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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 3 - Fear of Amal, hatred of corrupt leadership, and lack of ideology

In Tyre, protesters tore down Berri’s posters and torched the Tyre Rest House Resort, which they believe is owned by Randa Berri, though Nabih Berri denied it. When I visited Tyre two weeks later, hundreds of new posters of Berri had been erected that read, “the guarantor of Lebanon” and “we are all with you [Berri].”

The posters surrounded the small protest encampment located in a roundabout on the beach road. The protest was part art fair, part concert for families, with liberals and a few leftists filling the ranks. Demonstrators were careful not to name leaders like Berri in their chants and when interviewed, they often spoke in vague terms out of fear of Amal. Later in the night, Amal members provoked the protesters in a familiar attempt at intimidation.  

Scenes like this are playing out in smaller towns too.

Residents of the southern town of Machghara say Amal is taking names of protesters, deterring many from participating. As in Tyre, Amal emblazoned posters of Berri and new Amal flags around the streets to intimidate.

At the protest in Tyre, blaring music made it difficult to have a meaningful conversation with any activists. But I managed to interview a few organizers, none of whom liked one another.

One woman rushed to me after I interviewed a protest organizer to insist to me, “He’s not a legitimate protester. He left when the Sayyad [Hassan Nasrallah] told people to leave. So he has no right to speak for the movement.” Everyone I spoke to at the Tyre protest was supportive of Hezbollah as a resistance organization to Israel. All they wanted, they said, was a secular government that could provide basic services – hardly a rebellion against Hezbollah. 

If there is anti-Hezbollah sentiment to be found, it would be in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and the site of ongoing sectarian violence. It is also one of the poorest areas of Lebanon. Yet in Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square, no one seemed to be protesting Hezbollah. Like virtually everyone else around the country, they were railing against economic inequality.

The overwhelming majority of people at this protest were unemployed. And they had erected an odd mix of banners: one outlining the values of the protest (nonviolent, nonsectarian, etc), another listing important sites in the city, and then one by families of Islamist prisoners demanding the release of their loved ones. 

Of the dozens of people I spoke to, only one mentioned Hezbollah. “Part of the problem is we [Sunnis] don’t have anyone but Hariri, and he doesn’t have guns like Hezbollah and Amal. We have nothing,” said an unemployed 28-year-old father of three. There was also a great deal of praise for Turkey’s President Erdogan, but this is nothing out of the ordinary for conservative Tripoli. 

It seemed that everyone in this protest had a complaint about the high cost of living and inability to provide for their families or pay for necessary medical procedures. Unlike the protesters in downtown Beirut who insisted on having a leaderless movement, people in Tripoli were desperate for a charismatic leader. And while they yearned a fresh face to vote for, they had no one in mind.

When asked if they would vote for any of the alternative groups involved in the protests, they responded in the negative. One of the demands of the protests has been early elections. But it is unlikely that early elections would produce results much different than those in the 2018 elections, in which the civil society alliance of alternative parties won only one seat in parliament, which ultimately went to a woman in Sabaa. 

There was little political organizing to be found in these protest camps, except perhaps for the LCP holding a discussion in a nearby garden about the importance of opening up public spaces. Otherwise, people just sat around chatting about the revolution, waiting to be organized.

As the festivities filled up, vendors whipped out cotton candy, the music started pumping, and a protest instantly transformed into a nighttime carnival. The almost instant depoliticization of the event made me wonder who exactly was behind the music. 

Scenes like these help explain why protesters tend to be so short on political education. They are desperate for a better life but there are few organizations with the capacity and resources to organize them on a massive scale, especially in a leftist direction that highlights the root causes of their plight: neoliberalism and imperialism. A man in the protest ranks highlighted the problem when he exclaimed to me, “Please someone save us, even if it’s America. I don’t care.

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