bloc. In any case, the anger of protesters against the “feudal order” in the vast estates of the unsinkable Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri in the south of the country hardly leaves hope for his supporters to retain equally strong positions of power. Meanwhile, senior Hezbollah members are complaining about “the reluctance of the Lebanese army, led by General Joseph Aoun, to open the roads.” In other words, the paradox is that the Shiites’ desire to preserve the current composition of the government suggests that this “Vanguard of the Resistance” is currently resisting the desire of people to alter the backward (from their point of view), confessional principle of the power structure.

In any event, the approximate coincidence in time of the protests in Lebanon and in Iraq prompts us to look at the broader situation – in the context of the same Sunni-Shiite confrontation in the region as a whole. It is possible that Shia Arabs in both countries feel the loss of their support from Iran and are trying to keep the situation from resulting in fatal changes for themselves. In Lebanon, the Mustaqbal party, the main Sunni political force, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, obviously feels this and is likely to try to turn the current crisis into an opportunity for revenge against the Shiite forces.

In these conditions, we can only hope that Russian military forces in neighbouring Syria are able to hold on in order to not be involved (through any provocations) in the events, which are considered long-awaited by many Lebanese and have given rise to their reasonable hope for deep reforms in the country. After all, as it was said three and a half centuries ago: “It is easier to be wise for others than for ourselves.” (François de La Rochefoucauld: “Il est plus aisé d'être sage pour les autres que de l'être pour soi-même”)
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