There is a fantasy among many in Lebanon- liberals in particular– that a silent majority of Lebanese do not support the country’s political establishment. That most Lebanese would prefer a life free from the political parties of today, which had largely been former militias established by warlords during the civil war. And if this is true, it is the millions of Lebanese living abroad that would be this best indicator of such a deep regime change desire, felt particularly by those who have fled their homeland due to the destruction warlords have caused.
So when voting was allowed for the first time this year from the millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora, many hoped the balance of power could shift, that voices of those opposed to the political establishment would be heard more loudly.
But so far, that doesn’t seem to be quite the case.
The voting is continuing as I type this, yet Lebanese TV stations are on the ground all over the world today, giving us a good idea of what the polling stations and early voters look like. And there are plenty of party colors to see.
In Brazil, it was basically an FPM street party:
Future Movement had its corner too:
The PSP and Lebanese Forces were not left out though:
Meanwhile in Ivory Coast, West Africa, nearly everyone seemed to be wearing an Amal cap or T-shrit:
This case was similar in Berlin:
Posters of the party leader, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, were even seen plastered around the voting area:
But the Future Movement ascots crew were not missing:
Meanwhile the PSP was strong in Montreal:
And in Washington, the Orange love was tangible:
Many reporters found this all too amusing, remarking on how well the rivals got along abroad. An Al Jadeed reporter in Africa was having a great time with partisans remarking: “all the parties are one heart today.”
But then one added: “We are only here for Nabih Berri.”
The Lebanese ambassador to Brazil was very proud that all the parties were represented and how “democratic” the affair had been. Suddenly places like Brazil and West Africa became “a model for coexistence” that the homeland should emulate.
Only one reporter noted that there were no representatives from alternative parties. None mentioned the fact that these parties all illegally reappointed themselves, cancelling elections for almost a decade. Or how they have failed to deliver any semblance of basic public services during that time, manage the garbage crisis or have direct roots in the destruction of the entire country and gutting of its institutions we are facing today.
In fact reporters could have suggested that Lebanese parties have gotten along very well in the postwar period and warlords are now friends and even have dinner together. So clearly hugs and smiles are in no short supply.
Instead of asking tougher questions about the parties, reporters focused more on the excitement of the day. And indeed many first time voters offered moving stories, especially elder voters living abroad much of their lives. Watching the polling station workers, carefully reviewing IDs and passports, the multi-screen displays at the ministry of interior, checking live feeds from every polling station worldwide, and the excitement and relative calm of the operation, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. It was indeed a historic day and the largely bankrupt Lebanese state somehow managed to pull it off.
But what does it all mean? That Lebanon is hopelessly locked into its current party system and nothing of significance is going on with independents?
Independents are making a big showing this year, bigger than ever before. And party popularity, despite the loud partisans we may see in the streets, is at a low point and party leaderships are having to work harder for votes than ever before.
But we must have realistic expectations. Independents are not going to sweep to victory any time soon. Not because this is Lebanon and nothing changes, but because that is true in almost any established political environment, including Western democracies. It is very difficult for independents to break into an entrenched party system.
First and foremost it is hard to compete with that kind of money. Independents are generally small and young groupings that lack the huge campaign chests of major parties and even more importantly, the media and institutional power that they have been accumulating for decades, essential to sustaining their current positions of power.
But change is still happening, and we should look more carefully at how new political activists and collectives are having an impact on political culture and political practices, and not focus solely on poll numbers or election results. As I have argued in a major research paper I wrote at Oxford last year, political change is felt most strongly outside of elections and also in the ways that establishment political and media institutions react to the discourse and activities being put forward by activists.
Yes we can be optimistic for change. But we also have to be realistic about the deep power of political parties and how that power is maintained, no matter what their ideology may be. Independents are having an impact, but if they want to win, they need to understand more about what these parties have offered and continue to offer, beyond simply dismissing them as backwards or irrelevant.
“Listen you f**ks,” the man wearing military style pants and boots yelled at dozens of young male and female activists gathered in front of the environment ministry for anti-corruption protests last Wednesday (Sept. 16). He was advancing fast toward the crowd of #youstink activists, as a few police standing around looked on. “Anyone of you curses (Parliament speaker) Berri again and we will come down on you!”
“You are filming!? Stop filming you punk,” another of the men roared toward the end of the clip below, his eyes overcome with rage as he thrust his finger toward a cameraman.
Watch the video here:
Moments later chairs and tables began flying toward the crowd, as the men ruthlessly punched and kicked everyone in sight. Women are screaming, one falls to the ground. Others begin running and ducking. “They called us animals and whores,” one young woman complains, as she runs for cover.
Then projectiles began raining down. At first they were small rocks and bottles but then large pieces of concrete came twirling through the sky, launched indiscriminately at the crowd of peaceful protestors, many of them already on hunger strike.
See the video here:
Here are some stills from the video. At first people didn’t even realize what was happening:
Then the concrete blocks started landing. One collided with the asphalt just a few feet away from where I was shooting:
And just a few inches from a man’s leg and head:
After several incoming volleys, one of the young boy protestors throws a couple of bottles and smaller rocks back. Amid the chaos, other protestors confront him, accusing him of being “one of them”. But even as the young men argue, the blocks come raining down:
And everyone runs for cover:
The irony here is that during this wanton violence, dozens of heavily armored riot police were just standing only a few feet away at the entrance of the environment ministry, armed with shields and sticks . At about 1:30, I pan briefly in their direction. And other videos have emerged of the people literally begging the riot police to intervene. Yet only a handful of regular officers are begrudgingly sent over.
Even when a few police do arrive, they seem to do nothing to stop one of the violent men who continues to throw pieces of concrete at the men and women protestors:
The officers are literally standing next to the man in black as he winds up to throw more rocks:
So who were these men, ready to destroy dozens of people they did not even know? There was about 10 or 15 of them. They were largely middle-aged, clean shaven, button shirts and shiny sneakers. These were not the so-called “infiltrators” the young unruly protestors who broke glass and lit fires downtown, those claimed to be conspirators by many in the ruling class, eager to cast doubt on the movement. Many of those kids were understandably frustrated after police beatings and shootings of previous days and directed their anger toward the security forces, not the fellow protestors. They came from the slums, wearing ratty or cheap clothes and barely in their teens–none that I saw seemed to be over 20. On the other hand, those who attacked the protestors well groomed and dressed and appeared to be in their 30s and 40s if not older.
Amal movement, the party headed by Parliament Speaker Berri, has denied any involvement in the day’s events. Interestingly the television channel that supports the movement–NBN TV–did not cover any of the violence directly in its newscast, merely summarizing that clashes were sparked by the cursing and defamation of Mr. Berri. This is because minutes before the men came to attack the protestors, one of the activists had told a reporter with NBN that its patron would be the next target of the call for resignations. (The activists have already called for the resignations of the interior and environmental ministers for police brutality and failure to prevent the garbage crisis.)
Thus in NBN’s subsequent newscast, this clip is played repeatedly, followed by cherry-picked moments of confrontation between activists and police. No actual cursing of Speaker Berri is played–only a call for his resignation.
As the images run on screen, the scripts read by reporters and anchors demonize the protestors as uncouth, uncivilized and immoral trouble-makers. The visibly angry NBN anchor then takes aim at Al Jadeed TV, (one of the few channels that has taken the side of the activists) and basically calls it a propaganda machine churning out hatred and sectarianism headed by a shady businessman. It’s no wonder considering some activists interviewed by the channel have been freely attacking senior Lebanese politicians, including Speaker Berri, over the state of corruption and chaos in the country.
But there is no footage of the fist fights and rock throwing of these men. “The police intervened and restored the situation to normal,” the NBN anchor reads nonchalantly from the teleprompter, no mention of the launching of projectiles that could have easily sent many to the hospital or worse.
Yet in reality, as noted earlier, the riot police waited several minutes before intervening. Even though there were dozens of riot police in full gear standing only a few meters away, they barely budge as civilians are being beaten and targeted by concrete blocks being thrown by the mysterious men.
It was only after much of the damage has been done, the tents used by hunger-strikers destroyed, people beaten and rocks thrown savagely at the crowd that the riot police finally deploy, as seen in this video:
The police even made a couple of arrests. Here is one of them:
Many began to ask: why did they police wait around so long? Earlier in the day, police did not hesitate to rough up protestors and arrest some 40, many activist organizers with no justification. Most were released a few hours later. One, activist Aly Sleem, told me police had shoved him in a van, pushed his face into the floor and began threatening him with military prison or being sent to Syria. They drove him around in circles for two hours, claiming he had received foreign funding and had attacked police, both of which had no basis.
Here is my interview with Aly, shortly after he was released later on the same evening:
Were the men who attacked the activists also abducted, driven around and threatened by police or did they get off easier?
The story doesn’t end there. Four days later on Sept. 20, a group of some of the same men once again violently assaulted the protestors.
It all began when one of the activists held a banner denouncing corruption with the faces of some of the most powerful politicians. These included Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri. Beside this, the activist– middle-aged man wearing a bright vest–also held a picture of Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and the late Imam Mousa Sadr, dubbing the two as “symbols of respectability.”
Within minutes of raising the banner, two men run up to the activist. One says “Don’t you ever raise Nasrallah’s photo!” Ironically the activist was praising Nasrallah in comparison to other politicians. And yet he was hauled away as other partisan men began to fight those protestors who tried to intervene.
I ended this clip when one of the violent men wearing a black shirt and black hat is seen roaring wildly at those around him, sending many running. He then spots myself and a few other cameraman and begins lunging toward us. I put my phone down and then watched him walk passed me and punch, throw against a wall and then kick and beat two cameramen to the ground.
Suffice to say, there was very little filming after that, but thanks to the drone footage by Al Jadeed, we can see the rest of the fight continued in the clip below. Eventually the activist is dragged by his neck, his clothes ripped off and then beaten repeatedly by hand; then beaten repeatedly over the head with the megaphone he was holding.
After the activist is beaten, he is seen walking away from what appears to be a cordon of men who were keeping police out. The drone camera then follows the now bear-chested activist as he walks toward a few police officers to explain what happened. One officer waives him off as if telling him to get lost. (Literally adding insult to injury, the protestor is now being sued by Speaker Berri for defamation over his banner)
Later in the video above, we can see the violent men fall into a march formation, their numbers grow to about 30 as some join from the crowd. I notice several familiar faces from the previous attack at the environment ministry, including the man who kept throwing rocks at protestors despite the police presence. I watched as the men would stand around separately as if they didn’t know each other, circulate and then eventually join up together. Once again, the riot police stand idly as the men pass defiantly in front of them.
They then began marching aggressively through the crowd, roughing up protestors and chanting loudly: “Berri comes after God” and “the revolution can have my dick.”
Thus the vulgar language, the rage in their eyes, and the willingness to commit fatal acts of violence seemed to be very similar tactics. The men appeared to be part of a group, trained in how to operate discreetly in a crowd: fall into formation in a moment’s notice and then disperse back again and melt into anonymity. There appear to be clear roles and objectives as only a few of the men engage in acts of violence while others weave through the crowd or stand close to the action without getting directly involved, seemingly to provide back up. There is often what appears to be a ring leader in his 40s/50s keeping the men in line, seen at the end of the Al Jadeed drone clip. Are we to believe these men gathered spontaneously? That they are a random sample of friends or neighbors?
And what about NBN TV and Amal’s version of events where no violence happens and the party has nothing do with the men attacking protestors?
Local broadcaster Al Jadeed did some investigating. It turns out two of the most violent characters on both days are indeed very close if not members of the party, according to this report:
Yet why are only two men investigated? What about the many others who were throwing punches or rocks at the crowd?
And what about the role of the police? Were they genuinely intimidated by these mystery men? How could the police take on thousands of peaceful protestors, arresting, tear-gassing and assualting dozens over recent weeks, and yet barely lift a finger to stop less than 10 or 20 men? Many were left wondering: which side are the police on?
Once again, who are these men? If Amal denies they are members, why are they so angry that someone cursed their leader or even simply called for his resignation? Could the men simply be average citizens who admire Speaker Berri? Then again, how many average men just sitting at home would feel they need to walk to a protest and physically harm as many people possible, with no ulterior incentive?
All this raises important questions about the future of the #youstink protest movement in Lebanon, which has undertaken several unprecedented acts of civil disobedience over recent weeks. But can leaders of political parties be questioned without retribution in violence? How many groups of men sitting at home today are willing to harm or even kill anyone who insults or even questions their leader? How will the protest movement deal with these individuals? What motivates their rage? Are they victims of the civil war themselves, suffering perhaps from PTSD? How can one reconcile with the reality that so many in Lebanon are still dealing with the war and or employed by its post-war political apparatus? What strategies of resistance to the state can activists take in Lebanon without inviting violence from party loyalists?
Finally, will such violence and indiscriminate arrests by police dampen the protest movement? Or will more people be even more motivated to stand up for their right to speak out?
After the police arrests and beatings by party loyalists on September 20th, later that evening thousands of non-violent activists still showed up. They defiantly filled the streets leading to parliament. They did not resort to violence, they simply sat on the floor and raised their hands until riot police finally relented.
“From this point on, every square is owned by the people,” shouted activist Assaad Thebian over a megaphone, surrounded by a sea of protestors.
“Today is a historic day, ” he added. “Today we have a future and we have hope. Today we announce a new political party, the party of the Lebanese people!”
The crowd roared. Then later sang patriotic songs and danced together. The feeling was electric that night. Now more than a week later, many will be watching what the movement does next and how it will cope with those violent individuals who do not want to see it succeed.
There has been much fanfare about the removal of political signs and posters from Beirut, as part of a reported reconciliation deal between the parties/militias/old men that run this country. I have to admit, I was surprised to see the decades-old Amal mural painted over on Spears Street.
The Daily Star reported that Hezbollah had even removed posters of martyrs in Saida, though advertisements for the party’s museum remain up.
But what the Star didn’t report is that as posters came down for some groups, a massive billboard campaign went up commemorating the life of slain prime minister Rafik Hariri. The billboards promoted a political rally for his party that would be held on the day of his assassination last week.
The billboards are literally ubiquitous across the city. From downtown:
The northern suburbs:
Multiple images on the same panel:
Even three billboards on one street:
I wonder if this campaign was excluded from the reconciliation deal and why.
Look out for my column next month in Bold Magazine for more on Beirut’s history with political posters, how the latest crackdown compares to previous removal campaigns and what is often left out of the process.
In light of yesterday’s Lebanese Forces post, I thought I would introduce you to Amal land:
Home of Imam Musa Sadr and Hard Rock Cafe:
More seriously, Sadr was the founder of the Amal movement and didn’t live to see its integration, like the Lebanese Forces, from militia to political party. That his image is used in contemporary capture-the-flag politics belies his inclusive, self-empowering legacy.
For more on Sadr’s facinating life and little-known tension with the Iranian leadership, I highly recommend Shaery-Eisenlohr’s book.
Nabih Berri has been speaker of Lebanon’s parliament for over 20 years. Finally, he’s getting some recognition.
The folks at Take Back Parliament have put together the website “Nabih Berri Forever” to elect the former militia leader to the Guinness Book of World Records. They have apparently actually submitted the application.
The site also has this neat, real-time count-down clock— or should I say count-up?
Unlike the fierce battles over biggest hummus or tabouli plate, Lebanon may have this one in the bag simply because there are so few remaining Arab leaders with decades-long careers to compete.
In fact Berri rose to power well before he took office in 1992. He had become the leader of Amal–one of the most powerful militias during the civil war, in 1980. I’m pretty sure he still maintains that position today as well.
Laughter and cynicism aside, one question a lot Lebanese may be asking is: Are there no term limits within political parties or within the national Parliament?
Perhaps those leading this campaign can eventually channel its energy into a national conversation on term limits and their implications.
Additionally, about an hour earlier that afternoon, Assir supporters had paraded through the streets on scooters. They had attempted to enter West Beirut but were turned around by army troops and forced to hit the corniche instead, tooting and flag waiving all the way.
The army reacted quickly following the clashes later in Salim Slem, deploying APCs and troops at several intersections in the surrounding area.
This is not the first time Assir supporters have run into trouble in Salim Slem.
I happened to be passing by the tight corridor into Beirut last October during a similar flare-up:
I saw a stretcher being carried out across the street just before I snapped this shot.
It seems a possible solution to these Salim Slem clashes would be creating an alternate route into the city for Assir supporters coming from Saida– one that does not pass by territory of rivals that can easily be blocked.
A picture can tell a thousand words and this one is all too Lebanese. Where else in the world are caskets routinely draped in the flags of political parties?
The two coffins pictured above (courtesy Lebanese TV channel NBN) carry the flags of Amal, which is part of a coalition of political movements that reject the US-backed Lebanese government.
Like so many funerals of recent years, this one has evolved into an angry rally with heated calls for revenge. It follows the killing of at least 7 Lebanese citizens after a bloody Sunday afternoon marked by violent riots against the government and sporadic shooting of the protestors. It is not exactly clear who did the shooting yet, but on the streets and in the press, a pro-government party is already being implicated.
Also among the dead on Sunday was a member of Hezbollah, which cloaked its victim’s coffin in the party’s yellow flag. (Image also courtesy NBN)
Meanwhile, a third funeral procession in another part of the country mourned the loss of a man employed by the “Civil Defense,” a government institution, similar to a fire department. His coffin was draped in a Lebanese flag.
One day, three angry funerals, three separate flags. Does this sound like the democracy George Bush refers to when he speaks so fondly of his support for “the Lebanese people”?
And its not just three flags. There are dozens of political parties (i.e. sub-states) in Lebanon, and many on the pro-Western side have held similar rallies at funerals, shouting allegiance to individual leaders rather than the nation as a whole.
As the US gets ever more involved in Lebanon, the American people should realize that this is a deeply divided and complicated place. Like Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere, Lebanon will not simply succumb to the brush strokes of US foreign policy and a very convenient definition of “freedom”.