Blog - November 23, 2019

Lebanon’s 76th Independence Day this year coincided with the 37th day of countrywide anti-corruption protests. The Independence Day celebrations reinvigorated the street, bringing tens of thousands of protesters into Lebanon’s public squares to demand freedom for Lebanon from its corrupt political class. However, these same political elites remain as adamant about holding on to their power as the protesters are for change. Amid this dynamic Lebanon’s uprising may have reached a stalemate.

Predictable Rhythm Between Political Class and Protesters

Lebanon’s protests have now established their own, almost predictable, rhythm. Protesters maintain a constant street presence even though individuals periodically return to their regular routines. Their numbers therefore fluctuate from day to day occasionally reinvigorated by specific events such as Independence Day or an inflammatory speech or action by a member of the hated political class.

President Michel Aoun’s combative and tone-deaf statements have been the the most recent catalyst to draw large crowds into the street. This was the case with Aoun’s Independence Day speech, in which he called  for the protesters to compromise and ignored their consistent demand for “all of them” to resign.

But the protesters’ predictable angry reaction – blocking roads – to Aoun’s pronouncements is unlikely to break the impasse. Aoun thus continued to insist this week that the next government will be a mixed political/technocratic government, contrary to the protesters’ demands for a purely technocratic cabinet. 

This cycle was also evident in the continued postponement of parliamentary sessions, most recently this past Tuesday. Protesters blocked the path to parliament, preventing all but five legislators from reaching the building to attend a regular legislative session. The session intended to address normal legislative matters and – like Aoun’s obtuse statements – would have essentially ignored the existence of a countrywide uprising. As such, the protesters scored a victory over the political class by preventing parliament from convening. But that victory was temporary, as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri scheduled another ordinary parliamentary session for next Wednesday.

Lebanon’s Armed Elements Avoid Escalation to Contain Protests

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s two largest armed elements – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah – have also been careful to avoid any dramatic action that could spark an escalation. LAF continues acting as a de facto police force to maintain public order. Adopting a “no bloodshed” strategy, it has been balancing between protecting the protesters while exercising only the bare minimum of force necessary to unblock roads obstructed by protesters to facilitate freedom of movement. 

But LAF’s balancing act isn’t exactly neutrality. Whether LAF intends this or not, its approach helps the government. In fact, Aoun – who, per the Constitution is the LAF’s Commander in Chief –  and the Hariri government ordered LAF to adopt its current approach. In doing so, they are allowing protesters to vent their frustrations in a non-threatening manner by denying them the “trump card” of blocking roads.

Hezbollah has also fallen into a predictable containment pattern, one which carefully counters the protesters but stops short of directing their anger exclusively at the group. We see this trend in the modus operandi of Hezbollah-affiliated thugs, who have drastically reduced the frequency of their violence to intimidate protesters, as compared to their behavior in late October.

Hezbollah is also unlikely to deploy its official fighters to counter the protesters, opting for “soft” methods instead. Rather than attack the protests directly, the group has thus concentrated its propaganda efforts on accusing the United States of attempting to hijack the uprising. Additionally, Hezbollah has unofficially sponsored anonymous social media and telephone harassment campaigns targeting protesters and pro-uprising journalists, and has secretly colluded with local providers to prevent pro-uprising television stations from broadcasting into Shiite areas.

This “unaffiliated” harassment allows Hezbollah to keep pressure on the protesters, while maintaining a barely credible modicum of plausible deniability. To that end, in one case, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s son – Jawad – condemned the harassment of journalists on Twitter, eliciting a positive response from at least one prominent pro-uprising reporter.

Lebanon’s Stalemated Revolution?

Lebanon’s uprising scored a victory in its first week by forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet. However, while it has refused to die down, the revolution has yet to achieve any more of its demands. The protesters remain leaderless, and their demands are a collection of generalities. While this prevents the uprising from fracturing, it has also prevented the revolution from becoming a real threat to the political class. Instead, it has fallen into aforementioned predictable pattern, which the authorities believe they can manage.

David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).