The passing away of Zahle MP Elias Skaff last week after a “long (unspecified) illness” has opened an unexpected window into the workings of the Lebanese state structure and its deepest fears. In this video broadcast on live TV last week, dozens of armed men loyal to Skaff are seen brazenly opening fire during his funeral procession with little concern for public safety.
But rather than condemn this act of potentially deadly and unbridled violence, which defies the very notion of a state–in that it holds a monopoly on guns– the country’s top police official, Minister of Interior Nouhad Machnouk, is actually seen attending the MP’s funeral as barrages of indiscriminate gunfire are unleashed outside:
A senior police officer is even seen marching near the armed vigilantes, who have sophisticated gear fit for a war zone:
Does this mean the state has lost control?
That doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to the police reaction to the unarmed #youstink movement. Compare the silence, if not complicity, with Zahle gunmen to the swift and violent police action that occurs when unarmed protestors push only a few meters toward police lines:
In fact, the police were so overzealous in their attacks on #youstink protestors in recent weeks that they even shot tear canisters at themselves, drawing laughter from the crowd, but also illustrating their unprepared and perhaps desperate scramble to regain control:
On their social media accounts, Minister Machnouk’s Internal Security Forces argue that their tactics were justified because some had thrown rocks toward their barricades breaking a few panes of glass of nearby luxury hotels as well as lightly injuring some officers, a move many in the non-violent movement disavowed. However, this reaction also comes on the back of dozens of protestors being wounded or beaten by police over recent weeks, as well as dozens detained arbitrarily with no access to lawyers for weeks at a time.
Many protestors will also remember when police stood idly by last month as party loyalists savagely attacked activists. I witnessed two of the men briefly arrested (activists say they were quickly released) but police did not seek mass arrests as the gang of violent men walked brazenly in front of riot officers.
Ironically the same riot police had hunted down, beat and interrogated some 40 unarmed activists earlier that day as seen in the previous videos in this post. The majority were released without charge yet some now face military tribunals from offenses ranging from insulting officers to pushing over barricades.
Similarly, how many of the gunmen in Zahle were arrested or face military trials for barbarically making the sky rain bullets from their machine guns? If the minister of interior is interested in upholding the state, shouldn’t he launch an investigation into these potentially dangerous armed men in full military gear on his streets or the ones who attacked protestors with impunity in Beirut and then marched nonchalantly past his cops? Will these men be allowed to use their guns and fists however they please, intimidating neighbors and anyone who has a problem with them or what they are doing? If the police do not care, does that mean such men or anyone carrying a gun can also commit crimes and simply get away with it?
Of course these questions go to the root of what we consider Lebanon’s ‘political system’ in which armed parties run the country as they please with no fear of accountability because police would not dare interfere in their business. It is this environment of impunity and intimidation that has allowed militias and their leaders to hand out contracts to unqualified or unregulated private companies that they or their friends own with little concern for efficiency or transparency, in other words “running the country like a corner store” as the Arabic saying goes. And it is exactly these issues that the #youstink movement has galvanized around:
But instead of empathizing with activists demands for a less violent state where militias rule, the interior minister has actually threatened anyone who harms the image of those who have run the country during the post war period, namely the late prime minister Rafik Hariri. In what seems to be a response to allegations that demonstrations are hurting business in the downtown area (where protestors called for accountability in the massive real estate project Hariri established there) Minister Machnouk threatens to use the law to “cut the hands” of anyone of harms Hariri’s legacy:
And despite tear gas and mass arrests, protestors continue to be released by the courts. Yesterday, the last two to be held, online comedian Pierre Hachach and activist Waref Sleiman, were released after 11 days in detention. They emerged as defiant as ever:
One online activist and commentator actually thanked “the state” for adding several hundred new likes to both Pierre and Waref’s Facebook pages, leading people to learn more about their work and that of others involved in the anti-corruption movement:
Emilie is just one of many activists and average citizens now making their voices heard on social media, using humor or political commentary, unfazed by all the threats of the state, which seem increasingly ineffective. She ends her video by noting that in addition to the government and its corrupt daily operations, the additional challenge the movement faces is that of those still siting at home or sitting on the fence, accepting that corruption as if it were normal.
Emilie closes by cleverly using all the movements major hashtags in a sentence, addressing those who still stand with the state: “To you we say “you stink” “we will continue” “we want accountability” “for the sake of the Republic”, “All of them means all of them.”