In battling for their rights, the Lebanese are not for turning
It is not easy to attend a protest rally. It takes guts to take to the streets week after week, enduring violence from Hezbollah thugs and pressure from the authorities. Then there are those patriotic Lebanese who repeatedly travel from Europe, the Gulf and even the US to participate in these demonstrations of national solidarity.
Like many emigre Lebanese, I date the departure from my homeland to Israel’s 1982 invasion. The events of recent weeks have reawakened a connection with this love of our lives: A renewed pride and sense of belonging to the motherland, whose identity we feared was being lost forever.
I am in awe of the children turning out in huge numbers, giving emotional testimony about seeing their parents crushed day after day by financial hardship and economic uncertainty — the consequence of decades of misgovernance and naked theft of our nation’s wealth.
Across the Western world throughout 2019, millions of children similarly poured onto the streets, putting us to shame by protesting the irreversible damage our generation has inflicted upon the environment. Many enlightened Lebanese children would like to have taken a stand on climate change. They don’t have this luxury because they must first liberate their country from this geriatric system of sectarian, kleptocratic cronyism.
These intrepid children shame their elders with their clear-sighted rejection of sectarian identities, embracing all Lebanese as fellow citizens. This is the spirit of the tolerant Lebanon I grew up in; blissfully ignorant of which friends were Christian, Sunni or Shiite. Students are angry that, in order to get a job, they must sell their soul to a particular sectarian faction, which they must back in elections and display blind submission to. What reduced this most progressive of Arab nations to humiliating quasi-feudalism?
Protests in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and especially Lebanon have been defined by a leading role for courageous women and even the elderly — despite cowardly attempts to harass and intimidate them back into their homes. Women have been the most forthright in saying: Let the banks fail, let the roads remain closed, let the petrol reserves run out. There must be no business as usual until the revolution has run its course.
In recent days, high turnouts by students, doctors, lawyers and other professionals have contributed momentum to the uprising. Famous singers entertained the masses with patriotic singalongs. Lebanon’s vibrant culture affords this national awakening a refreshingly different atmosphere to uprisings elsewhere. Meanwhile, Shiite clerics have, in their sermons, fearlessly delivered stinging rebukes against the ayatollahs of Tehran and sectarian militias, questioning why citizens protesting their hunger and misery should be confronted with violence.
Lebanon has among the highest diaspora populations in the world: An estimated 15.4 million, compared with just 6 million remaining in the homeland. I see fathers whose eyes well with tears when their daughters talk excitedly of making a life for themselves overseas, where they can find jobs, freedom and dignified standards of living. Why does Lebanon deny its citizens these basic prerequisites for a good life?
Believing they can wait out or suppress the uprising, faction leaders fatally underestimate citizens’ awe-inspiring tenacity.
Lebanon has, since the era of the Phoenicians, been blessed by its geographic position, connecting Asia with Mediterranean Europe, making it a lucrative, bustling hub for trade and cultural interchange. The Beirut of the 1960s and early 70s was a miracle: The region’s financial, commercial, cultural and intellectual capital. Young, educated Lebanese entrepreneurs profited, both from flourishing domestic markets and from commercial opportunities in Egypt, Syria, the Gulf and beyond. What criminal levels of incompetence does it take to bankrupt such a flourishing nation and reduce it to indebted servitude? Given a healthy business environment and accountable governance, Lebanon will again bestow prosperity upon all its citizens, attracting back a substantial proportion of that diaspora, which still yearns for its motherland.
Lebanon’s civil war-era Mafioso factions — including Hezbollah and its Iranian paymasters — are the definition of parasites, voraciously sucking the nation’s lifeblood. This is managed parasitism; never seeking to kill the patient, just keeping it weak, passive and submissive. Believing that they can wait out or suppress the uprising, faction leaders fatally underestimate citizens’ awe-inspiring tenacity. Why? Because they always viewed their communities with predatory contempt.
When protesters assembled outside Walid Jumblatt’s residence, he instructed his security detail to treat citizens with dignity and respect their right to demonstrate. When protest organizers indicated their intention to gather outside Nabih Berri’s home, his cronies provocatively blustered via social media that demonstrators should bring coffins with them.
With each passing day, the Lebanon uprising’s battle of wills is intensifying. We can sympathize with those small businesses saying: “Enough. Let’s get back to work.” Lebanon, meanwhile, faces imminent financial collapse, with draconian emergency banking measures being implemented and the World Bank urging the formation of a new Cabinet “within a week” to prevent further deterioration of this heavily indebted nation’s finances.
However, for demonstrators to compromise now would be to lose everything; allowing factions to salvage their corrupt sectarian system by cobbling together a government with the same faces sitting in different seats (although Saad Hariri, to his credit, has rejected this). Worse, it would be a gesture of defeat to Tehran, suggesting that Lebanon is not strong enough to break its stranglehold.
Hezbollah represents a legitimate segment of Lebanon’s society. However, it should have the courage to separate itself from its Iranian overlords and act according to national interests and sovereignty, rather than engaging in actions that guarantee Lebanon’s destruction. With their fat Iranian paychecks, Hezbollah’s leaders consider themselves insulated from Lebanon’s travails. Yet if they and their children desire a future here, they must seek to amicably coexist instead of being a conduit for hostile alien powers. Meanwhile, Shiite communities in the region are watching developments in Iraq and Lebanon closely and learning about the unsupportable costs of alignment with Iran.
Citizens will not be cowed by threats from Michel Aoun, Birri, Gebran Bassil or Hassan Nasrallah. Escalatory retaliation and attempted crackdowns only reveal the ugly face of Iranian hegemony; just as the assassinations of Rafik Hariri and other figures in 2005 united Lebanon in kicking out the detested Syrian occupation.
I have never felt more pride in my nation than at this moment. As Martin Luther King once declared: “There is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.”
Before the eyes of the world, the Lebanese and Iraqi nations have taken a stand in defense of their identity, sovereignty and personal freedoms. May they not sit down again until they have won all these, and much more.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.