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US-backed parties have infiltrated Lebanon’s protests, pushing the country toward war amid economic collapse

By joining the roadblocks around Beirut, protesters allowed themselves to be used by US-allied parties playing a dangerous game that has the potential to explode into open warfare

by Rania Khalek

Part 1

The US is desperate to ride the revolutionary wave in Lebanon, hoping it can fracture a governing coalition that includes Hezbollah, a top target of the Trump administration and its friends from Tel Aviv to Riyadh. To this end, political figures Washington has cultivated and parties the US backs have penetrated the protest movement that has swept the country and are now on the frontlines of blockades obstructing roads around the country.

In the first part of this report, I surveyed the role of the US in weaponizing NGO’s and civil society activists to co-opt the nationwide anti-corruption protests. In this installment, we will see how the influence of the US and its Gulf allies also extends to feudal lords and warlords from Samir Geagea to Walid Joumblatt to Saad Hariri, and how it is being used to destabilize the country.

When this seemingly conflicting cast of actors began lending its support to the anti-corruption protests, many common Lebanese citizens began to look upon the demonstrations with a jaundiced eye, precisely because these political figures are living embodiments of the corruption that spurred the protests in the first place.

By joining the roadblocks around Beirut, the protesters have inadvertently allowed themselves to be used by these US-allied parties. Whether they know it or not, the media-friendly artists and students at the ring road in downtown Beirut have given cover to the Lebanese Forces roadblocks in the north and the PSP and Future Party roadblocks in the south.

Lebanese citizens in the majority Shia south have expressed outrage at the roadblocks. They have been especially frustrated with those in the town of Khaldeh, south of Beirut, because they made it difficult for residents of the south to drive up to Beirut. 

The blockades only deepened the divide between the protest movement and Hezbollah’s working class base. Lebanon lacks the infrastructure for public transportation, so road closures infringe on everyone’s freedom of movement and leave no alternatives for getting to work. No one despises the road closures more than taxi drivers. 

On more than one occasion angry youths associated with Amal, who are typically working class and poor, have physically attacked the middle class ring road protesters due to the inconvenience caused by the closure and out of anger over insults to their revered symbols.

They may have also been dispatched by Amal’s leadership to send a message to protesters, as they have repeatedly attacked and burned down their tents. Although Hezbollah was not associated with these acts of violence, youths nevertheless waved Hezbollah flags as a show of muscle and defiance. Some of the ring road protesters are Lebanese Forces supporters, so the two sides have at times further provoked each other with intentionally provocative chants. 

Each time clashes like these have broken out, Western media has wrongly identified the Amal attackers as Hezbollah supporters or have erased Amal’s involvement when both party’s supporters participate in intimidation tactics. Hezbollah supporters now worry that their reputation will suffer if Amal makes good on its threats to attack the protesters.

There is also a clear class antagonism that many protesters are reluctant to admit. The protesters in downtown Beirut are mostly middle class while Hezbollah and Amal’s base are poor and working class.

There does not appear to have been any attempts on the part of the downtown Beirut elements to reach out to Hezbollah or Amal’s base of support. Instead, when these youths have attacked the protest encampment, the demonstrators have often condescendingly called them animals and thugs who fail to appreciate their sacrifice. Naturally, this middle class savior complex has only compounded the sense of alienation between the two sides. 

Car accidents and several scuffles have also taken place at the roadblocks, including one that turned deadly. A man called Alaa Abou Fakher, a Choueifat Municipality official and member of the PSP, was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances by a member of the army following a verbal altercation over the roadblock in Khaldeh. He is believed to have helped organize the roadblock.

The man who shot him was the driver of a relative and member of Mount Lebanon army intelligence. They “knew each other well,” according to local media reports. In conspiracy-riven Lebanon, many privately speculated that Joumblatt had him killed.

As tensions escalate, suspicion and conspiratorial speculation have become prevalent. No one believes the official story about anything. A week after his death, massive billboards of Abou Fakher were erected in downtown Beirut calling him “the martyr of Lebanon and the revolution against the oppressors.” There is speculation that Joumblatt himself paid for these billboards. 

At Nahr El Kalb, Lebanese Forces supporters began erecting a cement wall inside a tunnel to block the highway as they did during the civil war. This sparked panic that a new civil conflict was about to erupt.

The roadblocks are organized and coordinated through WhatsApp groups. They ebb and flow depending on the latest outrage of the day. As of this writing, the roadblocks have ceased, but that could and will likely change tomorrow or perhaps next week. When these roadblocks receive coverage, those behind them are always referred to as “protesters” but their political affiliations are almost invariably omitted, as are their acts of flagrant intimidation.

What earns one the title of protester in the media is all about political affiliation. FPM, Hezbollah and Amal supporters are routinely castigated by their opponents as thugs and hooligans while the protests in their support are dismissed as marginal. For example, when some 20,000 FPM supporters drove to Baabda with several convoys that took up some five to ten kilometers of the highway to show their support for the President who is the leader of their party, local media mocked and dismissed them.

When an FPM supporter shot in the air at protesters comprised of Lebanese Forces supporters who had been blocking the highway in Jal el Dib, his political affiliation was reported and he was branded a thug. Yet the political affiliation of those blocking the highway has scarcely ever been disclosed in media accounts. They are simply referred to simply as protesters.

In private quarters, it is well known which parties are blocking which roads, but scarcely anyone dares to speak the truth publicly because of the fear of delegitimizing the movement as a whole. By refusing to name the bad actors, members of the movement are essentially opening up the protests as cover for the dangerous game carried out by the political parties doing the blocking.

None of these parties want a war, yet they are using the threat of a war to pressure their adversaries – especially Hezbollah and FPM – into making concessions. It is brinksmanship at its most cynical.

And it is likely being encouraged by the US, which makes no secret of its ambition to reverse the political gains made by Hezbollah and its partners in the 2018 elections. Perhaps all the street pressure will translate into concessions. But there is also the chance it could lead to an all-out war. 

And then there is the role of the army and army intelligence. In Lebanon, everyone is vying for power. 

Joseph Aoun, the head of the Lebanese army, has ambitions for the presidency. It is widely rumored that he has not spoken to President Michel Aoun in weeks. The tension between the two highlights another friction point that the US has sought to exploit.

The Lebanese army is trained and equipped by the US and dependent on Washington and the EU for its survival. Over 32,000 members of the Lebanese army have received training from the US and 80 percent of the army’s equipment comes from the US. The belief in the US – as argued recently by the former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman – is that by empowering the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah will become obsolete.

When Trump’s national security council announced a hold on $105 million in aid to the Lebanese army, hawkish pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers Eliot Engel and Ted Deutch urged the administration to reconsider. “As Hezbollah grows in sophistication and capability, it is critical the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] continues to grow and serve as the sole legitimate defender of Lebanese sovereignty and security,” they argued in a letter to the White House that clearly signaled their desire to isolate Hezbollah.

On December 2, the Trump administration ceded to the pressure and released the military aid package.

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