Will Lebanon’s protest movement continue to get global attention?
The You Stink street protests, disgusted by refuse and corruption, have exposed the political class and its followers
Major world powers’ disregard for Lebanese affairs has allowed regional powers influential in Lebanon to neglect the state, constitution, people and independence. The youth movement that began with the slogan You Stink has sought to rouse the international community from its slumber to force the ruling political class to change, and stop ignoring the constitution and ordinary people’s rights, from having a president to collecting waste.
The youthful civil movement’s call for international intervention is aimed at putting international pressure on regional countries influential in Lebanon to reach accords on many levels, starting with the garbage and electricity crises, as well as the presidential vacuum.
What also needs to be addressed is the protection of this tiny country against being drawn into civil and proxy wars, as well as the spillover of battles between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and al-Nusra Front or ISIS in Syria. Attention has now turned to the United States, which, I believe, is the most able country to influence key players, Saudi Arabia and Iran, during this critical period.
Washington now has the power to influence Tehran, since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rowhani need Congress to approve the nuclear deal, which would lift sanctions on Iran. As deliberations are set to start in Congress soon, there is an opportunity to use U.S. influence on Iran, which in turn can influence Lebanon through its ally Hezbollah to end its obstructionist policy.
The timing of the popular movement is right, however, its goals were focused only momentarily, before becoming scattered. The protests were also infiltrated, before the organizers regrouped, though haphazardly. This was to be expected at the start of such a movement, however it still poses a threat to how it may progress.
A sharp blow to Lebanese politics
The most important achievement of the movement is that it dealt a sharp blow to the political class, which had assumed its grip would dissuade anyone from daring to protest. The other key achievement is that the movement has overcome the dichotomy between the March 8 and March 14 camps, calling for accountability from corrupt leaders on both sides.
Diverse, naturally beautiful, and inhabited by an educated and cultured people, Lebanon can be described as a breathtaking place. However, its huge religious and ethnic diversity means that, because minorities usually live in fear, its fate has been left in the hands of the leaders of these minorities in a country with no majority.
Political leaders decided to deal with their constituents as a flock or a tribe and have discarded citizen-focused politics and resorted to mobilizing the people against each other. Thus, a type of Lebanese emerged; one who is sectarian, bigoted, and dependent on such leaders. This is contradicting another type of Lebanese; one seeking equality and a focus on the average citizen – these are the people who have risen in this crucial protest movement.
Dialogue is not enough
It will not suffice to call for dialogue between party leaders due to the lack of confidence in them. What is needed is for lawmakers to do the job they are paid to do, and elect a president. Otherwise, they are nothing more than administrators of orchestrated chaos.
The political class has been caught off guard by the protest movement. It had assumed that the young protesters were just venting and could be quietly ignored, and that there is enough infiltration of the movement to spin it into a casual act of protest.
Sectarianism as a primed weapon
Some veteran politicians quickly resorted to sectarianism, a weapon always primed to shoot at any aspirations by a civil movement. It is an effective weapon that often subdues even the smartest and bravest of the Lebanese.
Certainly, the majority of party leaders have primed their supporters and their minority siege mentality to take revenge and instigate sedition. The civil youth movement that crossed sectarian boundaries rallied all rival politicians together against them, for undermining them.
The You Stink street protests, disgusted by refuse and corruption, have exposed the political class and its followers, and have shed light on a corruption that led to the loss of public property and services.
These youths deserve support. They have crossed the red lines set by party leaders, namely, that the “street” belongs to them to obstruct and mobilize with sectarianism as they please, as well as intimidate those afraid of another civil war.
Mistakes are inevitable for an emerging movement that dared to ignore sectarian divisions and the default divisions between March 8 and March 14. Both camps have undermined the country’s all-inclusive citizenship and institutionalized division in a populist way to serve narrow interests. In the end, both March 8 and March 14 lost support of the serious public opinion.
But avoiding mistakes is necessary. One mistake could hit a sectarian chord and trigger civil strife, or reinforce vacuum that some political forces already favor. The leaders of the movement must avoid such mistakes.
There is no need, for instance, for a sit-in in the Environment Ministry building to pressure the minister to resign. The organizers must be aware of the pitfalls and have political awareness. Otherwise, polarization will weaken the movement.
The movement should target vacuum in institutions, not empty government institutions selectively. Indeed, this could lead to chaos in the country that would be hard to rein in.
It could lead to demands for the entire government to resign, but the slogan of “the people want the downfall of the regime” that some protesters have chanted is both juvenile and suspicious. Calling for the ouster of the government is also politically naïve, because it serves the advocates of vacuum.
The political class has been caught off guard by the protest movementRaghida Dergham
The game of polarization that most Lebanese television and media outlets engaged in and their attempts to infiltrate the youth movement is an insult to the young men and women and exposes these outlets’ lack of credibility. This is an assault on journalism and only serves the political class. These media outlets must know that they are not above accountability either.
Linking local protests to the international arena is not arbitrary. Lebanon is already an arena for regional and international interactions. The first step to revive international interest in Lebanese developments was made by Sigrid Kaag, representative of the U.N. secretary general, who briefed the Security Council in a session that culminated with a collective position by the council. While this was neither a binding resolution nor a presidential statement, it remains important that the youth protests caught the attention of the council, which had previously ignored Lebanon as too small compared to the Syrian issue.
The council sent out a collective letter calling for Lebanon to quickly elect a president to end constitutional instability. The council said it is closely following the situation in Lebanon in support of its unity, sovereignty and independence. The council also affirmed support for the government of Lebanon and Prime Minister Tammam Salam.
During the closed session, Sigrid Kaag warned that anger against the government could grow if no solution is found for political issues and public services. She said the main issue in Lebanon is the political deadlock and loss of public trust in the government.
Kaag called on Lebanese politicians to engage with civil society groups, saying that the current events carry positive developments, including reviving discussions on outstanding political issues and the possibility of the emergence of a secular, cross-sectarian civil society. Kaag also called for an end to presidential vacuum by electing a new president without any delay.
Sigrid Kaag’s message is important for having alerted the international community to the key demands that must remain the priority of the civil movement. Kaag also helped Security Council envoys to brief their capitals and support the efforts of ambassadors to Lebanon, who are trying to raise the attention of their governments towards the situation in Beirut.
The angry anti-corruption protest movement has caught Washington’s attention. The diplomatic advice being given to Obama’s administration is that the Lebanese issues are much bigger than Lebanon, and that the radical solutions lie in the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Obama can put this to his advantage, and help the civil movement, not through direct intervention but by testing Iranian and Saudi intentions and mediating a rapprochement between them through Lebanon.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 4, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.
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