On November 20, Middle East Forum Radio interviewed Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to discuss the ongoing mass protests in Lebanon.
According to Badran, the protests are fueled by “the major economic mismanagement and impending collapse of the Lebanese economic and financial system,” which in turn is an outgrowth of “the endemic corruption of the Lebanese political class.” He explained,
[W]ith minor exceptions this political class in one form or another and the families and the figures that constitute it have been ruling Lebanon since the days of the civil war and its aftermath. So, this is a long-standing elite. … [The protest] movement is unique in modern [Lebanese] history in that it is not taking shape along sectarian lines. It is not being driven by the sectarian parties, it is driven against the sectarian parties and against them all across the board and across the various regions of Lebanon.
Also unique is the absence of any prominent leadership in the protest movement. “There aren’t really any visible leaders, certainly not among [the] establish[ment].”
“There are organizers that are talking through social media and stuff like that,” but they are “widely diffused.”
According to Badran, the “elephant in the room is Hezbollah,” an Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamist movement that has manipulated Lebanon’s sectarian system and weak state to build a powerful militia that dominates the country:
Hezbollah now has come out as the strongest defender of the sectarian based system and the status quo, which is interesting when you consider its history as a revolutionary movement that wanted to integrate Lebanon into a larger Islamic state ruled by Iran. So, now this system works so much to their advantage that they are now really its strongest defendant.
Hezbollah’s defense of the status quo has not been well received by many of its Shi’a constituents.
Though Shi’a protestors in Beirut and the Beqaa have avoided challenging Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah by name, they have openly attacked “various MPs of Hezbollah” by name, as well as Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri, who heads the pro-Syrian Shi’a Amal movement. In response, Hezbollah and Amal “unleashed goons against them to beat them up … with the complicity of the Lebanese security forces.”
Unfortunately for Hezbollah, the “barrier of fear has been kind of broken,” says Badran. “It is certainly disconcerting for [Hezbollah] to see this unrelenting phenomenon and not just that it’s coming out against them in their areas but that it’s meshing with the rest of the country – with Sunnis and Christians and so on. “Where we go from here and how it progresses from here … all of that remains to be seen. We really don’t know. It’s really anyone’s guess.”
Asked how the protests in Lebanon compare with those in Iraq, Badran said the wave of protests “is not directly or explicitly expressed in terms of Iran the way it is in Iraq, but it’s very much understood that when you’re attacking the system, you’re attacking the Hezbollah system as well. You’re attacking Hezbollah as the chief organizer of this system.”
Badran noted that the current protests are the “exact opposite” of the protests that erupted in the wake of the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri:
Although there was a sense of spontaneity at first – just the outrage at the [Hariri] killing and the brazenness of it, immediately the organization of them was taken over by the sectarian political parties – immediately, right. In this case, it’s the exact opposite. The sectarian parties are not involved – they are the target of these protests. So, this is a fundamental difference that has to be kept in mind.
Because the protest leaders aren’t centralized and have little connection to politics, the Lebanese government has had immense difficulty negotiating a stand-down.
The authorities are trying to placate by trying to say, ‘well let’s form a new government, let’s do this let’s do that.’ None of this is really working … there’s no trust between the protest[ors] and the political class. So, any proposal that’s coming from the political class is being dismissed. Because it’s seen as a trick and a way to co-opt and placate and just defuse the situation … So, again it’s a very different phenomenon than 2005, which is precisely why it’s very unclear as to how we proceed from here. The people don’t want a government or political system where these people are in power. Now, these people are not going to give up power, so that’s the impasse.
Adding to the government’s difficulties is its severe cash crunch:
It just shows you the brazenness of this elite that they’re trying to raise revenue from anywhere they can possibly think of without doing any structural reforms and letting go of their profits. Because the system really runs on the equivalent of a Ponzi scheme through the Lebanese banks. The Lebanese government is very much in debt. It’s one of the most indebted governments on the planet. … depend[ent] on a sustained inflow of US dollars in cash from abroad … they need fresh money constantly like in any Ponzi scheme. But with the [Western] sanctions on Hezbollah [and] the sanctions by the Arab states in the Gulf against Hezbollah, [which] affects [Lebanese] workers in the diaspora in the Gulf and their ability to send remittances … all of these things have affected the cash inflow leading to this crisis point. So, in the background of everything else, the economy is teetering on the edge if it’s not already over the edge.
Asked by MEF Radio cohost Gregg Roman if he has “any recommendations for American policymakers,” Badran replied,
I think the most important thing is not to give any bailouts to this political class … it will just prolong its life and that’s not what the people on the streets want. … This is a system that is tailor-made for Hezbollah. So, if you are helping that system continue to survive, then you’re really helping Hezbollah’s case. So, the United States should not allow any bailout for this class. Let this phenomenon play out.