In Lebanon, going back to ‘business as usual’ might not be an alternative

By Claude Salhani

Protesters in cities and towns across Lebanon took to the streets in a third week of popular protests.

They were armed with demands ranging from the ousting of the prime minister and his cabinet to caring more for the environment as well as a long list of sundry steps they say the country needs to rectify what has gone amiss over the past 30 years since the end of the civil war.

What is noteworthy is the absence from the debate of political parties and religion, the two powerhouses of Lebanese political and social life that had been unavoidable if one hoped to achieve progress in the country.

Perhaps fearful of being left out of the affairs sweeping the land like a sudden storm, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Bechara Rai was quick to make his point during the first week of the protests to make sure that the patriarch and his church retain political influence among the Christian community in Lebanon.

Likewise, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, representing the Shia population in Lebanon, made a televised broadcast during the first week of demonstrations, calling for protesters to cool off and end the protests.

While those remarks were made from the sanctuaries of the respective movements’ headquarters, the mood among the protesters continued in defiance of the establishment.

The feeling among these leaderless movements is that they will continue to protest until their demands are met.

That may end up taking some time because some ministers are dragging their feet, claiming they are having a hard time finding replacements for government leadership. This is a tactic used by ministers reluctant to leave power. Particularly noticeable among them is Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who has high hopes of succeeding his father-in-law.

In the meantime, the demonstrations and continuing strikes are a double-edged sword for both sides. The longer they last, the greater the resentment from the people towards the government. On the other hand, the longer the people get along peacefully, the more they will realise they do not need the protection of a particular political party or churches and mosques to get along.

It should strengthen the democratic principles that many people in Lebanon hold faith and hope in. That this movement is without a leadership structure makes it harder for authorities to crack down on it.

The people who have taken their gripes to the street have done so in a peaceful manner, with a few exceptions in which Iran-backed Hezbollah tried to intimidate protesters.

Almost three weeks into the protests and with no end in sight, the demonstrators remain steadfast and convinced that they shall overcome. Much of that confidence comes from the fact that demonstrators are equipped with something that has been missing in Lebanon for many years: hope. Hope that they can bring about positive change and hope that they will prevail.

The establishment believes the protests will die down and the country will revert to business as usual, at which point its adherents will be able to continue stuffing their pockets with dollars.

This is what one protester said: “They think this will be business as usual. They are wrong and will soon realise that it will not be business as usual.”

“There is a new reality on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli, Saida and other cities and towns and it is beautiful,” another demonstrator said.

For the first time, religion is not a dividing issue separating Christians from Muslims and Muslims from Christians. Many protesters have gone out of their way to embrace their fellow Lebanese, no matter what religion.

We have seen Christians reciting verses of the Quran alongside Muslims and we have seen Muslims saying the rosary alongside Christians.

What drives these young people to engage in protests is their belief that they will come out of this having forced the Lebanese on to a brighter track.

The main obstacle remains the establishment and the old guard who want to keep the old ways. Going back to “business as usual”, however, might not be an alternative.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

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