Lebanon News

Parties fighting protest unity with force

Lebanese soldiers stand guard as Hezbollah and Amal supporters protest in Beirut, Nov. 25, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Recent days have witnessed an unprecedented show of force and violence by Hezbollah and Amal Movement supporters against protesters across the country, including in strongholds of the Shiite duo. Analysts say these events mark new efforts by the parties to crush the protests or otherwise undermine them via sectarian politicization. But the same analysts disagree on whether matters could escalate into more widespread violence or not.

The latest incident came Tuesday in Baalbeck, where a mob waving Hezbollah flags attacked a protest camp, breaking speakers and tents and ripping down Lebanese flags as the Army kept them away from demonstrators. The day before, Hezbollah and Amal supporters attacked a protest encampment in Tyre’s Alam Square, less than 24 hours after a similar crowd of hundreds had beaten protesters near “Ring Bridge.”

“In Lebanon, this is political communication,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star. “Even during the war when politicians couldn’t talk, they would communicate by exchanging mortar fire. This is a controlled process,” he said.

The violence comes at a time of government formation, with Hezbollah looking to press its demand for a Cabinet made up of politicians and technocrats rather than just technocrats, as had been a key demand of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

“This [escalation of violence] is calculated and will not lead to an open confrontation,” Khashan said, because Hezbollah still had what it wanted: control of the Lebanese political system via its allies.

Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, instead warned the events could get out of hand. “Once you start playing this kind of sectarian game, you could see things deteriorate,” she told The Daily Star. “I don’t think it would get to a civil war, because in the end you only have one side [Hezbollah] that is heavily armed, but we could see skirmishes, instability and violent incidents.”

“A clear decision has been made to shut down all this peace and love and demonstrations asking for an alternative,” she said, both to preserve party interests and empty the streets before the next government is formed.

“To some extent, this benefits everyone. [Establishment parties] are in the same boat as far as identity politics go, and this movement poses an existential threat for the political parties,” she said.

While protests were never explicitly against Hezbollah, they were against the corruption and mismanagement of parties in power - and, as protesters have repeatedly chanted, Hezbollah is one of them.

“Hezbollah doesn’t want to be held accountable for the sorry state of affairs,” Yahya said. But, she added, it can’t respond to protesters with overwhelming violence like their patron Iran, or like security forces in Iraq.

So instead, Hezbollah was seeking to incite sectarian sentiments to scare people off and create “two streets” - one of the sectarian parties in power, the other of protesters.

This may explain why the mobs of men roaming the streets chanted “Shiite, Shiite,” as they attacked demonstrators - even in Baalbeck and Tyre, where protesters are mostly Shiite themselves.

“The intention is to break the unity of the street and try to invoke feelings of sectarian belonging. If you’re the one screaming ‘sect, sect,’ and the other is screaming back ‘Lebanon, Lebanon,’ the only way you can break that is by getting them to scream ‘sect’ back,” Yahya said.

Both analysts agreed on one point: The men roaming the streets of the country were organized, sent by the parties themselves.

Lawmakers from both parties denied the accusation. Hezbollah MP Ihab Hamadeh told The Daily Star that the party had not made a central decision for supporters to go to the streets, but said the move was to be expected. “These are people in the end, we are not a perfect society,” Hamadeh told The Daily Star. “They are getting rid of stress.”

Similarly, Amal Movement MP Mohammad Khawaja said the men were simply reacting to the deaths of two people in a car crash near a roadblock early morning Monday. Both parties have used the incident to condemn protesters who blocked roads, a tactic aimed at pressuring parties in power.

A meeting Tuesday of the heads of the country’s top four security agencies - the Army, Internal Security Forces, State Security and General Security - reaffirmed the right to protest in public squares and on the sides of roads, while warning against blocking roads. The security agencies called for people to avoid any actions that “endanger stability, civil peace and coexistence.”

Khawaja said Amal was “totally against,” the violence by the men who support the party and was working to calm matters.

Meanwhile, Hamadeh said it was ridiculous to assume the party needed to rally its supporters with the kind of street action witnessed in the past few days.

“Does anyone with a brain doubt for a second that Hezbollah and Amal have large popularity?” he said.

But Khashan said that the recent violence, especially in Tyre and Baalbeck, could be an indirect sign that the parties are anxious about losing support to the anti-sectarian street movement.

“The more protests go on, the more Hezbollah’s Shiite support base will question the party,” Khashan said.

The protests have seen unparalleled defiance of the parties in areas previously thought to be unquestionably under their sway, and demonstrators haven’t backed down despite the repeated attempts at suppression.

Following the attack in Tyre Monday night, a veiled woman with a Lebanese flag wrapped around her shoulders told a local news channel Al Jadeed: “I’m ready to say live on air - and I’m not scared - that [supporters of] Amal and Hezbollah are the ones who attacked ... of course they were sent by them [the parties], just like they did in Beirut and the ‘Ring [Bridge]’.”

As people around her began clapping, she added: “We are not scared of anyone. We are not scared, and we are all ready to die for the cause that we are standing here for.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 27, 2019, on page 2.

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