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In shiite areas, in South Lebanon, a taboo has been shattered

Last Thursday, a popular movement erupted against Lebanon’s political class, which protesters blame for being corrupt and driving the country into an endless crisis. The movement is unique in that it has emerged in all areas of Lebanon, even the regions under the control of the two Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, where protests have not been tolerated in the past.

At large protests in Tyre and Nabatieh, demonstrators have denounced abuses by members and even leaders of both parties in profane, blunt and straightforward language. “A taboo has been broken,” a resident of Tyre told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).

The opinions fearlessly expressed by demonstrators in the streets and on television have taken aim, for the first time, at Randa Berri, wife of the Speaker of Parliament and leader of the Amal movement, Nabih Berri. The statements have provoked some violent reactions: demonstrators were attacked by armed men, identified as members of the Amal movement, and videos of the attacks have been broadcast on TV and spread across social media. Amal has denied being involved in the violence, but that has not calmed protesters who turned out in larger numbers, especially in Tyre and Nabatieh. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Saturday, which essentially stated that change was not possible, also failed to deter the protesters.

Why has the taboo of speaking out against these parties collapsed now? According to former minister Ibrahim Chamseddine, the trend is not new; it’s just being expressed publicly for the first time.

"There has been a significant accumulation over the years. All these people have been witnessing what’s happening in their villages; with their neighbors," Chamseddine says. “The recent movements are showing that the Shiite community is in deep disagreement with its leadership. But I believe that the Shiites express themselves with greater freedom because they are comforted by the fact that other Lebanese are also protesting against their own leaders. They feel protected by this universal movement."

The anger of people who have watched as party member grew richer while they have not had the opportunity to express themselves or improve their lives was inevitably going to spill over at some point, according to Chamseddine, especially with money circulating in Hezbollah’s patronage network due to international sanctions.

US sanctions against Hezbollah have had an impact on attitudes among Shiites in Lebanon, although this is not the only factor leading to the shift, according to Mona Fayad, a psychologist and founding member of the Democratic Renewal party. "Before, I used to hear many people complain about the behavior of some supporters and denounce corruption, in hushed tones. I believe that many are not in favor of Hezbollah's dominance of the institutions, but they do not express it loudly," she said.

An "intifada in the name of dignity"

For some time now, Lebanese Shiites have felt “unloved” by their compatriots and Arabs in general, according to Fayad. "Hezbollah is delivering a speech of fear. It sent its children to fight in Syria," she continues. “The problem certainly began with a decline in financial resources, but the Shiites are also susceptible to watching the members of both parties get richer. In a context of imminent economic collapse, the government wanted to deprive them of free WhatsApp, which was in a way their only outlet for free expression. This is what sparked things off.”

Ali el-Amine, a journalist, also believes that the repression was the straw that broke the camel’s back. "When we take a look at the last by-election in the South, where no one dared to run against the Hezbollah candidate, we realize the extent of the oppression," he said. “For me, what is happening now is nothing less than an intifada in the name of dignity: for years, these people have had to keep quiet about the corruption they have been witnessing, had to keep on praising and cheering their leaders and had to believe in hypothetical international conspiracies that are no longer fooling anyone."

Will this "broken taboo" lead to radical change? Chamseddine, Fayad and el-Amine are inclined to believe that a door toward change is starting to open up, even though the road might be a long one.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 21rst of October)

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