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

by Cllaude 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.

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.

Anniversary of Iran hostage crisis marks four decades of repression of dissent, hostility to the West

By Claude Salhani

Forty years after Iranian pro-revolution students besieged the US embassy and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostages, relations between Tehran and the West have hardly improved. 

The 14-month crisis beginning in November 1979 was inspired by an “Islamic revolution” that led Iran on a path of repression and hostility to the West that has fundamentally reshaped its foreign policy. 

Iran’s “revolution” jumpstarted in September 1978 when the army, under the control of Shah Reza Pahlavi, fired on anti-government protesters, killing a number of them.

The slain demonstrators were commemorated at mosques the following Friday when imams stoked the fire among the crowds who emerged onto the streets filled with rage and craving revenge, only to be met by more troops who, again, fired on the crowds.

The scenario was repeated the following Friday when more protesters took to the streets, where more of them were killed and the reprisals continued.

As the crowds grew every week, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini fanned the flames from Neauphle Le Chateau, a quiet residential neighbourhood near Paris where he sought refuge after being expelled from Iraq.

In speeches from his sanctuary, the ayatollah called for the overthrow of the shah.

According to a source close to French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the French president phoned the shah and told him the ayatollah was “becoming dangerous” and, if the shah chose to act, Giscard d’Estaing said it could be arranged that French security could be made to overlook certain aspects.

The shah is said to have responded: “Let him shout all he wants. We are not concerned.”

As opposition to the shah grew and Khomeini became more vociferous, the source reported that Giscard d’Estaing cautioned the shah a second time. “This man is really becoming dangerous. We cannot act because he has not threatened the French or France. Again, if you chose to act, we can certainly look the other way,” the French leader said.

Once again the shah refused the offer, saying: “Let him shout all he wants.”

The French were right to worry. As marches, protests and demonstrations in Tehran grew in violence, so too did the pressure mount on the shah to resign.

On January 17, 1979, accompanied by his wife, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran for exile, flying to the United States and Panama, only to be asked to leave for fear of upsetting the mullahs in Iran. He arrived in Aswan, Egypt, the only country that welcomed him, on February 11.

The emperor of emperors — the shahanshah — had become a pariah. He remained in Egypt until his death July 27, 1979.

Reforms introduced by the shah, particularly his policy of separating religion from politics had upset the Shia clergy as well as the powerful bazaaris, considered to be the backbone of Iran’s influential merchants. That, and reports of corruption among the royal family and, above all, the behaviour of his dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, were issues he should have dealt with but ignored.

Shortly after the shah’s departure from Iran, the mullahs who had taken over formally abolished the monarchy and declared Iran an Islamic republic.

Thus began a new era in the Middle East. Iran began trying to export its revolution. It became embroiled in a lengthy war with neighbouring Iraq during which Iran lost 500,000 men.

Iran went from being a staunchly pro-Western country that enjoyed cordial relations with the United States and Israel to having tense relations with most, if not all, Western nations, primarily the United States following the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran and the detention of 52 American hostages from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.

Iran further irritated Western powers by its efforts to acquire nuclear technology and capability for military purposes, although the leadership insists that its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes. The ayatollahs severed diplomatic relations with Israel, saying “it should be wiped off the map.”

Iran under the mullahs has delved into politics beyond its borders, financing and training militias in Lebanon and Yemen. Seeing itself as a regional superpower, it sent its military as well as its proxy Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, to fight in Syria.

More than forty years into its revolution, the government continues to crack down on dissent. Several popular requests for it to allow greater freedom were brutally suppressed.

Despite claims that some resistance to the mullahs has made headway, there is no sign the regime in Iran is about to change.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Despite Hariri’s resignation, the Lebanese revolt may still flutter and wither away

by Claude Salhani

With the euphoria surrounding Lebanon’s popular demonstrations that left the country at a standstill and grabbed the world’s attention, forcing the prime minister to resign, the big question is: What’s next?

Not counting a few scuffles, the movement has been largely peaceful with citizens from all walks of life gathering in denouncing flagrant government corruption and other ills the country has suffered over the past three decades.

There was a strong sense of hope that things would change this time. Regrettably, in Lebanon, the more things change, the more they are the same.

Or are they?

It took almost two weeks of demonstrations to convince Prime Minister Saad Hariri to announce his resignation. It appears that the power of the people has prevailed with the prime minister resigning and three ministers announcing they were leaving the government.

The resignations come on the heels of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah calling for Hariri not to resign. Sources in Beirut said Nasrallah twice tried to convince Hariri not to quit, saying the protests would eventually die out.

While the protesters may have won the first round in the latest Lebanese debacle, the game is far from over.

Hezbollah represents the largest force in the country with practically unlimited financial and military support from Iran. Hezbollah’s leaders and their Iranian backers are unlikely to raise their hands, accept defeat and join the opposition, as would be the practice in most democracies.

Hezbollah has far too much at stake to accept a political defeat gracefully.

After being hailed as a hero for being the only Arab force to have defeated Israel and ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah today is seen as a villain that will not stop meddling in Lebanon’s domestic affairs on behalf of its master, Iran.

The problem with Hezbollah is that it has gone from helping solve the problem to becoming the problem. The Party of God is too big and too powerful for its own good — as well as for the good of the country.

Its intervention in Syria to help bail out Syrian President Bashar Assad transformed what was supposed to be a national party into a regional powerhouse.

For most Lebanese it was heartwarming to see people from all walks of life, all religious beliefs, all religious denominations and all political parties participate in the protests. It rekindled hope among many Lebanese. Some described this as a new revolution.

Protesters rejoiced when learning of Hariri’s resignation. However, this is but one item on a long list of demands.

Change is inevitable. It will come about sooner or later despite Hezbollah’s stand today.

The Party of God can choose to be pro Lebanon or its members can continue selling their souls to the devil.

Nasrallah’s advice to Hariri was to ignore the protesters who, as days go by and with winter approaching, will lose interest and move on.

That is not the solution.

The solution is getting Hezbollah to join the rest of the country and not insist on being above the law. As long as Hezbollah places foreign interests before the interests of Lebanon, it is hard to see a viable solution.

It is not in the interest of the mullahs governing Iran and pulling Hezbollah’s strings to see sectarianism replaced by an independent, non-sectarian and free society.

Why would Iran and Hezbollah voluntarily cede the power they have gained?

Hezbollah remains the predominant power in Lebanon with 13 seats in parliament and three cabinet posts. Why would it give that up?

Hezbollah said the changes demanded by the demonstrators could push Lebanon into chaos. Nasrallah warned that this could take the country back to a civil war.

Nasrallah may have good reasons to be worried because cracks are showing in Hezbollah’s support base as sympathisers ask why he did not do more to combat corruption in the government.

There is no valid reason why replacing a bunch of corrupt politicians should reignite the civil war unless, of course, the rekindling is provided by Nasrallah and those who do not find it in their interest to have Lebanon on track for prosperity.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Trump’s moves will forever change the map of the Middle East

By Claude Salhani

There is no mistaking it, we are living through a landmark moment in the tumultuous recent history of the Middle East.

US military planners working in the sub-basements of the Pentagon and the generals and colonels running operations in northern Syria are implementing the direct order from the US commander-in-chief to immediately withdraw US forces from the northern Syrian theatre of operations.

This sudden move by the United States places the Syrian Kurds in great jeopardy. Since US President Donald Trump announced the retreat of US forces, the Kurds, who have fought valiantly alongside US troops against the Islamic State, feel they have been stabbed in the back.

In Washington, cries against this sudden retreat came from Republican senators, who have traditionally stood at the president’s side.

The decision to order US forces out of the area, a decision made on a whim by the president and without consulting the military, created a political firestorm in Washington and havoc in the concerned region.

This knee-jerk act of political and military insanity unleashed new demons in the region, demons that are very likely to remain there for a long, long time.

As US troops, aboard their armoured carriers, drove through Kurdish towns on their way out of the region, residents pelted them with potatoes.

At the same time planners working in the Pentagon were going over their plans, Russian military planners, some 7,800km away, must have been breaking out the vodka to celebrate an amazing victory for mother Russia.

Indeed, in paving the way for Russian troops to reach the Mediterranean, as he has done, Trump achieved for Russia what the tsars and the communists failed to do. Thanks to Trump, the Russians finally get their much-desired, year-round, warm-water ports on the Mediterranean.

This is strategically of utter importance to the Russians, who feel vulnerable when their navy becomes challenged when North Sea ports are inoperable during the long, cold days of winter. So important was this issue for Russia, then under the flag of the Soviet Union, that it justified the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The importance of the Russians reaching the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean must not be underestimated. While it may be too early to absorb the full effect of events that have just unfolded, years down the road we will come to realise this was on the scale of a historic event such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 when the maps of the Middle East were carved up by colonial powers.

We are too close to the event to properly judge its importance but in years to come, when historians write the final draft of the conflict under way along the stretch of land dividing northern Syria from southern Turkey, they will realise that the United States handing over this strategically important piece of real estate to the Russians was a monumental mistake.

Here we debunk another false claim by Trump — that no one knows real estate as well as he does. Yes, the president is wrong once again. Any third-rate real estate investor or developer would have realised the importance of this piece of real estate that Trump allowed the Russians to grab without putting up a bid.

Still wonder why Trump refuses to release copies of his tax returns?

As far as the Middle East is concerned, this is a sad event in which once again Kurds, this time the Syrian Kurds, pay the price of Western incompetence and failure to grasp the reality of life in the region.

The sad thing is that the mayhem and killing of innocents could have — and should have — been avoided. The 10-year-old girl whose brother was killed during a Turkish air strike in which she lost a leg did not have to suffer those losses.

Thank you, Mr Trump, for your disservice.

‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ is on the brink of failure

By Claude Salhani

For 30 years, since the end of 15 years of civil war, Lebanon came very close to being designated a failed state. To reach that highly undesired status there are certain criteria that a country must meet.

That includes a weak central government and an inability to get changes passed through parliament because power remains more in the hands of proxy armed militias who owe their loyalty more to outside powers than to their own country.

The Lebanese government’s inability to provide its population security and social services made Lebanon meet three of the four “failed state” prerequisites. What saved Lebanon was its banking system. Lebanese banks were sturdy, despite wars and invasions and periodic havoc in the country.

Lebanon has maintained its advantageous banking system, which remains largely unaffected. Despite wars, foreign invasions, civil strife and death and destruction in the surrounding region, Lebanon continued to be the pivotal financial centre in the Middle East.

That was until mid-October when the Lebanese pound was further devalued against the US dollar. Almost everything, from luxury seaside apartments to mundane daily items, is bought and sold in dollars in Lebanon. A large part of the population may look unfavourably at the United States and find its policies despicable but the US dollar remained king.

What prompted protests in Lebanon were rumours that the country was running short of dollars.

That and the daily hardships of living in a country where electricity is rationed and power cuts sometimes last more than 12 hours a day and where rubbish remains uncollected on pavements for months at a time, attracting rodents, flies and disease were enough to motivate people from all walks of life and all political-religious affiliations into the streets, demanding firm action from the government.

A large percentage of the Lebanese population travels to Gulf countries or Europe, allowing for a comparison with their native Lebanon, where the country suffers from a lack of just about everything but hope.

It is precisely that hope that might force a change in the corrupt system.

The mood in Lebanon can be summed up by the actions of one woman, part of the demonstration that confronted the education minister when he showed up with bodyguards armed with AK-47 assault rifles. Determined to make her point, the young woman did not allow herself to be intimidated by the armed guard. Instead, she delivered a perfectly executed kick to the guard’s groin. Caught on video, the incident went viral on Lebanese social media.

There is only so much that a person can put up with: the lack of electricity, the absence of security, rampant corruption in government, the high rate of unemployment, rising cost of living, pollution, lack of clean air and all the other woes that befell this once-pristine country often described as the Switzerland of the Middle East.

Adding to these problems is plan by the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to install a tax on the popular internet communication application, WhatsApp.

To top it off, the country has suffered an unprecedented series of more than 100 wildfires that scorched large swathes of land in several parts of the country.

As can be expected the government was ill-prepared, ill-equipped and lacking proper resources to tackle the fires.

As usual in Lebanon, under such circumstances, there is the danger of interference by the traditional warlords. For now, hope remains that those who stand to gain or lose the most, such as Hezbollah, have remained noncommittal.

The novelty this time is the presence of the Lebanese Army. Previously, the government has refrained from deploying the military for fear it would split along confession lines.

That fear remains but is overshadowed by a renewed sense of hope.

Iranians suffer as Tehran’s appetite for regional power grows

By Claude Salhani

It is a vicious circle. Iran continues to acquire sophisticated weapons. The supplier is usually one of the main weapon-producing countries of which there are only a handful: the United States, Russia and France.

Iran, like many other countries, is arming itself with sophisticated weaponry that will eventually strengthen its power, much to the pleasure of its leaders. With these weapons, the theocracy’s supreme leader and Iranian President Hassan Rohani can strut around like a couple of excited peacocks with their multicoloured tails fully deployed, along with their treasured state-of-the-art weapons systems.

Of course, as soon as they acquire new weapons along comes one of the aforementioned countries with a solution to counter whatever system was sold to Tehran, secretly or otherwise, offering weapon systems to counter other weapons systems. So a vicious cycle is entered and there is no choice but to keep upgrading and renewing the arsenal.

Tehran is proud and elated and the countries selling these systems are pleased because they have increased their revenues by several million dollars. Everybody’s happy. Or are they?

What about the people, the regular people? The majority of the population suffers more because their countries have entered a great game of geopolitics.

Tehran insists and, despite everything, is not deterred from pursuing its goal to acquire nuclear capability.

That is the end game. Between the nuclear power plant and the small arms, there is room for all sorts of weapon systems to be sold.

Yet the regime in Iran has been steadfast, intent on becoming a nuclear power. It is also intent on meddling in regional affairs, despite sanctions imposed by the international community.

Has Tehran ever stopped to wonder what people really want? Does the man or woman on the street care much about the country having the latest armaments at the cost of heavy sanctions imposed on the entire nation? How does a mother feel about having to pay five times the regular cost of nappies because her president thinks his country needs nuclear weapons?

Sure, the government organises demonstrations showing support for its policies but, once the cameras are out of the way, there is a different story. Iranians suffer from the continued role played by their country trying to emulate a superpower — at least in its own inflated importance, keeping the country abreast of advanced and sophisticated weaponry. Tehran has become addicted and weapon suppliers are there to remind Tehran of the latest models and systems, et cetera.

Those expenditures, compiled with sanctions on the country, may not affect a ruling class that has always managed to import whatever it needed to live comfortably but the compilation of money spent on the military and the sanctions will affect most citizens. They are the ones who will feel the crunch.

Iran is a rich country because of oil production but its desire to play in the major leagues has practically bankrupted it. Many Iranians survive today on the brink of poverty. To what end?

Iran’s leaders could invest in helping businessmen and women start small businesses. They could invest in education. They could invest in the arts and sciences. Instead, what we have is billions of dollars wasted on purchasing weapons systems that are soon obsolete.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.