On the surface, it felt like so many rallies I have covered in Lebanon. Young people, hungry for change, fighting the powers that be, yelling over a megaphone trying to push back police lines, to make a statement, to be heard.
But this wasn’t a battle against the system of tribal/nepotistic Lebanese politics, it was a rally for one of its chief players: retired Army general Michel Aoun, who fought one of the bloodiest battles in the Lebanese civil war during the late 1980s, leaving thousands killed. At the war’s end, he and his rival Samir Geagea were banished from politics–Aoun was sent into exile, Geagea was sent to prison. But now some 20 years later, both are back in the game and their supporters are just as fervent. Well, sort of.
At today’s rally in front of the prime minister’s offices, the constant chant was: “God, Lebanon, Aoun and that’s it!” It’s a spin on the anthem of authoritarianism, the type of personality worship that pervades our political culture. From Syria to Egypt, Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shia the slogan is deployed, switching out the names of course, to lavish praise, not on a political statement or movement in general but a specific leader. A specific person who is hailed as being the answer to all problems. That was essentially what was being said today. Just elect Aoun as president and the country will be back on track. (Lebanon has been without a president for over a year due to political deadlock.) And although Aoun and Geagea do not come from the powerful feudal families that have traditionally ruled Lebanon, they have increasingly adopted their same nepotistic tactics. One of the most powerful members of Aoun’s political coalition is his son-in-law, minister Gebran Bassil. Geagea’s wife, Sethrida Geagea is now a member of parliament, representing his party.
So why do people partake in such rallies, such cult worship of an aging politician or political dynasty which may seem particularly medieval to many?
“He is very Lebanese,” one women in her 50s told me as she waved a flag with the General’s insignia on trademark orange. “He doesn’t stay silent in the face of wrongdoing.”
Others literally wore their views on their shirts. This one says “Aoun the resistor”:
And “General, General, total liberation”
“Aoun is the dignity of the people”:
“We only kneel before God”
The last reference seems to be related to the idea that Aounists are being somehow marginalized by the government, due to a failure to elect a president. This plays into the larger discourse of “Christian rights” that has become a central rallying call of the party. The idea is that Lebanese Christians have been robbed of their political rights, as Muslim parties such as Hezbollah and the Hariri dynasty have become increasingly prominent in the last couple of decades. This is partly true, but it is also a somewhat natural evolution due to a decreasing Christian population as well as the long fall of the French colonial system that conveniently gave huge powers to elite Lebanese Christian politicians during the founding of Lebanon, while Muslims and particularly Shia, were largely disenfranchised during the period. But as you can imagine, a critical read on Lebanese history is very unpopular with those who stand the most to lose from it.
One woman even brought along her Ethiopian housekeeper, who wore a Virgin Mary baseball cap. “She wanted to come to protect the Christians,” her employer told me with a huge smile. The girl nodded shyly.
Putting aside the shameful Kafala system for a moment–in the broader sense, what seems to be at stake here is identity politics, cultural history and the worldview to which we are born into, contributing to what and who we blame for our problems. In Lebanon, all this is complicated by the violence of war. Which side killed our relatives, which side protected us? Many of those who rallied today may have had fathers or cousins who fought under Aoun during those dark war years. Some may still look to his leadership or that of others for patronage, a little bureaucratic help here and there, to get your kids into school, help find a job or pay for health care, what we call “wasta.”
These are not easy issues to deal with– particularly when faced with institutions and public services gutted by civil war– and they will probably be with us for years to come. For example, the United States civil war ended over 150 years ago, yet as the recent confederate flag controversy indicates, Americans are still grappling with the social and economic ruptures of that battle.
A truth and reconciliation process is desperately needed in Lebanon. Perhaps one day we can worry about which leader is best suited to do the job and give little credence to his feudal or religious pedigree and our visceral fears or assurances that a certain politician “will protect us,” “our rights” because he is “one of us.” (Some in Lebanon are already fighting for that)
But in the meantime, it might also be helpful to realize that we are all human and want many of the same things on some level. We also need to be brave enough to accept each other’s deep-seated issues, no matter how ridiculous or misguided we think they are.
Of course violence was not absent–some people got injured while trying to nudge army lines and some army members may have gotten understandably frustrated:
But Red Cross medics were standing by to treat the wounded and no shots were fired. Perhaps that is some share of progress in itself.
Heck, the whole event lasted only a few hours, only around 300 people showed up and it was so mildly dangerous, I even spotted a couple of hipsters walking by with rolled up shorts and endless summer footwear:
Others were busy taking selfies:
All in all, it seemed a lot more of a docile situation than some media outlets–opposed to Aoun–made it out to be. Indeed local media’s obsession with the old political class, dramatizing every speech while spending little time investigating the country’s actual myriad of problems, is also a major part of the postwar challenges we face. But that’s the subject of another post.
Correction: An earlier version of this post noted that Gebran Bassil was Aoun’s nephew, when he is actually his son-in-law. Aoun’s nephew, Alain Aoun is also a member of parliament and part of General Aoun’s political coalition.