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Lebanese army’s neutrality, legitimacy put to the test amid clashes with protesters

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As Lebanon faces renewed protests, the Lebanese Armed Forces’ neutrality and legitimacy is being put to the test, as its members are routinely put in the direct path of protesters. While the army’s unity’s does not seem to be at risk experts say, the willingness of low ranking officers to repress crowds is diminishing.

And the longer the political and economic crises last, the less willing common foot soldiers will be to carry out the will of the state.

“The army is in a difficult position. On one hand, it is conscious that corruption plagues the political class controlling the state’s institutions [has] sway over the army. On the other, it has to protect peaceful protests while preventing any riots,” said General Khaled Hamadeh, a retired general and an expert on military affairs.

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The historically well-respected institution is under severe pressure, as the situation is tenuous and protesters and security forces have clashed sporadically. The Lebanese parliament granted the army with sweeping power in the wake of the Beirut explosion that killed 181 people and injured over 6,000 others.

The protests that followed the blasts have placed the Lebanese army (LAF) between an angry street and the ruling elite. The explosion was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrates, which the government knew about, and that had been stored at the port since 2013.

Hezbollah and its Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement, which have backed the government of PM Hassan Diab at the time of the bombing have been largely the target of the public ire.

“The army is reflective of the country’s political divisions. The fact that Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai is now indirectly blaming (Christian) President Michel Aoun and its ally Hezbollah for the Lebanese disastrous situation will have an impact on the army’s Christian leadership,” Hamdeh said.

“To that, one has to add sectarian tensions resulting from those who are siding with or against Hezbollah. While this may not affect the army’s unity per say, it will reflect on the process of effective decision making,” he continued.

Patriarch Rai indirectly attacked this week Lebanon’s current political leadership, attributing implicitly the Beirut bomb blast to Hezbollah’s weapons caches.

As tensions rise further between the Lebanese political elite and the Lebanese population, the LAF, called into the streets to maintain peace, may find themselves in between the two groups with increasing frequency.

Above the political divide

So far, the LAF have attempted to remain above the sectarian and political foray, maintaining a semblance of neutrality, but this has been broken by acts of defiance of retired soldiers.

During the protests, in the wake of the Beirut blast, the Lebanese army drove out a group of demonstrators, led by retired soldiers who had stormed the foreign ministry during the anti-government demonstrations on October 8. The retired army officers were led by former general Samer Rammah, who said he felt that President Michel Aoun, himself a former general, who he once served under in the 1980s, “did not respect his oath.”

Other pressure groups are represented by the antigovernment movement National Salvation Front, led by Chamel Roukoz, former brigadier general of the Ranger regiment of the LAF and son in law of President Michel Aoun.

Roukoz said he does not believe in violent action against public institutions. “People have the right to express their opinion and for peaceful demonstrations,” he explained. Roukoz warned that protests cannot turn into a direct confrontation with the security forces.

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Roukoz was also critical of the recent brief attempts by hawkish retired LAF members to occupy the state’s institutions

“We are in a very similar situation [compared to] the early years of the Syria war,” said a retired soldier on condition of anonymity who hails from Tripoli.

The war in Syria pushed the army to increase coordination with Hezbollah, which supported the regime of Alawite President Bashar al-Assad against a largely Sunni rebellion. This coordination ran parallel of a crackdown on Lebanese extremists in Lebanon. Those who supported the Syrian revolution, particularly those in the Sunni political street, were critical of the coordination between the LAF and Hezbollah.

Because of this perceived coordination, several suicide attacks and bombings also targeted LAF positions between 2012 and 2013 as terrorist groups moved into Lebanon from nearby war-battered neighboring Syria.

“At the time, members of my family fought in Syria and I supported them; I was against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Today I support the protestors and I do not see how we can repress people who are voicing our concerns and injustices of which we are the victims,” added the retired soldier.

The LAF today faces another similar daunting balancing act. This time, divisions are not along political and sectarian lines, but between the ruling elite and an increasingly angry population.

In October 2019, mass demonstrations swept across Lebanon after the government announced new austerity measures set against the backdrop of an unpreceded economic crisis. The August 4, the explosion at the Beirut port which destroyed large swaths of Beirut, only worsened the divide between the population and the political class.

“I think that the security forces can still withstand the pressure on the short term, but as the crisis prolongs, in the backdrop of the state economic failure, LAF elements may start buckling under the strain,” said a high former security source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Lebanese government defaulted in March on its $1.2 billion Eurobond payment, triggering talks with the IMF to restructure some $90 billion in debt. Since then, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 80 percent of its value and the salary of an average soldier has now reached around $120 a month, said General Hamadeh. Soldiers previously earned around 1,292,000 Lebanese pounds ($855 at the official exchange rate) each month, according to one article from French daily L'Orient Le Jour.

The LAF command is nonetheless wary of the economic threat posed to the army on the long-term, says a source in the Lebanese ministry of defense.

“Soldiers are thus offered increased food, transport and health subsidies,” explained the Ministry of Defense source who spoke to Al Arabiya English on condition of anonymity. However, at the end of June, the army scrapped meat from the meals it offers soldiers as food prices have skyrocketed.

Read more: Lebanon’s sinking economy set to plunge further after Beirut port explosion: Report

Facing pressure from the street, the political class has used the army as a first line of defense under the new state of emergency, giving it the power to declare curfews, refer civilians to military tribunals for alleged security breaches, prevent public gatherings and censor the media.

“The army is going to face increasing problems at the level of how soldiers and commanders choose to execute orders. The less convinced of the orders soldiers are, the more likely they will try avoid executing these orders,” said Hamadeh.