Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon’s gradual revolution

The “You Stink” is becoming a political player in Lebanon, to the surprise, and perhaps alarm, of some of the country’s veteran politicians, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Demonstrations on 29 August in Martyrs’ Square in the heart of Beirut took many observers by surprise, as well as Lebanese politicians who had hoped that the storm would blow over after the clampdown on riots preceding the protest, which should have made people stay home.

The volume of protesters was remarkable  20,000 according to Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior; 100,000 according to protest organisers; and 50,000-70,000 according to Al-Ahram Weekly’s reporter at the scene, based on the size of the square. What is also remarkable is the square, which in the past saw mass demonstrations protesting the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in 2005, within hours transformed into “a territory free of sectarianism”. The only flag in the sky was the Lebanese flag and none of the parties’ or factions’ flags were flying.

Anyone visiting Lebanon will quickly realise how embedded sectarian, factional and partisan loyalties are in society, to the point of ridicule, even by the Lebanese themselves. Sectarianism is rampant in politics, sports, even garbage collection and cuisines that distinguish one sect or region from another.

In a unique and unprecedented scene at the historic Martyrs’ Square, the Lebanese people abandoned their sectarian divides. It was clear that organisers and protestors convinced everyone they did not belong to any sect or party, but are disgruntled equally by all politicians  even if some protesters belonged to this or that camp. Lebanese from across the spectrum participated in Saturday’s protests, although the majority were middle class youth. This is a class of modern liberated youth who are difficult to categorise into sects just by looking at them. They are Lebanese youth before being Maronites or Sunnis or Shias. They were joined by many entertainers who expressed their support for the demands of the youth, including Marcel Khalifa, Moeen Sherif and others.

The square welcomed them all, including intellectuals and cultural icons, but did not allow any old-guard politicians, which is why the Free Patriotic Movement led by General Michel Aoun decided to protest alone on Friday. At the start of protests, Aoun’s camp attempted to appear as if it were part of the action on the street and even tried to present themselves as an inspiration for street action. However, Aoun’s discontent with protesters grew because the banners and slogans included him as one of the corrupt politicians. This angered Aoun because he does not view himself as part of that class but an opponent of it (although he has been a member of every cabinet since the 2008 Doha Agreement, and had one third of the seats in Naguib Miqati’s previous government).

Attempts to take advantage of protests failed. The main feature of the demonstrations is an expression of discontent with the sectarian political system and a refusal to take the side of 14 or 8 March, and viewing both through the same lens. Participants agreed to protest against political leaders and ministers, although Minister of Environment Mohamed Al-Mashnouq and Minister of Interior Nehad Al-Mashnouq have been the top targets of negative chants. Criticism also extends to some key leaders and icons such as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Aoun and leader of the Lebanese Forces Party Samir Geagea.

Before the mass protests on 29 August, some tried to add Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah to the list of objectionable politicians, to break the taboo imposed by his supporters. Hizbullah loyalists sometimes say he is a religious figure and thus untouchable, or that he is a red line that cannot be crossed, or that he is not a member of the regime.

However, Hizbullah supporters blocked the campaign’s efforts to include Nasrallah. When activist Ziyad Toba, the instigator of “To the streets” campaign, raised Nasrallah’s photo with the caption implicating the Hizbullah leader in corruption, a campaign was launched on social media calling Toba a traitor because Nasrallah is untouchable. In response, the 14 March camp insisted on including the picture to confirm the neutrality of the protests.

A similar incident happened with LBC Television when they included Nasrallah’s picture in the set of a programme, broadcast from Martyrs’ Square on the eve of Saturday’s protests, to discuss corrupt leaders. However, Hizbullah supporters refused to broadcast the episode.

The complications of political life in Lebanon go even beyond the imagination of demonstrations. The scene at Martyrs’ Square does not mean sectarianism is waning in Lebanon, or that politicians are ready to abandon it. Thus, the demands of the You Stink campaign, which is leading the street protests, were modest compared to some slogans chanted by protesters, such as the resignation of the government or overthrow of the regime. These are notions that could thrust the country into a dangerous vacuum. They want to replace a “very problematic regime” with a “non-regime”  or replace a weak state with a “non-state”. But the Lebanese people want a strong state.

About 48 hours into a 72-hour deadline to meet the people’s demands, Environment Minister Al-Mashnouq said he would withdraw from the cabinet committee in charge of addressing the garbage issue. He urged Prime Minister Tammam Salam to assign someone else to the task, in a nod to the demands of protesters.

The list of demands is long, including the resignation of the minister of environment, holding the minister of interior accountable for firing at demonstrators, and a new elections law. In fact, You Stink has gradually become a political player on the Lebanese scene. Even former Lebanese President Michel Suleiman suggested that a representative from the campaign should join the dialogue proposed by Berri.

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