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We asked a friend, who is following the situation in Lebanon, to give us some insights into the events developing there. He started by going back over the events of the last few days.
Since last week, forest fires have been raging in several parts of the country. The government was not able to put out the fires on its own. It was mainly the Lebanese Civil Defence that mobilized to fight the fires. It should be noted that these civil defence forces are composed of volunteers who are not paid and who have been asking to be paid for decades. In the past they have held demonstrations asking to become paid employees. In one of these demonstrations, they said they would go out to sea and not come back until they were paid. They were ready to give their lives, you know. In Lebanon, civil defence is considered something that comes from the people, not from the government. They were the first to mobilize to put out the fires, but it wasn’t enough. Fighting the fires was beyond their capabilities. Fires always happen at this time of year in Lebanon, at the end of the summer just before winter begins. Everything is dry, and the fires can start at any time.
Whenever there are blazes, the country uses helicopters that have been purchased to fight forest fires. At the outbreak of this fire, all the helicopters were downed for maintenance. So this time, the Lebanese people--people from all walks of life, from different religions and parties--began to organize themselves on social networks in order to buy water.
While the various government parties started dragging each other on television, the Lebanese people saw that they had been abandoned, left with only the civil defence forces to protect them. In a way, the people, who were very oppressed, woke up and understood that no party or religious group could save the country. They realized that if they were able to beat such a large fire, they would also be able to beat political corruption. It was then announced that on Sunday the 20th, there would be a demonstration against the current state of affairs in the country. It began with dozens of people on Thursday the 17th, but that quickly became hundreds, then thousands. It has spread to nearly every province, village, and city. People realized that they didn't need to go to Beirut to start their social movement.
Two days after the fires were extinguished, the government did not talk about the steps they could take towards rebuilding the country, like reforestation, for example. They didn't say a thing. Instead, they announced a new tax on the application WhatsApp, which is available for free around the world. It's the only thing we have for free! It is not only WhatsApp that has moved people, but when we add to that the economic instability of the last few weeks that the government is trying to hide, and their inability to deal with the fires, it was the last straw.
What is the relationship between the Lebanese people and the government?
The people who run the country are warlords. They fought in the civil war and then took control of their respective parties. People feel that without these leaders, they can accomplish nothing. They vote for them, because they feel they have no other hope. Now thousands of people are on the streets: a lot of politicized people, who are on the streets demonstrating against their own leaders. Rather than pointing the finger at one another, each community is holding its own leaders accountable. In Christian regions, Christians want Christian leaders to acquiesce to their demands and return stolen funds--or be imprisoned. The Sunnis are asking the same things from their leaders, and so are the Shia. Even in the city of Nabatieh, which is in southern Lebanon and led by Hezbollah, and where there are never demonstrations, people are challenging their leaders. This is the first time the country has united against its government. The parties go on television to say that they support the people who are protesting, but the people are protesting everywhere against all the parties.
The Lebanese people are very oppressed. The country is in trouble. The equipment to stop the demonstrations is among the most advanced in the world. But to stop forest fires, or to do anything that serves the population, there is nothing. The government has hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp accounts to spy on the population. We have cameras, 24/7 surveillance, and undercover police officers on every street who know everyone. They can come up with hundreds of reasons to put anyone in jail. There was no water to put out the fires, but for the guns used to repress the demonstrators, no problem. They say they installed the cameras because of the ground attacks.
They say they installed the cameras because of the terrorist attacks, but we know very well that they do not need them and that they are not only used for that purpose.
For a few months now in Lebanon, politicians have been talking about cutting military salaries in half. It has been two weeks since they stopped providing food for the Lebanese army. This is where corruption has brought us. Everyone faces the same problem, the soldier as well as the normal citizen. They don't even think about keeping the army on their side, they just want to steal as much money as possible for themselves. Even the police are no longer firmly on the government's side. Those who are better paid and used to control crowds, like riot police, and police close to the government, continue to defend their masters, but the system’s cracks are showing. In several places, police are refusing to crack down on demonstrators. Around Parliament, the situation is very sensitive, since it is only a select group of bodyguards and hand-picked police officers who work there. The cops are also fed up with all the government taxes and corruption.
There’s a video that has gone viral; an old woman is talking to a soldier, and you can see in his eyes that he would like to talk but he has orders not to speak. He has thousands of words in his eyes. She says to him: "They starve you, they don't pay you. Why don't you say something? You have beautiful eyes, what are you defending?" The soldiers are on edge. They are pulled in both directions, but they are leaning more and more towards the people.
Randa Berri, the wife of the President of the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies, writes from Switzerland: "I and my husband are corrupt. And then what? »
What were people doing to put out the fires independent of the government?
With the water they bought, people started putting out fires around their homes. Many also announced that they were opening their homes to those threatened by the fires, or that they could provide assistance in other ways. I believe that this is also what allowed the Lebanese to demonstrate together, rising above the divisions between parties. They had to be united against the fire, and independent of their respective leaders. It is like when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006: Christians opened their homes because they knew they would not be targeted. The fire has allowed people to unite beyond the separations the government is trying to create. That was the reason to unite, otherwise the whole country would have been killed. It was a big shock: if we don't talk to each other, if we continue to be in conflict, there will be nothing left.
The government always operates through separation. There are several warlords, party leaders of different religions who divide their positions as leaders of the country: one will have finance, the other education, the other defence. The president must be a Christian, the parliament speaker must be a Shiite, the minister speaker must be a Sunni, the army chief must be a Christian. They divided Syria and Lebanon to govern better. They wanted to deepen the separation between Christians and Muslims. In reality, only Israel and other interventionist countries benefits from this situation.
You won’t see any priests in the demonstrations, except those who are against the Christian hierarchy. No sheikhs, except those who are against the sheikh system. Religious leaders are all being bought by political leaders and in return, they must tell the population not to revolt. They’re not being allowed to contribute to justice in the world. An image has spread around the world: religious men from several communities are now walking hand in hand with the government. Sectarianism seems to be challenged to address problems that affect everyone.
Now that the fires are out, will something have changed for good, or will the same divisions rear their heads again?
I was talking to my wife and we see four ways out of this situation.
1. The country will experience a coup d'état and the army will take control of the government, in a situation similar to that of Egypt. It will put politicians under house arrest. The head of the army will take over the country until power passes into the hands of a technocratic government. The hope lies in the fact that the population knows that it has already succeeded in overthrowing the government.
2. The government has already asked for 72 hours to prepare a series of reforms and repairs. They will give in to the demands of the population: return the stolen funds, tax the rich, bring the corrupt to justice, reform the banking system, return the beaches of the Mediterranean to public ownership.
3. We lose all the changes we’ve fought for. The country falls into civil war along existing political lines. The main parties manage to pit different segments of the population against each other.
4. People will get tired and things will go back to normal. We wake up tomorrow morning with the same government, the same problems. It should be noted that significant gas reserves have been discovered on Lebanese territory, so we can be sure that this country will never be left to its own devices. America wants to have their say, Saudi Arabia wants to have their say, Iranians want to have their say. In Lebanon, nothing happens without the approval of several countries. For example, to fly anything in the skies of Lebanon, you must notify the American Embassy and Israel.
Lebanon is not Iraq. In the last few weeks of demonstrations in Iraq, there were more than 300 victims of army bullets. But in Lebanon too, if we want to achieve something desirable for the people, there will certainly be deaths. The army and the cops will use their weapons against us. There has already been one person killed by a bodyguard in Nabatieh. The Lebanese are very stubborn. If people on the street see guns, they won't run away. The police have no orders to fire at this time.
There was a call-out for a general strike across the country by Friday. How does the mobilization seem to be going?
We've never seen anything like it before. People are burning photos and flags of their own party, insulting the leaders they have supported for decades. There are rumours that some leaders seem to be trying to flee the country. Everyone blames their own leader. No one is going to accuse the leaders of other communities. My problem is down to me, not to you. People now realize that the blame lies with the people they voted for.
In all regions, the main roads of some villages are blocked and the homes of elected officials and members of the government have been attacked. Some offices were taken over, but the demonstrators found them empty. Ministers ordered all government records to be hidden. Patchi, a luxury chocolate factory owned by the politician who announced the tax on WhatsApp, was looted and the goods were distributed to the demonstrators.
Some articles mention that the demonstrators are singing in the streets for revolution and for the fall of the regime. What could that look like?
People have suffered for a long time, so it can never end in a day. Religious conflicts from previous wars are still present today. I cannot say that tomorrow will be a bright day. We are in trouble right now, and no matter what happens, it can't get any worse, unless we come to the third scenario, civil war. The only thing that could prevent this is if the corrupt leaders of each community are put in prison by their own community. Christians must not punish Sunni leaders. Sunnis must see Christians punish their corrupt leaders in order to be willing to do the same with their own. When communities are opposed to each other, the people see in their own leaders their only defence against each other. We must be able to overcome the separations that allow the Lebanese government to rule over us.
Strangely enough, I feel today for the first time that this is possible. I feel that this possibility for fundamental change, which in some ways is least likely, may in fact be the only possibility.