After Beirut explosion, can the international community protect Lebanese protesters?

Hanin Ghaddar

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It is not a good sign when the Lebanese security forces – which are supposed to protect the Lebanese people – decide to side with the criminals against the victims. It is also not a good sign when the international community ignores the violations committed by these security institutions against unarmed protestors.

Following the Beirut port explosion, it was expected that the Lebanese people would take to streets to express anger and to call for real change.

What was not expected was that the security forces would treat protesters – in other words, the victims of the blasts – with brutality.

In its most recent Lebanon report, Human Rights Watch stated that Lebanese security forces used “excessive and at times lethal force against mostly peaceful protestors in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, causing hundreds of injuries.” These forces included the Parliament Police, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and “unidentified forces in civilian clothing.” The Lebanese Red Cross and the Islamic Emergency Relief Corps announced that 728 people were injured during the August 8 protest and at least 153 of them were taken to hospitals for treatment.

This is not the first time that the security forces have used brutal force against protesters. In fact, a number of similar incidents had been reported since the Lebanese took to the streets on October 17, 2019. However, the excessive use of violence is new, so is the use of live ammunition against protesters.

As the call for real political change becomes urgent, and as the international community ups its involvement in Lebanon, the use of violence has also increased.

For Lebanon’s political elite, hiding behind a government resignation – which has happened twice in the last year – is no longer a viable tactic. The governments of Saad Hariri and Hassan Diab resigned as protests broke out demanding change.

Both the Lebanese people and the international community fully understand today that change – real change – has to take place, and another government resignation won’t do it.

It has also become clear that protests are proving to be effective, especially in shaping public opinion and international media perspectives on Lebanon. That’s why we now see more brutality and violence by the authorities against protesters.
The Lebanese people have lost everything, their savings, their jobs, their homes, and their loved ones, but they are not allowed to speak up or complain. That’s what the violence on August 8 indicated.

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However, the security forces do not have this strength and confidence without the assistance and funding from many European countries and the US government. Today, it is vital today that assistance programs are either revised or used as leverage to protect protesters. Human Rights Watch recommends that international donors such as the US, the UK, and France – who have sold or given billions of dollars in arms, equipment, and training to Lebanon’s security forces, including the Lebanese army and the ISF, should review these programs and ensure that forces involved in serious abuses against protesters should not benefit from any assistance.

When French president Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon, followed by US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, the Lebanese realized that the international community would help as long as the Lebanese help themselves. Both visits concluded with statements encouraging the Lebanese to lead their own process to achieve desirable change.

However, the French and the American officials cannot expect the Lebanese people to do much, when the only tool they have – the streets – are becoming too risky and increasingly volatile. Therefore, if the French President and the US State Department believe in the Lebanese people’s ability to change, then there are tools that are available to help them shape their future. One of these tools is the leverage Europe and the US has through assistance programs to security institutions.

It is expected that Macron will visit Lebanon at the beginning of September, and David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, will follow. One of the main messages they need to convey to political and security authorities is that violence against protesters should stop immediately, and that protesters should be able to express themselves peacefully. It is the duty of security forces to protect protesters and victims – not attack them. If this trend continues, all assistance programs need to be revisited.

If protesters are allowed to go back to the streets peacefully, they might have their chance to push for change. Otherwise, Lebanon will soon become a failed state.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.