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Technocracy now: The US is working to turn Lebanon’s anti-corruption protests against Hezbollah

While Lebanon’s protests remain focused on the economy and widespread corruption, Washington is increasingly determined to exploit the movement as a geopolitical weapon in the region.

by Rania Khalek

Part 5 - Enter the NGO industrial complex

Unfortunately for Washington, the core of the protest movement remained primarily focused on the economic crisis. Though Hezbollah had bolted the protest ranks, leftist groups like the Lebanese Communist Party, Citizens in a State, the Shaab (People) Movement, and other socialist-oriented elements remained involved.

In the past weeks, these groups had been holding discussion groups and working to influence as many protest participants in a left-wing direction. However, they represent a small slice of Lebanese society and lack the resources of US-backed parties and civil society groups.

By contrast, the Sabaa party is flush with funding. It was founded by Jad Dagher, a notoriously shady Lebanese businessman who used to belong to the Phalange, another right-wing Christian party close to the US which carried out infamous massacres during the civil war.

Dagher and his company DK Group were added to the US sanctions list in 2014 for allegedly aiding the Syrian government, but were removed from the list in 2016. On average, the removal of a company from the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list takes around eight to 10 years, leading some to wonder what kind of deals Dagher cut to get him off the list in just two.  

Sabaa, which claims to have a disdain for political parties, is considered by the left to be a right-wing party operating under the guise of non-sectarianism and liberalism. The group has kept up a significant presence in downtown Beirut’s Martyr’s Square, setting up a PA system that blasted music so loud it was difficult to have any sort of meaningful discussion. Notably, the group kept its name and logo absent from all protest materials. Some left-wing activists I spoke to suspected that Sabaa was using the blaring music to drown out their ability to organize effectively.

The other large group present at the downtown protests was Beirut Madinati, a liberal group founded by civil society activists and professors from the American University of Beirut. This group emerged from the 2015 “You Stink!” protests, which mobilized against the lack of trash pickup and other middle class civic concerns. 

One of Beirut Madinati’s most high-profile founders is Jad Chaaban, an AUB economics professor who has worked at the World Bank and founded the Lebanese Economic Association, a business roundtable that receives support from USAID, Booz Allen, the World Bank Group, and the Ford Foundation. It goes without saying that he is considered an ally in Washington.

Then there are the groups of artists who use slogans from Syria’s protests, but updated for the Lebanese context. For instance, the famous chant “erhal erhal ya Bashar” (leave leave oh Bashar [al-Assad]), which was heard in Syrian cities back in 2011, was remixed to “erhal erhal ya Aoun,” referring to the Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Many of the NGOs that are present express solidarity with the economic demands at the core of the protest movement. However, these groups are funded by outside forces and inculcated in the discourse of American and European liberalism.

A perfect example is Legal Agenda, a Lebanese NGO financed by the European Union, the Swiss embassy, the German government-funded think tank Heinrich Böll Stiftung, and the Open Society Foundation of anti-communist billionaire George Soros. The organization offers legal advice to marginalized groups, a noble cause to be sure. Some members appeared to be assuming an anti-Hezbollah line, however, commenting to me that they were convinced the militia had plans to use its weapons on protesters.

Another notable NGO is Megaphone News, a social media oriented outlet that bills itself as independent, but which is funded by the European Endowment for Democracy, the European government-backed sister organization of the US regime-change outfit the National Endowment for Democracy. Founded in 2017, Megaphone has played a critical role in the production of memes, videos, and music since the start of the uprising.

These various groups do not necessarily share a unified agenda and do not always get along. Perhaps the only thing that brings them together is their resentment of Hezbollah.

The leftists are upset with Hezbollah for its domestic policies. They argue that Hezbollah is complicit in the neoliberal policies that have ruined the economy – or at the very least, that Hezbollah has not done enough to confront the notoriously corrupt players in their coalition. 

They are also angry that Hassan Nasrallah criticized the protests as a vehicle for foreign influence. After scuffles broke out between Nasrallah’s supporters and protesters, he instructed his constituents to leave the demonstrations to avoid further clashes. This upset the leftists even more, as they wanted Hezbollah to continue contributing manpower and resources to the movement. 

However, Hezbollah supporters argue that their party has not been in power long enough to change anything. They insist on a strategic alignment with parties like FPM and Amal in order to protect their capacity to resist Israeli aggression. And they are convinced it is necessary to be wary of foreign influence over protests in a country like Lebanon that outside powers are constantly meddling in. 

Given the participation of their pro-American political rivals and the anti-Hezbollah sentiment among some segments of protesters, Hezbollah members understandably view the protests with deep suspicion.

At a demonstration of students from Lebanese American University (LAU) and American University of Beirut (AUB) on October 26, for example, there were chants in favor of disarming Hezbollah. Others chanted against Nasrallah. To Hezbollah ears, this rhetoric amounts to a call for the wholesale destruction of their movement. 

At that same event, AUB president Fadlo Khuri joined student protesters, encouraging them to continue expressing themselves in the streets. Khuri’s sudden support for free expression came as a surprise to some who have worked under his administration. They describe him as right-wing and in line with US foreign policy.

Since Khuri took over AUB, pro-Palestine and pro-Hezbollah faculty have complained about his relentless hostility. It was Khuri, for example, who blocked Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita from securing a permanent position at the school. But now he has suddenly become a champion of free speech.

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