Politics

The Revolution Diaries

An anti-government protester waves a Lebanese flag as he stands on top of a pile of broken tents (by pro-government thugs) on Martyrs’ Square on October 29. Image source: Sam Tarling/Getty Images

At 4 PM on the 29th of October 2019, Saad Hariri resigned as Prime Minister of Lebanon. But how did we get there, and more importantly, where do we go from there? In this post, I follow the Lebanese October Revolution day by day, event by event, trying to decipher how a tax protest grew into a nationwide revolution, brought down a government, shook an entire political class out of its throne, struggled with a counter-revolution, and eventually massively changed the well-established common-sense rules of the Lebanese politics.

I will be updating the post as soon as I can with the political developments as they happen. Post currently updated till the 4th of December 2019-6PM.

Thursday, October 17 – Day 1: The Tax That Broke The Camel’s Back

On the 17th of October, Lebanon was a country on the verge of a financial crisis. A country whose currency had began an unofficial devaluation. A country where bakeries and gas stations had been threatening to go as well as going on strikes for three weeks. A country where wildfires had ravaged what remained of Lebanon’s forests over 48h due to the lack of equipment maintenance. A country that was extremely mismanaged over the past 3 months, and not managed at all for a good duration of the past decade. So when on the 17th of October 2019 news got out that the government was about to add a new tax on Whatsapp voice calls as part of the new austerity measures for the 2020 budget, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and sporadic protests quickly spread across Lebanon, with massive crowds gathering in Beirut, Tripoli, Jounieh, Akkar, and almost everywhere in the country. As scuffles broke out between riot police and a number of protesters in Martyrs’ square in Beirut, bodyguards of education minister Akram Chehayeb fired shots in the air in the evening as they clashed with protesters in Downtown Beirut, only adding fuel to the fire. The importance of that moment came through a photograph, which has since been re-imagined in cartoons, sketches and paintings, in which a Lebanese woman is seen karate-kicking one of Chehayeb’s armed bodyguards in the groin, forcing him away from protesters: What was about to become the 2019 October revolution had just created its first icon. As the protests kept going that night, Chehayeb announced that the schools and universities would be closed on October 18, while minister of telecommunications Mohamad Choucair announced that the Whatsapp tax would not be implemented, as Hariri made it clear that cabinet would meet the next day to discuss reforms.

But it was too little, too late.

Friday, October 18 – Day 2: The Great Strike And The Greater 72 Hours

In a country in which most syndicates are either dysfunctional or under political control, It is not that easy for a strike to work. Yet on the 18th of October 2019, Lebanon woke up for the first time in years to the sight of protesters blocking roads everywhere around the country, from Beirut and its southern and eastern suburbs, to Mount-Lebanon and the Bekaa, to Saida and Tripoli and the North . Tripoli burst in anger when one of the bodyguards of former (pro Hariri) MP Mosbah Ahdab opened fire on protesters, so when news broke out that in the southern districts – unarguably a stronghold of Amal and Hezbollah with up to 90% of votes in approval for their joint lists in the 2018 parliamentary elections – citizens were destroying the offices of Amal and Hezbollah MPs, the decentralized anti-tax movement quickly turned into a national stand by citizens who finally spoke and resisted the oppression of their Zaims. For the first time in the history of Lebanon, an anti-elitist cross-sectarian sentiment had united most of the fragmented country against its leaders.

The strike paralyzed everything around Lebanon, and the fact that the minister of education had postponed classes in universities and schools around the country the night before, made it even more possible for people to participate in the protests. So when anti-riot police were clashing with the protesters in downtown Beirut (and then arresting them before releasing them under pressure the next day), FPM MP for Jezzine Ziad Aswad arrogantly tweeted on the night of the 18th of October that he could now get to his Yacht in Beirut. The FPM had clearly not understood that one of the key catalysts of the protests was the arrogance of a political class that no longer took shame in its mismanagement and institutionalized theft. You can say that Ziad Aswad didn’t eventually get to his Yacht the next day (he afterwards denied its existence), while an anti-Gebran Bassil chant eventually quickly became the unofficial anthem of the protests.

Hariri, who had called for an emergency cabinet meeting that day, eventually cancelled that meeting, and gave a speech from the Grand serail in which he asked the protesters for 72 hours for him and the political parties to find a solution for the crisis. Hariri, in his effort to throw the collective blame on his entire cabinet, indirectly weakened himself as premier by cancelling the cabinet meeting and showing himself as uncomfortable with waves of protests, gave 72 hours of reasons for protesters to stay in the streets – including a Monday, the third day, which was the beginning of another week – and confirmed the inevitable: He made the protests look like a cross-sectarian movement against a coalition of ineffective corrupt Zaims (leaders). The political class could have fought the movement since its beginning by showing them as a protest that was meant for a particular politician/sect or not another, but their choice of holding out together (in the spirit of continuing the status quo of institutionalized stealing) and avoiding sowing sectarianism in their stances (at the very beginning) galvanized the protest and turned it from decentralized riots into a revolution against the entire political class in less than 72 hours – a revolution so decentralized than Lebanese immigrants throughout the world started organizing anti-establishment protests almost everywhere.

Saturday, October 19 – Day 3: Infiltration Through Anti-Resignation And Resignation

Only Geagea, as politically unskilled as he is, quickly saw the danger of uniting the entire political class in the face of widespread popular anger. As a political party, the Lebanese Forces had the least to lose from leaving the coalition: Aside from the symbolic position of deputy PM, they had no real influence in the cabinet: With only 4 votes out of 30 compared to the FPM’s blocking third, it was almost impossible to block any decision from happening especially that Hariri had been getting closer to Bassil in the past couple of months and that it was without any question a pro-Hezbollah cabinet (with pro-Hezbollah ministers – everyone except for occasionally the FM and the PSP, and the LF – accounting for two-thirds of the ruling coalition). It was as well the FPM’s cabinet, with 10 Aounist ministers holding among other portfolios the key ministries of defense and foreign affairs, under the command of Bassil and the supervision of a President who is Michel Aoun himself.

Meanwhile, on the 19th of October, and while pro-Amal thugs where doing their best to squash the protests in the South (mainly in Tyre), Hezbollah’s secretary general finally took a stance from the protests that had been ravaging the country for the past 3 days. In his speech, in which he defended the Lebanese cabinet, he called against its resignation – which was a popular demand from the protesters – while threatening that a new government formation could take time, up to a year or two, trusting the 2018 Hariri cabinet to come up with economic reforms. After all, Hezbollah had not had a cabinet so loyal to him in 6 years, and the party of God had been enjoying that privilege even more through the presence of Hariri as head of the government. In that sense, any blow to the cabinet – be it from the streets or from within – would be seen as a blow to Hezbollah as well as its allies across the political spectrum. In defending the government, Nasrallah’s speech did not resonate well as he put himself in the same ditch as all the political class, standing for its decisions, and undermining all previous statements from Hezbollah that the party of God was doing its best to fight corruption.

Aside from participating in the institutionalized pie-sharing in cabinet, the Lebanese Forces had absolutely no reason to be part of a hostile cabinet – The LF were the only party in cabinet that was so-openly anti-Hezbollah, with the PSP and the FM fluctuating in their stance depending on the situation. So when an anti pie-sharing revolution kept going strong for the third day with blocked roads and more organized protests everywhere in the country, against an officially (after Nasrallah’s speech) Hezbollah-backed cabinet, it was the logical move from Geagea to instruct his ministers in the cabinet to resign from the government on the night of the 19th of October in a bid to gather political support and ride the wave.

Ironically, it would be naive to think that Hezbollah and the FPM did not benefit as much as LF from their resignation. For the Lebanese politicians who had fallen into the trap of finally rightfully showing themselves as single ruling oligarchic class, the official rift in the ruling coalition made it possible for them to finally politicize the protests: The LF would join the revolution in a common goal to bring down the rest of the parties (notably the FPM), and Hezbollah as well as the FPM through their media outlets had finally found a culprit to blame the protests on. As much as it didn’t make sense, OTV as well as other pro-Hezbollah media outlets to pin the entire revolution on the LF, and had found a way to sow discontent between protesters by trying to show it as a pro-Hezbollah vs. anti-Hezbollah issue, reorienting the entire protests into the traditional March 8 vs March 14 divisions. The cyber-war by pro March 8 media outlets that the protesters were mostly LF members trying to weaken the rule of the FPM could now finally make some sense – provided you’re willing to convince yourself that Geagea is able to mobilize tens of thousands of Shias and Sunnis in the Beirut, the Bekaa, the South and the North.

Sunday, October 20 – Day 4: They Say The War Is Over If You Really Choose

Yet again, the late afternoon and night moves by the political class to bicker among themselves on the 19th of October in order to reduce the intensity of the protests were too little and too late, backfiring on the 20th of October. Bolstered by a weak prime minister, a fractured government, the Lebanese forces joining the anti-regime protests, the collapse of the barrier of fear in regions where political repression was previously the norm, the quick and inappropriate return of official (by the anti-riot police in Beirut) and unofficial repression (by pro-Amal thugs in the South) as well as a stupid political class that chose to stick together in literally the only moment when it shouldn’t have, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese abandoned their allegiances to their Zaims and took to the streets of the country to make their voices heard. According to some estimates, the number of Lebanese who mobilized against their leaders in all of the decentralized protests across the country would be more than a million – the largest protests in Lebanese history (at least since 2015). For the first time ever, many Lebanese abandoned their sectarian allegiances and fears that date to the civil war, criticizing the Zaims and the government that represents them all, calling them corrupt, cursing them, and requesting a change in the way the country has been managed for the past 30 years by the establishment.

For the first time in Lebanon’s modern political history, the political class had officially lost its grasp on the people. On the 20th of October 2019, the Lebanese embraced each other and finally ended their leaders’ civil war that has been ongoing since 1975 as well as the artificial peace between the Zuamas that dates to 1990. They say the war is over if you really choose, and on the 17th of October, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese chose to end the war among themselves, a war that has been artificially implemented by their leaders, turning the tables and uniting against the establishment. In less than 4 days, a riot over a Whatsapp tax had somehow turned into an anti-establishment revolution.

Monday, October 21 – Day 5: 72 Hours And 22 Items

Lebanon woke up on the fifth day of the revolution to news of a strike that was still ongoing as well as roads that were still being blocked. The cabinet had probably hoped that a protest fatigue would slowly cripple the strike, but Hariri’s 72 hour deadline only made people mobilize more, and gave everyone an alibi to keep the strike and nationwide protests ongoing for another week. In his speech on Friday, the Prime Minister had indeed made it look as if his resignation was a possibility, encouraging people to protest even more. The absence of any kind of protest fatigue put immense pressure on the cabinet that met for several hours, eventually coming up with a reform paper that Hariri announced on the afternoon of the 21st of October. It included 22 items, with several ones destined to be popular with the masses (such as cutting the salaries of MPs and ministers by 50%, healthcare for the elderly) and others that are far, far from realistic (such as reducing the budget deficit to 0.6% without adding any new taxes), also miraculously coming up with a budget in 72 hours when they had a heavy history of procrastinating for months – The 2019 budget was passed in July, several months after it was supposed to be voted. All in all, the reform package proposed by the cabinet was a farce that was intended to seduce the Lebanese with answers to some popular demands, without proposing any viable solutions (Jad Ghosn’s 15 minute video breaks down how unpractical and unrealistic the reform package is).

If anything, the amount of work the government did and promised to do under pressure made everyone wonder: If so much was done in 3 days and so little time, what on earth has the political class been doing during the past 30 years? In its quest to control popular anger, the establishment had indirectly made everyone realize how powerful the threat of accountability was. So as protesters throughout the country chose to stay in the streets, the revolution had survived another obstacle: False promises.

With the failure of its carrot strategy, the establishment resorted again on the night of the 21st of October to the stick: Videos circulated across social media of men on motorcycles hoisting Hezbollah and Amal Movement flags attempting to infiltrate the protest in Downtown Beirut before the Army stopped them and forced some to flee.

Tuesday, October 22 – Day 6: Pressure From The Banks And On The Media

As the protests and the strike kept going for the 6th day, the country’s banks took the decision to remain closedthey would stay closed until the 31st of October. The rumor on the ground was a major concern that the reopening of the banks would lead many to withdraw their money and a subsequent economic collapse. In practice, however, the closure was an additional pressure tool on protesters who didn’t have an easy access to their finances and who couldn’t get their paychecks. Whether intended or not, the banking closure became yet another useful tool from the establishment to force the people to get out of the streets. For a revolution that blamed Riad Salameh’s Banque du Liban for the financial crisis that led to the protests, it wasn’t perhaps the best idea in the world for the banks to put themselves in the firing line even more: On the 22nd of October, the demonstrations eventually made it to BDL.

But the pressure from the banks was not enough, and the establishment – that effectively controls in a way or another, directly or indirectly every single media outlet out there – decided to take full control of the country’s official news outlet, the National News Agency (NNA), as minister of information Jamal Jarrah of the FM – ironically a ministry his boss took a decision to dissolve only 24 hours earlier as part of his reform package – took the decision of replacing the head of the NNA with a pro-Bassil figure.

Truth be told, the NNA usually never takes sides in the political developments, but is crucial in the objective reporting of the boring stuff (X met Y and Z happened in A). If you’re a politician who’s threatened of being ousted by a revolution, do you really want the people to know that Z is happening in A via the state’s outlets, while your own media outlets are already doing their best to propagate false rumors and discredit the uprising in every single way?

So through misinformation, fake news, different narratives and fear-mongering, the media war on the revolution had officially begun.

Wednesday, October 23 – Day 7: The Great Roadblock Of Jal El Dib

On the 23rd of October, as the strike and the protests were still ongoing, the ruling class took the very intelligent decision of opening the roads by force against the demonstration mid-week instead of letting it die out – mind you, this is sarcasm.

Probably in an attempt to politicize the nature of the protests, two major attempts were made to open roads: The first one was in Zouk – a protest site that had naturally attracted more Lebanese Forces partisans, while the second one was in Jal El Dib, a protest site that had naturally attracted more Kataeb partisans (due to its location in the Metn). The protesters, who usually faced off with the ISF and anti-riot police, had this time to deal with the army itself. In Jal El Dib, Sami Gemayel of the Kataeb tried to join the protesters in their quest to keep the road open, while in Zouk, FPM MP Neemat Frem also took to the streets to calm tensions. Both were booed and eventually left the protest site while the protesters had successfully kept the roadblock of Jal El Dib closed. Elsewhere in the south, an attempt to forcefully open a road in Saida led to injuries among protesters.

The decision to open roads only galvanized the protests more, when the strategy of letting them die out on their own was proven to work in August 2015. The move was also another decision by the ruling class to frame the protests as anti-FPM revolution, by focusing on two regions that had a higher LF and Kataeb number of protesters. It was important for the Aounist media to portray the strike and roadblocks as an attempt to undermine them by the LF (who had just resigned from cabinet) and the Kataeb (who have been outside the cabinet since 2016), because the only alternative for the Aounists would be to admit that it was a nationwide revolution against the Ahed (that translates into the “Covenant”, or العهد), the word the FPM uses to represents the rule of Michel Aoun. The FPM had the most to lose from the resignation of the cabinet (10 ministers, key ministries and majority through their allies). The resignation of the government would weaken the FPM and send a message that three years into the Ahed, they had failed and were directly responsible for a failure that they only had recently enabled but that the entire political class was to blame for. The resignation would also weaken Bassil – who infamously became one of the major symbols of the revolution through the trademark Helahelaho chant – at a time when Bassil had recently intended to go to Syria to do presidential business, hoping to replace his father in-law after Aoun leaves power. Which is why, on the night of the 24th of October, when pro-Aoun and pro-FPM thugs attacked protesters in Mazraat Yachouh, it was a survival instinct of safeguarding the political gains they had accumulated over the past decade. For the LF and the Kataeb, participating in the demonstrations was not only an opportunity to ride the wave of the revolution, it was also an opportunity to thwart Bassil’s plan and undermine him, while on the other side of the political spectrum, the presence of Kataeb and LF partisans among protesters (even if modest) was increasingly invested to discredit the revolution in the Aounist media by unrightfully trying to portray it as an FPM vs LF-Kataeb struggle when it was crystal clear from the first day that the main slogan of the protests was “كلن يعني كلن” (roughly translated to: All politicians means all politicians are responsible).

That slogan had to be broken down by the establishment for it to be able to recycle itself into power, so on the same day the roadblock of Jal El Dib was being forced open, Mount Lebanon prosecutor Ghada Aoun gave the political class a major scapegoat for them to point fingers at, pressing charges against former prime minister Najib Miqati, 63, his son Maher and his brother Taha, as well as against Bank Audi, for illicit enrichment. One week later, State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat would take disciplinary action against Aoun, urging security institutions not to refer cases to her anymore, due to Aoun “overstepping the prerogatives of the state prosecutor”.

Can you truly scapegoat someone if the entire class is scapegoat-able herd?

Thursday, October 24 – Day 8: The President Awakens

While Bassil had tweeted and publicly spoken for the last time on the 18th of October, and Hariri had promised and delivered his 22-item reform plan, the president had not yet given a speech or spoken to the people. So when the President finally addressed the protesters who were still forcing a strike through protests and roadblocks across the country, on the 8th day of nationwide demonstrations, the end result not only was a failure – it was a badly edited failure. For the FPM, a party that has been building its entire legitimacy on the presence of a “strong President” in Baabda palace, the idea that the president couldn’t give (too ill? too old?) a 15-line speech and that it had to be 8 days late, prerecorded, postponed for 2 hours, while being edited in a very bad way in order to hide that fact, put the FPM in a very bad position.

In his speech, the President used a very old tactic by the establishment, and asked representatives of the protesters to head to Baabda in order to negotiate their demands. That move was naive, but also smart. It was naive in the sense that it sounded like the members of the ruling parties were disconnected from reality: Never in the history of Lebanon did we see protests so decentralized, and yet the cabinet insisted that representatives head and negotiate – something that was not only unnatural in the spirit of the decentralized revolution, but also impossible to do. There was not one leader, not even thousands.

However, in his speech, Aoun’s call for a meeting was a smart way of making it look like the responsibility of figuring things out regarding the next steps and a transitional period – solely the responsibility of those in power – was now the responsibility of those revolting on the very people in power. In this osmosis, the establishment had rid itself of the burden of solving the problem and had requested from the people on the ground that they represent themselves: In that trap, it would be easier for the government and the ruling parties to decapitate a revolutionary command council by pressuring it, declaring a media war on it, and gaining leverage over some of it members, than it would be to do a systematic repression against hundreds of thousands protesting in decentralized regions across the country.

All in all, it was not ideal to shoot, prerecord and edit an old President’s speech in the middle of a revolution, and it put the government, the President, and the establishment they represent in a very weak position, galvanizing yet again protesters – who were now asking for the government’s resignation more than ever – and indirectly pushing them to stay in the streets yet again in the middle of a mid-week. Was it really that difficult to let the movement die out on its own?

Friday, October 25 – Day 9: Blame The Embassies

Since the President’s speech was an outstanding failure, Hezbollah SG Hassan Nasrallah decided to take the matter in his own hands in order to try to save the situation. As scuffles in Riad El Solh erupted between protesters and loyalists to Hezbollah who got angry when they realized that a revolution that was supposed to criticize all the political parties also included Hezbollah, Nasrallah gave a speech that was decisive in its stance regarding the revolution: He accused it of being funded by embassies, warned of a political void in case the government collapsed, saying he won’t accept any resignation of the government (basically forbidding its resignation), warned of a civil war, while also using the FPM’s same tactic of asking for the protesters to send representatives, finally calling upon the pro-Hezbollah demonstrators who had infiltrated the protest an hour earlier to leave.

The core of the speech, one must say, was rich in hypocrisy: can you really blame embassies when you’re funded by Iran? And can you really scare people from a political void when it was Hezbollah as well as the FPM who blocked the 2014 Presidential elections and kept Lebanon for more than 2 years under a caretaker government for the sole narcissistic purpose of electing Michel Aoun as President? Do you really want the decentralized protests to send representatives when you couldn’t agree as a political class on your own representatives in the government for months every time a government has to be formed? Can you really scare people from a Civil War that can happen when you’re the most armed party in the country?

However, in the establishment’s 9 day struggle to stop the ongoing wheel of the revolution, this was the first serious attempt at containing the protests. By sending its men to Riad El Solh and pulling them out within hours, Hezbollah tried to make it look among its Shiite electorate – that had been extremely active in the first days of the revolution – that the protests were destined against it, while warning – as the sole party who has so much guns – of a civil war that can degenerate from the revolution.

It was a double threat from Hezbollah, the first destined to its popular base, the other to everyone else: Nasrallah wanted to portray the revolution as a foreign conspiracy destined to bring down a government, sink Lebanon yet again in political deadlock, and threaten its stability. But in adopting that narrative, Hezbollah put itself in a very vulnerable position – it was embracing and defending the entire political class with its corruption, its dealings and its failure. Instead of simply ignoring the revolution and staying on the side (while fueling rumors that it is being supported by Hezbollah, thus discrediting the revolution in lots of regions), Nasrallah made the same strategic mistake the political class did the first 48 hours, and showed yet again the political class as a unified force in the face of a decentralized population sick of them. Except this time, he had the Lebanese Forces outside the government, so the impact of his speech was not so bad for the political class who could eventually invest it and portray the events in the country as a Hezbollah-LF (M8/M14) clash, which is exactly what started to happen – even if at a small scale – for the next few days.

Saturday, October 26 – Day 10: What Is Normalcy?

On the 26th of October, the most predictable thing in the world happened (and for all the obvious reasons in the world): Geagea decide to invest in Nasrallah’s pro-government speech by criticizing the government on Twitter. Meanwhile, and as protests were raging across the country, a big security meeting was being held in Yarzeh. It was a Saturday, and after an entire week loaded with strikes, nationwide roadblocks, and protests, the government had to prepare in advance for the second week of protests that was about to start on Monday: If they could stop the roadblocking on the very first day of the week and force things to go back to “normal” on a Monday, they would effectively kill the momentum for good and burn out the movement.

In Beirut, protesters returned to block a key bridge, “the Ring” ( Officially, the Fouad Chehab bridge) linking east and west Beirut after police had forcibly opened it in the morning. The symbolism of the ring, a major road connecting the eastern and western parts of Beirut, was crucial: What was 30 years ago the demarcation line between the Muslim and Christian parts of the city was now being blocked for exactly the opposite purpose: A symbolic unity of the city against those who used it as a fuel in their civil war feud.

Sunday, October 27 – Day 11: The Patriarch And The Human Chain

The 11th day of the popular uprising was a Sunday, and that meant two things: That the patriarch was going to talk, and that the people would be more free than usual to participate in protests. So as the Lebanese were forming a symbolic 171 Km human chain from Tyre to Tripoli, the patriach had spoken in favor of the revolution, calling on officials to listen to the people’s demands and their uprising “before it’s too late”, while also indirectly asking the protesters to unblock the roads by asking them “to facilitate the movement of people”. 4 days earlier, on the 23rd of October the Patriarch had given a much more ambiguous stance, endorsing the reforms by the government but also calling for more administrative changes, a statement that came after MP Ibrahim Kanaan of the FPM had visited the Patriarch in the morning.

Meanwhile at the ring, protesters had taken back control of the bridge after it was forced open during the morning, and in Tripoli – site of the biggest demonstrations in the country in Al-Nour squarewhere the army clashed in Baddawi with groups of people the day before, the protests where still going strong despite the recent events. The revolution wasn’t ending anytime soon.

Monday, October 28 – Day 12: The Lords Of The Ring

And indeed, the revolution was not going anywhere. Lebanon woke up on the second Monday of the revolution to roadblocks and protests everywhere across the country. While protesters parked their cars on the highways to prevent any possible forceful opening of the roads, in the Ring, protesters who retook control of the bridge decided to furnish it instead. The government had probably put faith on the rainy end-of-the-month Monday to induce protest fatigue across the country – inspired by the sandstorm that killed the momentum of the 2015 trash crisis protests, but for some reason this time, the revolution no longer cared about the weather.

So as the government was still trying to figure out how it was going to open the roadblocks without aggravating the status quo even more, news broke out that Riad Salameh – who had been the target of several protests happening next to the central banks – had warned on CNN that the economic situation was going to collapse soon in case no solution was found soon. What was supposed to be a pro-government statement intended to convince people that they should avoid protesting in order to save their economy, the godfather of the great Ponzi scheme of the finances of Lebanon had generated more panic regarding the economic situation, indirectly fueling the protests even more, and eventually had to go on record again in the same day and clarify his comments to calm down the panic regarding the Lira.

Tuesday, October 29 – Day 13: The Sack Of The Tents

So as the establishment was running out of excuses and alibis to convince the protesters to open the roadblocks and end the demonstrations on the 13th day of protests, the pro-Hezbollah minister of health took it upon himself to invest in public health in the name of the counter-revolution, announcing on Tuesday morning that pharmacies and health centers are running out of vaccines and essential medicines, spreading fake news that doctors are being prevented from getting to work and are often being asked to pay a “kickback” of between $3 to $50 to pass roadblocks, adding that local medicine factories are unable to produce the required quantities of drugs because employees are unable to get to work, and that the closure of banks had led to medicines being held at customs, with importers lacking the cash to pay duties on medical supplies. What the minister of health forgot to say is that the imminent crash of the financial sector due to the corruption and the years of mismanagement by the powers that be, would harm the patients more than any of the above: Over the last few months, dealers who bought wheat, medicine, medical equipment, and fuel in dollars and sold them in liras, were facing challenges in securing enough dollars at the official price from the banks to pay for their purchases

As rumors started flying by noon that Hariri was on the verge of finally resigning after 13 days of protests targeting his cabinet, hundreds of organized, pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal thugs – most certainly acting by orders of their superiors, headed to the peaceful roadblock of the ring, clashed with protesters, opened the first side of the road, before heading to the close-by Riad El Solh, Azarieh square, and Martyrs square, wreaking systematic havoc in half an hour, injuring protesters, and destroying the tents that demonstrators had set up to discuss the revolution, its goals and how to prepare for the next steps. The thuggish, unsolicited, unjustified, orchestrated, organized and planned destruction and violence on peaceful protesters – under the eyesight of a police force that enabled it and did not make a single arrest – on the 29th of October 2019 at 1PM – arrogantly in plain sunlight, by people who self-anointed themselves as judges, juries and executioners of a popular uprising, summed up the entire revolution in 1 hour. This was a fight against an oppressive regime that could not even see its opponents discussing an alternative and that was so thuggish and corrupt that it chose to resort to organized fascist violence and take the country into a civil war instead of giving up power or even staying neutral towards protesters.

And the misinformation and brainwashing by the pro-establishment media was massive. For Al-Manar – Hezbollah’s mouthpiece, what was unarguably the most violent thuggish behavior since the battles of May 2007 was considered to be a courageous act by “locals” who were removing “bandits” in order to end the crisis.

But there was only one bandit in the equation. This was a political class that closed banks, threatened with medication availability, sowed sectarian discontent, created a sham reform paper, threatened a civil war, created a false unconstitutional notion of political void, used state institutions to their own ends, and finally made use of fascist organized violence for no other reason than protect its collective institutionalized theft and illegitimate rule.

No one will ever truly know what the evil mastermind plan was. All we know is that two hours after the sack of the tents, Hariri resigned from his position as Prime-Minister.

No one will ever know what Berri and his allies were thinking when the green light was given to destroy and assault the protest sites. Was it a show of force, a message to Hariri who was about to resign? Was it an attempt to prevent him from resigning? Was it their way of showing their negotiation card in the next government? Was it a message to the protesters to stop? Was it a message to the electorate that they would resort to violence if a voice of dissent would be heard again? Was it their way of sending and spreading vibes that this was a Sunni-Shia struggle and not an establishment-revolution one? Perhaps it was all those reasons at the same time, or perhaps it was the establishment’s way of dealing with things the only way they know how to do things: Through threats, violence, and blood.

Wednesday, October 30 – Day 14: The True Conspiracy Of Lebanese Politicians

For the past 13 days, Lebanon’s media outlets, high on fake news and clickbaits, have been circulating lots of conspiracy theories regarding the uprising and its “true” motives.

But the only true conspiracy was the burden that was the ruling political class. With the resignation of Hariri from the cabinet, the establishment, that has never been that weak, found an amazing opportunity to invest in sectarian discontent. Fueled by a near-total media blackout on ongoing protests , pro-Hariri protests that happened the night of the resignation throughout the country, and fake news circulating on Whatsapp – Ironically the very Whatsapp they intended to tax that started the uprising in the first place, news broke out that clashes between protesters (Some of them who were pro-Hariri supporters) and armed forces were happening throughout the Sunni areas in the country, 24 hours after the (Sunni) Prime Minister had resigned. Together with Hezbollah and Amal’s raid on the tents in Beirut one day earlier, the establishment was making it look like a Sunni-Shia clash was the reason behind the government collapse, distorting the true nature of the uprising, and using what was always known to be Lebanese politician’s last resort: Sectarianism. Through fake news, media blackout and hate, there was a quick attempt by the establishment to portray the Sunni regions – key in the downfall of Hariri through major protests in Tripoli and Saida – as regions now protesting in favor of Hariri, when it was crystal clear from the first day that the uprising was on Hariri as much as it was on anyone else. The pro-Hariri propaganda would argue that it was a conspiracy to remove Hariri, the Sunni strongman, from power, while keeping Berri and Aoun in place.

In what was probably an emotional catharsis and a survival instinct, people across the country, from the Ring intersection in Beirut to the Northern suburb of Jal El Dib, re-blocked the roads they had opened earlier that day in solidarity with Akkar. And so it was that on the night of the 14th day of the revolution, the counter-revolution finally revealed itself in full force. The counter-revolution’s plan of using the government’s collapse to split anti-government protesters into two camps had quickly fallen apart, but its true spirit remained: This would be the political class’s preferred choice of action to eventually kill off the momentum that has been miraculously ongoing for the past 14 days.

For Hariri, the resignation was a sign of weakness but was also a political investment in his future. By choosing to be the one who overthrows a government in which his party doesn’t control the majority, he manages (at least tries) to portray himself as a victim from the political class, as well as picturing himself as a “Sunni champion” who brought down the Pro-Hezbollah government despite the violence in Martyrs’ square. For Hezbollah, and the rest of their March 8 allies, the resignation of Hariri could now be portrayed as declaration of political war among their electorate: It was not your regular-day-protesters who brought it down, but a conspiracy – an act of political defiance by Hariri – to weaken Hezbollah inside the state by overthrowing their government when Nasrallah had made it clear a couple of days earlier that the government’s resignation was unacceptable.

All in all, fueling Sunni-Shia tensions by trying to make the resignation look as a conspiracy against Sunnis (for Hariri) or Shias (for Amal and Hezbollah) or Aoun (for Aounists – although Aounism is not an official religion, yet) benefited all the powers that be in Lebanon.

For Lebanon’s Muslim ruling parties, the events that happened during the afternoon of the 29th of October and the nights of the 29th and the 30th were also a political message to everyone in the country and across the political spectrum: They might have lost a government, but both were still strong enough to mobilize against each other and the revolution. In a way, it was a strengthening of the negotiation card related to their participation in the next cabinet.

Thursday, October 31 – Day 15: Sometimes Bad Things Happen

For Lebanon’s biggest Christian party, however, they had not yet given a full show of force. Gebran Bassil, infamous scapegoat of the protests, had not spoken since the 18th of October, while the President – his father-in-law – had only spoken once, making things worse with his badly edited prerecorded speech.

So on Thursday the 31st of October, on what was supposed to be the third anniversary of Aoun’s election, and as they were preparing for a massive pro-Ahed counter protest in Baabda on Sunday, the FPM started their own counter-revolution: President Michel Aoun gave his second speech related to the revolution, a speech that was supposed to resonate with the FPM defectors who had recently left the ranks of the Aounists to join with the anti-government protesters. In his speech, Aoun – standing on foot in order to squash the rumors of ill-health that went viral after his edited speech was published at the start of the protests – started by boasting his achievements during the past three years: Budgets were voted, a new electoral law was created, parliamentary elections were held, and appointments were made. After carefully explaining to the Lebanese that he actually did his job and making the Lebanese feel guilty that they aren’t being thankful enough that the bare minimum was done, Aoun proceeded to endorse many demands of the protesters, such as a government made of technocrats and the migration from a sectarian system to a civil one, while asking the protesters to help him pressure the parliament into passing reforming laws.

There were however four problems with Aoun’s speech. First, it had the traditional Bassilic trademark of sowing sectarian fears by reorienting any discussion into a refugee-themed one, as Aoun ended his talk by discussing – out of the blue – the issue of refugees and their impact, building on Nasrallah’s second speech and trying to portray the revolution as a conspiracy by foreign powers to punish Lebanese politicians who had refused that the Syrian refugees (who are Sunnis in their majority) be permanently settled in the country. Second, by asking protesters to help him pressure parliament to vote reformative bills, Aoun had admitted that he was a weak President – contrary to the entire propaganda the FPM had been trying to portray for years. Third, that request was also filled with hypocrisy: Aoun effectively had the third of the cabinet under his direct command and could also summon a majority in parliament through the network of alliances he had built throughout the years. So there was truly no need for political pressure from protesters to help him pass any laws – if his intentions were so true, especially that he was the one who refused to sign the last reformative bill that made it to the floor and sent it back into the parliament. Fourth, the president had truly not understood what the revolution was about: People wanted a clear-cut plan, and the only things that were being presented were empty promise. Even for a technocratic government, what is exactly a technocrat? And how does a promise so vague convince people to trust a technocratic minister that can also be someone from the same failing political class?

Aoun’s speech was a farce – and as protesters went back to road-blocking right after the speech (they would go on to open in the next days), it was clearly not popular with everyone. For the FPM, however it was a necessary one as they needed to build up their own momentum for the Sunday protests.

In other words, and to quote minister of interior Raya Al-Hassan’s, “sometimes, you know, bad things happen” . On the 31st of October, the (now) former minister of interior, in an interview with CNN, justified the lack of action by the police to protect protesters from Amal and Hezbollah’s thugs during the last three hours of her effective rule as interior by saying that sometimes, you know, bad things happen. If you can’t apologize or inspire accountability even after you’re removed from power, why would the Lebanese trust you? Sometimes, you know, bad things happen, and at the end of the day, Al-Hassan’s legacy at the ministry of interior will forever be linked to the last bad things that happened under her watch and her failure to protect the citizens she swore to shield from organized crime. At the end of the day, sometimes, you know, bad things happen and the failure of the political class to see that the root of the revolution was a crisis of accountability and a rupture of trust between the people and the powers that be, will be its downfall.

Friday, November 1 – Day 16: Irresponsibility, Guilt, And Paychecks

They say that guilt is a powerful tool. So when Nasrallah gave his third speech since the beginning of the revolution, guilt became the cornerstone of his political argument, after his threats of preventing government to resign failed to materialize. In his speech, Nasrallah said that “there will be no government to address the economic situations and people’s demands will be lost if the caretaking period protracts”. In his own words, Hezbollah’s SG had basically predicted the procrastination that usually comes with forming the governments by the political class, and transferred all the blame from the powers that are actually responsible of forming the next government, to the protesters who had brought down the Hariri cabinet. In Nasrallah’s very psychologically disturbing narrative, any delay in the next government would thus be the protester’s responsibility, assigning the guilt of vacancy to a revolution that had nothing to do with the transfer of powers – strictly the establishment’s responsibility.

Aside from the fact that Nasrallah’s second and third speeches had happened the day after Aoun’s first and second speech – that should give you an accurate idea on who the strongman of the political class is – Nasrallah’s stance was a clarification to Aoun’s vague words 24 hours earlier: There would not be a government without Hezbollah, and any technocratic independent government would thus be a political government that is refurbished to look as a technocratic one.

In his bid to sway Shia protesters away from the anti-government protests, Nasrallah fell into his own trap: First, he criticized “the unprecedented form and amount of cursing”, indirectly justifying the actions of the pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal thugs who had destroyed the tents on the 29th of October and who had previously attacked protesters in the South earlier in October. The ruling class, running out of ideas, now wanted to justify its repression through “politeness”, clearly missing out on the entire idea of the revolution: This was an uprising against the status-quo, an uprising whose highlight was breaking the taboos and the constructed ideas of sanctity of the Zaim. It was a revolution in which everyone broke the fear barrier, in which protesters chanted that the speaker was a thief in his home district of the south, who cursed the foreign minister’s mom, who kept chanting against the Prime Minister until they forced him to resign, who threw bottles and spat on the leaders who tried to hijack their protests. It was a revolution based on freedom of speech and all that Nasrallah thought to do to stop it was to ask protesters to curse less.

Second, Nasrallah, in his attempt to keep the people benefiting from Hezbollah’s clientelist policies under his wing, assured to the people “that if the country fell into chaos and it couldn’t pay salaries, Hezbollah could still do”. With one single sentence, Nasrallah had destroyed the entire speech of his ally Michel Aoun, anticipating a collapse of a state the President had tried so much to emphasize its importance 24 hours earlier, and publicly taking pride in the clientelist model of his party in the middle of an anti-clientelist revolution. Out of his three miscalculated speeches, Nasrallah’s third speech was a disaster. A disaster so big that Nasrallah, who had warned the government that it couldn’t resign only a week earlier, announced that “Hezbollah was never in control of any government” while it was a general truth that the council of minister had never been so Pro-Hezbollah in years, unless Hezbollah considers Amal, the FPM and all of the rest of its partners in government rivals. Such was the power of the revolution, that it made Hezbollah abandon a government it worked 8 months to create (with two-thirds of the members direct allies of Hezbollah), fiercely defended for 14 days during the uprising, before eventually giving up any association with it, and discrediting all the influence it had with it. In less than a week, and as the banks were opening their doors for the first time in half a month and the protests where still ongoing (at a much slower pace though), the revolution had forced Lebanon’s most powerful man to renounce the King’s jewel – The 2019 Hariri cabinet.

Saturday, November 2 – Day 17: The Long Wait For The New Cabinet Begins

The second of November was a Saturday – and it was as slow as the parliamentary consultations to name the next Prime minister. It has been three full days since the government resigned, and the President had still not called upon MPs to choose the next Prime minister, with rumors around the country estimating the consultations to happen by the beginning of the following week.

Truth be told, the political class not only was in a weak position due to the decentralized protests, it was also confused by the rapidity of events, and pressured to take fast decisions it had previously taken months to come up with. In the revolution, the ruling parties found another major rival than the ones they already had among each other, and that rival was much more dangerous: It was headless – making it immune to taming, it was immense – making it immune to bribes, it was spontaneous – making it unpredictable and a threat to everything and anyone, and it was decentralized – making it immune to control by a government that only knew centralization and parties that only knew their home districts.

More than everything, the October uprising had brought a new element into the game Lebanese politicians had been masterfully playing for decades – the element of time. Known for its months-long procrastination, it was now expected from the political class (and its business partners) to designate and form a cabinet in an extremely short period of time, both to secure the financial stability – the dollar being exchanged in the black-market at 1660LBP on Friday – and to (at least try to) control popular anger. But it was a regime that invested in lengthy negotiations, and not in getting things done. When the first weekend of November came to an end without the President calling for parliamentary consultations, it was clear more than ever that the powers that be did not yet understand the purpose of the revolution: The people wanted to get things done, when the only thing the Zuamas still cared about was names and pie-sharing.

Saturday also marked a shift in the tactics of the protesters: As protesters stopped blocking roads (a method that the political class heavily criticized and used against them – ignoring that the revolution was also about civil disobedience, and resorting to a blame-shame game of protesters blocking roads), they would now start targeting the dysfunctional institutions they blamed for the crisis, also pranking politicians: While protesters made their voices heard inside the Association of Banks in Lebanon , calls for what turned to be a mock protest in front of Nabih Berri’s headquarters in Ain El Tineh generated panic as security forces as well as Pro-Amal supporters and thugs (who braced themselves for a second round after the 29th of October) rushed to secure the place from the protesters who never came. The revolution was everywhere, and it was unpredictable…even for the political genius who is Nabih Berri.

Sunday, November 3 – Day 18: Only the Counter Revolution Counts

The delayed parliamentary consultations were also a political maneuver more than anything else. Now that Hezbollah, Amal, and the FM had established their political existence in the country earlier that week, it was up to Lebanon’s most popular Christian party to establish dominance. After several days of preparations, the third of November was supposed to be the FPM’s glory day as thousands of pro-Aoun protesters gathered in Baabda. It was (1) the FPM’s own way of discrediting the revolution by showing that they too, could get large people to protest in favor of the FPM, and (2) the FPM’s way of negotiating their share in the next cabinet by correlating their parliamentary power to a popular base that they were so weak they felt compelled to prove to everyone that it still existed.

In every possible way, the FPM’s move was filled with high-quality political stupidity. By trying through their media outlets to showcase the demonstrators strictly “as LF thugs”, then by finally massively mobilizing against the anti-establishment protests, the FPM (as well as Hezbollah through its stances) had taken the LF’s bait and showcased itself as the symbol of the establishment they were the most recent to join, putting themselves first in the firing line and making it look as if the FPM were the ones who were defending the same people who used to be their bitter rivals only years ago and whose participation in the establishment dates to the 90s and is arguably more rooted and rotten (PSP, FM, Amal).

Also building on the President’s request earlier in October to lift the secrecy of the politicians’ bank accounts, FPM officials paraded the protests they organized with the announcements that they had lifted the secrecy of their bank accounts. In theory, the decision was meant to be a popular one, but in practice, there was a popular understanding by now that lifting the account secrecy was an empty decision as it didn’t cover every other possible way to launder the corrupted money that never made it into an account. The FPM had finally understood that this was a crisis of trust, but they were massively outrun by the revolution as the standards for accountability were now much higher than simply lifting the secrecy on some bank accounts.

The FPM’s maneuver was an utter failure: They mobilized on a Sunday, hoping to attract the biggest number of supporters to Baabda, only provoking literally everyone else, indirectly swelling every single other protest site in the country, where tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the establishment and its now self-made head (who brought this on himself), Michel Aoun. At every crossroad since the 17th of October, the FPM could have hijacked the revolution for their own purpose and showcased themselves as reformers who stood by the people, yet they chose to keep their political gains, when March 8 forces could have easily used the opportunity to ride the wave and form a majority government – they have both the parliament and the weapons.

Not only did the FPM put themselves in a delicate situation, but by mobilizing against the anti-government demonstrations, they also had effectively put to death any positive impact the President’s seemingly reformative plan 3 days earlier would have had on the protesters in the streets. How can you trust a president who endorsed the protesters’ demands and then mobilized against them less than 72 hours later? How can the president say out loud “I love everyone, everyone means everyone”, hijacking the anti-government protesters’ main chant and turning it against them, while also letting his son-in-law, Bassil – the infamous icon of the revolution – give a speech for the first time since the 18th of October from the Baabda Palace, when he had called for unity days earlier?

In Bassil’s totally disconnected-from-reality speech, he announces that the people had turned the table like he had previously instructed them to do, but fails to see the inevitable: The revolution had essentially turned the table on him and his government.

Monday, November 4 – Day 19: ًTeChNo-PoLiTicS

On the third Monday of the revolution, the momentum might have been high again – forcing telecom minister Choucair to change the prepaid recharge cards’ pricing from Dollars to LBP, but only one thing was higher: Walid Joumblatt’s political opportunism. The PSP leader had taken his time, bit it was now his moment to shine. As roadblocks were being set up again in the usual places, the Chouf – Joumblatt’s home district – became suddenly increasingly invested in the developments, with roadblocks being set up in some regions of the Chouf that had not seen any protesting activity before that day. It might have been possible that the setting up of some of those roadblocks has been facilitated/instructed by the PSP. After Tuesday’s sack of the tents (Amal, Hezbollah), Wednesday’s late-night events (FM), Sunday’s Baabda protest (FPM), it was now time for the PSP to prove that it still politically existed, and that it too, could control the streets.

Out of all politicians, only Joumblatt had the good political reflexes at the start of the revolution, alledgedly calling Hariri and asking for him to resign. Had Hariri, his FM ministers, the LF and the PSP resigned, they would have made it look as if March 14 forces brought down the government of the March 8 coalition with the help of the streets and protests that were heavily raging in Shiite areas too, successfully hijacking and riding the wave of the revolution, massively sending their people to help and organize in the protests and eventually using the big demonstrations of the 20th of October as a winning card. For some reason (Hezbollah pressure?), neither Hariri nor Joumblatt himself listened to Joumblatt and they did not invest in the LF resigning from the cabinet on the night of the second day of the uprising, missing out on a crucial political opportunity. Once again, the political class – clever masterminds of their own continued presence in power since 1990 – had surprisingly missed out on every crucial crossroad to kill the revolution: Power eventually makes you blind.

Meanwhile behind closed doors, Hariri and Bassil had a 4-hours meeting on Monday, in which – one would assume – they discussed the name of the next Prime Minister as well as the details of the next government formation. Anti-establishment protesters on the ground had made it clear they wanted a government made of “technocrats” unrelated to the political class, but the counter-revolution that began on the 29th of October made it clear that the powers that be were not going to leave the executive power, and a new concept was being floated in the weird world of Lebanese politics: A government that would be a mix between technocrats and politicians so that ruling parties would keep an eyesight on the ongoing businesses, orchestrating their slow inevitable comeback into the Lebanese council of ministers. The Lebanese media, who gets high on terminology, started calling it “techno-politics”. There was no DJ to entertain Hariri and Bassil, but they were most certainly entertaining the entire country with speculations of techno-politics being cooked up. And as if Lebanese politicians needed one more thing to increase pressure on them, news broke out that the U.S. were freezing military aid to Lebanon.

Tuesday, November 5 – Day 20: Shifting Tactics

24 hours later after the protests in the Chouf had suddenly increased in intensity and frequency, Walid Joumblatt quickly did quality control to avoid the protests eventually going out of control and backfiring against him, tweeting that some things in the Chouf were red lines for protesters, such as a statue in Baakline. Joumblatt had to quickly contain the protests, and in his use of a Civil War memorial building, found a smart way to calm the tensions that he might had instigated a day earlier for political gains.

Elsewhere north, the roadblocks of Jal El Dib and some roadblocks northern Mount-Lebanon – heavily invested by the LF and Kataeb – were once again set up by protesters. The LF and the Kataeb were probably sending the same message Joumblatt was, and in the exact same way (talk about the creativity of Lebanese politicians). It was a proof of existence from the LF and the Kataeb to be used as a negotiation card for the next cabinet. The speed and relative swiftness in which those roadblocks across the country were opened later that day by the army could also be a hint of political use of the revolution’s methods for the counter-revolution to do its own bidding. It was also a sign that the establishment had finally adapted to the revolution’s tactic of closing roads – even using the decentralization and leaderless-ness of the revolution in order to endorse it for its own ends.

So as the counter-revolution finally adapted, the unpredictable revolution changed its tactics.

Always remember, remember, the 5th of November, the day protesters gave up on the roadblocks (that the pro-establishment media had been criticizing in their media war), and eventually re-oriented the demonstrations into decentralized precision moves destined to cripple the country’s universities as well as dysfunctional or corrupt institutions, closing or protesting in front of Banks, Banque du Liban, Electricite du Liban, telecom companies, among other state owned facilities throughout the country. In the pro-media outlets, journalists sympathizing with the revolution started resigning en masse.

Meanwhile among the ruling political class, a new tactic was being implemented. The powers that be were playing the time card, as Aoun still hadn’t called for parliamentary consultations even one full week after Hariri had resigned. Calling for the consultations without having already figured out every single detail related to the cabinet would mean that the ruling parties will have to bicker and jockey among themselves in public, weakening each other as well as their collective position regarding the protesters, the last thing they would want at this moment, whereas agreeing to everything among themselves behind closed doors made much more sense now that every single one of the ruling parties had made its own strength parade.

The problem with the behind-the-scenes pre-consultations decisions is that they effectively stripped the next Prime-Minister designate of his authorities to choose (or at least have the illusion of choosing) his own government, unofficially distributing it on the Zuamas of the country, who were now negotiating among themselves on an entire package once and for all (Prime Minister, ministers, ministerial declaration, next steps), instead of doing things – like the constitution advises you to do – one step at a time. But for the counter-revolution, there was no time for the constitution: They could no longer afford to publicly bicker among themselves – Even though Claudine Aoun, the daughter of the President and wife of a Aounist MP and former general Shamel Roukoz, publicly criticized Gebran Bassil, her sister’s husband, for his show of force on Sunday. All in all, it was a nice show of inter-nepotist fighting for the revolution to enjoy, especially after Roukoz and Neemat Frem had resigned and (theoretically) defected from the FPM’s bloc during the first days of the uprising.

As Moody was downgrading Lebanon’s rating to Caa2, news broke out that the financial prosecutor Ali Ibrahim was suing the CDR as well as several firms and an ex-minister for negligence and corruption. The political class needed to buy time, and there was no better way to calm the streets than to send a message that the judicial authorities are becoming functional again.

Wednesday, November 6 – Day 21: Are They Really Binding Consultations If They Do Not Exist?

In the true correct universe of Lebanese politics, the plan of the political class to form the next government (or at least to choose the next Prime Minister) outside the framework of the constitution (Before calling for parliamentary consultations) could have caused sectarian tensions as it would have been politically used by Sunni figures to portray it as a violation of the Sunni Prime Minister’s authority of forming the government. But the correct universe of Lebanese politics had died on the 17th of October, and this was a entirely different playground, so the establishment did not eventually really care about the mechanics as much as it wanted to let the protests die out on their own without triggering another revolution with a controversial government formation. So instead of playing the usual cat-and-mouse game regarding the authorities of the Prime-Minister designate, Saad Hariri was reportedly quoted saying that the unofficial consultations were only regarding the name of the next Prime Minister, did not include the formation, and were not an assault on the authorities of the PM designate to form the cabinet. Even in his modest attempt to reestablish a little bit of the political dominance he lost within his Sunni electorate, Hariri fell into his own trap of sectarianism, spreading rumors that the off-label behind the scenes discussions that have now been happening FOR 9 DAYS were only about the name of the next Prime-Minister, and not even about the formation of the next cabinet. Do you really want to convince the people who overthrew you for incompetence that the sole choice of the name of the next Prime Minister did not yet materialize in 9 days? How politically naive can the establishment be?

How politically naive can the establishment be to plead for the unconstitutional ways of forming a government outside a constitutional platform, before eventually hinting at the inefficacy of the method, in the middle of a financial crisis and a revolution fueled by anger over governmental incompetence?

Truth be told, the revolution had changed its ways, but it was yet to lose momentum despite the stalling in government. On the 6th of November, and as part of a response to a provocative decision by a school official – a pro-Aoun nun – to punish pro-revolution school students, thousands of students across the country protested in schools and universities. For some reason, the establishment was still not convinced that letting the protests die out on their own in the cold rain of November was an option – they somehow had to be provocative in every single possible way. By the 6th of November, the only conspiracy keeping the revolution as active was its same trigger: The arrogance, political incompetence of the ruling class and its partners across the country.

Meanwhile elsewhere in the country, and while the counter-revolution was figuring out innovative ways of opening roads, this time through a lawsuit from FPM lawyers calling on the public prosecutor to take appropriate action against protesters for “infringement of freely moving across the country … and causing material and moral damage to citizens”, the uprising had completed its tactical shift from roadblocks and barricades to an increased targeting of state (judicial, telecom, public) institutions as well as illegally built resorts. Pot-banging on balconies and in demonstrations also became a way of protesting – through noise and a collective public action – against the status quo and the powers that be.

Thursday, November 7 – Day 22: Amnesty And Scapegoats

On the 22nd of the uprising, the establishment spread the news that a parliamentary session scheduled 1 week later, on Tuesday the 12th of November, was intended to vote four “reform” laws on its agenda: A draft law on fighting corruption, a law establishing a court for financial crimes, a law to create an elderly pension system, and a law for a general amnesty (intended for petty and drug and non-violent crimes) . The parliamentary session was also unconstitutional as it was programmed to happen with no cabinet in power, during a period in which parliament was supposed to legislate a budget before anything else. The political class, in its quest to calm down the ongoing protests, made it look like they were making an effort to give the people anti-corruption and “quality-of-life” measures. In practice, however, the draft laws to be passed on Tuesday would only ameliorate the quality-of-life of politicians: The draft law on fighting corruption is not as practical as the politicians would want you to think, the court for financial crimes would be appointed by the politicians in parliament and government- beating its purpose, and the law for a general amnesty would include a lot of potential crimes related to the finances and to the corruption of the ruling class, while it was yet unclear how the parliament could pull an elderly pension system when the country is on the verge of bankruptcy. The establishment had finally started to build on empty promises, but the promises they intended to deliver were outright bad and were intended to shield them from accountability through amnesty.

Indeed, this was an uprising about accountability, and all the politicians were thinking about was how to pass a general amnesty and create sham judicial authorities and mechanics to pursue them. And the protesters didn’t quite fall for the trap of empty and bad promises: Thousands of school and university students across the country marked the 22nd day of nationwide protests on Thursday morning, marching through the streets and gathering in front of state institutions. The revolution had reached the schools on the 21st and 22nd days, as students went to the streets and protested inside and outside their schools and universities. For the past three weeks, the opening of schools and universities had been a key question in Lebanese politics because it was one of the major determinants of normalcy. If educational institutions can run smoothly, it would be a clear determinant of normalcy, a normalcy that the ruling parties had been craving to come back to for more than three weeks.

When in mid-October, on the first week of the uprising, minister of education Chehayeb asked schools and universities to open (before rapidly backtracking his decision in the same day after it backfired), it was a clear attempt from the establishment to indirectly push the roadblocks to ease by forcing anyone and everyone to go back to the daily routine. So when the schools and universities gradually and finally opened during the third week, the decision from the students who were involved in the uprising to disrupt the functioning of the educational institutions and to bring the revolution with them to classes and outside classes was a spontaneous act that became a major blow to the establishment: The revolution was viral, and the momentum was still high enough (though not as high as the first 10 days) to put enough pressure on the state’s institutions.

And the pressure was high, not only because of the students’ movement. For the past few days, investigative journalists such as Riad Kobaissi of AlJadeed had been leaking and discussing several corruption scandals, putting the Lebanese judicial authorities under immense pressure, and pushing financial prosecutor Ali Ibrahim to order former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to appear for questioning over some $11 billion spent during his term as premier ( a time when the state did not pass budgets), as well as pressing charges against the head of the Flight Safety Department at the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation. Ibrahim – who eventually listened to Siniora’s testimony after the latter had initially refused to meet him – also brought on the 7th of November charges of squandering public money against the infamous pro-FPM Lebanese Customs head Badri Daher. By giving up scapegoats for the sake of ignoring collective corruption, the political class had effectively started to eat each other up, and had indirectly only given a positive reinforcement for the uprising to continue.

In practice however, all the establishment was doing was an attempt to buy time and cover up their ongoing procrastination regarding the next cabinet. Bassil and Hariri had met for the second time this week one day earlier, and it started circulating in the media that the political class was yet to agree on the next steps regarding the new council of ministers. So on the 7th of November, when Hariri met Aoun in Baabda, rumors that have been flying for some time intensified in quantity: It was being circulated that Hariri only accepted to come back as head of a purely technocratic government, while the pro-March 8 politicians wanted him to come back as head of a techno-political government. A new deadlock was taking shape, and the confusion between the different Lebanese politicians could be seen by the fact that they were still discussing the next government behind the scenes and outside constitutional frameworks: The President was yet to call for parliamentary consultations

Friday, November 8 – Day 23: The Great Contradiction

Because the pressure from the streets was too mainstream, the Lebanese political class had to deal with multiple new problems on Friday: As protesters kept their paralysis of state institutions (through protests in front of Electricite du Liban, the education ministry, the port, the justice palaces, among other institutions), hospitals warned that they were going on strike in 7 days (due to the state’s nonpayment), the Lebanese Syndicate of Gas Stations Owners had announced on Thursday that gas stations are about to run out of gasoline very soon due to the U.S. dollar crisis, and last but not least, Civil Defense warned of wildfires – one of the major direct triggers of the revolution – as temperatures rise again 10 degrees more than the yearly average.

The counter-revolution, in its attempt to ethically demoralize the participation of students in protests, decided that the best way to do so was to spread fake news through the National News Agency, claiming that international organizations have warned Lebanon after noticing kids aged 18 and less were taking part in the protests. Remember when the head of the NNA was removed and replaced by a pro-Bassil figure during the first week of protests? Now you know why it happened.

Even with all the pressure by the protests and the country’s institutions, the President still hadn’t called for parliamentary consultations, making it clear that there was a clear problem for the political class. Ironically enough, the March 8 parties insisted that Hariri comes back as Prime Minister, and for several reasons:

(1) The presence of Hariri at the head of the cabinet would justify the presence of high-ranking March 8 politicians in government (such as Bassil and Hassan Khalil), effectively turning any cabinet into techno-political one and not a purely technocratic cabinet, serving the purposes of the March 8 alliances who would see their absence in the next cabinet as a blow to their influence especially that they had won the 2018 parliamentary elections. Thus, the best case for the March 8 parties to form and justify a political cabinet in which they could still exert influence would be by bringing someone who is an unquestionable March 14 figure, bringing more legitimacy to the new cabinet in the progress, and avoiding targeted backlash from protesters and pro-March 14 figures against them if the government has controversial ministers among its members. Ironically, the only way for the FPM to save their Ahed was by bringing back Hariri into the cabinet.

(2) The presence of Hariri at the head of the cabinet would also make it possible for the March 8 parties to scapegoat him in case something (or anything) goes wrong, as it is usually the executive power in Lebanon, and most importantly its head – that takes the blame and is usually accountable for the actions of the entire political class: Between the 2010 and 2019, Lebanon only had 1 parliamentary election while the Prime Ministers resigned or were ousted 4 times. By putting a pro-March 14 figure as head of a March 8 cabinet, March 8 parties get to do as they please while throwing all the blame on another camp in case things go bad – the prime example being Nasrallah denying that the 2019 Hariri cabinet was Hezbollah’s cabinet after Hariri’s resignation on the 31st of October, while his previous speech a week earlier was an outright defense of the government (for the simple reason that it was dominated by Hezbollah’s government).

(3) A political cabinet without Hariri and March 14 parties means that Hezbollah, Amal and the FPM would have to form a one-sided March 8 political (or techno-political) cabinet – since there is a refusal to form a purely technocratic council of ministers by Hezbollah – which would: (a) Anger the initial protesters, (b) anger every other human who still supports the March 14 parties, (c) attract sanctions from the international community while jeopardizing the economy even more under their direct rule (especially that Pompeo had asked Lebanon to dismantle a Hezbollah missile factory on the 6th of November), threatening the availability of the CEDRE funds and thus the worsening of the economic situation, also (d) forcing Hezbollah, the FPM and Amal to assume the responsibilities of anything that can go wrong, economically and financially. It would be pure political insanity for the FPM to include Bassil in a cabinet in which Hariri was not even present. Hezbollah, through the words of Naim Kassem, also insisted on being represented, and the easiest way to justify the presence of Hezbollah ministers would be by choosing Hariri to be Prime Minister

By resigning, Hariri – who had showcased himself as a weak Prime Minister over and over again – had effectively liberated himself from his partners in the previous government while increasing his leverage in power. For all the reasons cited above, Hariri’s alleged insistence on coming back only if he is the head of an independent government of technocrats and not the head of a political or techno-political government is his way of extracting a political victory from his rivals out of what was previously a major defeat (his resignation). In a way, Hariri also needed to come back as Prime Minister for him to save his legacy: His three previous cabinets have been disasters, and if he manages – somehow, somehow – to get Lebanon out of the financial pit it is drowning in, it would save his political career.

Saturday, November 9 – Day 24: The Damned Dam of Bisri

On Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Civil Defense had warned that Lebanon was at great risk for wildfires for the next few days, a wildfire in Debbieh (Chouf) brought bad memories of the huge wildfires that ravaged the country in mid-October. The revolution was also about accountability for the major environmental mismanagement in the country from the electricity and water sector, to systematic deforestation, to trash collection, to the bad dam policies.

The flagship of those dams was the Bisri dam plan. In an valley between Jezzine and the Chouf, the government had planned to build a dam in its ultimate goal to draw water from the Litani river towards Beirut through Bisri and then the coast. The plan to build a dam in Bisri represented everything that was wrong with the establishment’s way of dealing with things: (1) The dam was going to be built in one of the most beautiful valleys of the country, destroying one of the last green havens of Lebanon and massively harming the ecosystem, (2) it was going to destroy several archaeological spots, some of them possibly dating to Roman times, (3) it was going to be built on a land that was geologically not suited to collect water – dooming it to fail, (4) it was also going to be built next to a seismic fault line, Kilometers away from the epicenter of Lebanon’s last major earthquake in 1956, putting the entire area at risk, (5) while the water intended to be drawn from the Litani to Beirut was way too polluted to be used, (6) and while there were other ways to get water supplies into the city. (7) The project was also going to be funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of loans by the World Bank only for those loans to be accumulated as additional debt, and for the political class and its business partners to benefit from getting paid for the construction of the dam.

In theory, it was a major project to draw water to Beirut, but in practice, it was the flagship of how hurtful and poisonous the establishment’s institutionalized corruption can be on the land and the people.

So as protests and demonstrations continued in Beirut (in front of the foreign affairs ministry and in Zeituna), Tripoli, Saida, Tyre, as well as sit-ins in front of government institutions kept happening throughout the country on Saturday, the most symbolic of them all was when locals and protesters organized a demonstration and managed to get into the Bisri valley after it had been closed off for months by the police to allow the government to start with the project.

Meanwhile elsewhere, the political deadlock regarding the next government was becoming more and more clear as the President still hadn’t called for parliamentary consultations. Instead, Aoun presided over a financial meeting that was set up to find solutions to the liquidity crisis in the country. And while the bankers called on the Lebanese not to panic after the meeting, no statement or decision had been communicated, especially that banks had been setting up capital controls ever since they reopened their branches on the third week of protests.

Sunday, November 10 – Day 25: Three Birds, One Parliamentary Session

Sunday was just another regular day in which the President did not call for parliamentary consultations. In fact, and while key party members were still having meetings to discuss the next government formation, the priorities of Lebanese politicians had shifted entirely from designing the shape of the next cabinet to a focus on the legislative session that was scheduled for Tuesday. In holding the legislative session, the political class was trying to hit three birds with one stone:

(1) The legislative session was going to include a general amnesty draft law that would cover many of the corrupt policies taken by Lebanese politicians, up to the 30th of October (practically even covering the sack of the tents in Downtown Beirut on the 29th). The session would also create, through another draft law, a sham judiciary authority supposed to try the political class for their corruption and wrongdoing- an authority made up of judges elected by the very parties in the parliament they are supposed to eventually take to trial. In its own twisted way, the political class would be effectively sending its clearest message to the protesters yet:

“We heard you wanted accountability, and since we sincerely don’t care about you and don’t believe you guys have any power, here is an amnesty law that destroys everything you guys have been asking for since the 17th of October.

Best,

Your politicians

(2) But for the political class to send a message so strong to those who have been challenging its rule for 25 days now, it would have to do it for a greater purpose. For many Lebanese, especially those who have been wrongfully charged, or who have been struggling in the judicial system for drug or petty crimes, amnesty is seen as a solution for their problems. In its very harmful way of bribing a big portion of the population with amnesty – in order to achieve its greater purpose in forgiving its unforgivable crimes, the political class was trying to divide the protesters among themselves. It was a strategy that was not very different from what the parties did before the last parliamentary elections: Bribing people with promises of amnesty in exchange of electoral support. It was a card that politicians were getting ready to use one day, and there was no better time to pass the amnesty law than this November.

(3) Other than the fact that Tuesday’s parliamentary session was supposed to be a show of force, a major bribe, and a mean to turn protesters on themselves, it was also a way for the political class to show that it was not as united as it looked: By sending a controversial bill to the floor, the political parties had found their own way to bicker among themselves, and distract the people from the collective power sharing that has been going on for years. So, when FPM leader Bassil tweeted on Sunday the 10th of November that he was against the amnesty law, he was indirectly sending a message to the people that just like them, politicians disagreed about the law. By correlating their political stances with the potential split on the street, political parties would be able to politicize the protests to their own end and eventually kill them off.

Tuesday’s scheduled parliamentary session was at the same time a farce and bait, and as protests were still happening everywhere across the country on Sunday, the highlight of that day was the massive mobilization taking place to prevent the parliament to meet 48 hours later.

Monday, November 11 – Day 26: Mondays Are for Speeches

The third Monday of the revolution starts, as usual, with economic panic. Many fuel stations had been closed since the weekend due to fuel shortage (linked to the Dollar-Lira crisis), and many more closed on Monday morning. Two days earlier, on Saturday, the financial panic had been going strong as finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil said that the government would delay the repaying of Eurobonds for November and December, quickly reaffirming that the government would pay the Eurobonds on time. So in his goal of ultimately containing the financial crisis once and for all, the governor of the Central Bank Riad Salameh spoke at noon, giving an invite-only press conference in which he denied any decision to change the Central Bank’s currency policies, confirming that the currency peg would remain, no capital controls would be implemented and there would be no haircut on customers’ bank deposits, blaming the political class for the spending. In practice, however, the implementation of a capital control policy on small depositors was already happening while it was being reported in the media that much more money had been allowed to escape from the bigger accounts.

Salameh didn’t even finish his press conference when news had spread that the union of Bank employees was planning to go on an open-ended strike Tuesday, citing unsuitable working conditions (some employees were exposed to insults and even attacked by depositors) as a reason for the strike. The Banks, already closed on Saturday and Monday for the Mawled holiday (a holiday on which they usually close for only one day), would be thus closed for at least four days since Saturday. In a way, it was as if the Banks were looking for reasons not to open (Is it because the liquidity problem? – although Salameh had confirmed that the foreign reserves excluding gold is around $38B, including Eurobonds). In their justification for closure, the Banks and their employees were blaming some clients for the negative working environment, indirectly hinting at the revolution for making the conditions at work worse, and engaging in the authorities’ propaganda that had been going for some time, throwing the responsibility of the deteriorating economic situation on the ongoing protests – When the protests were ironically triggered by the worsening financial and economic situation of the country.

Right after Salameh finished his press conference, Hezbollah SG Nasrallah gave his fourth speech since the 17th of October. Inspired by the sudden refocus by the political class on the economy, Nasrallah spoke about the financial situation, blaming the United States through their sanctions on the party, indirectly acquitting the political class from its responsibility of leading Lebanon into the financial pit, while at the same time focusing on the judiciary. Nasrallah addressed the Higher Judicial Council during his televised speech, saying the party was even ready to cooperate with the judiciary in corruption cases involving its members. Nasrallah’s fourth speech was the first one that made (a bit of) sense politically, as Hezbollah’s SG understood how bad the first three speeches were on the public opinion, finally trying to embrace some of the revolution’s demands after almost 4 weeks of fighting it relentlessly.

Nasrallah also embraced the establishment’s studied official silence regarding the next government formation, choosing not to focus on the mechanics and the design of the next cabinet. By keeping with the low-profile of inter-governmental negotiations, Nasrallah was probably avoiding popular discontent from erupting two weeks after the government resigned and the procrastination had started within the political class.

With the financial and economic situation rapidly deteriorating again despite 10 days of relative political stability and non-roadblocking, and with news spreading that protesters were going to prevent the parliament from meeting on Tuesday by blocking the entrances of the parliament, Speaker Berri postponed the parliamentary session for one week. In Lebanon, popular anger is usually targeted at the executive power, with multiple government falling one after the other every time a crisis – financial or political – hits the country.

The (very dysfunctional) parliament, however, usually stays immune to the crises: The last time the parliament was dissolved due to a crisis and general elections were held was in the sixties. By postponing the parliamentary session in the middle of a crisis that was escalating once again (with schools and universities suspending their classes and Banks and telecom employees going on strike too), Berri took a wise political move of not putting himself and the parliament that he heads in the firing line, calming tensions, and postponing the amnesty crisis for another week.

Among the entire political class, only Berri had figured out that the less you talk and the less you give statements in the middle of a revolution, the more it becomes easy for the protests to die out on their own. By postponing the parliamentary session, Berri was keeping up with his strategy of sticking to the strict minimum of interactions with the revolution and its goals. Berri, however, quickly claimed that the purpose of the “campaign” against the session was to “maintain the current political vacuum. In doing so, he was directly participating in the authorities’ demoralization of protesters through blaming them for the vacancies in power, while it is the strict responsibility of the authorities to assure continuity of government. Berri wanted to blame protesters for the vacancy when it was Berri himself who blocked the parliament from meeting for political purposes between 2006 and 2008, and while it was the President who had not yet called for parliamentary consultations.

It was tricky for the President to call for consultations as there was a clear intention among many of the March 14 parties to push for an entirely independent technocratic government – the protester’s main demand – while March 8 forces still believed in techno-politics as the way to move forward. With Geagea publicly endorsing the independent technocratic design only 24 hours before Aoun is supposed to talk and expected to call for parliamentary consultations, it seems that the LF had taken the decision to corner the March 8 parliamentary majority and force it to publicly take action by forming a political or techno-political cabinet. The LF’s maneuver would force March 8 parties to clash again with demonstrators by showcasing Pro-Hezbollah parties as the ones seeking a techno-political /political cabinet, exacerbating the momentum of the protests (after the entire political class had been trying to control it for weeks), while smartly channeling it onto the LF’s rivals: Hezbollah, Amal, and the FPM.

Tuesday, November 12 – Day 27: Death and Emigration

On the the 12th of November, and even though tens of thousands of protesters were still demonstrating and marching across the country, some sense of “normalcy” finally started settling in.

But what is normalcy? In the establishment’s definition, normalcy meant that the political flirting was high again among Lebanese politicians after an entire month of treachery and anxiety. In fact, frenemies Berri and Hariri exchanged passive aggressiveness in their loving ways, trying to pressure each other into accepting their contradictory governmental formulas through love and seduction. When Berri was allegedly quoted saying by An-Nahar newspaper: “If Saad [Hariri] insisted on his position and refused to head the government, I will be at eternal enmity with him,” Hariri responded, according to Al-Mustaqbal Web, by saying “Big brother [Berri] and his big heart cannot bear to be at eternal enmity with me.”

What is normalcy? Normalcy is the French foreign ministry sending an envoy to the Middle East and North Africa, an envoy which most ruling politicians met while civil society groups rejected to meet with. Ironically, the same ruling parties that had been spreading rumors that the revolution was funded by foreign embassies and served a greater purpose of a global conspiracy, were the ones who were meeting foreign envoys intervening to help them figure out a solution to their self-made governmental impasse.

In fact, seeking “normalcy” a day earlier, the speaker had defused the rising tensions by postponing the parliamentary session intended to pass the amnesty law, waiting for the momentum to die out a little before taking his more controversial measures. Hundreds of examples can be given to compare how much every Lebanese politician thinks and does his maneuvering in a different way than the other, but the flagship of that difference came to light on the night of the 27th day of protests. In what is the absolute contradiction of what Berri did 24 hours earlier, Aoun gave on live TV one of his most provocative interviews (if not the most) of his political career.

There were many major problems in Michel Aoun’s interview. The President appeared to be totally disconnected from reality, blaming the worsening economic situation on the revolution, also considering the demonstrations that targeted all the ruling political parties – including his own – to be a movement that would enable him to implement reforms, also blaming politics and society for the status quo. In his bid to give the impression that he was blocked from implementing reforms, the President showcased himself as a weak leader, who neither had the support of the political class nor that of those protesting it. The President, who commands the quarter of the parliament and the third of the (now caretaker) cabinet, justified himself by blaming the weak prerogatives of the President after Taef, when in practice, he has had the upper hand in Lebanese politics since at least 2016 through his parliamentary bloc and the network of alliances he had built over the years.

The President then started to disregard the key demands of the demonstrators one by one: (1) A purely technocratic cabinet, for the President, was out of the question, as he gave vague comments  over the representation of his son-in-law (possibly one of the most hated politicians among protesters) in the next cabinet . (2) The slogan of “everyone means everyone” (the embodiment of accountability), was also inacceptable for him, as it included all the political class without exception, a political class for whom he stands as its front man. For the President, not everyone can be corrupt – not him, at the very least – disregarding 12 years of pie-sharing cabinets and collective decisions by the political class.

The President then sends a double-edged message by comforting his people that he would not allow a Civil war to happen while he’s in power – But was the President reminding us of the regime’s narrative that the revolution would lead to a Civil War, or was he, (very) indirectly, pushing the Lebanese to stick to his rule, a rule in which he can guarantee peace? The President might be old, but he sure still knew how to pull his mind games. And just like his second speech since the uprising began, it was very Bassilic in its nature, by changing the subject from the current crisis to refugee fear-building by mentioning a “conspiracy to permanently settle the refugees in the country”.

The interview reeked of arrogance and smugness, and its highlight – also what will probably one of the highlights of Aoun’s entire political career – was when Aoun told the protesters, in a very provocative way, that they should emigrate if they can’t find good people to negotiate in their names. Aoun’s message was bad, but his impulsive wording was even worse. Yet again – building on his first speech – Aoun was trying to lure the decentralized revolution into choosing its own leaders for negotiations. While this would make it easier for the counter-revolution to kill off the protesters, it highlighted how important it was for the mainstream Zaim to give even an illusion that the revolution was not leaderless. The success of a leaderless revolution would put into question the very purpose of a Zaim, not only shattering the political system, but also bringing down the deity of the Lebanese leader with it. If a people can achieve political gains on their own, why would they turn to a Zaim ever again?

Aoun’s interview – in particular the emigration part – was so bad and provocative to protesters that whatever residual normalcy the political class had been tirelessly working to establish for the past week, went away in an hour and a half of televised Aounism: Chehayeb had ordered the schools and universities to open before the interview,  quickly changing his mind after it. Protests erupted across the country while Aoun hadn’t yet finished his interview, on a scale that was not yet seen for more than 2 weeks now, with roadblocks being setup again throughout the country. The tensions were high, and in the middle of the anger against the president’s speech, a pro-PSP member of the municipality of Choueifat, Alaa Abou Fakhr, was shot in cold blood and assassinated by a member of the army intelligence while he was blocking a road in Khaldeh. Anger turned to rage as news got out that a protester was killed, and even more roadblocks were set up in the country on that night. Political parties quickly sought to invest in the political developments, as Jumblatt and the PSP – in their bid to co-opt the movement and to endorse the martyrdom of Abou Fakher – directly intervened to calm the tensions in Choueifat and Khaldeh.

The irony was that Abou Fakher had criticized his party’s MPs earlier that day on Facebook, warning them of their participation in the amnesty parliamentary session. The entire point of the revolution was a liberation from the Zaim, and all the establishment saw in that freedom was a political investment – even of death – for the greater purpose of reinforcing the leadership of the mainstream politicians and their petty political maneuvers. Alaa Abou Fakher blocked the road because his President told him he had to pick a leader or emigrate. Alaa Abou Fakher was shot because he refused to choose a leader and emigrate, and here he was, arrogantly being used – even in death – by political leaders, as a political maneuver.

Even when you die free in this country, the Zaim does the impossible in order to try and strip you that right.

All that the political class had to do was to stick to observing absolute silence, wait out the crisis, and continue giving the Lebanese false hopes that the oil and gas sector would quickly get everyone out of the financial pit, yet here they were, politician by politician, arrogantly insisting to stand in the firing line.

Wednesday, November 13 – Day 28: All Walls Must Fall

Lebanon woke up on the 28th day of the revolution to the sight of an uprising that had started to look very similar to the events of the morning of the 2nd day, with roadblocks and protests happening across the country. In what was also probably a survival reflex to prevent the revolution of being coopted by a political class hungry for power (similarly to what happened on the nights of the 29th and 30th of October), protesters took to the streets all over Lebanon also setting up candlelit vigils for Alaa Abou Fakher in almost every place of protest.

The President’s speech was so bad this time that it broke the barrier of fear to the extent it made people protest in Baabda, almost a kilometer away from the Presidential palace, in what was previously a very difficult place to do a demonstration in ( Most entrances to Baabda are almost barricaded by the Presidential guard and also have to be accessed through the main highway that connects Beirut to Damascus, a highway very difficult to block) . Nevertheless, on the 13th of November, exactly one month after Bassil did a show of force in support of his rule close by the presidential palace in Hadat, the exact opposite was happening. On the 28th day since the 17th of October, the revolution had finally truly reached Baabda, and the only one to blame for that would be the ruler of its Palace who chose to arrogantly stand against his people and in favor of a political class he had rivaled for so long, a political class that was still bickering among itself on the name of the PM and the formation of the next cabinet.

Even more than 2 weeks after the resignation of the Prime Minister, Aoun was yet to call for parliamentary consultations. Perhaps, for once in the life of a Lebanese politician, procrastinating in the middle of rejuvenated revolution was much better than adding fuel to the fire by naming an antagonizing Prime Minister.

The tragic incident that led to the death of Abou Fakher was not even 24 hours old when a pro-FPM citizen thought it would be a good idea to go to Jal El Dib and shoot at 45-angle degree at protesters. So when (possibly pro-LF) protesters decided to build a wall in the roadblock of Nahr El-Kalb a few kilometers to the north, it became clear how fragile the revolution would be to the instrumentalization of the ruling parties and their media outlets who were going to jump on every possible corner in order to co-opt and distort it for their own means.

At the end of the day though, Alaa Abou Fakher, through the tens of vigils across the country, became the martyr of an entire revolution, the shooter of Jal-El Dib was eventually disarmed, and the wall of Nahr El-Kalb was quickly torn down.

The revolution had survived another day.

Thursday, November 14 – Day 29: Intimidation and Terror

On the 14th of November, most of the roadblocks across the country were being dismantled as tensions had begun to cool again, but protests against the ruling parties were still going strong.

While Alaa Abou Fakher was being laid to rest in his hometown, his funeral was marked by the opportunist presence of several local politicians and Zaims (although it should be noted that while they spoke at his funeral, the same Zaims were prevented from meeting the family at another time). And on the same day Alaa’s family said their final goodbyes, minister of defense Abou Saab, whose direct responsibility is to maintain security in the country, said that Lebanon was in a “very dangerous situation” and compared street unrest of recent days to the start of the 1975-90 Civil War. The defense minister had thus indirectly blamed the revolution for the unrest and transferred his responsibility of keeping the peace to the protesters in a bid to discourage them from going to protests and from actively participating the marches and demonstrations. Abou Saab’s remarks were part of a campaign that had been going on for weeks in which media outlets have been comparing the uprising to the beginning of the 1975 Civil War in their bid to make the protestors feel guilty for any ensuing violence. Instead of assuming their responsibilities of keeping the peace and protecting protesters, the ministers of the ruling class (and the establishment they represent), had taken stances that assigned blame to the protesters for anything that happens. Not only were they transferring that responsibility away from them, they were also now using the tragic events of the 12th of November as well as the segregation wall in Nahr El Kalb and the violence in Jal El Dib and in the Bekaa on the 13th and the 14th  to their own end.

But because that mediatized intimidation was not enough to discourage protesters, the authorities had also been changing their tactics too, arbitrarily arresting protesters (a method they used in the first 48 hours of the revolution) without revealing information about their whereabouts for hours, in order to terrorize those who plan on demonstrating against the government.

Nevertheless, the 29th day of the revolution marked a milestone: The designation of the next Prime Minister had now taken more time than it took the caretaker Prime Minister to resign, and it seemed that the deadlock concerning premiership was here to last, until, out of the blue, something huge happened: On the late night of the 14th of November, media reports confirmed that the Amal, Hezbollah, and the FPM had agreed after a meeting between caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and top political aides to Berri and Nasrallah, on the name of Mohamad Safadi to lead the next government.

Friday, November 15 – Day 30: The Safadi Provocation  

And so, it was, that Lebanon woke up on the 15th of November to the news that it was agreed upon among the ruling parties that Safadi would be the next Prime Minister.

Mohamad Safadi, in every possible way, represented everything the revolution did not want in a Prime Minister: (1 ) He was almost as old as independent Lebanon (75 y.o.), (2) a unquestionable member of the ruling class, (3) a four-time ex-minister with not the brightest CV for his time in government, (4) a politician who exercised nepotism and appointed his very own wife as minister in the last cabinet, (5) and a maneuvering member of parliament who changed sides many, many times (He ran on the Future Movement ticket in 2009, before abandoning Hariri’s bloc to support Mikati’s nomination in 2011 and serve as his finance minister for 3 years, then allying  Karami in the 2016 municipal elections, finally changing sides and supporting Hariri again in the 2018 parliamentary elections once again). Safadi was also (6) a billionaire businessman from the poorest coastal city in the country, who represented at the same time the political class and its business partners, (7) he was a Saudi middleman, (8) while also being the front man in several corruption scandals during his time in power and outside it, and finally (9) he was infamous for his role in the Al-Yamama Saudi arms deal.

When it came to provocative figures, Safadi was the flagship. It is not sure how, why, and what the ruling parties were thinking when they reportedly agreed on his name. Safadi not only represents the political class, he also has a very weak base of supporters (unlike the parties that agreed on his name), making him even more vulnerable to the pressure from the demonstrators: Even his unofficial nomination was not well-received by the public opinion.

Was he truly chosen by the ruling political class for the honest purpose of getting him into the Grand Serail and safeguard their presence? Was it a way to punish the demonstrators by letting them know that they were going to get the exact opposite of what they asked for? Was it a way to redirect the anger away from the President’s speech and into the next designated Prime Minister? Was it a maneuver to politically eliminate his name from the list of candidates in order to pave the way for others? Or was it the establishment’s own way of lowering the bar so it becomes easier for it to push for the designation of another politician? (Salam? Hariri?)

Time will tell what the ruling parties were trying to do when it was announced that they had agreed on Safadi behind closed doors. All we know for sure right now is that the President still hasn’t official called for parliamentary consultations (probably waiting for the momentum to die out before adding more fuel to the fire?), while Bassil took it upon himself to trespass on his father-in-law’s authorities, by letting us know (via MTV) that constitutionally required parliamentary consultations to name a prime minister will be held Monday, after which Mohammad Safadi will be designated.

If it is not some kind of dark political maneuver by the powers that be and Safadi is truly meant to be PM, his nomination probably also comes with a package deal – including the portfolios and at least some details regarding the formation of the next cabinet. The designation of Safadi, and not Hariri, will mean that a second-degree FPM politician (and not Bassil) will represent the FPM in the (probably) technopolitical government (to keep the virtual balance of power intact), give some sense to why Bassil is rushing to announce the news of the upcoming consultations and the designation of Safadi himself. By showing himself as architect and Godfather of the deal, the leader of the FPM thus can at least partially justify his absence from a Cabinet for the first time in more than a decade.

Saturday, November 16 – Day 31: The Safadi Renunciation

One month into the Revolution, the fifth Saturday of the uprising was just another regular day of protests in Lebanon, with the mainstream media putting all its energy into covering the “revolution bus,” which was on a mission to travel from north to south Lebanon. The idea of the bus was simple: Send a message of unity throughout all the protests’ squares in the country.

For some reason though, the Lebanese political class somehow decided that it was the perfect scapegoat for them to massacre in happiness and joy. So while some of the ruling politicians blamed some of the organizers to be funded by embassies, others suggested that it was a bad reminder of Ain El-Remmaneh bus that started the Civil War and that it was a ploy to trigger a new Civil War.

That a vehicle that was simply meant to visit multiple regions triggered Civil War memories and fears of foreign influence among Lebanese politicians who themselves fought a Civil War and are on foreign payrolls, was a truly ironic moment that Weekend, perhaps more ironic that the fact that Safadi, nominated by Hariri on Thursday night, had decided to withdraw in favor of Hariri 48 hours later.

Truth be told, the pace of Lebanese politics had become so fast it almost became impossible to catch up with it. It had effectively taken two days, tens of protests, thousands of protesters, and tens of thousands of chants for Safadi to complete his metamorphosis from the next Prime Minister to the next *burnt* nominee for Prime Minister. While it was clear for everyone – except those at the top? – that Safadi’s nomination would not go down well on the streets, Hariri did not make it any easier for his junior (and much older) ally to make it through the weekend. In fact, only hours after Hariri proposed Safadi as Prime Minister, the archeological club of former Prime Ministers (Siniora, Salam, Mikati) decided to give a joint statement in which they decided to support Hariri as PM-designate instead of (weirdly enough) endorsing Hariri’s very choice for the premiership. And while Hariri denied that it was a maneuver from him to come back as Prime Minister, Safadi had no choice but to give up his potential designation: In the streets, he was considered to be an older version of Hariri that no one in the revolution wanted, while in the establishment it seemed that everyone – at least the Sunni leadership of the political class – still wanted Hariri to come back as PM, and not his older version. And so Safadi, using “the difficulty of the government formation task” as an alibi to quickly give it up, threw the ball right back into Hariri’s court.

The true loser from those 48 hours was not Safadi as much as it was Bassil. To showcase himself as the strongman of the Ahed, Bassil had taken the premature decision on Friday morning to announce to media outlets that the parliamentary consultations would begin on Monday and that Safadi would be designated. How Bassil did not see that the nomination of Safadi was probably not going to happen even though literally everyone else in the country saw it coming is beyond the logic of Lebanese politics. The political developments effectively showcased him as the biggest loser of the collapsing Safadi arrangement: He was trying to salvage his political reputation by becoming the Godfather of the new deal, only for the new deal to fall apart. That outcome is not usually very useful to salvage one’s reputation.

Sunday, November 17 – Day 32: The Battle for the Bar

Victories – even symbolic ones – are crucial for any momentum to hold on. The resignation of Hariri, the postponement of the parliamentary session on the 12th of November, and the collapse of the Safadi deal were great victories for the uprising against the political class, but the ruling parties still liked to use numbers. If there was no way to quantify the size of the uprising, then the uprising – in the narrative of the ruling parties – did not exist. So when on the 17th of November, independent candidate Melhem Khalaf was voted the new president of the Beirut Bar Association, defeating another candidate who was endorsed by a coalition of all the ruling parties (except Kataeb) and outnumbering his rival by half his votes in the process, it was a major blow to the establishment.

The threat of the revolution was no longer a virtual one, and the uprising had shifted from a movement that could bring down governments to one that could make its way into power through elections. And for a coalition of Lebanon’s ruling parties to ally together and lose so majestically, it was a full-blown disaster: In its bid to avoid any loss in a body that might one day prove to be extremely important for accountability, the political class had once again taken the fruitless political stance of uniting against the revolution, only to find out they had galvanized it even more.

The flagship chant of the protests, “everyone means everyone”, had never made more sense, and it was now well documented that even an alliance of all the ruling parties, in all their glory, clientelism, propaganda, and influence, was not immune to an electoral loss: The political class was now feeling threatened in its very own seats of power. On that great 5th Sunday, the people had taken back the previously co-opted body of the Beirut Bar Association, as well as what was left of the barricaded Bisri valley.

It was now theoretically possible to have a picnic in the Bisri valley with an independent president of the Beirut Bar Association. 6 weeks ago, even the thought of that proposal would have been irrational.

Monday, November 18 – Day 33: The Old Ways of March

The FPM had lost two major tactical battles during the Weekend, and only one thing was to blame: The Bassil-Hariri alliance. On Saturday, it seemed as if Bassil was backstabbed when Safadi withdrew in favor Hariri, when on Sunday, the FPM-FM alliance was found to be useless when it failed to defeat the revolution’s candidate in the Beirut Bar Association.

On the beginning of the fifth workweek of the ongoing revolution, Aounist MPs Roger Azar and Hikmat Dib ended the 3 year truce between the FPM and the FM, and declared, out of the blue, a media war on Hariri, calling him a corrupt and a traitor. There was something weird about all of this: The Aoun-Hariri deal in 2016 had effectively brought back both politicians into power (much to the discontent of almost everyone else) and was the backbone of the Ahed. It also didn’t make much sense as the President had now postponed parliamentary consultations for 21 days in order to try to get Hariri into the Grand Serail as head of techno-political cabinet. You simply don’t circumvent the constitution for 20 days to get someone into power only to ruin all that with statements against that very same person on the 21st day. There was something much bigger being planned, and the puzzle became much more clear later that evening. On the night of the 33rd day of the revolution, the establishment had finally figured out the least creative way to ride the wave of protests and infiltrate it in the most obvious way possible: What were previously known as the March 14 parties (FM, LF, PSP, Kataeb, Azm), started, one by one, in the most chillax political atmosphere that ever was, to announce that they were not going to participate in Tuesday’s legislative session.

Ah, yes, back to the legislative session.

Remember when a week earlier, on the 11th of November, Berri had postponed – under pressure – a parliamentary session with a shady agenda that included an amnesty law (for many cases, not excluding corruption cases by Lebanese politicians) as well as the creation of a sham court to fight corruption? By delaying the legislative session for one week, Berri was waiting for the momentum to die out a little bit, something that clearly did not happen (he could thank the interview of his ally’s ally on the 12th of November for that). March 14 parties thus saw a great opportunity in the session and decided to try and finally hijack/co-opt the protests (that were targeting all the parties in power) by announcing, one after the other, that they were going to boycott the parliament’s session.

The same way political parties had learned from their mistake of uniting against the revolution in the first 48 hours of the revolution, quickly turning against one other on the third day ( via Nasrallah’s support of the government and the LF’s resignation), they had also learned from Sunday’s mistake of uniting against a single candidate at the Beirut Bar Association’s elections. It was no longer effective for the parties in power to suppress the opposition to their rule through unity – They now had to go back to their old ways. In a bid to hijack then politicize the protests, March 14 and March 8’s parties, willingly or unwillingly – it doesn’t matter – turned against each other after 5 years of cohabitation cabinets, while the FPM had turned earlier that day  on the very Prime Minister who had made it possible for them to elect Michel Aoun as President after 28 years of trial and error.

And so, it was, on the night of the 33rd day of the revolution, the parties of the ruling class finally brought back the March 14 vs March 8 dramatization in their greater quest of co-opting the leaderless uprising.

And just because all of that was not thrilling enough, Berri gave comments that day that the Lebanese ship was sinking, while the commander of the army was quoted saying that the roadblocking was unacceptable.

In practice, those stances were also key to the theatrics. Berri wanted to justify the session with a looming economic crash, commander Aoun wanted to split the protesters in their tactics by targeting the roadblocks in his speech, and everyone else wanted to go forward with the session so they could bring back the Drama of the March 8 vs March 14 coalitions through it. A for effort.

Tuesday, November 19 – Day 34: The Great Blockade of Nejmeh Square

Truth be told, the March 8 and 14 alliances had maneuvered so much over the past 14 years that the act of believing their methods of dividing and conquering was, in its own way, a revolution on basic human logic. Both parties had spent more time together in cabinets that they had spent facing each other, and the past 5 years of cohabitation made it extremely difficult for any illusion of rivalry to be believed– especially that it was all so obvious and brutally happening overnight.

So as it became clear that protesters were not intending to clear the blockade in front of parliament, more and more MPs started announcing that they were boycotting the session, eventually forcing the parliament to indefinitely postpone the session.

What happened on the 34th day of protests is that a few hundred politicians, with the help of the media and their business partners, tried to pass an amnesty for thousands of corruption crimes by taking advantage of marginalized people forced to live with unjust charges, in order to split the streets twice: The first time with a virtually created March 8-14 split, and the second time by turning some of the protesters – who have been asking for an amnesty for the petty/drug crimes – against the revolution.

Only time will tell if the political class’ strategy would bear fruits, but for now, the uprising had unearthed yet another major victory. For years, the political parties would bicker among themselves and block legislation for their own personal gains, until, on the 19th of November 2019, the revolution had finally blocked them all from attending a session and voting for their own shady deals.

The challenge of holding the session ended up being a disaster, as only a handful of MPs managed to go through the blockade on parliament, while an MP’s convoy, in full panic, fired shots – inside the car – in its bid to run away from protesters, sowing massive outrage among protesters. After successfully putting the presidency and the resigned cabinet in the firing line, the establishment had apparently found it wise to do the same to the parliament.

In fact, the political defeat was so deafening for the political class that Aoun had to reiterate that he had not given up on political representation in the cabinet – a week after similar statements launched 72 hours of massive protests. Meanwhile at night, security forces cracked down on demonstrators at night in Riad El Solh, probably as a response to the protesters blocking nearby roads earlier that day.

When the establishment responds in virtual divisions, violence, arrogance and stubbornness, it probably means it’s losing.

Wednesday, November 20 – Day 35: Godot and the Parliamentary Consultations

The 35th day of the revolution started with the release of the arrested protesters and continued with some roadblocks and institution closing throughout the country. In fact, Tuesday night marked a stark change in the way security forces were dealing with protests. While arrests had happened and were not uncommon over the past few weeks, the official strategy of arrests and torture by the authorities became the new norm in the establishment’s quest to crack down on protesters. Protesters who were arrested Tuesday were released on Wednesday after a direct intervention from the new president of the Beirut Bar Association, but the authorities had made their point: If the price for normalcy had to go through institutionalized arrests and terrorization of protesters, that price had to be paid.

Meanwhile in the decision-making parts of the country, procrastination was still the permanent cause du jour: It had now been three full weeks since the PM had resigned, and the President was yet to call for parliamentary consultations. The confusion and floundering of the establishment were becoming too obvious to hide, and the ruling parties had no clue how to go forward when all they wanted to do was to extract some political gain from the ongoing protests. So when Jumblatt, in an act of clear disobedience to Hezbollah’s technopolitical plans for the next government, reiterated that his party would not participate in the next government “as it goes through a period of re-evaluation and change”, it was clear that riding the wave became more important than finding a solution for the problems that caused it. And amid the vacancy and ongoing protests, Lebanon was bracing itself for more distraction theatrics meant to appease the masses: Financial Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim filed on the 20th of November lawsuits against three former telecoms ministers (Harb, Sahnaoui and Jarrah) as well as the heads of Lebanon’s state-run telecoms and internet companies, with Jarrah hitting back at the financial prosecutor and accusing him of corruption. Meanwhile, Banks had finally reopened a day earlier, but unofficial capital controls on daily and weekly cash withdrawals (for small depositors at least) did not make everyone so happy.

The financial prosecutor could prosecute as much as he wanted, but the financial crisis was not going anywhere.

Thursday, November 21 – Day 36: Recycled Independence Speeches

On the 21st of November, the eve of Independence Day, the Lebanese President finally called for parliamentary consultations gave his fourth speech (and 5th appearance) since the revolution started on the 17th of October. In what was supposed to be his traditional Independence Day speech, Aoun proceeded to recycle all his previous speeches in a shorter version: Calling on protesters to negotiate and help him in his battle against corruption, promising an “efficient, productive and methodical next cabinet” and last but not least,  proceeding to warn “against false accusations against innocent people, instead calling for protesters to allow the judiciary to do its job”. In his own way, Aoun was trying to follow into Nasrallah’s attempts of “disciplining” protesters and their demands by fine-tuning their slogans and their targets. Through his alleged “false accusation” narrative, Aoun was actively rebuilding a reputation of being anti-corruption Zaim, a reputation worn out by a decade of political agreements, including the deal that brought him to Baabda. The anti-slogan narrative was also intended to lead to the reconstruction of the holiness of the Zaim, a holiness that has been torn down by the coprolalic slogans that became the symbol of a revolution fueled by free speech.

Aoun’s speech came on the night of the 36th day of a revolution that was still ongoing throughout the country, and in a very symbolic move, dozens of students had gathered outside the Education Ministry earlier that day, burning their state-provided history books.

Friday, November 22 – Day 37: The Revolutionary Parade

The 22nd of November, Lebanon’s Independence Day, was truly a remarkable commemoration this year. While the day started with the burning of a fist that has become one of the symbols of the revolution in Downtown Beirut, it quickly turned into an aggregation of wonderful events. For the first time in Lebanon’s history, the country marked Independence Day with a civilian march in downtown Beirut, while politicians oversaw a stiff, invite-only military parade at the defense ministry. It was a stark contrast of what the country was going through for the past month and a half: Politicians were still living in their high castles, giving statements and taking care of their business as if nothing was happening in the country, while everyone else had moved on and was enjoying the perks of a Zaim-less life. The politicians – in all their seriousness – had cancelled the big military parade and had replaced it with a smaller one (probably for security concerns), while paradoxically, the people which they represent had embraced each other in the streets and decided to overcome their fears and celebrate Independence Day together for the first time in years.

The irony, however, for Lebanese politicians was that even on Independence Day, they had to rely on foreign interference: That same day, Russian deputy foreign minister for middle eastern affairs Mikhail Bogdanov reaffirmed his country’s commitment to support Lebanon’s political stability, while an adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron said that there was no consensus within the international community to find a solution to the crisis Lebanon has been facing for the last month. So much for independence.

For so long, Independence Day had been a holiday that was monopolized by the political class and turned into their own day of celebration, with the President giving a speech on its eve and the rest of the authorities joining him on the 22nd for a military parade after they had congratulated one another. All in all, the revolution had thus effectively liberated Independence Day from the monopolization of the authorities and turned into what it should really be: A celebration of the independence from France, but also from an ineffective political class that was yet to form a government even after 24 days of vacancy.

Saturday, November 23 – Day 38: The Cabinet Dilemma

On the 38th day of the revolution, and as protests were still ongoing throughout the country, Naim Kassem of Hezbollah blamed the United States for the delay in government formation, stating that “the first obstruction in the formation of the government is America, because it wants a government that resembles it and we want a government that resembles the Lebanese people“. Truth be told, Hezbollah was in a very bad position. The party wanted Hariri to head a political/techno-political government (something he refused to do) while the alternative was a March 8 cabinet – The equivalent of political suicide. While a March 8 cabinet would have ideally been the best idea for March 8 parties years ago, right now it was simply a time bomb for Hezbollah: It would turn the entire country against them while at the same time hold Hezbollah and its allies directly responsible for the looming (and already happening) financial and economic crisis. You really don’t want to be in charge all by your own when the crash happens. The only positive thing for the ruling parties would be that a March 8 cabinet could be the only way to co-opt the streets – but keep in mind that it will be March 14 forces that would be coopting it.

Hezbollah’s confusion and the delay from the President to call for parliamentary elections only meant one thing: March 8 parties preferred to share the crash with their rivals than to head to the unknown and risk losing even more through clashing with March 14 forces. Following Trump’s statements on the 21st of November that he was ready to work with a new Lebanese government, Hezbollah’s leadership thus found the ideal way to try and turn things to their favor. In a way to pressure March 14 parties into participating in the next cabinet, Hezbollah – through its leadership – resorted to framing the formation of any technocratic government – the protesters’ main demand – as an American demand. Through that narrative, Hezbollah tries to hit multiple birds with one stone: (1) They build on their previous attempts to portray the protests as a foreign embassy-funded conspiracy, (2) they showcase the protests, the embassies, and March 14 parties as part of the same organization, (3) trying to discredit the revolution in the process, while at the same time (4) denying March 14 the chance to massively co-opt the movement to their advantage by denying them the luxury of even officially forming a government without them.

Sunday, November 24 – Day 39: The Banner and the Coast

Hezbollah’s strategy of maneuvering and waiting the crisis out would have worked in normal circumstances, but Lebanon could not afford to wait on a crumbling economy. So as the exchange rate was hitting 2000 LBP to the Dollar again in the black market, something had to be done to quickly build on Hezbollah’s political maneuver earlier in the weekend: On Sunday, protesters (mainly pro-Hezbollah demonstrators) gathered near the U.S. Embassy in Metn’s Awkar in protest against foreign interference in Lebanese affairs and the latest remarks by former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman.

It is unclear if March 8 forces were trying to make it look as if the streets were split, or if it was a way of sending a message to March 14 forces that they, too could mobilize on the streets should a split happen in the government formation. All in all, it was an interesting show of force, but one thing was sure: Sunday was also another major day for the revolution’s protests. Fueled by the arrest of teenagers who teared down an FPM banner earlier on Saturday night, the protesters reclaimed the coast and forests on the ground, while in the ballots, they managed to pull another symbolic victory when an independent managed to win a seat in the Lebanese Dental Association. At the end of the day, Sunday marked the end of a fourth week without parliamentary consultations – And it seems as if the deadlock was here to stay.

Monday, November 25 – Day 40: The Second Sack of the Tents

The lack of clarity on what Hezbollah was trying to do throughout the weekend became more and more lucid on the night of the 24th of November (Sunday), when, out of the blue, pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal protesters fabricated a scuffle on the ring-road, out of nothing. Calls for roadblocking and a general strike across the country had been made earlier that night and many roads were started to be closed throughout Lebanon, including the ring road. According to the Hezbollah and March 8 narrative, those roadblocks were a scheme by the March 14 parties to negotiate – through the streets – their government share, as the President was about to call for parliamentary consultations. The scuffle on the Ring grew into a bigger fight and eventually into a micro-riot war, with pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal thugs repeatedly attacking protesters physically, also chanting (very) sectarian slogans on live TV (such as “Shia Shia Shia”).

And because history repeats itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce, the Hezbollah and Amal sympathizers decided then to head in the early hours of the morning of Monday the 25th of November to Martyrs’ and Azarieh squares, and destroy the same tents that were re-setup almost a month earlier after Hezbollah and Amal thugs had destroyed them before the Prime Minister’s resignation.

Hezbollah had finally figured out how to deal with the revolution after a month of floundering political maneuvers. During the first weeks there was confusion on how to contain the crisis, with the party being outrun by events, but now they had a clear plan and path put forward: The fabricated clashes of the night of the 24th – designed and made to look sectarian – were part of a bigger plan to co-opt the demonstrations by the parties. It was clear to everyone that some places (such as Zouk or Jal El Dib) had a higher percentage of participation from the LF and the Kataeb, and the FPM as well as their allies have been using some of those rallies since the first day to try and discredit the independency of the revolution, but Hezbollah had now taken things to the next level, and finally figured out a way around it. If it was difficult for Hezbollah to undermine the revolution by discrediting it with the participation of rival parties, it was much, much easier for the party to make it look that the counter-revolution was sectarian (mainly Shia). In that logic, and through the developments of the 24th and 25th of November, Hezbollah tried to make it look as if the counter-revolution represented Shia interests, and thus – in the common sense rules of Lebanese politics – that the revolution, heavily present in Shiite areas the first 72 hours and then steadily present afterwards, was anti-Shia.

Hezbollah’s narrative war had to be reinforced, and so when news broke out that citizens had fallen victim of a road accident that was possibly indirectly caused by a roadblock in Jiyeh, most pro-March 8 media outlets and websites (as well as their keyboard warriors), started a guilt media war – fueled by sectarianism this time – that the strategies of the revolution were harmful. Vigils for the victims were set up by Amal and Hezbollah and the victims of the car accident were now being used as a tool to fight the revolution. How parties that had Civil War blood on their hands decided that it wasn’t double standards to blame roadblocks for deaths is beyond common sense, but the ruling parties did not care about common sense anymore – but only about safeguarding political gains they had acquired over the past few years. So in the same spirit of sowing guilt among anti-government protesters, Speaker Berri broke his political silence and took advantage of the developments, calling upon the security forces to prevent road blocks. Ironically, security forces had not handled well the clashes and the attacks by pro-government thugs earlier at dawn, while the March 8 media war came after days of a media blackout by pro-Hezbollah illegal cable owners of Al Jadeed, a media outlet hat has been covering the revolution.

March 8’s maneuver that had started a week earlier was finally complete.

Politically speaking, Hezbollah’s maneuver was brilliant and was their most serious attempt of undermining the revolution, but for everyone else it was thuggish, with hooligans destroying private property and using violence against peaceful protesters. Hezbollah’s use of violence was so bad for their reputation that in less than 24 hours, the United Nations’ representative in Lebanon – who usually takes very neutral stances – said that Lebanese political forces should “control their supporters” and avoid using the nationwide protests for “pursing their political agenda”, in a clear hint at Hezbollah. As brilliant as the political maneuver can be at inducing co-optation of the protests (from March 14 parties) and making people Shias feel that the revolution is against their interests, it will have a very bad impact on the long run. For decades, Hezbollah had tried to show itself as a patriotic party that defended the country against foreign aggression, enabling its Christian allies in power and achieving coexistence through fighting corruption. yet here they were, in the last months of 2019, destroying all of this in less than 40 days, and giving themselves a lasting reputation of a party that enables thuggish behavior so that their corrupt parties get to stay in power in the middle of the biggest financial crisis Lebanon has seen in 30 years. It will take a lot of effort to rebuild that reputation, and the sectarian incitement that was enabled by Hezbollah throughout the revolution will not end well in the ballot boxes of their allies running in Christian electorates in the next elections.

Hezbollah’s maneuver was temporarily smart, but it was however too obvious to the extent that almost everyone understood what they were doing, and what was supposed to be a major day for road-blocking, eventually turned into a regular roadblocking-less day of protests. No one eventually went with the calls for a nationwide strike, with demonstrators avoiding to fall into Hezbollah’s trap to make it look as if it was a Sunni-Shia conflict ( and feeding the new narrative by the ruling parties that the revolution was totally co-opted by March 14 parties and that it was a conspiracy to singlehandedly undermine Hezbollah and its allies).

So what started as a dawn of a Civil War quickly turned into another day in the dysfunctional country of Lebanon: In the absence of a clear political decision, the President still hadn’t called for parliamentary consultations, which meant that there was still no sight of any government to guide Lebanon through the financial and economic crisis, and the Dollar was now selling at 2050LBP, a de-facto devaluation that had been going on for two month and that had also led to a massive inflation in the Lebanese market. Lebanese politicians, still in denial about the financial crisis and the urgent need to figure out a solution, decided instead to keep focusing on petty politics, to the extent that foreign pressure and intervention now seemed essential for the ruling parties to agree on the next cabinet: A British envoy had arrived in Beirut on Monday to meet with senior Lebanese officials in light of the latest developments in the country.

Tuesday, November 26 – Day 41: Three days of sectarianizing

Monday night will be a night to remember. Building on Sunday’s clashes at the ring road and the unjustified attack on the Azarieh tents, pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal thugs attacked the protesters’ tents in Tyre, setting many on fire. Meanwhile in Beirut, motorcades of pro-Amal and pro-Hezbollah spent the afternoon and the night touring the city, taunting everyone around with “Shia Shia Shia” chants and sowing sectarianism in areas that have been flagships of a true coexistence against the warlords of the Civil War.

Tuesday however started more about politics than about the security situation in the country. In the early hours of the morning, rumors started circulating that Bahij Tabbara (a 91 year old former minister of justice) was being considered by the ruling parties to become the new PM designate, hours before Saad Hariri announced in the afternoon that he was officially no longer running for the position of PM designate. As Hariri broke the news, other names started floating around in the media as possible next Prime Minister, most importantly Raya El Hassan (since Hariri had saluted in his statement the role played by women in the protests), and a bit later, Samir Khatib of Khatib and Alami, who announced on TV that he was willing to serve as the next PM and that he was being approached by politicians. As it seemed possible that there might be an agreement on the name of the next PM, Baabda sources leaked that the consultations were going to happen in 48 to 72 hours. So just when the Market for the PM designation started flourishing and it seemed as if the political class – including Hariri – had agreed on a name before the consultations where called for, Hariri announced that the FM was not endorsing anyone and that he would only officially endorse a candidate once the consultations happen. As soon as Hariri announced he was not going to endorse anyone before parliamentary consultations, Baabda sources confirmed that the parliamentary consultations would be postponed – hours after they had broken the news that they might happen soon. More than ever, it was now clear that the president and his allies were not going to call for consultations before they had managed to agree on the name of the next Prime Minister preemptively.

Everything March 8 forces wanted before the President calls for parliamentary elections was an agreement on the name of the next Prime Minister, yet here was Hariri, refusing to run for the premiership and also declining to designate anyone else before the date for parliamentary consultations would be set, while his rivals in the March 8 coalition wanted to agree on a name before calling for parliamentary consultations. In other words, the deadlock was here to stay.

While the deadlock was getting worse among the ruling parties, their anti-revolution strategies were still going strong. After weeks of warning by the political class that the revolution could lead to a Civil War, the ruling political parties finally took the matter in their own hands, with pro-Amal and pro-Hezbollah thugs touring sensitive parts of the city for the third night in a row, fabricating and inducing clashes with the LF in the symbolic neighborhood of Chiyah-Ain El Remmaneh (where the Civil War started in 1975), while in Bekfaya, FPM supporters decided to go to the heartland of the Gemayel’s ancestral areas and induce a clash with the Kataeb. Meanwhile in Baalbak, pro-Amal and pro-Hezbollah continued their systematic sack of protest gatherings close to or in their areas of influence, after hitting Downtown Beirut and Tyre two days earlier. In Baabda, and while everyone from the revolution had taken the decision to stay out of the clash and not to fall into the ruling parties’ sectarian trap, Sabaa party members somehow thought it would be a good idea to protest in front of the President’s palace while the tensions were high – It was not the best idea in the world. In Tripoli, the “bride of the revolution”, a city that that has been giving everyone else lessons in peaceful protesting, clashes were ignited by the supporters of ruling parties.

Wednesday, November 27 – Day 42: The Mothers of All Revolutions

In their bid to sow sectarian discontent and to induce a strife that would distract everyone from the deteriorating financial situation, the political parties had tried to ignite clashes among each other. The ruling parties had however forgotten that a Civil War is a political decision taken by political parties, and that the only ones working to showcase the revolution as a Civil War were the members of the establishment, not the peaceful revolution. So as soon as the ruling parties calmed their thugs down and instructed to lay low again, the clashes – not so miraculously – suddenly disappeared after 3 days.

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were a huge blow for the ruling parties: In their quest to scare everyone from the “violent consequences of the revolution”, they only managed to showcase themselves as the cause, consequence, and spirit of any political violence that was happening. For Amal and especially Hezbollah, it will take years to repair a reputation destroyed by videos of their supporters violently taking down Lebanese flags in Baalbak or chanting “the people want new May 7 clashes” .

As violent and sectarian the thuggish behavior from the ruling parties was, the response from protesters was no less than hopeful:  In a demonstration organized by mothers, hundreds of local residents marched between Ain El Remmeneh and Chiyah, in rejection of the clashes between area residents the night before, de-facto neutralizing the ruling parties’ attempt at sectarianizing the revolution.

The attention however quickly shifted to the financial sector once again: While the ruling parties were still procrastinating regarding the next cabinet, The dollar was now selling for 2250 Lebanese pounds in the exchange shops, the Lira effectively losing 50% of its value, while Gas stations announced a decision to go on an open strike starting Thursday (due to the shortage of Dollars on the market), while the Economic Committees – co-opted by and partners of the ruling parties and the establishment – suspended their scheduled private sector strike.

Thursday, November 28 – Day 43: The Eurobonds and the Lira

Amid the economic panic, the government eventually paid off a Eurobond of $1.5 billion that was due to mature on the 28th of November. And while the repayment was viewed as a test of the government’s willingness to meet its debt obligations, it would heap further pressure on already-strained reserves, which were insufficient to cover Lebanon’s gross financing needs over the next year.

All the attempts by the ruling parties to sectarianize the protests and co-opt them earlier that week went in vain as protesters had now been targeting the financial sector in their demonstrations, protesting in front of the central bank as well as the VAT headquarters.

The Lira had unofficially lost half its value, the gas stations were on strike, unemployment was on the rise, the economy was in shambles, and no amount of sectarianizing seemed enough for the ruling parties to kill off a revolution on a corrupt political class that led Lebanon into its biggest financial crisis since 30 years. That same political class hadn’t even begun to look for solutions for the looming crash, as the President was yet to call for parliamentary consultations, a first step to form a cabinet that would tackle the crisis.

Friday, November 29 – Day 44: One Month Without Consultations and Two Days Without Gas

In fact, Friday marked the monthly anniversary of procrastination by Lebanese politicians concerning the designation of the next Prime Minister. And instead of urgently calling for parliamentary consultations to start fixing the crisis, the President decided to hold a meeting regarding the financial situation. It was a meeting that was attended by the caretaker financial minister, the caretaker economy minister, the governor of the Central Bank, the president of the association of Banks, the economic advisor to the caretaker Prime Minister, and the president of the banking control commission, among others. In other words, the establishment had tasked the same people that led Lebanon to the financial crisis, with coming up with solutions for it. And the solution? It was announced, in Baabda, by the president of the association of banks Salim Sfeir, not even by the President or an official representative of the state (makes you wonder who truly rules the country). In a statement after the meeting, Sfeir announced that the powers that be were going to keep doing what they are doing, declaring support for Riad Salameh, and refusing any talk of haircuts or official capital controls (even though unofficial capital controls up to 300$/week on small depositors were practically in place). Also in other words, the establishment expected to find solutions to the crisis not only by keeping the same people that were responsible for the problems, but also by keeping the same policies and status-quo that led to the crisis itself.

And while exchange shops had their own strike on Friday, the gas stations continued with their strike that had been ongoing since Thursday, leading to major uproar in the country and protests regarding the fuel situation, with cars running out of fuel blocking roads, even forcing some stations to reopen. Elsewhere in the country, protests in front of state institutions were still going strong, while Nada Boustani of the FPM, caretaker minister of energy, finally took a decision to contain the outrage of a population that was finding harder and harder to find an open gas station, and announced that she was going to hold a public tender on Monday, which aims to supply around 10% of the country’s needs, a first in import-dependent Lebanon, where private companies usually procure fuel.

But that was a temporary measure that need sometime to be enforced, so in order to distract the people from the financial issues and to ease the financial blame on the political class, the FPM resorted to the refugees card, an old tactic Bassil used while the budget was being discussed earlier in 2019, holding an anti-refugee protest outside the delegation of the European Union to Lebanon.

Saturday, November 30 – Day 45: When Civil Wars Don’t Work, Blame Refugees

The day after Boustani’s announcement, drivers lined up in their vehicles to buy fuel Saturday morning, as the two-day strike at gas stations came to an end. The establishment had yet again managed to somehow contain another crisis that threatened the ruling class’s power once more, and it was proving harder and harder to contain the political consequences of the economic situation. It was now almost impossible for the ruling class to hide the financial situation under the mattress.

With the failure of other methods, another anti-refugee protest by the ruling parties was organized for the second consecutive day (hours after OTV was attacked with a Molotov cocktail in the early hours of the morning), which meant another shift in the counter-revolution’s strategy. After trying to sectarianize the protests and to use civil war scare tactics earlier in the week, the ruling parties changed methods and had started to resort to refugee scapegoating by the end of the last week of November.

In fact, the civil war scare tactics proved to be outdated as the protesters had found an interesting way of countering them: After the Ain El Remmaneh-Chiyah march on Wednesday, another Mother’s unity march was organized on Saturday from Christian-majority Ashrafieh to Shia-majority Khandak El Ghamik, across the ring road, site of the clashes a week earlier on Sunday night.

 It was also proving much harder to the authorities to resort to repression: Dana Hammoud, an activist that had been arrested on Friday after a clash with an ISF police member, was released on Saturday after hours of protests asking for her release.(although in the Rest House case, many protesters were still under arrest)

Sunday, December 1 – Day 46: Sundays are for the Momentum

After a week of scare tactics and refugee scapegoating, the seventh Sunday of the revolution was key for keeping the revolution’s momentum alive, and it lived up to the expectations: Beirut’s central squares were filled with protesters Sunday evening in numbers not seen in the capital for days, as thousands flocked to Riad al-Solh and Martyrs’ squares waving Lebanese flags and blasting the most popular protest anthems on the 46th day of the national uprising. Protests around the country as well as three marches in Beirut were enough to remind everyone that revolution wasn’t ending any soon. Meanwhile in Baabda, pro-Sabaa protesters and pro-FPM protesters clashed again next to the Presidential palace, for the second time in a week, with the army eventually forming a human chain separating both groups.

And while the president was yet to call for parliamentary consultations, the political class had to cope with harsh criticism time from the Maronite patriarch on Sunday, with Rai calling on Lebanese politicians to put the country and its people above all other concerns and form a small salvation government, blaming them for the economic and financial crisis.

Monday, December 2 – Day 47: Vacancy, Hunger and Prosecutions

Lebanon woke up in anger on Monday after news broke out that a man had committed suicide Sunday night in Arsal because of poverty and the deteriorating economic conditions of the country. Everyone seemed to care about that incident and the worsening economic crisis it represented – Everyone except the decision-making Lebanese politicians. In fact, the 2nd of December was the first weekday of the new month, and thus marked a milestone of procrastination by the ruling political class: Lebanon had now spent an entire calendar month without a designated Prime Minister, and the vacancy in the premiership was slowly turning into a new status quo.

Almost a week after he became the main candidate for the premiership by the establishment parties, Khatib was still visiting and meeting the Zuamas to figure out their demands regarding the next cabinet. Khatib’s task was more difficult than another politician tasked of forming a government, as he was doing two things at the same time: He was trying to please the powers that be, but he was also making sure they agree on his candidacy. In fact, Khatib seemed to have been tasked with the awkward responsibility of forming a government (or at least an outline of government) without even being officially designated as Prime Minister. That task, although being a clear violation of the constitution, seemed however to be the prerequisite for Khatib to become Prime Minister.

For a country on the verge of starvation, the call from the President on Monday to Prosecute those spreading “bad publicity” of the Lebanese currency seemed at the same naïve and irresponsible. The Lira’s value was fluctuating at extreme rates at the exchange shops (hitting 2350 to the Dollar on Thursday and then going down to 2000 to the Dollar on Monday), destabilizing the entire economic system, starving the poorest in Lebanon, and causing a massive inflation in the economy, yet all the establishment cared about was how to prosecute those who speak ill of a financial system. The economic crisis was threatening the core of the Lebanese political system and the only thing the ruling found useful to do was to enforce denial through prosecutions and repression. Anyhow, Monday starts with Boustani postponing by a week the tender offer by the state to import gasoline (in order to allow more competition, after only two companies submitted bids), and ends with the Associated Press reporting that Washington had finally released $105 million in military aid to the Lebanese Army, after the United States had withheld that aid for more than a month. Elsewhere in the country, the revolution was still ongoing with protesters demonstrating outside state institutions.

Tuesday, December 3 – Day 48: The Return of the Frenemies

On the 3rd of December 2019, the FPM and the Future Movement, after 3 years of peace, love, and sharing power, remembered that they were once enemies. The Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement engaged in a new war of words Monday and Tuesday, after the FPM-affiliated broadcaster OTV criticized a number of Lebanon’s past premiers, including caretaker PM Saad Hariri.  This was followed by Ahmad Hariri’s accusation of the FPM of trying to incite sectarian strife by blaming premiers and the premiership for Lebanon’s deteriorating situation, via the Sunday-evening news bulletin.

The FPM and the FM had thus decided to resume the media war they had started earlier on the 18th of November (when FPM MPs started criticizing Hariri on the eve of a scheduled parliamentary session for amnesty). Recreating the March 8 and March 14 divisions this time had however a bigger purpose: More than coopting protests, the ruling parties were trying to reconstruct the split between them in order to make their negotiations regarding the next Prime Minister and cabinet formation easier. At the end of the day, you can’t negotiate with your ally as much as you would with your rival.

And the negotiations were going strong that day: Jumblatt visited Berri while Samir Khatib was going forward with his round on the different leaderships in the country, meeting Bassil among other politicians, gathering support for his nomination across the political spectrum. In the afternoon, Bassil eventually gave a press conference in which he announced that the FPM was ready to give up and sacrifice all its shares if it meant that the government would be more productive. Everyone knew that Bassil was not Mother Theresa, Bassil knew that everyone knew that he was not Mother Theresa, and everyone knew that Bassil knew that everyone knew that he was not Mother Theresa, but all in all, it was probably the first statement by Bassil that was did not spark outrage. In his statements, Bassil gave the impression that he was going to stick to the protester’s demands of an independent government (by hinting that the FPM was ready not to participate), but history tells a different story. It would be naïve to believe that the FPM was finally ready to get out of power so easily, when it is a party that blocked the Presidential elections twice – for a combined time of 3 years – to get Michel Aoun elected, while delaying time after time all the cabinet formations to ensure that all their demands for shares were met.

While the ruling parties were still jockeying for power in denial, the revolution was still ongoing on its 48th day, with protests still happening across the country, intensifying late at night with roadblocks being set up on the ring road after rumors that Khatib was given the green light by major ruling parties to form a government (that was basically a recycled version of the one before it) started circulating in the media.

Wednesday, December 4 – Day 49 (Updated till 2PM): The (Not-so-) Great Cabinet Outline

Lebanon woke up on the 49th day of the revolution with news of a potential cabinet outline that has been greenlighted by the ruling parties. The rumored cabinet, headed by Samir Khatib, was – long story short – a short horror story. According to leaks to the media, the government would include representatives of every major party – even the PSP, officially, and Hariri, unofficially via Samir Khatib’s share – with controversial names such as Ali Hassan Khalil, the minister of finance who has been in the driving seat of Lebanon’s chaotic finances for the past 5 years, staying in power.

The government would be led by Samir Khatib, a pro-Hariri contractor tycoon with shady deals with the political class, basically a 2019 version of Fouad Siniora, while representatives of the Hirak (the protesters’ movement) would be given 3 seats out of a 24-seat government – the 3 seats of the Lebanese Forces. The FPM would be given 7 seats as well as another seat for the President and another for Arslan, which means the Bassil – although not participating in the government – would still effectively control all decisions by securing the blocking third.

Even after 49 days, the ruling parties were still finding it difficult to understand how to deal with the revolution. Buried in their own denial, they still called it Hirak, and not Intifada or Revolution. They also still thought that the people were protesting to share some seats with them, when the entire idea of the revolution was to break the wheel of pie-sharing and quotas. The ruling parties also thought that the people would not see through their attempts to recycle the previous government into another cabinet, picking a contractor for Prime Minister – literally one of the most unpopular job descriptions for the premiership in a week that saw many Lebanese commit suicide because of the deteriorating economy. And just like the case of Safadi, the former Prime Ministers of Lebanon (Mikati, Siniora, Salam) criticized (after a green light from Hariri?) Khatib of violating the constitution by agreeing on entering consultations over the shape and the members of the new government before being (officially) tasked with the formation. Aoun quickly responded to those accusations, hitting back at the three former premiers, and rejecting their implicit accusation that the president has violated the Constitution and the Taif Accord. The President had finally settled on an agreement and was taking it upon himself to safeguard the new deal before something similar to what happened with Safadi, happens too to Khatib.

And how much did the President want that particular deal to stand? Once it became (more or less) clear how the new government would be shared among the ruling class, the President urgently (and finally) officially called for parliamentary consultations on Wednesday afternoon, after a month and one week of delay. The President wanted to name Khatib quickly before the new favorite candidate becomes the least favorite one, especially that the Mikati-Salam-Siniora trio had begun a media war on Khatib in the morning, a method that previously had culminated in the abortion of the Safadi cabinet 10 days earlier.

72 Days and 72 Hours

On the 18th of October 2019, Saad El Hariri gave a speech that would arguably define his 3rd term as Prime Minister: Surrounded by heavy and ongoing protests in Riad El Solh and martyrs square, he gave himself 72 hours to find a solution to the crisis. But how did we exactly get here?

An unproductive July ends – 72 Days to the 17th of October

On the first of August, President Aoun warned the Lebanese about a looming economic crisis, describing it as the biggest danger ahead, meeting the IMF director the following day, and then calling the Lebanese in the same 24 hour margin to temporarily give up some economic and financial perks. For a country that was about to start figuring out the 2020 budget, his statement was not the most politically smart thing to say from a ruling President. Nevertheless, the priorities of Lebanese politicians had officially started changing from sectarian bickering to figuring out financial measures: Probably for the first time in decades, the way things were being handled shifted the public opinion from petty politics to financial panic. And yet even in the middle of the financial panic and talks of austerity, the monetary mismanagement continued: The Telecom minister Mohamad Choucair announced he had bought a building to house a state owned telecoms company… for 75 million dollars.

That same week, and while Joumblatt and Arslan were still bickering about the Basatin clashes in the Chouf, a trash collection crisis, this time in the northern districts of the country was unraveling, and it seemed that the country was heading towards events similar to 2015.

Meanwhile, the new balance of powers in parliament and in cabinet as well as the shifting discourse among Lebanese politicians had led to clashes in the Chouf between Joumblatt’s supporters and Arslan’s. In the correct sectarian universe of Lebanese politics, the political crisis between both parties over the Basatin incident would have led to the collapse of the government. Instead, Lebanese politicians somehow saw through the crisis, and the cabinet, after more than 1 month of deadlock, finally met on the 10th of August, in one of the quickest turns of events possible: First Jumblatt said he wasn’t going to meet Arslan in Baabda, then Aoun said he wasn’t going to accept that a meeting happens in Baabda, then Arslan refused to meet Jumblatt in Baabda…then this happened:

While Lebanon avoided full-blown military clashes, the political class had yet again chosen to put aside its differences and work together in the Hariri cabinet. That meant they had lost a month and a half of reform – the cabinet hadn’t met since the 30th of June – without actually properly making use of a political event that could have helped them mobilize against each other and distract the population from the more important crisis that was about to unravel.

August 12: Is the Lira stable? – 66 Days till the 17th of October

After Aoun warned the country that they were going to have to “sacrifice” for the sake of the economy in early August, rumors about an imminent devaluation of the Lira – which were already there – started flying around, with the President confirming on the 12th of August that he was endeavoring to maintain the value of the Lebanese pound, explaining that he has not resorted to a law which condemns rumors shaking the status of the LBP in a bid to “preserve freedoms.” Meanwhile in the North, politicians tried to divert the true core of the trash crisis (mismanagement) into something else, sowing sectarian discontent regarding the location of a new landfill (Christian vs. Muslim town), in a desperate quest to keep things from spiraling into what happened in 2015 in Beirut, trying to convert a trash collection crisis into a sectarian one.

August 23: The great downgrade – 55 Days till the 17th of October

Despite calls from the President and his party that reform was on the way and reassurances from the speaker about the great financial stability in the most serene republic of Lebanon, the great shock (not that shocking though) came with the Fitch agency’s downgrade of Lebanon’s rating from B- to CCC, with S&P saying that the outlook remains negative. Yet elsewhere in the republic of denial, business had been booming: From the President’s summer residence in the mountains of Beiteddine, the cabinet met on the 22nd of August, with 46 items on its agenda, and appointed members of the constitutional council. The political crisis that almost sent the country into a Civil War a month earlier was nowhere to be seen: Joumblatt and Aoun met with happiness and joy in the Chouf on the 24th of August, and an agreement was made to address the economy as a priority – That makes you wonder how bad the economy was doing for them to meet and agree.

August 25: Who needs the economy when you can have a war – 53 days till the 17th of October

The country hadn’t yet managed to process the new Fitch downgrade when, on the 25th of August 2019, Israeli drones – probably for reasons related to the upcoming Israeli elections – attacked Beirut’s southern suburbs, severely damaging Hezbollah’s media offices. Soon after, reports emerged of Israeli airstrikes on Syria that killed 2 Hezbollah fighters. Then, less than 24 hours later, Israel struck again a PFLP base in the Bekaa. Reports then emerged that Hezbollah was planning a retaliation, with Nasrallah promising a retaliation from within Lebanese territories, and then on the 1st of September, Hezbollah retaliated by launching missiles into Israel, with the (pro-government/pro-Aoun/pro-Hezbollah) higher defense council giving Hezbollah the green light earlier that week. The tit-for-tat didn’t last much longer, with the attention of everyone shifting again to the economy and new U.S. sanctions – this time on Jammal Trust Bank leading to the liquidation of the Bank. Almost 24 hours after the Lebanese south almost went to war with Israel, Lebanon’s Zuamas found themselves yet again declaring a state of economic emergency – Again, that makes you wonder how bad the economy was doing for Hezbollah and the FM to change the discourse when they could have used the momentum much more than they did.

September 4: War and reconciliation – 43 days till the 17th of October

On the 4th of September, the troubles struck again in the mountain when PSP and LDP members clashed yet again in the Chouf. This time though, the endless cycle of confrontation and reconciliation was a quick one: Gebran Bassil and Taymour met with happiness and joy only 48 hours later, a reconciliation that was afterwards blessed by Berri and Hezbollah.

Lebanese politicians – while emphasizing how serious the economic crisis was – were at the same time using every possible opportunity to banalize their sectarian feuds. If they can take the country to war and then kiss each other so easily, are they really rivals, or sadistic manipulators?

Through the sudden acceleration of the cycle of war and reconciliation, the Lebanese establishment – born out of the violence of the Civil War – had fallen into its own trap. The ruling parties were so blinded by their quest for power that they forgot that it were their sectarian rivalries that kept their electorates behind them, and decided instead to share power and send a message of dysfunctional unity at the worst possible time ever: When the country was on the verge of a financial and economic crisis.

September 9: Austerity and clientelism- 38 days till the 17th of October

It is thus with a collective image of united sadistic manipulators that the Lebanese cabinet decided to start discussing the 2020 budget, an austerity budget destined to unlock the long awaited Cedre funds. Guess what? While the government was drafting up the budget, it also took the opportunity to try to collectively pass new appointments – which basically translated into your regular-day-clientelism.

September 18: Luxury and collaboration – 31 days till the 17th of October

Because it wasn’t enough for Lebanese politicians to send weekly reminders that they were united sadistic clientelist manipulators intent on passing an austerity budget in the middle of an economic crisis, the President, in an act of extreme audacity, travels to the New York General Assembly with an extremely large delegation (so much for austerity), while in Beirut, there is unprecedented public outrage when media outlets point out around the 18th of September that the return of one of the most infamous Israeli collaborators to Lebanon has been facilitated by the powers ruling the republic. Can it get worse?

September 27: It can indeed get worse – 22 days till the 17th of October

Rumors about an imminent crash and devaluation of the Lira are everywhere. The demand for Dollars in the market is unprecedented, a dollar shortage exacerbates and a black market among Serrafs develops, with the Dollar getting a much higher exchange rate than the classic 1507 LBP peg. Lebanese millers say wheat reserves fall due to the ongoing ‘dollar problem’. The country, in panic, has to listen to the President, on his way from his non-austerity trip to New York, saying that he ignores what was happening back home, throwing the responsibilities on the governor of the BDL and the Amal-backed finance minister. In the middle of the financial panic, rumors – probably sponsored by members of the establishment in order to keep the criticism in check – blame the dollar shortage…on Syrian refugees. Even for the Lebanese establishment, that was extremely low.

September 30: Love you my Saad 17 days till the 17th of October.

But racism and sectarianism are no longer enough for Lebanese politicians to contain the crisis. On September 30, the New York Times leaked a story that involves a 16 million dollar transaction between the Prime Minister and a South African model in 2013. An email from the model read “Love you my Saad”, but for a Lebanese population suffering a currency crisis, now exchanging the Dollar at 1600 LBP in the black market, you can say there wasn’t as much love for the Prime Minister from the people anymore as you would imagine – especially that Hariri had suspended the works at his TV outlet, Future TV, exactly 10 days earlier, due to financial difficulties.

October 11: The dollar and the strikes – 6 days till the 17th of October

On the 11th October, a third strike in less than three weeks by the owners of the Gas Stations paralyzed the country, with the Syndicate of Gas Station Owners protesting that suppliers were only selling them fuel in dollar. 3 days later, on Monday 14th, bakery owners started their own strike due to the lack of dollars in the market. Hariri managed to suspend the strikes with the help of BDL and some financial engineering, but that turned out to be the least of his worries for that week.

October 15: The wildest wildfires the country has ever seen – 2 days till the 17th of October

Lebanon woke up on the morning of the 15th of October to the news of Wildfires ravaging the country from North to South, with Firefighters battling massive fires in several areas in the country, before moderate rains in the evening brought them under control in most affected areas. The forest fires, the worst to have hit the country in decades, were facilitated by the fact that the officials hadn’t kept up with the maintenance of some firefighting jets and equipment. With more than 100 blazes erupting from north to south over the past two days, Raymond Khattar, the director-general of Lebanon’s Civil Defence, described the forest fires as the worst to have hit the country in decades. At least one man died from suffocation after battling a fire in the city of Aley for several hours. Lebanese media also reported that a woman had lost her life after being run over by a fire truck in the southern coastal city of Sidon.

To make things worse, the environmental disaster came days after the environment minister asked citizens who have been criticizing the horrible mismanagement related to the trash crisis “to shut up”, and weeks after the contractors started destroying one of Lebanon’s most beautiful valleys, the Bisri valley, in order to build a billion dollar Dam on a seismic fault line (The things politicians do for money…)

THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 17

You are a regular Lebanese citizen. You wake up on the morning of the 17th of October. Instead of just worrying as usual about the horrible traffic you have to endure due to the lack of an efficient transportation plan, today you’re also worrying about a possible gas station strike. Should you fill up, just in case they do a surprise strike? You decide to move on. It’s not a good idea to be anxious about everything, they say. On your way to work, you stop next to the bakery to get some bread – you never know if the bakery owners will go on strike this week. But you should also pay your car loan. You head to the bank. The bank refuses to take your hard-earned Lira because the market is unstable. You have to go to the friendly neighborhood serraf, who charges at least 100L.L. more than the official peg due to the shortage of dollars in the market. As you head back to the bank, you bask in the view: The entire mountain in front of you has burned during the past two days. It’s okay, you tell yourself, mountains burn. It’s how things are. At least you have your Whatsapp that you can use to call your wife and tell her that you have successfully secured the bread supplies for the day. It’s a sunny day. You turn on the radio. The government wants to impose more taxes in the 2020 budget. They even plan on…taxing Whatsapp. You change the radio channel, and listen to a talk-show discussing how the politician you voted for in order to “protect your sect’s interests” had given 16 Million dollars to a South African model. So you start thinking, why couldn’t have you been that model. Why does the model get 16 million dollars, while the bank wouldn’t take your hard-earned lira? Why are the people rightfully criticizing the financial crisis being sued? Why are you stuck in this country, and how did it get to this, and more importantly, why should it be you who should pay the extra taxes and take the fall for the austerity measures?

There’s never a crisis for those who share the spoils

On the 18th of October 2019, Saad El Hariri gave a speech that would arguably define his 3rd term as Prime Minister: Surrounded by heavy and ongoing protests in Riad El Solh and martyrs square, he gave himself 72 hours to find a solution to the crisis.

But crisis is a small word to describe what the country has been going through for the past decades, and while the very bad mismanagement in the recent era did not help the cause of the ruling parties, they finally found themselves surrounded by angry protesters in unprecedented numbers in every corner of the country. For the past two decades, the ruling Lebanese parties have taken their power for granted, bickering among themselves and splitting the cake differently every time a political development happens in the country, turning the tables on each other for some time and then sitting on the same table other times. Sectarianism is a powerful tool, but for any Lebanese politician, it is only as powerful as the time rival politicians spend on the other sides of the barricade. Once they join hands and abandon their sectarian diatribes in (so called) unity governments, the shallow sectarian logic becomes vulnerable as a tool of dissent and gives way to the public opinion to criticize the collective failures. Thus, the Zaim loses his sectarian identity as protector of the sect, and the political leaderships blob together into one big cesspool of collective responsibility for the failure of the state.

All of the ruling Lebanese establishment – aside from some few exceptions, in their bid to share whatever spoils the country has to offer, have refused to be part of an opposition since the resignation of the Mikati government in March 2013. In order to avoid missing out on the spoils, the ruling political parties – all of them at some point – have decided to take part in three consecutive unity governments, while changing alliances between one another at a frightening pace: The FM allying the Marada, then the LF allying the FPM, then the FPM allying the FM, then Amal breaking their alliance with the FPM and siding with the PSP, all in less than a year, for the sole purpose of controlling the presidency and the perks that come with it. In the middle of the presidential crisis of 2014-2016, the Lebanese establishment, through the unity government of Tammam Salam, tasted the first fruit of leaving the opposition seats empty in the country: A trash collection crisis led to weeks of protests that almost brought down a government already weakened by a constitutional crisis. Lebanese politicians, blinded by power and their cartel-like policy of splitting everything – including the very cabinet that rules the country, had to hear protesters sing the famous chant of “كلن يعني كلن” (literal translation: Everyone means everyone, a chant criticizing the political class as a whole) for the first time, disregarding it time and time again until the trash demonstrations died out and the political parties figured out together a new political settlement in 2016.

The return of the blob

The raison d’être of the classical Lebanese politician has always been the sectarian rivalry that they ignited among them, with their halo as protectors of sectarian interests being their main tool to gather support. If the first warning that this halo was fading away was the 2015 protests, the second warning – and the more serious one – came in the 2016 municipal elections: For the first time in the recent history of the country, a unity list representing all of the ruling parties lost almost a third of Beirut’s votes to a list spearheaded by the people who had mobilized a year earlier during the trash crisis. That served as a warning for Lebanese politicians, who came back to their common sense of sectarianism and ran against each other in the 2018 elections – instead of creating unity lists like the one in Beirut in 2016. It wasn’t quite the March 8/March 14 divide that had bitterly divided the country a decade earlier, but it was the closest possible thing to it: The LF ran against the FPM, Hezbollah ran against the FM, and almost everyone else ran with everyone and against everyone, depending on the district. Some alliances didn’t really make any sense, but the ruling parties managed to keep the parliament under their same control, with the help of a new electoral law designed to invest in sectarianism, by bringing back the old civil war and sectarian feuds between the ruling parties.

It worked. While a lot of faces changed in the parliament, and the balance of power among the members of the establishment had dramatically shifted, the end product was a success: The same parties were still in control. After 5 years of parliamentary extensions, their presence in Nejmeh square was finally ‘legitimate’ once again.

Taking power for granted

But they disregarded the warnings of August 2015 and April 2016. The ruling parties took their power for granted, and – in the spirit of greed and distrust of one another – decided to share power once again, knowing that unity governments have never worked, not in 2008, not in 2009, not in 2014, and not in 2016, and that – out of experience – the government formation would take lots of time. And it did. To cover up the 8 months lost to form the cabinet (Theoretically, almost 20% of the new parliament’s term), the ruling parties actually started working together on reform plans to unlock the Cedre funds, drafting up an ambitious electricity plan as well as the 2019 budget (a budget that was supposed to be an austerity one, instead turning into something else entirely).

After 12 years of disregarding the economy and finances of the country through bitter policy blocking for the sake of petty politics (No state budget was voted between 2005 and 2016 as the March 8 and March 14 powers were struggling for power), the ruling parties had decided out of greed – in an act of complete and utter political stupidity – to share power, and leave the opposition seat empty, when the country finally reached the tipping point of the Financial and Economic crisis.

Only Gebran Bassil – as uncharismatic as he is – saw the danger of Lebanese politicians coming together and abandoning their apparent rivalries in times of economic crises: Forced to keep his sectarian tone under control due to the FPM’s alliances with the Sunni-backed FM and the Shia-backed Hezbollah, Bassil found his new raison d’etre, progressively developing it over the first months of 2019, by mobilizing against Syrian refugees and using racism as a tool to divide and conquer instead of sectarianism.

For too long, Lebanese politicians have taken everything for granted – and that includes their wealth, power, and popular support. When the protests erupted on the 17th of October over the suggested Whatsapp tax, they probably thought that the few skirmishes and demonstrations would end in less than hours. Yet here we are, days into the biggest and most decentralized demonstrations Lebanon has seen in ages. It turns out in the end that there is something called going too far for the Lebanese establishment.

First as a tragedy, then as a farce

The sin that brought down the current political class in the eyes of the Lebanese was however more about arrogance than it was about greed. The greediness among the politicians has been happening for at least 3 decades now, but it is their arrogance that made them weaker. Lebanese politicians, blinded by power, have been slowly abandoning parts of their sectarian-protecting halo – their only true shield – in favor of unity governments, keeping the opposition seat empty and ripe for the taking for 5 years now – since 2014.

With no serious organized sectarian opposition in place and all of the ruling parties sharing power, the establishment finally exposed itself as a corrupt blob splitting the cake, turning its very own electorate against it. With the collective endorsement of the new taxes in the cabinet, the last piece holding the domino of their authority, which was clientelism and political benefits, collapsed.

At the end of the day, if your Zaim will sell the sect for some properties and won’t get you the job you want, while also taxing you for everything you do, what is exactly the purpose of the Zaim?

Lebanese cabinets survive assassination attempts, they survive foreign invasions, they survive civil wars. One thing they cannot and will not survive are economic crisis. Omar Karami and Saad Hariri might have been bitter rivals, but both share the same story. In May 1992, Omar Karami resigned under heavy pressure in a country plagued by an economic and financial crisis.

These 27 year old excerpts from an article by the New York Times only show you how Hariri is doomed to suffer the same fate as the man who was Prime Minister when his father was assassinated.

“The Lebanese Government resigned today after two days of nationwide riots over the worst economic crisis the country has experienced in years.

The Prime Minister announced his resignation here after angry demonstrators tried to storm his residence and the neighboring villa of the President. Soldiers and policemen guarding the officials fired over the heads of the protesters to disperse them.

Big clouds of black smoke hung over Beirut after thousands of demonstrators burned rubber tires, and set up roadblocks to stop traffic. All roads leading in and out of the capital were closed and large-scale disruptions were reported in all parts of Lebanon from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. Protests were also held in most Christian districts after a four-day general strike was called by labor unions as of Tuesday. Shops, banks, schools and offices were shut. Marches quickly turned into riots as demonstrators broke up in bands who went around smashing bank signs. Most of the glass doors and windows in a building housing the Chamber of Commerce in mainly Muslim West Beirut were broken.

In the Christian part of town, a crowd of several hundred people tried to attack the residence of the Justice Minister but were turned back by the police. In Tyre, demonstrators on Tuesday attacked and set ablaze the residence of the Finance Minister. […]

The Government’s resignation leaves the country, with its civil war wounds still unhealed, in a power vacuum. Officials said the Prime Minister had not intended to step down until agreement had been reached on a new Cabinet, but that today’s riots, which involved his own home, speeded the resignation.

Popular fury had erupted over the near collapse of the national currency and soaring prices of essential commodities. The value of the Lebanese pound in relation to foreign exchange has been on the decline for the last three months, but in the last two days it slumped to an all-time low, selling at over 2,000 pounds to one American dollar compared to one third that rate at the beginning of the year.

Shops and gasoline stations refused to deal in Lebanese pounds and insisted on being paid in dollars.

An empty treasury after years of civil war plus lack of foreign assistance and reluctance by investors to pour money into the Lebanese market have contributed to what amounts to a real depression. The Government’s inflationary policies, such as increasing the salaries of civil servants by 120 percent at the beginning of the year, have been cited by economists and politicians alike as the real cause for the crisis.”

Protest Lebanon, Protest. I am getting tired of writing about the same politicians and their maneuvers for the past decade. We need this change. For our sake, and the sake of all those who had to leave the country to find the better quality of life we had been denied for so long. Thawra!

Burn the Witch

Bombshell from the Battle of Arsal, offered to Bassil from Hezbollah in order to be used as a Vase – May 2019

“The Lebanese Government resigned today after two days of nationwide riots over the worst economic crisis the country has experienced in years.

The Prime Minister announced his resignation here after angry demonstrators tried to storm his residence and the neighboring villa of the President. Soldiers and policemen guarding the officials fired over the heads of the protesters to disperse them.

Big clouds of black smoke hung over Beirut after thousands of demonstrators burned rubber tires, and set up roadblocks to stop traffic. All roads leading in and out of the capital were closed and large-scale disruptions were reported in all parts of Lebanon from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. Protests were also held in most Christian districts after a four-day general strike was called by labor unions as of Tuesday. Shops, banks, schools and offices were shut. Marches quickly turned into riots as demonstrators broke up in bands who went around smashing bank signs. Most of the glass doors and windows in a building housing the Chamber of Commerce in mainly Muslim West Beirut were broken.

In the Christian part of town, a crowd of several hundred people tried to attack the residence of the Justice Minister but were turned back by the police. In Tyre, demonstrators on Tuesday attacked and set ablaze the residence of the Finance Minister. […]

The Government’s resignation leaves the country, with its civil war wounds still unhealed, in a power vacuum. Officials said the Prime Minister had not intended to step down until agreement had been reached on a new Cabinet, but that today’s riots, which involved his own home, speeded the resignation.

Popular fury had erupted over the near collapse of the national currency and soaring prices of essential commodities. The value of the Lebanese pound in relation to foreign exchange has been on the decline for the last three months, but in the last two days it slumped to an all-time low, selling at over 2,000 pounds to one American dollar compared to one third that rate at the beginning of the year.

Shops and gasoline stations refused to deal in Lebanese pounds and insisted on being paid in dollars.

An empty treasury after years of civil war plus lack of foreign assistance and reluctance by investors to pour money into the Lebanese market have contributed to what amounts to a real depression. The Government’s inflationary policies, such as increasing the salaries of civil servants by 120 percent at the beginning of the year, have been cited by economists and politicians alike as the real cause for the crisis.”

Close your eyes. Keep them closed. Imagine a small Mediterranean country – Beautiful shores (minus the trash), sunny roadtrips (minus the potholes), majestic landscapes (minus the quarries), friendly people (minus the civil war), beautiful archaeology (minus everything they’re dismantling). You can live with all those things – But you can’t live without money. Now open your eyes, and imagine that country broke. Imagine a devaluated currency. Imagine a government that can’t pay wages. Imagine an economic collapse. Imagine a financial tsunami. Imagine riots. Imagine banks and government offices being burned down.

Can’t imagine all those things? It’s Okay. They say imagination is only abundant among Lebanese politicians on the eve of elections (remember Hariri’s 900000 job opportunities?).

So since you are probably not a Lebanese politician, the quote above, from a New York Times article, was actually describing Lebanon on the 7th of May 1992 – I simply removed the names of the politicians who were in charge back then.

This is how the financial abyss looks like for the Lebanese and their politicians – and it never ends well. A lot has changed since the economic collapse of 1992 , but the only thing that has been stable for the past 30 years in Lebanon has been the Lira. It turns out, however, that you don’t need a 15 year Civil War to destroy a country’s economy. 30 years of corruption, uncontrolled public spending and squandering, chaotic debts and ignorance of the country’s financial woes can apparently lead to the same ending. By the end of 2018, and after more than a decade of ignoring state budgets in favor of bickering who gets to rule the country, Lebanese politicians started to realize that they had left the country in a financial and economic mess in the process – and that they were the ones who had to deal with the situation. Cash-flow was needed – so the CEDRE conference happened, but for the CEDRE funds to be unlocked, reforms were necessary. And for a party that changed the name of its parliamentary bloc from “Change and reform” to ” Strong Lebanon” after 13 years, reform was apparently not supposed to be a priority for the FPM – and yet here we are.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown

Gebran Bassil spent 15 years fighting his way into the Parliament, and it took his father-in-law twice that time to maneuver his way into Baabda palace. But by the first of February 2019, both had finally made it – The FPM controlled the presidency, had the biggest bloc in parliament, the swing vote and the blocking third in the government – and with the help of its allies, was finally in command of the Republic. For the first time in ages, Gebran Bassil’s party had total control and was 3 years safe from a parliamentary election or a parliamentary one. Although it looked as if the Syrian regime was back in command, for the FPM, the war was finally won. But with great power, comes great anxiety. Just like every Maronite who is past the age of puberty, the ambitions of Gebran Bassil don’t stop at the gates of Batroun’s parliamentary seat. You don’t need a PhD in nuclear physics to know that Bassil wants to succeed his father-in-law as President – and three obstacles stand in his way.

  • The first obstacle is the agreement that Aoun made with Geagea just before he became President, an agreement that made Geagea the second-in-command in the Christian scene and the de-facto heir to Michel Aoun’s presidency.
  • The second obstacle is that Bassil has very little support outside his political party. Geagea sees him as a competition in his own constituencies, Frangieh and Gemayel as an existential threat to what remains of their political influence. For Joumblatt, he’s arrogantly encroaching on the Joumblattist ancestral lands in the Chouf – making major electoral progress in the 2018 elections. For Berri he is a political newcomer who threatens the status-quo that the speaker has established for three decades. For Hariri, he is a timed political bomb in a fractured government, and for Hezbollah, only the heir to a political alliance that defined Lebanese politics for a decade and a half but grows weary with every day passing on.
  • The third major obstacle is simply due to bad luck and half a century of mismanagement. Gebran Bassil’s party is taking command at the worst possible timing in Lebanon’s modern financial history: Lebanon’s biggest economic crisis in three decades looms on the horizon, and there are only three ways out of it: The necessary financial and economic reforms will either hurt the ruling elite, the middle and low classes, or both. That is bad news for the Lebanese political clientelist-sectarian oriented system that thrives on the symbiosis of both components. Lebanese politicians have a tendency to get out of Civil Wars stronger and thrive on political crises, but there is one thing they do not come back from, and that is an economic crisis – Just ask Omar Karami.

It is the ultimate goal of any ruling party to stay in power. So with great power comes great political anxiety, and with economic crises a greater political anxiety. With greater political anxiety comes electoral panic, and electoral panic awakens the survival instinct of the Lebanese politicians – the only thing they actually brilliantly excel at: Sectarianism and racism.

Névrose de Destinée

Perhaps it is simply bad luck for Bassil’s party – after years and years of marginalization – to finally be the party in command at a time when everything is falling apart – or perhaps it’s all those years of parliamentary and government freezes that the FPM orchestrated in its quest for power that are finally coming back to haunt them. One thing is sure though: It’s not going to be an easy ride for the FPM now that they’re in power, and no matter what they do to try and fix Lebanon’s economic and financial woes, they will make a lot of enemies in the electoral constituencies where they plan on thriving in the 2022 elections. What elections, you say? Three elections: Parliamentary, municipal and – most importantly – presidential elections. Provided the ruling elite doesn’t postpone any of those elections – 2022 will be a key year in Lebanon, and a financial crash or harsh austerity budgets won’t look good for those who were there when they happened. Which is exactly why those in power had to figure out a way out.

Thor in the Republic

For the past couple of months – and especially since the third Hariri cabinet was formed – Lebanese politicians started curiously focusing on something they had previously ignored for decades: Fixing the electricity sector. Getting 24/7 electricity in the republic had always seemed like a virtual reality headline intended to recruit votes ahead of parliamentary elections, but now the ruling cabinet had been actually working very hard to come up with an electricity plan just a month after the cabinet was formed, and three years and a half before the earliest scheduled election. On April 8, the Council of Ministers finally adopted a new electricity policy paper, aimed at reforming the electricity sector. And while the plan has flaws, isn’t perfect and might very well never be implemented – it represents something very unusual in the way Lebanese politicians deal with things: (1) It’s a plan (2) that is real, (3) that was conceived right after elections, (4) and that has long-term implications. And how long-term are we talking here? 2022 is the big year for the plan. Deir Ammar 2’s output will increase to 550 MW, and power plants at Zahrani and Selaata will both come online, each producing 360 MW. This is the year that the plan forecasts EDL becoming profitable for the first time in decades. EDL’s deficit will shrink from $1.4 billion in 2019, to $574 million in 2020 and $307 million in 2021, and make humble winnings of $118 million in 2022, if everything goes according to plan.

Twenty Two Far for D-Day

But it doesn’t matter if the electricity plan works out before the elections. In Lebanon’s modern history, approximately 3 governments fall during every 4-year parliamentary term, and in Lebanese politics, 2022 is a very distant future for safeguarding our politicians’ survival in power. You can come back in 2022 and flaunt the fact that Nada Boustani’s electricity plan worked and that your party (or government) was the one who brought the the light back to Lebanon, but you’ll need another plan to power through the darkness phase until that happens (Yes, the pun was intended). But what darkness, do you ask?

NOT an Austerity Budget

” Today, it’s a trickle, and at this rate we might have a couple of years, based on published reserve numbers, but if it accelerates, which is looking likely, D-Day would strike in 2020.”

That was Dan Azzi at An-Nahar, trying to predict an approximate opening date for Lebanon’s looming fiscal fiasco. For the past year, the main focus of Lebanese lawmakers was the implementation of an “austerity” budget that would make it easier for the country to unlock the CEDRE funds. The parliament finally approved the budget on the 20th of July 2019 after 6 months of deliberations and negotiations with the representative of the different sectors.

But how do you create an austerity budget in a country like Lebanon where everything is dependent on the clientalism of those in power, and where even during official hiring freezes, thousands of employees are employed?

You don’t. You vote a regular budget and – wait for it – call it an *austerity budget* – Which is exactly what they did.

The 2019 Budget of the Lebanese republic is a lot of things, but there is one thing its is not. Unlike the official story being told by the members of the cabinet, it is not an austerity budget, and – unless a miracle happens – it will hardly influence the crisis on the horizon (for more info on the how the new budget is not an austerity one, I suggest you listen to this great podcast discussing it in detail).

The entire show mightactually be a strategy from the Lebanese cabinet to say that the 2019 “austerity” budget was not enough, as an excuse to actually implement real austerity reforms in the next budget without facing a more aggressive popular discontent than the one the government is currently dealing with. In the end, the 2020 budget should actually be discussed in a couple of months, and only time will tell if stronger fiscal measures will be taken by the government.

Goal-directed Anti-Syrian Sentiment

“Immigration is not intended to do good to mankind, but instead (aims) to harm the diversity and forgiveness in Europe and dismantle the human values that the European Union is built on.”

Lebanese politics is all about patterns and maneuvering. On the 10th of June 2016, Lebanon’s foreign minister at the time, Gebran Bassil, had one thing in mind. There was a presidential election to win, internal elections to influence, and parliamentary elections to prepare for. So he did – like any Lebanese politician would – what he does best: He played the sectarian card, and waited on results. Lebanon had a political crisis, a presidential vacancy, and a trash crisis that undermined the current political elite. For Bassil, the Syrian refugee crisis was not a burden – it was a political tool to rally the Christians around his party and to advance politically. When the foreign minister of Lebanon – a country’s whose diaspora is at least 5 times the size of the local population, a country whose economic system survives on the money coming in from its immigrants, a country that takes pride to be a population of traders and merchants – goes out and says from Finland that immigration is not intended to do good to mankind, it’s that the foreign minister either doesn’t understand how diplomacy works for a nation of immigrants, or that he willingly knows how it works and still chooses to continue with his strategy for the greater goal of personal political success.

Exactly 3 years later, in June 2019, and while Gebran Bassil was waging a different political war – having already won the presidency for his father in-law and the parliamentary elections with the party he leads – his primary strategy in achieving his goals was still the same. On the 8th of June, Bassil tweeted a video showing a crowd of FPM youth gathered outside a restaurant, singing the national anthem, calling for only Lebanese to be employed. While that was not the first time Bassil spearheaded or took advantage of the rising anti-Syrian (refugees) sentiment in the country, it was a major milestone: The FPM had found their new purpose. For years, the main objective of the FPM was centered around the idea of winning back the “Christian rights” – proposing electoral laws that maximized the Christian parties’ influence in parliament such as the Orthodox Gathering Law, blocking the presidential elections for three years in the name of getting a ” Strong Christian President in Baabda”, maneuvering like there’s no tomorrow in order to secure the maximal share of ministers appointed by the Christian parties, and finally waging an electoral battle in the name of claiming back Christian representation in Parliament. The price to pay was allying at times two of Aoun’s major rivals (Hariri and Geagea) while dropping long-term allies such as Sleiman Frangieh. Nevertheless, the FPM emerged from the political maneuvering stronger than ever, winning every single political battle in the past three years. As the leading political party among the Christians, the FPM’s struggle to maximize Christian representation in parliament and in government was naturally also a struggle to increase their influence and power across the political spectrum. And once the political influence was secured, it was time to keep it that way.

Burn the Witch

Lebanon has had Syrian refugees for 8 years now – but never in those 8 years has the anti-Syrian sentiment been so strong. For the past 6 months – curiously around the time the new austerity budget was being discussed – Bassil has been waging a political-diplomatic battle against the Syrian refugee’s presence in the country, tweeting about the issue more than Donald Trump tweets about his wall, touring the country as if it’s elections season, singlehandedly trying to raise (at the same time, in the spirit of sectarianism and coexistence – go figure) the alarm about the risk of “Tawtining the Syrian refugees” and yes, I used Tawtin as a verb, judge me if you want – before eventually getting to the point: To use the economic alibi of the Syrian presence in the country to his advantage. In his tweet on the 2nd of June, Bassil asked to protect the Lebanese labor force – indirectly (not that indirectly anyway) blaming the unemployment on the Syrian refugees, and – by simple generalization – throwing the entire weight of the Lebanese fiscal and economic crisis on the Syrian refugees. After years of political vertigo, the FPM had finally found their new raison d’être, their distraction and way out of the financial crisis. No more Christian rights to collect? Talk about the refugees. Unemployment problems? Talk about the refugees. Fiscal problems? Refugees. Too much immigration? Refugees. Too much debt? Refugees. Want to distract the entire republic from possible austerity measures? Refugees. For the past two months, The FPM’s politicians, spearheaded by Bassil, have been on an endless adventure focused on the refugee crisis. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here – You might as well check Gebran Bassil’s entire twitter feed that has somehow metamorphosed in the past couple of months into an anti Syrian refugee blog). In fact, Gebran Bassil went so far in his campaign that he started talking about a genetic feeling of belonging to Lebanon that only the Lebanese would understand.

This was not quite Nazi Germany, but in their quest to consolidate their newly-found power, The FPM needed to create a new “witch” for them to burn in times of crisis, a non-Lebanese threat, a scapegoat, something to keep the Lebanese busy with, a new raison d’être – especially that there are no Christian rights to collect anymore. The legend of 1975 also says that using Muslim refugees as a boogeyman is a nice way to unite Christian under your banner.

Choose Your Scapegoat

In fact, the FPM went so far in their anti-Syrian rhetoric that the Washington Post described them in an article on the 26th of June as “ultranationalists“. And the very fact that the FPM politicians were now seen as the right-wingers among the Christian parties did not go well down with the traditional right-wingers, the Lebanese Forces. The FPM has always been seen as the centrist, moderate Christian party, but now it became so ambitious and wanted to gather all Christian factions under its wing – the right wingers and the centrists.

So how would the Lebanese Forces respond to the rising “ultranationalist” side of the FPM? By reminding the country that there was only one true right-wing party among the Christians, and that is the party led by Samir Geagea: In what seemed like a move that was out of the blue, the LF’s representative in the ministry, Camille Abou Sleiman, decided in July to crackdown on illegal Palestinian refugee workers, causing uproar in the camps and leading the Palestinians to go on a general strike. But Abou Sleiman’s move was not a miscalculated one, nor was it out of the blue. Through his sectarian and racist campaign, Gebran Bassil had miraculously activated the dormant Lebanese Forces and started a sick game where the Christian parties would now compete on who can crackdown more on refugees.

Every Lebanese party needs a scapegoat, and it seems the LF and the FPM had found theirs. So if the FPM was going to be seen as the party that led the country to the financial abyss, they might as well blame someone else for it, and show themselves as the ones trying to fix that refugee problem in the process. You only burn the witch after 8 years if you want that devaluated Lira to go unnoticed.

The Silence of the Lambs

While the FPM was gaining grounds in their newly found political purpose, Saad Hariri was surprisingly letting his foreign affairs minister run his affairs unchecked (pun intended, again). Aside from a few critical remarks to Bassil by calling his comments racist, Hariri did absolutely nothing else to contain the anti-Syrian sentiment.

Hariri and Bassil share the same cabinet together, and Bassil’s Machiavellian tactics are intended to save the face of the government that is Hariri’s before anyone else. Is it also that wise to clash with someone who can command a majority of the parliament votes? Hariri lost the elections and his presence in cabinet depends on two things now: The presidential settlement with the FPM, and his achievements towards the public. Providing cover for Gebran Bassil’s maneuvering allows him to consolidate both things; The alliance with the FPM, and a possible distraction in case the financial woes get bigger for the government. In the end, any crisis would hurt the Prime Minister’s career more than anyone else. In any other situation Bassil’s political campaign against Muslim refugees would have led to a divide between Lebanon’s Muslim and Christian parties and would have driven Lebanon to the brink of a Civil War, but this time keeping the PM’s seat will come at a price for Hariri, and if it’s not gonna be the Lebanese Lira, it will have to be Syrian refugees.

Why Have an Economy When You Can Have War

Walid Joumblatt’s PSP has always relied on a careful juggling of alliances between Lebanese politicians. So when the FPM and the FM began their tumultuous love journey ahead of the 2016 elections, it was clear the equilibrium that Joumblatt needed to thrive would be shattered. The fatal blow came however with the new electoral law that only shrunk the PSP’s share in parliament. Under the new political order, what remained of the March 14 alliance only controlled 11 ministers in the cabinet. That carefully calculated number meant that Joumblatt could actually rely in times of trouble on the blocking third by calling upon his closest allies: the LF and the FM. From outside March 14, Joumblatt could only count on Berri to support him in government. But Berri’s share is 3 ministers, and without the support of Hariri’s 5 seats in government, all hell could break loose for the PSP in Lebanese politics: Unable to rely on any blocking third (11 ministers), Joumblatt would lose any political influence he had in the central government.

So when the FM and the FPM started getting close again in the past few months and when it became obvious that Hariri would let Bassil roam free in his political campaign and that Hezbollah was willing to provide any political cover Bassil needed, it became clear for Joumblatt that he had effectively lost any bargaining chip he had. In order to try and sow discontent between the leading members of the ruling coalition, Joumblatt took it upon himself to put an end to Bassil’s increasing influence by calling Bassil racist at the start of June. But when words seemed powerless, Joumblatt tweeted on the 25th of June that he was no longer going to comment on political events through social media. So just when you thought that Joumblatt was calling for a political truce, the PSP decided to protest Bassil’s visit to the Aley district on the 30th of June. The protest turned into clashes, and the clashes led to a bloodbath with the death of pro-Arslan bodyguards. And while Hezbollah quickly tried to calm things down and worked to contain its allies, Joumblatt had sent a clear message to the leaders of the ruling coalition : He is still unpredictable, and isolating him would have major consequences.

As if it was still 1985, the Prince in the Chouf had effectively stopped the convoy of a foreign minister from entering a specific region in Lebanon, but contrary to popular belief, the military clash between the PSP and the LDP/FPM did not escalate quickly. It’s been happening for months, and those months of political maneuvering and scapegoating had to eventually spill over somehow.

The 2019 budget is over, long live the 2020 budget debate.

Let The Wookie Win

Lebanese Government - 2019

Meet the new Lebanese Cabinet

You take a newspaper. You read a headline. Berri is Speaker of the Parliament. Elie Ferzli is deputy Speaker of the Parliament. A politician with the last name “Hariri” is Prime Minister. It says that the Lebanese President is Pro-Syrian. It says that the President’s relatives are now members of the parliament.

Is it the year 2000? Is this a dream? Did we finally discover time travel? You are confused, so you decide to read another article. It says that Ali Hassan Khalil is now minister of Finance. You are even more confused. Surely, it must be February 2014? Or is it December 2016?

No. The year is 2019. And you’re living in Lebanon, where you don’t need to travel in time because the past, the present and the future are the same. Politics is either inherited, or the politicians are immortal.

Yeah. You read that right. The year is 2019. After Nine months of jockeying and political maneuvering, the ruling parties have finally agreed on the new Lebanese government. In a parallel universe, this could have been the year 2009, when it took Saad Hariri 5 months to form his government. Or 2011, when it took Najib Mikati 5 months to form his government. Or 2014, when it took Tammam Salam 11 months to form his government.

So did Lebanese politicians fail during those 252 days? Never. Lebanese politicians never fail. They discovered 251 ways that are not helpful to form a government. And that is an achievement so great that they are already worthy of a parliamentary extension.

Name your ally

The major problem that delayed the 2018 2019 Hariri government is that there still is no clear parliamentary identity since the 2018 elections. Hezbollah is allied to Amal, the FPM and the Marada, while being the FM’s main political rival. The FPM is closer to the FM than it is to Amal and has a confusing alliance with the LF and a recent rivalry with the Marada. The LF aren’t on good terms with Hezbollah, and while Arslan is allied to the FPM and Hezbollah, trying to maintain a relative political autonomy, no one exactly knows where the PSP stands.

Lebanon has been surviving with the exact same parliament for the past ten years, with – until late 2015 – alliances that were more or less stable. There were “March 8”, “March 14” and “the independents”, and the broad definition of every coalition was its opinion regarding Hezbollah – with some politicians, like Joumblatt or Mikati jumping boats every once in a while. But when in 2015 Hariri decided to support Frangieh for the presidency, all hell broke loose. Geagea allied himself with Aoun, and then Amal endorsed Frangieh. Finally, Hariri allied himself with Aoun, and the March 8 and March 14 coalitions fused into one another like a Lebanese TV series. This generated a new political status quo where there were no longer two stable coalitions dominating the political spectrum (Like it was between 2006-2016), but instead, micro-alliances between the major parties that led to very weird electoral alliances, where most parties allied themselves to different rival parties depending on the electoral constituency.

The infographic and the four awesome tables below – courtesy of the Lebanese Center for policy studies – illustrate examples of the arrivism of the Lebanese ruling parties, who did not shy away from running with and against the same rival party in different districts if it suited them best to do so.

Tables like those would have been a major shock in the 2009 elections, where the March 8 and March 14 coalitions ran coherently against each other, with the exception of Jezzine (where the FPM and Amal disagreed and supported different candidates). But when the electoral law changes, electoral alliances change accordingly. And when electoral alliances change, political alliances have a tendency to change with them. So the 2018 elections created a new political equilibrium. The FM and the PSP blocs shrunk in size, while the FPM, the LF, Hezbollah, and Amal saw their blocs increase in numbers. Which means that the new Lebanese parliament now looks like this:

Distribution of seats by Bloc - LCPS

Distribution of seats by Bloc – Image courtesy of the Lebanese Center for Policy Sudies

The Old and the New

While the political jockeying in the Pre-2015 era used to be about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics, most of the bickering since then has been about Aoun’s Presidency. While the LF were theoretically supposed to run in the elections alongside the FPM after both parties reconciled , the rivalry reemerged during the parliamentary elections. With the exception of Sabaa’s Paula Yaacoubian – the newcomer parties did not manage to get into the parliament, and although most of the ruling parties kept a representation in Nejmeh square, the 2018 parliament drastically changed from the 2009 one. While most of the focus was on how much the President’s allies could secure a majority in Parliament, Hezbollah silently achieved what it had been seeking since the 2005 elections. There is now a parliament that not only has a relative FPM majority, but also – and in the 2005 terms – a March 8 absolute majority. The blocs led by the FPM (29 MPS), the Marada (3 MPs), Amal (17 MPs), and Hezbollah (13 MPs) – In other words, Hezbollah and their allies = The March 8 Alliance – have a theoretical numerical superiority in Parliament. The accurate number is difficult to determine since a number of Pro-Hezbollah MPS (such as Osama Saad and the Six other Pro-Hezbollah ministers that form the “Consultative Gathering“) are not part of a bloc, and some of the FPM’s new allies like Michel Mouawad have not been tested yet on Hezbollah-related questions. Nevertheless, the absolute number of pro-Hezbollah MPs in the new parliament is surely higher than 65, and that new status quo is now very evident: Nabih Berri of Amal is speaker, while Elie Ferzli is his deputy, making the 2019 parliament – at least at first glance – look exactly like the Pre-Syrian Withdrawal 2000 Parliament.

It might have taken Hezbollah fifteen years, a twelve-year alliance with Amal and the FPM, two presidential vacancies, two electoral laws, and three elections, but they finally have the upper hand in Lebanese legislation.

Who rules in the Lebanese Parliament?

The Lebanese parliament’s authority when it comes to legislating, to electing the President, to naming a Prime Minister, and to giving a vote of confidence to his government, means that the key to ruling the country lies in securing a majority of the country’s parliament. And while what used to be known as The March 8 alliance now has a majority in parliament, it used to be known as the March 8 alliance for a reason. For the past three years, the FPM has been distancing itself from Amal and the Marada and has been slowly stitching a new alliance with the FM. The FPM might be okay with Hezbollah, but they outspokenly hate every other party around it. The FPM also have no absolute majority, only a relative one, and are in need of the weakened FM to balance Hezbollah’s influence in Parliament. Isolating Hariri and giving the Premiership to someone else would have also causes uproar and is diplomatically incorrect from the FPM after Hariri made Aoun’s election possible.

In other words, the new Parliament has a Pro-Hezbollah majority, but aside from that, you won’t find more than three major parties that can agree with one another well enough to form a majority government. And that is a one-way road to a “unity cabinet”, similar to the ones Lebanon had in 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2016, where every one of the leading parties in parliament is represented. And when you want to include everyone, things have a tendency to take more time.

Keeping with the tradition

According to the Legend, there is a difficult algorithm that every Prime Minister must use when forming his government: There’s a limited number of seats and portfolios to split fairly on the different parties that wish to participate in the cabinet, while also respecting sectarian affiliations. Then you have to take into consideration what coalition of parties manages to get a blocking third, what parties can form a majority in the government, and who can bring the government down or vote for a controversial decision. It’s a tough procedure, especially when every single member of the ruling parties wants a little bit more of the pie. In simpler terms, Lebanese politicians are ready to starve the people who elected them for nine months, for the sole purpose of an extra portfolio or an extra seat that might come in handy ahead of parliamentary elections or when a political clash happens.

Existential obstacles

So should Arslan get a seat in the cabinet and should it be from Jumblatt’s share? Should it be from the FPM’s share? Or should it be from the President’s share? Are Aoun and Bassil the same person, and should they be awarded combined ministers, or separate ministers? And what is the President’s share anyway? When do you give the President three ministers? Should you give him five? Is it constitutional to give him ministers anyway? Or is it unconstitutional to give him nothing? And how do you calculate the number of ministers for every bloc? Are the LF worthy of a key ministry? Should the LF be treated equally to the FPM? Should Hezbollah’s pro-Sunni bloc get a minister? Should that minister be from the President’s share? Should it be of the Prime Minister’s share? Should we give that seat to Aliens from Mars because they are independent? Or should we create two new random portfolios in the cabinet in order to generate a political equilibrium on a table in an Old Ottoman Serail in Beirut? What’s wrong with 32 ministers anyway? And since we’re there, why not create a cabinet of 128 ministers? Should the portfolios be rotated among the parties? Or are they now inherited among politicians? And what are going to name the ministers without portfolios? Are we going to name that politician who’s just here to vote when his time comes, the minister for combatting corruption? (2016 government) Or the minister of state for information technology? (2019 government) Or the minister for Social and Economic Rehabilitation of Youth and Women? (2019 government). Can’t we just name him the minister for industrial, agricultural and intellectual revolution of the Lebanese newborn child? Or should we just name him the minister for skiing and swimming in the same day?

You have to understand Lebanese politicians. Those are difficult, existential questions. Existential enough to postpone a government formation for thousands of days. Yet they only managed to do it in only 252 days. And that is an achievement. So great that they are already worthy of yet another parliamentary extension. Did you know that they also managed to fit 4 women in the government despite the fact that the algorithm was already too complicated? We should probably give them a third parliamentary extension just for thinking about representing women in 2019. There you go. Your three extensions. Just like the 2009 parliament 😍.

The algorithm is a lie

But that complicated algorithm that they take refuge behind every time a government formation is stalled is a lie. The procedure of splitting the pie might take nine months, but two years ago, when Hariri formed his second government, it didn’t take more than a month and a half for the government to see the light. A decade and a half ago, most governments were formed within ten days, sometimes within 72 hours. Almost the same obstacles stand in the way of every government formation, and yet sometimes seeking the solution takes a month instead of a year. Which begs to ask the question, how incompetent can you be so that even writing an excel sheet of 30 names becomes a task so impossible that you need nine months to complete it? Taking hundreds of days to carefully decide the names of 30 ministers – who are more or less the same 30 ministers in every cabinet – is a tradition Lebanon’s Zuamas are not willing to break. The normal lifespan of every Lebanese parliament is 4 years, and the people in charge at the top waste up to 20% of that time to decide how the pie is split (And then they proceed to eat the pie).

Nine months later: Numbers still don’t lie

Now that we’ve established the difficulty of writing 30 names on a piece of paper, it’s time to look at the new Lebanese government and how the parliamentary blocs are represented:

Share in Cabinet versus share in Parliament - Infographic courtesy of Benjamin Redd for The Daily Star

Share in Cabinet versus share in Parliament – Infographic courtesy of Benjamin Redd for The Daily Star

When you stare with joy at the colors of that infographic, you realize that the grosso-mode rule to determine the number of ministers for every bloc would be to divide the number of MPS by 4 or 5 – Sometimes it’s a bit more, sometimes it’s a bit less, depending on the portfolio of ministry you’re getting and on how much you are loved by the other parties.

In the charts, the FPM’s share seems a bit bigger because it also includes the President’s four ministers. And that only means that March 8’s parties’ domination in parliament becomes even more apparent in the cabinet due to the President’s share. Between the 4 ministers representing the President, the 6 ministers representing the FPM’s bloc, the 6 ministers representing Hezbollah and Amal, the minister representing the Marada, the minister representing the Consultative Gathering, and the minister representing the Azm, you would realize that when the time comes, Hezbollah can rally a majority of 19 ministers out of 30, one vote shy from the two-thirds, even without the help from the PSP’s two ministers, and force decisions on a cabinet that is theoretically led by its major rival, Saad Hariri (unless Hariri resigns, pushing Hezbollah to form another majority government without the FM).

But when you look at that chart from another perspective, things seem different: In theory, and if you include the consultative gathering’s minister, the FPM have 11 votes in the cabinet, which is the blocking third the FPM have been seeking for a long time. The fact that the FPM have been looking to get a blocking third in a cabinet they technically control under a President that is their founder is another level of political paranoia that supposes that they need a leverage when one day everyone will turn against them, but is also an indicator that they might start changing alliances: Historically in Lebanese politics, when a party usually looks for the magic number of 11 ministers in a government, it’s usually the minor party of the unity cabinet. However, how much of those 11 ministers would truly stick by Gebran Bassil’s leadership is something else: One of those ministers is a Pro-Arslan Druze, an other is a Pro-Hezbollah Sunni, the third is Salim Jreissati (who has sometimes been considered as closer to Hezbollah than Aoun), and the fourth is Elias Abou Saab (who is always portrayed in the media as being close to the SSNP) in a government that doesn’t have a single SSNP representative. And if one day a miracle happens and the Marada, the FPM and the LF decide to form an alliance, they can theoretically form a majority by themselves in the cabinet (Also, probably start a Civil War, but nevermind)

When you look at the charts from the LF, FM and PSP perspective, the three parties that used to be the backbone of the March 14 alliance have 11 ministers (5 FM, 4 LF, 2 PSP), curiously, the exact number they need to have a blocking third in the government, and that’s even without the help of  Mikati’s Azm party representative in the Cabinet.

For the FM, their losses in the parliamentary elections translate into a drop from 7 ministers to 5 ministers (without counting Mikati’s representative), but they managed in a way or another to keep the key ministries that were already theirs. Nevertheless, should they one day decide that an alliance with the FPM is more sustainable than the one they have with the LF, both parties can secure a majority in the cabinet without the help of anyone else (and get close to controlling a majority in the parliament).

As for the LF, they have somehow failed to increase the number of their seats although they doubled in size in the parliament, probably because their shares were exaggerated in the previous cabinet when compared to their previous parliamentary size. And for the same reason, the FPM went from 11 ministers in the previous cabinet to 10.5 in the current one (I’m gonna count the consultative gathering minister as half ).

Takeaway message? It’s a pro-Hezbollah cabinet where anyone of the parties can control the government or bring it down with the help of another party, and where alliances are not very well established by now. So if/when the cabinet eventually falls, or someone resigns within it, it’s probably because the cabinet was formed when the lines of the political coalitions in parliament were blurred. Brace yourselves.

And now to the good stuff…portfolios

Here’s how the old cabinet compares to the new one:

The old and new Cabinets -Infographic Courtesy of Benjamin Redd for the Daily Star

The old and new Cabinets – Infographic Courtesy of Benjamin Redd for the Daily Star

Numbers are usually given a big importance in Lebanese politics because decisions in the cabinet are usually subject to a vote, but the type of portfolio every party controls can be equally important. All the ministries that were with the FPM are still with the FPM (or the President), and that includes the defense and justice ministries (Read: Hezbollah keeping the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in check and keeping good relations with the Lebanese army since a direct ally is handling both defense and justice). The FPM also kept the foreign ministry and the very important energy and water ministry in their hands.

And while the Marada still have the same important public works portfolio (Read: Well maintained roads in electoral districts before elections) with the same minister, the LF have downgraded in portfolios without upgrading in the size of their share even though they have a bigger parliamentary bloc now (It’s the reason why the cabinet formation has been stalled for the first couple of months). That disproportional downgrade in quality is probably due to the fact that the FM didn’t give up any of their key ministries even though their numbers in parliament dwindled. And while the LF kept the prestigious deputy PM seat, they lost the health ministry to Hezbollah (one of the ministries that gets the most funding in the country) and got the labor ministry instead of the information minister (who is the spokesman of the cabinet).

Amal and Hezbollah on the other hand didn’t directly increase their cabinet shares but now have three small allies that are not the FPM (Frangieh, Arslan, and the consultative gathering) which gives them a Bassil-less influence in the cabinet. Hezbollah also now control the very important of health, while Amal keep the finance ministry.

As for the PSP, they get a minor victory since Arslan’s share was denied and considered to be part of the President’s share (at least on paper). They also get to keep the education ministry, but their influence is still reduced since with only two votes in the government (in every government before 2016 they used to have three ministers)

Let the Wookie Win

Aoun went to exile for 15 years to reduce Syria’s influence in Lebanon, and now is at the head of a government he helped create – that might be as Pro-Syrian as the one he helped overthrow. Aside him rules Hariri, who also spent 12 years trying to reduce Hezbollah’s influence before finally leading their coalition in government. Right under him sits an LF deputy Prime Minister – representing a party that refused to participate in a cabinet with Hezbollah and politically exiled itself for that purpose from government between 2011 and 2016. The PSP that was once the backbone the swinging vote in most political matters, has seen its influence being reduced to 2 cabinet votes. The Parliament is once again led by Berri and Ferzli, the Syrian regime’s closest allies and the same politicians who used to lead it when the Syrian Army was still in Lebanon. All of Lebanon’s leading parties that protested on the 14th of March 2005 against Syrian influence are now either allies of the regime or members in a cabinet dominated by its allies. Almost every major party in the cabinet has spent at least 15 years opposing Hezbollah and the Syrian regime’s influence, even almost triggering Civil Wars in 2008 and 2011. Most of those parties ran in the 2009 and 2018 parliamentary elections promising to stand against Hezbollah, and yet they all sit as minor partners next to Hezbollah and its allies in the first government after the 2018 elections. Which begs the following question: Why make an effort to make a party look like a Wookie and then proceed to stop the Wookie, when in the end, you’re going to let the Wookie win and even participate in that victory? What were the past 15 years for? Was it all for the purpose of sitting on a glorified chair? And what is the point of elections when the opposition and the majority end up coalescing in the same ineffective ” National Unity” cabinet every single time – or is it a national unity in failure?

Supporters of the new Lebanese political era that began after Michel Aoun was elected like to call it العهد الجديد , two words that roughly translate into “The New Era” or even “The New Testament”, a marketing strategy that gives the Lebanese an impression that they are now being ruled by saviors.

But there is nothing new about this era – nor are the Lebanese being saved by anyone. The politicians are the same warlords that have been ruling in times of war and peace, the Parliament looks like a replica from pre-2005, economic instability is the cause du jour in the country, and the new unity cabinet – destined to fail like all of its predecessors – is just a recycled old one where disagreements have started 9 months before it was even born.

But all of this is details. What matters that there is now a minister of State for the rehabilitation of Youth and Women. Whatever that means.

The Future and the Past

Destroyed Lebanese Parliament 1976

We know them. We know their civil wars. We know that they would burn a parliament to the ground in their quest to rule a country. We know them.

The last time I wrote on this blog, in November 2017, I  blogged – in disgust – that Lebanon as whole is a country that is a hostage of Saudi-Iranian politics. 

When a Lebanese Prime-Minister resigns under pressure from Riyadh while Iran tries to make use of that resignation, know that the “independent” Lebanese Republic in 2017 and 2018 is no more independent than the Lebanese republic was under the French Mandate in the 1930s.

This year’s elections are indeed about free will more than anything else. It is time to take back our Parliament: As the month of November 2017 made it perfectly clear, there is only one war that matters in Lebanon, and it shouldn’t be the Saudi-Iranian one on Lebanese soil. It’s the electoral war that rids Lebanon from the influence of both countries and the turmoil they bring with them. And the elections are here.

Lebanon was on the verge of a civil war in May 2008, but the Lebanese kept the same members of the parliament in 2009. In November 2017, under the patronage of that exact political class, Lebanon was once again on the verge of a civil war. And there is only one way to break that vicious circle: It’s by finally holding those members of the parliament accountable.

I spent the past 6 years trying to figure out what Lebanese politicians were doing, and with every political maneuver, I did my best to expose on my blog how rotten this entire establishment is. This Sunday, we all have a chance to change things. The new electoral law isn’t perfect, but it gives an opportunity to newcomers to make it through. The only thing you guys have to do is to vote for them. Think about the past 10 years. Do you really want another 10 years of this?

 
The entire purpose of this blog was to document the maneuvers Lebanese politicians did to keep their asses on those chairs. And it all leads to this moment.
I’d like to think of the hundreds of pages on this blog as a horror story. A long, cruel horror story with a simple goal: Warn you of the current political class.
Again, think about the past 10 years. Do you really want another 10 years of this?
 
I understand many of you aren’t sure about Koullouna Watany or about the other new independent candidates, but we know the ruling parties. We know them all too well.
 
We know their maneuvers. We know their sectarianism. We know their garbage. We know their tricks. We know their weapons. We know their civil wars. We know that they would burn a parliament to the ground in their quest to rule a country. We know their fake stability. We know their goals. We know their corruption. We know their empty promises. We know their fake alliances.  We know our debt. We know our infrastructure. We know our potential. And we know their failure. We also happen to know their entire families, since they have been ruling us since the past century.
 
We know what they are. And nothing – NOTHING – can be worse.
 
In the end, It really is an extremely simple choice we’re making on May 6: The future, or the past.
 
So do me a favor. Please, please don’t make me wake up to the same politicians on May 7. I’d like, for once, not to be writing the same old names on my blog.
I know I haven’t been here for the past 6 months (blame exams), but in the end, there’s really nothing that changed from the previous six years. Just more promises and less electricity (among other things).

The Saudi-Iranian Mandate for Lebanon

A screen grab from Hariri's resignation speech delivered from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, 2017 (The Daily Star)

A screen grab from Hariri’s resignation speech delivered from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, 2017. (Image source: The Daily Star)

On the 11th of November 1943, French forces raided the houses of several Lebanese officials, including the President Bechara Khoury and his Prime Minister Riad Solh, three days after the Lebanese Parliament had unilaterally abolished the French mandate in Lebanon. Emile Edde was appointed as President, the parliament was dissolved, and Lebanon’s leaders were arrested and imprisoned in the Rashaya citadel. France eventually yielded to Lebanese and international pressure, and the release of the prisoners on the 22nd of November has since been celebrated as the Lebanese Independence Day.

That was the last time a foreign country so obviously pressured a Lebanese Prime Minister to resign. Enter 2017.

Exactly 74 years later, on the 4th of November 2017, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned from Saudi-Arabia, ending almost a year of stability and shared rule between Lebanon’s rival parties, blaming Hezbollah and Iranian interference, and citing assassination plots against him. Contrary to popular opinion, the resignation of a Sunni Prime Minister from a Hezbollah-led coalition ahead of parliamentary elections in 2018 made perfect political sense. There was however something fishy about that entire political development: Hariri had resigned from Saudi Arabia, in a previously recorded televised speech, using an extremely violent rhetoric, unseen since at least Hariri was last ousted from power in 2011.

The textbook definition of regional pressure

Ideally, Hariri’s resignation was a Machiavellian maneuver to win next year’s elections, except it wasn’t – in fact it might have put the entire electoral process in jeopardy. It was rather a result of Saudi pressure on the Lebanese Prime Minister who also happened to also be a Saudi-Lebanese citizen with a business empire in Saudi Arabia. The fishy resignation address was enough to raise suspicion, but a regional context of Saudi-Iranian political escalation, a succession crisis in Riyadh, as well as the arrest of several Princes in Saudi Arabia that exact same day was enough to highlight the amount of (financial? non-financial?) pressure the Saudis could have exerted on the premier to resign. Even in the aftermath of the resignation, Hariri didn’t head back to Beirut to officially present his resignation and instead stayed in Saudi Arabia for two weeks, fueling rumors that he was under house arrest and was being treated like the other arrested Princes in Saudi Arabia. The confusion in Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, even raised more eyebrows, and the party’s call for their leader to return home only added more substance to the rumors. By the end of the first week of the resignation, stories started emerging on how the Lebanese Prime-Minister was immediately treated as a prisoner from the moment he landed in Saudi-Arabia.

While both Saudi-Arabia and Hariri denied that the premier was forced to resign and was under arrest, increasing Lebanese and international pressure to clarify the situation led Hariri to take part in a live interview in order to prove that he was indeed free in Saudi-Arabia, but even that interview was full of awkward and uncomfortable moments for Hariri. And when it was eventually decided that Hariri would leave Saudi-Arabia to his first destination outside the gulf – France,  it looked as if the Prime Minister was going into exile (especially that the move was preceded by a visit from the French President to Saudi Arabia). Even the New York Times speculated that Hariri’s kids remained in Saudi Arabia as a leverage on the PM.

Winning the narrative

The foreign interference in Lebanese politics was so high this month even Lebanon’s politicians weren’t really understanding what’s happening at the beginning. The Lebanese President tried to stall at first, asking Hariri to come home, then considered the Premier to be under arrest when the President’s demands that the Premier returns to Beirut were ignored. Berri, probably in denial that something was happening outside his control, refused to accept the validity of the resignation, and Nasrallah quickly tried to win the narrative while trying to calm things down , considering that Hariri was being forced to resign, turning Hariri into a victim and Saudi Arabia into a culprit, and implying there was a rift between the regional and local leaderships of the anti-Hezbollah camp. I don’t think there’s anything more humiliating to Hariri than being defended by Nasrallah as a hostage in Saudi Arabia, and soon enough, almost every pro-Hezbollah party in the country embraced Nasrallah’s political stances. By defending Hariri and refusing to escalate, March 8 parties were successfully containing the Saudi political offensive on Hezbollah, which led to even more escalation from Saudi Arabia that considered Lebanon – via Hezbollah – had declared war on it, 2 days after the resignation, soon calling all Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon. Nasrallah would later on counter those stances on the 10th of November by saying the exact opposite thing the Saudis said. As for the stances of the rest of the Lebanese politicians, they should be regarded as temporary speeches that would vanish and reappear as new developments unravel between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, stances that also have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the de-facto state of Lebanese affairs. As Hariri eventually leaves Saudi-Arabia, the take-home message is that every minute Hariri spent more in Saudi-Arabia was a disaster for the Future Movement and his allies in Beirut. Foreign interference in Lebanese politics by a regional power hasn’t been as evident since at least 2005, and as a leader of a bloc that ironically calls itself “Lebanon first”, every single part of Hariri’s trip to Saudi Arabia backfired on his party, his Lebanese allies and Saudi Arabia. In the end, Hezbollah was winning in the chaos, which was not really a win for Hezbollah since it could have been what the Saudis wanted in the first place. Or is it?

The republic of (conspiracy?) theories

In fact, according to the first theory explaining the regional motives of the resignation, Saudi Arabia was removing Hariri from power in order to force the creation of an entirely pro-Hezbollah government as part of a plan to push Israel to go to war with Hezbollah. A second theory, fueled by Hariri’s meeting with Vilayati the day before the resignation happened, is that Hariri was trying to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A more developed version of this theory (bring the popcorn), circulated on Social media, is that Hariri resigned because he tried to plot – helped by the other arrested Princes – an Iranian-backed coup against the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamad Bin Salman, a coup that was unraveled by the Crown Prince in the hours before the resignation and the arrests. Another theory claims that Saudi-Arabia was planning to replace Saad Hariri with his brother Bahaa’, with multiple parties secretly endorsing the Prime Minister’s brother (what is this, The Godfather?). Another, more simplistic theory, is that Saudi-Arabia was simply trying to escalate things with Iran as a distraction while the Crown Prince MBS consolidates power. Or perhaps Saudi Arabia simply wanted to escalate things with Iran in Lebanon after struggling to improve its influence elsewhere.

There is a fine line between theories and conspiracy theories, and in such a context, everyone is free to draw the line wherever he wants – The most important thing remains PopcornAs Elias Muhanna from Qifa Nabki puts it: Saad Hariri is the Schrödinger’s Cat of politicians: Until Hariri emerges from the sealed box of Saudi Arabia  (feel free to replace “sealed box” with “house arrest”, “exile” or any other “leverage” on the PM), he is simultaneously prime minister and not prime minister of Lebanon, and it will be a while till we truly know and understand what happened in the Kingdom as well as the Saudi motives for the resignation.

The Saudi-Iranian Mandate for Lebanon

The common denominator for all those theories? It’s full of Saudi Arabia and Iran (on the bright side, not a lot of Syria).

There is too much foreign interference right now by Saudi Arabia and Iran, and when a Lebanese Prime-Minister resigns under pressure from Riyadh while Iran tries to make use of that resignation, know that the “independent” Lebanese Republic in 2017 is no more independent than the Lebanese republic was under the French Mandate in the 1930s. If a miracle somehow happens and politicians agree to proceed with the 2018 elections, Lebanese voters will have a choice: Either renew their trust in the 2009 members of the Parliament, confirm the Saudi-Iranian mandate for Lebanon and turn the country into an arena for proxy wars, or finally start heading towards a sovereign independent country that answers to no one but its people.

Lebanon’s ruling political parties and politicians might try to conceal this chaotic month with future calls of dissociation policy and coalition “happy ending” governments such as the ones we had to endure for the past decade. But as long as they are militarily equipped by one country, or pressured to resign by another, there will never be a free will in Lebanese politics.

Lebanon as whole is a country that is a hostage of Saudi-Iranian politics, and as the month of November 2017 made it perfectly clear, there is only one war that matters in Lebanon, and it shouldn’t be the Saudi-Iranian one on Lebanese soil. It’s the electoral war that rids Lebanon from the influence of both countries and the turmoil they bring with them. And that war is here.

To be honest here, the blog had always tried to figure out the little details of Lebanese politics without trying to rely on regional events. There was a certain beauty in the madness of Lebanese politics, but the madness is now erupting into a regionally induced chaos and Lebanon will be the first to pay the price. Lebanese politics always made a little bit of sense – except this time – and it’s for the simple reason that there is nothing Lebanese right now about Lebanese politics, which is why I will stop posting on the blog until the cloud of regional interference clears a little bit.

 

 

The Republic of Resignations

Hariri and Bassil

PM Saad Hariri with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and two other government officials at the Grand Serail. Friday, February 17, 2017. (Image source: The Daily Star). As Lebanese parties start their drama ahead of next year’s planned elections, this picture is here to remind you of the hypocrisy of Lebanese politics.

On the 4th of November 2017, one year after he was named Prime Minister (on the 3rd of November 2016), and in what might be the most unpredictable political stance of 2017, Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned from his post of Prime Minister, citing Iranian interference, Hezbollah’s arms, and fear of assassination as motives for his resignation, and opening a new chapter in Lebanese politics.

An unpredictable and unexpected resignation

Until the last days of October 2017, things seemed to work out relatively smoothly between the anti and pro-Syrian regime parties of the Lebanese ruling coalition, with the appointment of a Lebanese ambassador in Damascus being the latest example of political events that could have blown up the coalition but didn’t. Other examples include state budget talks, voting an electoral law, passing a new tax law, and a new oil tax law. True, there were numerous confrontations between the ruling parties in 2017, but for the first time since at least 2010, there was peace and love in Lebanese politics. Who would have thought in 2009 that Hariri would name Aoun as his presidential candidate in 2016? That Aoun would afterwards name Hariri prime minister? That a government could be formed so fast in Lebanon? That they could agree on the garbage file or any other file? That an electoral law could ever be agreed upon by almost all of the ruling parties?

The idea that Amal, Hezbollah, the Future Movement, the FPM, the LF and the PSP could happily coexist together in a government led by Hariri in a Aoun Presidency seemed so surreal that everyone got adapted so quickly to it, and Hariri’s resignation will come as a shock for many Lebanese who got used to the climate of political cooperation between the anti and pro-Syrian regime parties that had been flourishing since last autumn.

Actually, not that unpredictable and unexpected

There remained however a major obstacle that couldn’t let that unconditional love (note: Read “unconditional love” with sarcasm) thrive in Lebanese politics: Lebanon’s parliament recently voted an electoral law based on proportional representation, which meant that it was now impossible for the Lebanese ruling parties to run together on the same ticket because such a scenario would open the door for third-option parties to thrive on the absurdity of such an alliance, and threaten the status-quo just like what happened in the 2016 Beirut municipal elections – except that this time the newcomers would be able to actually win seats because of the new proportional electoral system. It’s wiser for the traditional political parties to run against each other than to run together against a third option. As an example, it makes more sense for the Aounist electorate to vote against Hariri and for the FM electorate to vote against Aoun, and it would be easier for all the traditional parties to win back their electorates by creating sectarian tensions against one another than it is to win elections by proving that their cozy comfy alliance with a previous Civil War rival is healthy (also read this with sarcasm) and that they aren’t corrupt.

In the Lebanese political context, hate is more efficient when it comes to winning votes. Hariri’s resignation, including his violent anti-Iran quote in his resignation speech (“Our nation will rise as it did in the past and it will cut off the hands that are reaching for it”) was an essential requirement for him to distance himself from Hezbollah – with whom the Future Movement has been sharing power SINCE 2014 – and re-establish the two camps that shaped 2009 pre-electoral Lebanon: The March 8 and March 14 coalitions.

The Mikati-Rifi prophecy?

The only thing more predictable than Lebanese politicians is Lebanese politicians, and even in their unexpected Jumblatt-like stances, like Hariri’s recent resignation, Lebanese politicians do the same polititcal maneuvers when they are forced into similar circumstances. Hariri’s violent breakup with Hezbollah was thus likely  to happen anytime before the end of 2017: In my last post on this blog, in August, I had said that with the objectives of the ruling parties completed in parliament […] one should expect an environment of political escalation between Hezbollah and the FM as they progressively start to brace themselves for elections.

In fact, the unpredictable nature of Hariri’s resignation was part of a very predictable maneuvering pattern in Lebanese politics. On the 4th of November 2017, 13 years and 2 weeks after his father resigned from the Prime-Minister post ahead of scheduled elections, Saad Hariri did the exact same thing. But the Hariris are not the exception. In fact, they tend to be the rule: On the 22nd of March 2013, Najib Mikati resigned from the premiership of a Hezbollah-led cabinet, 2 months ahead of scheduled elections.  Less than three years later, on the 22nd of February 2016, two months before scheduled municipal elections, Ashraf Rifi also resigned from the Justice ministry of another cabinet in which Hezbollah was participating.

In a way, 2013 Najib Mikati and 2016 Ashraf Rifi had warned us that a day like the 4th of November 2017 would eventually happen:  It is unwise for a Sunni politician to run for elections while being allied to Hezbollah. And for a politician who elected Hezbollah’s candidate as President, running for elections as a sitting Prime-Minister of a Pro-Hezbollah President after sharing power with Hezbollah for almost 4 years, is even more unwise. The timing of Hariri’s *unexpected* resignation is perfect: It gives an impression that Hariri is not a pawn of Aoun or Hezbollah (since he didn’t apparently consult with any of his partner in power before proceeding with his resignation), and sends an other interesting message. In fact, Hariri’s resignation from being Aoun’s Prime Minister happened outside Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia, and is technically very similar in terms of humiliation to what the FPM and Hezbollah did to Hariri when they brought his government down while he was meeting Obama in the United-States in 2010 (Hariri has probably waited for this moment for 7 years). It is usually preferable that the PM resigns from Baabda palace, and Hariri’s method of resignation, far away in Saudi-Arabia, is a message to both the FPM and Hezbollah: Aoun knew of the government resignation by phone. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Or via a phone call.

The resignation also creates many problems for Hariri’s Sunni rivals: Should the new designated Prime Minister come from outside the Future Movement or without its blessing, he will be definitely seen as Hezbollah’s puppet before elections. In a way, Hariri’s timing and place of resignation made it quite impossible for any of his major rivals to thrive instead of him in the premiership or make use of their new Prime Minister post for the upcoming elections, and the Prime Minister job opening at the Grand Serail will be a trap for any Sunni politician with an ambition to topple Hariri in the future. Just ask the Karamis of Tripoli.

The first consequence of the 2017 Adwan electoral law

One of the worst aspects of the new electoral law that was designed by Bassil and Adwan started to unravel: While the electoral law was based on proportional representation for the first time in the history of Lebanese parliamentary elections, it implemented a weird Kadaa-based preferential voting system that made it easier for sectarian parties to pick up MPs from their sect (so that the FPM and LF manage to win the Christian seats), which would potentially lead to even more sectarian-based political campaigning. A Hezbollah-FM electoral alliance would thus not be as efficient for those parties, and the two rivals would benefit the most from the new electoral system and would pick up same-sect seats the most if they run against each other instead of running on the same-ticket. The new electoral law doesn’t make it easy for cross-sectarian alliances to thrive, so Sunni-dominated-FM and Shia-dominated Hezbollah had no electoral reason to keep their alliance alive and run on the same ticket (like they did in 2005) .

In a way, it also helps explains why Hariri weirdly resigned from Saudi-Arabia: He could have resigned from the Grand Serail in Beirut, but he wanted to send an exclusive message to Lebanon’s Sunni population that he was the Kingdom’s chosen Lebanese politician, and that not voting for him in the next elections would be a vote for Iran. The Adwan-Bassil new electoral law gave a possibility for politicians to win seats from the same sect in a proportional system, and the resignation in Saudi-Arabia was a bold move from Hariri, with one goal: Turn the sectarianism button on, and rally as much as possible of the Sunni electorate in order to get the most possible religiously homogenous  parliamentary bloc in 2018.

A magnet for the LF?

Most of the events months of September and October 2017 went unnoticed in Lebanese politics, with the regular bickering between Lebanese politicians progressively escalating, inspired by the approaching elections. There were however several stances and political developments that set Hariri on this path: On the 9th of September, the deputy-PM and the LF’s highest ranking politician in the executive power said that Hezbollah infringes on Lebanon’s sovereignty, on the 13th of September Geagea was criticizing Iran, on the 16th of October, Geagea said that the return of Assad’s influence to Lebanon was a red line, and by the 23rd of October, Geagea was threatening a resignation of the Lebanese Forces ministers from the cabinet. Geagea and Gemayel had travelled to Saudi Arabia at the end of September, and while the LF and the FM were taking major anti-Hezbollah position in the government, new tensions started appearing when Berri took advantage of a chaotic context regarding the preparations for the elections, and said that the parliamentary polls should be brought forward if the magnetic card wouldn’t be used, which kind of stressed out everyone even more, eventually proposing a draft law to slash the parliament’s extended term. The debate on the mechanism of the next elections continued for two months, creating tensions between the FPM and the FM, with interior minister Machnouk arguing that “the pre-registration of voters has become inevitable,” while seeing an  “inability” to create voter cards—as per Bassil’s insistence– due to lack of time.

Regional influence and local politics

In his last cabinet meeting, a couple of hours before he resigned in Saudi Arabia, Hariri had reportedly told his cabinet that Saudi Arabia was “keen on Lebanon’s stability”, despite the fact that it was previously reported this week that Hariri was asked by Saudi-Arabia to distance himself from Aoun, and that it was also previously rumored in the mainstream media that the same things were asked of Geagea and Gemayel who visited the Kingdom in September. Saudi Arabia’s role in the resignation is crystal clear, and Hezbollah will probably use Hariri’s place of resignation against him (in electoral campaigning) till the end of time.

Several developments probably led to the resignation. The FPM-FM (Bassil-Machnouk) heavy political clash on the electoral mechanism of voting may have played a part in the collapse of 2016 Lebanese coalition , Saudi-Arabia’s rising influence and Hariri’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia where he met a Saudi minister who had taken a hobby of publicly criticizing Hezbollah might have given Hariri the Saudi-Arabaian green light (reminder that Hariri also resigned from Saudi-Arabia), but Geagea distancing himself from Hezbollah (inspired by the talks he did in Saudi-Arabia at the end of September?) should be seen as the main culprit in the collapse of the LF-FPM-FM-Hezbollah alliance. Hariri, via the timing of this resignation, was also probably trying to attract the LF away from the FPM by building on the Lebanese Forces tensions with Hezbollah in the cabinet. The LF are at a stage where they should choose between an electoral alliance between the FPM or the FM, and the FM exiting the Hezbollah-FPM-FM-LF coalition (via Hariri’s resignation) at a time when Geagea was criticizing  Hezbollah, could push the LF away from an electoral alliance with the FPM. It was Hariri who pushed Geagea towards Aoun in the first place when he endorsed Frangieh as his presidential candidate in 2015, and now an opportunity to bring Geagea back into the fold of a March 14 alliance had presented itself. Another key political development that played a part in the resignation was the reconciliation between Hariri and Jumblatt on the 9th of October, followed by the PSP’s criticism of Syrian regime via Marwan Hamadeh at the end of October.

With an alliance with the LF and the PSP now possible, Hariri’s abrupt resignation was possibly the first step towards achieving his ultimate goal of reforming the 2009 March 14 alliance ahead of the 2017 elections.  It remains to be seen how Geagea and Jumblatt would eventually react to the resignation and time will tell if Hariri’s maneuver will work, especially that the electoral law has changed, but it was nevertheless the best timing for Hariri to proceed with his move, a move that was necessary if he wanted to truly challenge in the next parliamentary elections while being seen by the Sunni electorate as a leader of a coalition that rebelled against the status-quo rather than a puppet Prime-Minister who had allied himself with the parties he initially ran against in the 2009 elections.

The republic of chaos-control

Four days prior to Hariri’s resignation, Aoun was celebrating the achievements of his first year in power, while not long ago, Hariri was also doing the same. When elections come, there will be a struggle between the FM and the FPM to define who was the main man behind the success, and who was the culprit behind the shortcomings of the cabinet. A particular example of shortcomings was during July and August when the Lebanese ruling parties allowed and banned rival protests regarding Syrian refugees, started a war in the Arsal and Ras Baalbak outskirts, and eventually set free hundreds of ISIS terrorists, while using all those distractions to pass a new tax law that was eventually deemed unconstitutional.

When they fail, Lebanese politicians change the political debate at a speed that makes it difficult for anyone to keep up with, while making sure they remain at the epicentre of any new political debate. This method of chaos control is frequently used by the traditional parties and the new political developments in Lebanon turned the Summer of 2017 into a distant past for everyone involved, while Hariri’s resignation from premiership at a time when the government was the least efficient leaves the responsibility of the fiasco of the Summer of 2017 resting solely on the shoulders of the FPM (via Aoun), although it is too soon to see how the Lebanese parties plan on campaigning before elections.

Another parliamentary extension?

Governmental resignations are not very promising when it comes to holding elections on time, and the last time a government resigned before elections in 2013, we ended up with 3 parliamentary extensions (it took 11 months for the government to be formed and the elections were due to be held in 2 months). Lebanese politicians now have the perfect opportunity to procrastinate regarding the formation of a new government that would oversee elections, and their true resolve on holding parliamentary elections on time will be tested soon enough. The sooner a new government is formed the more likely elections will happen.

The FM and the FPM knew exactly what they had to expect in government when they decided to go forth with their alliance in 2016, and the entire drama that will unravel in the next few weeks only has one goal: Electoral campaigning, and the reconstitution of the March 8 and 14 alliances that were shattered by the Presidential elections.

In other words, expect a lot of “Hariri is a Saudi puppet who resigned in Saudi-Arabia” vs “Iran wants to control Lebanon and we will not accept its meddling” in the coming weeks, and welcome back to 2008, Lebanon. It’s been a while.

This was the 31st post in a series of bimonthly / monthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics since June 2014. This post is about the months of September and October 2017.