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How to avoid political pitfalls: the real challenge for the Lebanese revolution

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L’OLJ speaks to several activists about what to expect next amid confusion regarding calls for a general strike and civil disobedience, often from anonymous sources, and the risk of an escalation in violence.

28/11/2019
More than 40 days after the beginning of the popular uprising, and after numerous episodes of unrest over the past few days, starting with the Ring clashes on Sunday night in Beirut, the situation on the street seems to be becoming more complicated. Calls for a general strike, civil disobedience and/or road closures are common place, and the street is very often responding to the summons. LOJ interviewed several activists who are denouncing interference by the political parties, not only through expressing their opposition to the protests, but also by trying to infiltrate the rallies, with the clear intention of bringing the protestors -who are trying hard to rise above confessional barriers-, back to a bygone age tainted with sectarian tensions.

Even though coordination between the civil society groups is “not always easy”, Mona Fawaz from Beirut Madinati is reassuring with regards to the consensus "around the absolute commitment to a non-violent movement." As for the calls for general strikes and civil disobedience, which are not always greeted enthusiastically by all the protestors, she believes that "they are most likely being launched by activists (especially the youngest ones), who are starting to lose patience, after forty days of being on the streets".

This is also the opinion of retired General Khalil Helou, a member of the Coordination Committee of the thawra (Revolution), which also includes dozens of NGOs. "We did not want the protesters to close off the roads, first of all because it's a double-edged sword, and second because such a measure must fit into a larger plan, and have a precise objective”, he says.

According to Nizar Hassan, of the ‘Li Hakki’ group, "the road closures that took place earlier on were a very effective strategy for bringing down the government and imposing a general strike without it being blamed on specific individuals”. He believes that at this stage, “a political escalation is necessary in order to achieve the objectives of the revolution".

One of the founders of the Sabaa party, Jad Dagher, believes that "the street is in such a high state of turmoil that the slightest call to action, even if its author is not clearly identified, may meet with the approval of the demonstrators". However, he advocates "actions consistent with specific goals, such as the planned gatherings on the road to Baabda in the upcoming days, because the heart of the problem resides at the level of the presidency".


Preventing a rift between March 8 and March 14?

Although the calls for road closures do not always have specific, clear instigators, most often they fuel concerns about potential infiltrations within the movements by the conventional political parties. "On the Ring, the movement that shut down the road was infiltrated by members of Amal, as witnesses have pointed out", said General Helou. “Their [the protestors’] insults against the leaders of Amal and Hezbollah were what brought on the attack. And it is this specific attack against the region of Ashrafieh that provoked a reaction within the supporters of March 14."

Just like many other activists, General Helou detects an attempt to drag the demonstrators back towards the traditional schism between the camps of March 14 and 8, even if he insists in placing the lion’s share of the responsibility on the second camp. "It's as if the schism between March 8 and March 14 was recreated with the aim to drag the street right into this schism”, says Mona Fawaz. “It's important for people to stay conscious and alert, and the protesters are doing both. We are not siding with either one camp or the other: how do we condemn the current economic situation without holding all the parties in power responsible?”

For his part, Nizar Hassan believes that, "If the attempts from the current authority have failed so far, Sunday seemed to have been a “favorable” day to reintroduce the fear of internal conflicts into the heart of the residents. It was clearly aggression by the supporters of Amal and Hezbollah against the protesters, and not a confrontation. And this aggression provoked a reaction from the March 14 supporters. But the revolutionaries are extremely aware of the whole thing, otherwise they would not have lasted forty days on the streets”, he adds.

Jad Dagher is not overly worried. "If there was a real decision to have a confrontation with the street, the results would have been much more dramatic", he says. In my opinion, these political parties wanted to send a message to the protesters, but the latter stood their ground, without moving away as was they have done in the past."


A strategy "to foster discord"

The founder of Sabaa calls on people to "keep their cool during this sensitive period". "The authorities are trying to confuse us, just like when they try to charge senior officials in a useless and futile corruption case, in order to protect the members of one of the parties", he said. “Our mission is not to find solutions but to request them. And I believe that the Lebanese people are very aware, and that they know their country extremely well. The traditional political parties no longer control the street."

"In my opinion, the authorities' strategy is to delay the formation of a government in order to increase the population's apprehensions in a context of economic crisis, and to promote conflict, therefore imposing the return of a more conventional government formed by the political parties in power”, underlines Nizar Hassan. “But we do not intend to let let this happen. We have to keep on fiercely showing our opposition to all the parties in power, and [stick] to our original demands, especially the ones regarding the abolition of the denominational system that promotes corruption and patronage, and changing the economic system that takes advantage of the taxpayers."

For Mona Fawaz, "it is a question of maintaining very clear speech regarding our demands and our choices, by targeting the institutions that are responsible for the current crisis, like the Bank of Lebanon for example". She concludes: "The situation is very delicate, but solutions do exist. However, nothing can be done without political change."

Finally, according to General Helou, the authorities are looking to cause "a street movement that will eventually rot away". "But every time they slip up, they do the job for us by mobilizing the streets", he says. “We are heading towards an economic catastrophe the beginnings of which started to show up a year ago. And in my opinion, we are at risk of a confrontation because there is no immediate breakthrough."


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour no the 26th of November)

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