A Hizbullah supporter taunts anti-government protesters in Beirut in early June. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

Lebanon Could See Renewed Schism as it Confronts Financial Crisis

One observer says that when protesters began demanding disarmament of Shi’ite Hizbullah, country’s months-long popular uprising split along old sectarian lines

Lebanon may again become divided along sectarian lines after protesters against government corruption and economic hardship added a new demand last week: that Iran-backed Hizbullah be disarmed.

The demonstrations, held in Beirut and other cities, were a renewal of protests that began in October following proposals for a new tax to help offset the country’s huge foreign debt. The protests had diminished with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hizbullah’s spokesperson in Lebanon, Mohammed Afifi, told The Media Line that the protesters’ demand to strip the group of its weaponry was meant to please the US and other outside forces.

“The matter of resistance weapons was raised by a few categories of Lebanese in line with the US Caesar legislation… and with the raising of the issue of amending the mandate for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL] and assigning it to the border with Syria, which is considered to be the land crossing for the transfer of weapons to Hizbullah from Iran,” he said.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection bill proposes sanctions on the Syrian government, including President Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes committed during the country’s civil war, now in its tenth year. Although the bill has yet to become law, parts of it were incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal 2020.

Afifi insists that there is no consensus in Lebanon on the group’s armaments, with popular support for its military might having wavered since 1982, depending on political circumstances.

“Last week’s protest was very weak and the number of participants was very low,” he claimed. “Some of the protestors refused to join in after they heard the new demand.”

He also stated that the main political powers in Lebanon, including those that do not consider themselves allies of Hizbullah, have not suggested disarmament.

Rabee Damaj, a Lebanese freelance journalist, told The Media Line that the protests were not serious because there were completely new demands.

“A lot of Lebanese who were part of the October revolution refused to take part in the recent protests because the new demand to disarm Hizbullah confused them,” he said.

“There are people in Lebanon who want Hizbullah to hand its weapons over to the government, including protesters from the revolution,” Damaj continued, “but they don’t want to push this issue now because their focus is on the financial and economic crisis that is suffocating them.”

Disarming Hizbullah, he said, would not be a simple matter and cannot be done right now.

“The main focus of the revolution is the return of looted funds and an end to corruption,” he stated, specifically citing “economic reforms, especially after the coronavirus crisis.”

According to Lebanon’s Labor Ministry, by the end of the summer, there will be about one million unemployed citizens, Damaj notes. The population of the country is about 6.8 million.

“It’s really not the time to ask to disarm Hizbullah,” he said. “The country is descending into a greater crisis, especially with the global pandemic and its catastrophic effect on the Lebanese economy.”

Skirmishes broke out over the weekend when groups affiliated with Hizbullah moved in on protesters in central Beirut and also outside the capital before the army separated the two sides and restored calm. These and other protests were the first after Lebanese authorities eased a general closure imposed in mid-March to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Ali Amin, a Lebanese writer and political analyst, told The Media Line that the latest protests showed that the “political quarantine” was over.

“The Lebanese government used the coronavirus as a pretext to end the protest movement,” he said, adding that demonstrators took to the streets to declare their rejection of the government, which has instituted few reforms since January, when it was sworn in under the leadership of Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

“The new government has not held corrupt people accountable. It has not returned any stolen money. Also, it has not ended quotas and corruption,” he said.

Amin says that Hizbullah’s aim is to stop the revolution and protect Diab.

“If the current government falls, Hizbullah will be in a big trouble,” he explained. “A new government will be based on new conditions, not as things are today.”

Hizbullah, he insists, is “evoking the sectarian divide” by “insulting Islamic and Christian holy sites to halt the revolution and shift… the pressure from the government to sectarian conflict.”

Nada Nassef, a Lebanese political activist, has participated in the protests since October. She told The Media Line that a June 6 call to resume the demonstrations “was accompanied by new demands to disarm Hizbullah,” something that “fostered division” and encouraged early elections.

“I believe that these demands were not sufficiently thought out,” she said.

Nassef notes that protesters originally sought the formation of a government of technocrats and new laws.

“Those laws were supposed to concern the judiciary’s independence, the corrupt use of money and an election law that’s contemporary and meets the aspirations of Lebanese citizens,” she explained.

Adding new conditions, she believes, would just negatively affect the revolution’s basic demands.

“Our demands are clear, especially as the economic crisis has worsened,” she said.

“The fact that political parties have intervened is unacceptable. What has happened is an attempt to bring division back to Lebanon,” she said. “What’s coming next is a revolution of hungry people.”

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