Why the army should be the focus of Lebanon’s protests

Why the army should be the focus of Lebanon’s protests

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A demonstrator waves the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, August 8, 2020. (Reuters)

The last century has seen the rags to riches Lebanese story repeated time and again for many of its emigrants. From all religions, they emigrated under the pressure of poverty, oppression or just because they were looking for bigger opportunities. They moved to a new country and became wealthy, with many turning out to be successful and influential personalities in their adopted communities. Their stories are sometimes even movie-worthy: Stories of sacrifice, resilience and courage. This not only applied to the Safras and Hayeks of the business world, but to every single Lebanese who has emigrated and works hard to keep supporting his or her family back in Lebanon.

These men and women have built the Lebanon brand globally. They have been great ambassadors in helping each other and projecting a positive image of their community. They are successfully integrated in every continent and in all activities. 

A successful Western businessman of Lebanese descent was once asked in an interview if he was planning on investing in and having activity in his country of origin. His answer was quite surprising but also revealing: He said that he was not smart enough to conduct business in Lebanon, stating that it demanded caution on too many angles and that it was too competitive. Most importantly he described the Lebanese — speaking in terms of business — as cannibals once they get back to their home country. 

It was a correct assessment and still is. To survive famines, wars, colonization, civil wars, bombs, threats, and killings, the Lebanese have the DNA of a survivor. This DNA is what helps them become successful abroad. However, the Lebanese will to rebuild is becoming more a kind of insanity, as we repeat the same actions while expecting different results. The Lebanese keep rebuilding the real estate, but not the country itself, which is what really needs to be started again. 

They have left untouched a more than century-old extractive system whose beneficiaries were formerly the Syrian regime and now Hezbollah. This continuity has made the will to survive a ruthless task. Success in Lebanon equates to 100 successes abroad. What the Syrian regime and its heir Hezbollah, along with the warlord structure, have kept going is a horrible system, one that is focused on extraction — it does not share, it only takes. It is a system where bribes and connections can get you out of a jail cell, while the opposite can land you in one. No one has ever thought of breaking it down, but rather focused on how to get into the higher echelons of it. 

The political leadership and community heads are users, predators and cronies. They do not produce, they just take. If you want to understand Lebanon, just look at its trade and business. Who owns what? Who owns the banks that lent to the state and profited? Who sits on their boards? Who owns the businesses that benefit from the state? I am sure that you will quickly find out that businessmen affiliated with Hezbollah have joint ventures with other clan leaders in some key activities. I am confident that, if you look into their grown-up children’s activities, you will find them all in business together. A quick look at the beneficiaries of the Banque du Liban’s Circular 331 initiative to promote the tech sector would also prove interesting.

The broken system even instigated a massive corruption scheme with the high interest rates banks were paying out. No one questioned how the Lebanese banks would remain viable while offering such high rates. Most of their lending was to the government, reaching more than 70 percent of their total lending more than a decade ago. This meant that bankers and officials knew of the coming collapse.

It was not only a Ponzi scheme to keep the government and its beneficiaries going, but it was also a good way to stop anyone from asking too many questions — the miracle of the Lebanese banking system. The system was largely fueled by the deposits of hard-working Lebanese, who needed their money to support their families or create an extra income. As expected, it all came crumbling down, as did the entire country. But the extractors were able to exit before the collapse came. 

Since the beginning of the crisis and the protests of October 2019, we have read many reports that perfectly describe the current situation, from Hezbollah’s role to French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiatives. We have been drowning in analysis. As I said, the Lebanese are gifted, so they have been able to describe the situation and condemn the ruling elite and the destructive Iranian proxy, but no one is coming forward with a concrete plan to build something new. The demands of the protesters are weak and superficial — they are like putting a new coat of paint on a crumbling building. 

The demands of the protesters are weak and superficial — they are like putting a new coat of paint on a crumbling building.

Khaled Abou Zahr

If we look at how things have changed, it only happened once the army shifted sides. I have many reservations on the inner structure of the army and the control Hezbollah might exert on it. However, I am confident that there are many serving men and women who cannot accept the continuous humiliation and extraction of the country’s wealth. These are the ones the protesters need to appeal to. I have written repeatedly that a new prime minister, president or election will not change anything, but that is what is happening. 

Protesters should, therefore, no longer waste their time protesting dead institutions such as the current president, but instead should protest in front of the Lebanese Armed Forces, asking for their support. Stop throwing rocks and stones at dead institutions. Go ask for the action of the only institution that might be able to make a change. Ask for the creation of a new governing and legislative entity that will start to rebuild the entire structure of the country. Prosperity can only come through meritocracy and inclusiveness that will unleash the incredible talent of the Lebanese people in their own country, not in faraway lands.

The army’s answer will at the very least clarify once and for all where it stands. If it does not move with the people and create a direct counterbalance to Hezbollah and the ruling clans, then the next steps should be clear for all.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is the CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
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