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By fueling sectarian conflicts, the political establishment mishandles the popular protests

" Let us stop this suicide, denounce violence in all its forms and put an end to hate speech," urges Melhem Khalaf, the head of the Beirut Bar Association.

By fueling sectarian conflicts, the political establishment mishandles the popular protests

A young protester hit by tear gas fired by security forces on Saturday in downtown Beirut. Photo João Sousa

What happened on Saturday, June 6 did not fool anyone, neither the popular protest movement nor the political observers. The sectarian tensions that accompanied and followed Saturday's demonstrations between the adjacent neighborhoods of the Ring and Khandak al-Ghamik, Barbour and Tarik Jdideh, and the old demarcation line between the two former warring districts of Shiyah and Aïn el-Remmaneh, were nothing but an attempt by the ruling parties to fuel conflicts between the various sectarian components of the country: Sunnis against Shiites and Christians against Muslims, in the face of a citizen-led protest movement calling for a civil state, fight against corruption and solutions to the financial crisis. These parties are seeking to preserve the old political formula that prevailed before the popular uprising, one that is based on sectarianism, patronage, and corruption.

On social networks, supporters of the October revolution and civil society actors condemned the clashes, accusing the ruling class of being behind them. For his part, the head of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf, warned "against discord" and denounced the "catastrophic language of destructive sectarian and community violence."

Khalaf asked "why we have learned nothing from the suicidal tendencies which aim to assassinate co-existence and the pact of Lebanon as a country of peace." He called for a return to the language of reason, wisdom and dialogue, and the promotion of civic values based on public interest. Furthermore, he urged the Lebanese to be aware (of the dangers), to reflect and to pray. "Let us stop this suicide, denounce violence in all its forms and put an end to hate speech."

Neither the first nor the last time

In addition to the firm condemnations, there is strong awareness, but also a firm decision not to give up, and to continue to press forward despite the new challenges. Contacted by L'Orient-Le Jour, activist Gilbert Doumit believes that "what happened is regrettable, but expected." The demonstrators knew very well that "this day (of protest) would be exploited by the sectarian parties' leaders who are losing ground in the face of popular demands, to re-mobilize their sectarian armies".

Preparations were also in full swing, said the activist, citing "the Shiite duo, the Future Movement cells supporting Bahaa Hariri (brother of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is trying to find a foothold in local politics ) and supporters of former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi."

For Doumit, "this is not the first time that the government and its political parties try to show that the revolution has failed or that it is fraternizing with the political parties." It is also not the first time "they use violence" against the demonstrators protesting against the loss of their purchasing power and the confiscation of their money in the banks. "But the popular movement will not be affected," he said.

The same position was reiterated by the National Bloc, which accused the political class of attempting to "redirect the demands of the Thawra." "They are trying to get us into their game, Sunnis against Shiites, for or against the arms of Hezbollah, for or against the governor of the central bank ..." noted Salam Yammout, president of the party which participated in the protest on Saturday at the Martyrs' Square. Denouncing a political class "incapable of managing the crisis and the country," Yammout highlighted the pressing need "for fundamental reforms" to put an end to corruption, stop waste, save people's money, reform the justice system, ensure social security and hold fair elections. But no reforms are possible without "an independent government endowed with exceptional powers."

"Although certain groups tried on Saturday to infiltrate the Thawra to impose their own agenda or that of the political class, the protesters of October 17 are fully aware of this challenge," said Yamout. The uprising today has "the choice" to stay at home to keep away from the dirty maneuvers of the political class or to maintain pressure on the streets and keep its ranks united. "We opted for the second option, because it is the only public forum that allows citizens to express their opinion."

Dynamics of the conflict between the political class and the popular movement

The political class is involved, said some observers who however don’t go as far as to consider Saturday's violence as a consciously plotted action. For university professor Antoine Haddad, a public policy expert, "violence cannot be excluded," even if he does not see it as a planned trap. "There is a dynamic of conflict between the two camps, on the one hand the political establishment led by Hezbollah and on the other the popular movement born from different political traditions, which adopts a civic discourse, calls for a secular state and fighting corruption, in a country torn apart at the sectarian level," Haddad said. "The party in power considered that Saturday's demonstration had its sights on Hezbollah’s arms. Its last resort being sectarianism, it did not miss using this card, by resorting to extremist forces."

Thus, in addition to claims of belonging to the Shiite community, insults were made against Sunni religious symbols. "It's no coincidence," noted Haddad. "We can see a distribution of roles between Sunnis and Shiites." In "a marginal incident" in Aïn el-Remmaneh, a message was also addressed to Christians. "The threat of a civil war is clearly used to discourage protest," he said, adding that the ruling forces "won the round." But he warned that the old formula no longer works. "Hezbollah can no longer continue to cover corruption in return for a blank check on its regional engagements. The money to cover its actions has dried up."

Taking it to the next level

Undoubtedly, exploiting sectarianism harms the popular revolt movement, which has no response. "Protesters are unable to take it to the next level," said university professor Mona Fawaz, also an activist. "While people are broke, calling for the stolen money and public funds back, we return to Aisha and Ali (Sunni and Shiite religious symbols)." The problem, she believes, "comes from a political class that refuses to rebuild the country on healthy foundation and the warlords-turned-political leaders are using discord to stay in power." Fawaz also noted that fighting coronavirus has allowed political parties to play a certain role, while the popular movement "has been slow finding a leadership." "The movement certainly calls for change. But it constantly takes different directions," she said. "At the same time, change is a long process that must take its course. "

This is not about being an alarmist. University professor Nasser Yassine explained that "the popular protest has just not reached the necessary maturity yet." "It is made up of too many groups, adopts too many different discourses and is content with lashing out," said Yassine. Targeted by the sectarian discourse of a political class "which wants to return to the formula that prevailed before October 17," the popular protest must start "a dialogue and find a common vision; a job that could take three years," he noted. But in the meantime, "the violent episodes are likely to be repeated."


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 8th of June)


What happened on Saturday, June 6 did not fool anyone, neither the popular protest movement nor the political observers. The sectarian tensions that accompanied and followed Saturday's demonstrations between the adjacent neighborhoods of the Ring and Khandak al-Ghamik, Barbour and Tarik Jdideh, and the old demarcation line between the two former warring districts of Shiyah and Aïn...

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