Lebanon’s protests move from spontaneity to organization

Lebanese rally in Beirut on the 4th day of demonstrations against tax increases and official corruption, on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 03 November 2019

Lebanon’s protests move from spontaneity to organization

  • ‘The people want everyone in power to resign and not only the prime minister’

BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters are determined to continue with their activities even after the expiry of a 72-hour deadline, given by Prime Minister Saad Hariri to his partners in power, to agree to reforms to save the country from economic turmoil, which ends on Monday at 7 p.m. “The people want everyone in power to resign and not only the prime minister. They want a mini technocrat government whose goal is to establish an electoral law that will ensure proper representation, to hold early parliamentary elections and elect a new president,” said Mahmoud Fakih, protesting in Beirut’s Riad Al-Solh Square.
Fakih called on politicians to “not bet on the waning of the momentum of the protests in the street. The more you speak, the more the people will reject you, that is what we saw after the televised speech of Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, on Saturday. The Lebanese people saw the results of his party’s presence in power.”
The protests, now into their fourth day, have heard chants of “the people want to topple the regime.”
Protesters have been waving Lebanese flags at the central sit-in in Beirut. Tents belonging to activists have been erected, distributing the flags, as well as hats and water bottles free of charge to the public.
“We are paying from our own money and we are not resorting to any external funding so that no one can say that there are outsiders behind our action. We will continue to support people as long as people continue to take to the streets,” said activist Karl Abu Malhab.
The protesters have devised various ways to express their peaceful movement, through colorful dress and painted faces, as well as through vast Lebanese flags extending dozens of meters, and through the dabkeh dances. Some have even taken pets with them, and set up barbecues and grills.
Sarah Sultan, who came to the protests with her husband Abdul Rahman, called for an end to the Taif agreement, because it divided the country into sectarian and partisan quotas. “We have to hold accountable those in power, even the directors general of public departments,” she told Arab News. “These protests shall not end, because people are suffering,” Rahman added.
Aref Jouaidi and his wife Kawthar brought their baby twins to Riad Al-Solh Square. Aref said: “I am here because of my children — I want them to have a better future. We want to cleanse the power of the corrupted. I will continue to protest — already there is no work and we lose trade for our business every day.”
Another protester, Ryan Al-Habal, said that he did not belong to any political party. He took to the street, he said, because he “saw on TV how the barrier of fear of expressing our opinion toward politicians and party leaders broke. We have full freedom to express our suffering. People no longer tolerate the politicians because they have brought us to ruin.”
Darine Dandashli, an activist distributing Lebanese flags, said: “The activists are paying out of their own pocket — I have so far paid $1,000 — as we do not want anyone to distort our movement. It started as a spontaneous civil movement that needs now some organization.
“We are forming committees of activists, one to take over the streets, one to handle logistics, and another that will work out an alternative solution by explaining people’s demands in an economic and political working paper. There is also a constitutional committee working on how to move after the resignation of the current government to an interim government whose role is limited to holding early parliamentary elections whose members are from outside the ruling authority,” explained Dandashli.


Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

As strikes resume in Iraq, anti-government protesters stand on a concrete wall set up by security forces in Al-Rashid district in Baghdad on Sunday. (AP)
Updated 18 November 2019

Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

  • Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs and its involvement in crackdown on protesters angers Ali Sistani

BAGHDAD: A senior adviser to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has told Arab News that he does not support the continuation of the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and that the existing political forces did not press for early parliamentary elections with a new election law and an electoral commission. Baghdad and nine southern Shiite-dominated provinces have endured mass demonstrations against the government since Oct. 1. More than 300 demonstrators have been killed and 15,000 others have been injured, mostly in Baghdad, due to bloody crackdowns led by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iranian-backed allies.
Al-Sistani is the leader of the world’s Shiite community and the most influential cleric in Iraq and has been the godfather of the political process since 2003. No government or prime minister can survive without Al-Sistani’s support and blessing.
Protesters, initially protesting against corruption, unemployment and lack of daily basic services, were brutally repressed in the first week of October by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iran-backed allies, killing more than 147 demonstrators and wounding more than 6,000 others with live ammunition and tear gas canisters, which stopped demonstrations for two weeks.
But demonstrations resumed on Oct. 25 after Al-Sistani announced his support and the Iraqi government vowed not to use live ammunition.
The return of the protests was accompanied by increasing demands to overthrow Abdul Mahdi’s government and the holding of early national parliamentary elections preceded by the change of the election law and the electoral commission.
Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of Abdul Mahdi or early elections.

PM’s survival
The prime minister’s allies insist on his survival, accompanied by a significant increase in killings, kidnappings and arrests of activists and journalists, with the promotion of news that they have an agreement with Al-Sistani that allows the continuation of Abdul Mahdi’s government, new ministerial and constitutional amendments and a set of important laws, without holding early elections.
Al-Sistani’s office denied that they had concluded such an agreement or that they had anything to do with it.
“The real conviction is the conviction of the people. We have no guardianship over the people, but we support it because the constitution says they are the source of powers,” Sistani’s top aid told Arab News.
“We support peaceful demonstration because it is the right of the citizen … If it remains peaceful, it will affect the state’s convictions.
“We have no confidence that those (political forces) will be able to solve the problem. We see that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution and unless there is a real change within the constitutional items, the problem will remain the same.”

FASTFACTS

• Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of the government, or early elections. 

• Ali Sistani’s top aid tells Arab News that the grand ayatollah does not suppport the continuation of the present government in Iraq.

Iraq ranks high on the list of the most corrupt countries. The system of political, sectarian and ethnic quotas adopted by Iraqi politicians since 2004, which includes the three presidencies and ministries and advanced positions in all state institutions, contributed to the spread of financial and administrative corruption and provided the required protection for corrupt politicians.
“There have been no real treatments for corruption over the past years. Corruption is rampant ... because of the weakness of the judiciary and the regulatory authorities, some of which have sought to use corruption cases to blackmail and enrich themselves.
“Officials are getting rich at the expense of the people. Corruption whales became powerful, while the qualified people have left Iraq and the graduates do not find jobs.
“We have no hope in the existing political forces and the chances of continuation of this government are very small. “They should all leave. This political class must leave.”
Al-Sistani has recently intervened in major events, as happened when the Iraqi Army collapsed and Daesh overran one-third of Iraqi territories in the western and northern parts of the country in the summer of 2014 and advanced toward Baghdad, when he issued an edict (fatwa) demanding that people take up arms and volunteer to support Iraqi forces in their fight against Daesh. Sistani’s intervention this time appeared gradually and through Friday sermons.

Strongest sermon
The last Friday sermon was the strongest to date, as Al-Sistani’s told his followers: “If those who have power (now), think they can evade real reform, with procrastination, they are delusional. The aftermath of these protests will not be the same as before. They should be careful.”
This was understood by most politicians and observers as a yellow ultimatum, which could soon be followed by a warning of expulsion or paralysis of civilian life.
“We do not interfere with particles. We have constitutional mechanisms that we do not want to get out of, but when we found that these mechanisms were tailored to the size of the existing political forces, we demanded a new electoral law that would ensure a genuine representation of the people and a new electoral commission that people trust will safeguard their choices,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“We will not allow things to descend into chaos. This is not an option. Our biggest concern is that the law will weaken further, which means slipping into infighting.”
Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs, reflected by the statements of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was publicly demanding an end to the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and the involvement of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in the crackdown on protesters, has angered Al-Sistani. This was evident in his three previous speeches.
“We have a real problem: Iraq is negatively affected by the (regional) environment. We will not allow Iraq to be a battleground for any regional or international party ... we will not allow anyone to interfere in the affairs of Iraq, whether it is a friend or an enemy, because all interventions are aimed at serving special ambitions,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“He will not leave the people. If the people’s demand is for early elections, then we support early elections, and if they want to change the (political) system, we support it … and if they say that they do not want this government, we support it.
“Our position is clear and unambiguous. We are with the people in what they want ... and Al-Sistani has not used its strongest weapons yet.”