How Should the U.S. Respond to the Lebanon Protests?

I returned to the U.S. from Lebanon less than one month before the October protests began in Beirut and started spreading throughout its cities and towns, shaking the foundations of a regime that spent 30 years mired in corruption and backing Hezb’allah. During my field trip to my ancestral land, mandated by the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy (AMCD), I met with students, politicians, journalists, former military, religious leaders and civil society activists. I also met with ordinary people in different places. The three major issues of discontent among all people I met were:

  1. Frustration with the economic and financial situation, crumbling under the heavy corruption eroding most of Lebanon’s institutions, both public and private;
  2. Fear from the constant domination of Hezb’allah and its peace-through-intimidation of their partisans and those opposed to their domination; and,
  3. Loss of trust in the ruling political, economic, and clerical establishment of the country.

The Protests: “All means All”

On October 18, tens of thousands of Lebanese filled the public squares in Beirut in anti-government demonstrations accusing the leaders of “stealing the people’s money,” and of abandoning the poor to their fate. At first, the demands were socioeconomic, but then the protests got larger and the official goal became bringing down the entire system: the Saad Hariri cabinet, Michel Aoun’s Presidency, and Nabih Berri’s Parliament -- all accused of being behind the mass corruption that the country has been suffering under for decades.

The core of the protests was organized by a network of liberal, patriotic, mostly civil society groups; among them a newly formed political party called “Seven.” Traditional political parties were asked not to join, though their members were welcomed. Hence the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, and Jumblatt stayed away.

It is imperative to note that a group of left-wing militants also installed themselves in the center of downtown Beirut and gradually attempted to seize the political and organizational command of the leaderless protests.

Hezb’allah, Regime and Far-left Tactics

Hezb’allah, the de facto ruler of Lebanon, perceived the protests as directed against its power. The demonstrators chanted that “all leaders should be forced to resign, all of them,” which in practicality included Hezb’allah. The retaliation of the Iran-dominated militia came fast. Hordes of militants stormed the rallies, destroyed the stands and dispersed the protesters. But the protestors would not be kept down. They came back after each act of violence perpetrated against them.

The regime, unhinged, refused to resign as Hezb’allah rejected a change of system. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s network, which has been suffering financially from U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration, threatened mass violence if the revolution ejected them from the state. Nasrallah even threatened to cut the wages of the Lebanese Army, immobilizing it, and then unleash his militia on the protesters

Trump Administration’s Position

The Trump administration proceeded with caution regarding the Lebanon protests. One parameter was clear as the first statements from the State Department: “The rights of the Lebanese people to express themselves should be protected.” Another parameter was to ask the Lebanese Army to protect the rallies from Hezb’allah and other militias.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the Hezb’allah propaganda machine and its far-left allies in Lebanon blasted any potential Trump statement as “meddling” but welcomed supportive statements from radical politicians such as Bernie Sanders as “progressive.”

The Protests’ Future

The popular forces on the streets seem to be resilient and willing to take the political fight through to the end, that is, until a full change is achieved. Despite the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the protesters have expressed the will to continue the “revolution.” The uprising is discreetly backed by anti-Hezb’allah leaders such as Christian politician Samir Geagea, Sunni leader Achraf Rifi, and Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, but is practically led by a federation of NGOs, primarily Hezb 7 (with organizer Jad Dagher in the center) and with new leadership of an old party -- the “National Bloc” -- which seems to have moved to the front of the youth revolt.

It is my view (and the view of experts and activists I’ve consulted with) that the “movement” won’t stop, even if attacked by Hezb’allah. The sustainability of the protests rest on several factors:

  1. The protection by the Lebanese Armed Forces;
  2. International and U.S. solidarity, but no direct action at this point;
  3. Support coming from the Lebanese Diaspora, numbering in the millions;
  4. Formation of a technocrat cabinet; and,
  5. Deterring Hezb’allah from physical attacks on the rallies.    

U.S. Policy Towards Lebanon

The question now is, what should U.S. policy be regarding Lebanon’s protests? Should we intervene in this crisis? Refrain? Or design strategies to contain Hezb’allah, empower the country’s civil society, and enable Lebanon to free itself from terror and break loose from corruption?

There is no doubt that Hezb’allah and its radical allies are at the core of threats against the U.S. Since 1983, this terror organization has targeted U.S. citizens and personnel in Lebanon, Iraq and other locations. Thus, it is in our national interest make sure that Hezb’allah is checked and eventually disarmed in Lebanon. 

Hezb’allah has assassinated, kidnapped, and threatened many Lebanese politicians, military, journalists, students and other members of Lebanon’s civil society. During the October 2019 protests, it launched several thuggish raids against the protesters, all well documented online. Washington should proceed with caution as Hezb’allah is lethal and can take the population hostage.

On another level, the U.S. has an interest in seeing the Lebanese fight against corruption in their own country as a means to end such corrupt practices in the region and around the world. We want to encourage good governance and state sovereignty.

Recommendations

Based on these considerations, in the wake of the October protests, I would advance the following considerations for a U.S. policy towards Lebanon. The United States should:

  1. Clearly state that the protesters have a fundamental universal right to express their views and organize peaceful demonstrations;
  2. Warn the authorities in charge not to suppress these protests and call on the security forces, and particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces, to protect these demonstrators from thugs and militias;
  3. Ask the regime to acquiesce to the demands of the protesters and resign from power, leaving it in the hands of an interim nonpartisan Government whose only mission is to organize legislative elections;
  4. Extend support to the new Parliament to develop new legislation for the country;
  5. Partner with the next government to implement reforms and apply international resolutions including UNSCR 1559 and 1701; and,
  6. Assist the Lebanese Armed Forces and the security forces to protect the citizens of Lebanon and to disarm militias.

A new U.S. policy should also involve a special team to handle the Lebanese crisis both in Beirut and in Washington, D.C., in light of the dramatic events that have taken place and continue to evolve. 

John Hajjar is the Co-Chair of the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy.

I returned to the U.S. from Lebanon less than one month before the October protests began in Beirut and started spreading throughout its cities and towns, shaking the foundations of a regime that spent 30 years mired in corruption and backing Hezb’allah. During my field trip to my ancestral land, mandated by the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy (AMCD), I met with students, politicians, journalists, former military, religious leaders and civil society activists. I also met with ordinary people in different places. The three major issues of discontent among all people I met were:

  1. Frustration with the economic and financial situation, crumbling under the heavy corruption eroding most of Lebanon’s institutions, both public and private;
  2. Fear from the constant domination of Hezb’allah and its peace-through-intimidation of their partisans and those opposed to their domination; and,
  3. Loss of trust in the ruling political, economic, and clerical establishment of the country.

The Protests: “All means All”

On October 18, tens of thousands of Lebanese filled the public squares in Beirut in anti-government demonstrations accusing the leaders of “stealing the people’s money,” and of abandoning the poor to their fate. At first, the demands were socioeconomic, but then the protests got larger and the official goal became bringing down the entire system: the Saad Hariri cabinet, Michel Aoun’s Presidency, and Nabih Berri’s Parliament -- all accused of being behind the mass corruption that the country has been suffering under for decades.

The core of the protests was organized by a network of liberal, patriotic, mostly civil society groups; among them a newly formed political party called “Seven.” Traditional political parties were asked not to join, though their members were welcomed. Hence the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, and Jumblatt stayed away.

It is imperative to note that a group of left-wing militants also installed themselves in the center of downtown Beirut and gradually attempted to seize the political and organizational command of the leaderless protests.

Hezb’allah, Regime and Far-left Tactics

Hezb’allah, the de facto ruler of Lebanon, perceived the protests as directed against its power. The demonstrators chanted that “all leaders should be forced to resign, all of them,” which in practicality included Hezb’allah. The retaliation of the Iran-dominated militia came fast. Hordes of militants stormed the rallies, destroyed the stands and dispersed the protesters. But the protestors would not be kept down. They came back after each act of violence perpetrated against them.

The regime, unhinged, refused to resign as Hezb’allah rejected a change of system. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s network, which has been suffering financially from U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration, threatened mass violence if the revolution ejected them from the state. Nasrallah even threatened to cut the wages of the Lebanese Army, immobilizing it, and then unleash his militia on the protesters

Trump Administration’s Position

The Trump administration proceeded with caution regarding the Lebanon protests. One parameter was clear as the first statements from the State Department: “The rights of the Lebanese people to express themselves should be protected.” Another parameter was to ask the Lebanese Army to protect the rallies from Hezb’allah and other militias.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the Hezb’allah propaganda machine and its far-left allies in Lebanon blasted any potential Trump statement as “meddling” but welcomed supportive statements from radical politicians such as Bernie Sanders as “progressive.”

The Protests’ Future

The popular forces on the streets seem to be resilient and willing to take the political fight through to the end, that is, until a full change is achieved. Despite the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the protesters have expressed the will to continue the “revolution.” The uprising is discreetly backed by anti-Hezb’allah leaders such as Christian politician Samir Geagea, Sunni leader Achraf Rifi, and Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, but is practically led by a federation of NGOs, primarily Hezb 7 (with organizer Jad Dagher in the center) and with new leadership of an old party -- the “National Bloc” -- which seems to have moved to the front of the youth revolt.

It is my view (and the view of experts and activists I’ve consulted with) that the “movement” won’t stop, even if attacked by Hezb’allah. The sustainability of the protests rest on several factors:

  1. The protection by the Lebanese Armed Forces;
  2. International and U.S. solidarity, but no direct action at this point;
  3. Support coming from the Lebanese Diaspora, numbering in the millions;
  4. Formation of a technocrat cabinet; and,
  5. Deterring Hezb’allah from physical attacks on the rallies.    

U.S. Policy Towards Lebanon

The question now is, what should U.S. policy be regarding Lebanon’s protests? Should we intervene in this crisis? Refrain? Or design strategies to contain Hezb’allah, empower the country’s civil society, and enable Lebanon to free itself from terror and break loose from corruption?

There is no doubt that Hezb’allah and its radical allies are at the core of threats against the U.S. Since 1983, this terror organization has targeted U.S. citizens and personnel in Lebanon, Iraq and other locations. Thus, it is in our national interest make sure that Hezb’allah is checked and eventually disarmed in Lebanon. 

Hezb’allah has assassinated, kidnapped, and threatened many Lebanese politicians, military, journalists, students and other members of Lebanon’s civil society. During the October 2019 protests, it launched several thuggish raids against the protesters, all well documented online. Washington should proceed with caution as Hezb’allah is lethal and can take the population hostage.

On another level, the U.S. has an interest in seeing the Lebanese fight against corruption in their own country as a means to end such corrupt practices in the region and around the world. We want to encourage good governance and state sovereignty.

Recommendations

Based on these considerations, in the wake of the October protests, I would advance the following considerations for a U.S. policy towards Lebanon. The United States should:

  1. Clearly state that the protesters have a fundamental universal right to express their views and organize peaceful demonstrations;
  2. Warn the authorities in charge not to suppress these protests and call on the security forces, and particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces, to protect these demonstrators from thugs and militias;
  3. Ask the regime to acquiesce to the demands of the protesters and resign from power, leaving it in the hands of an interim nonpartisan Government whose only mission is to organize legislative elections;
  4. Extend support to the new Parliament to develop new legislation for the country;
  5. Partner with the next government to implement reforms and apply international resolutions including UNSCR 1559 and 1701; and,
  6. Assist the Lebanese Armed Forces and the security forces to protect the citizens of Lebanon and to disarm militias.

A new U.S. policy should also involve a special team to handle the Lebanese crisis both in Beirut and in Washington, D.C., in light of the dramatic events that have taken place and continue to evolve. 

John Hajjar is the Co-Chair of the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy.