Lebanon’s Protests Enter Fourth Week
Lebanon’s protests have entered their fourth week, but have produced very few results. The uprising scored an early victory by prompting Prime Minister Saad Hariri to announce his government’s resignation on October 29, fulfilling one of the protesters’ demands. Yet, nine days after Hariri’s resignation, little apparent progress has been made on forming a new government, and it remains unclear whether that government will take the form demanded by the protesters – namely, a smaller cabinet of independent technocrats.
The past week witnessed several meetings between leading Lebanese political figures to advance the process of forming the next government. Hariri met with caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil – the head of the Free Patriotic Movement – twice this past week, though details regarding their meeting were scant. While both meetings were reported to have been positive, the first appears to have been a venting session. The most important outcome of the second meeting, however, was reopening the communication channel between Hariri and Hezbollah, whose positions Bassil was reportedly conveying to Hariri.
In fact, this past week, Hariri met with Hajj Hussein al-Khalil, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s political adviser. According to reports, the two had a “positive” meeting, during which Khalil informed the caretaker prime minister that Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, its Shiite partner party, were adamant about Hariri returning to the Office of Prime Minister. Khalil said that the two Shiite parties rejected the idea of Hariri nominating another candidate to be prime minister in his stead, which was originally proposed by their ally Bassil.
Khalil reportedly carried a proposal to Hariri for the composition of the next government, suggesting it should comprise 18 ministers, half of whom would be Muslim, and the other half Christian. These would be broken down into four Sunnis, four Shia, one Druze, four Maronites, two Orthodox, one Catholic, one minister representing Armenians, and another representing the protesters’ demands. According to Hezbollah’s Al-Nour radio, the two didn’t ultimately agree on the form of a future government.
Hezbollah’s Strategy on Government Formation and Protests
According to Hezbollah’s leadership, the group is actively involved in government formation negotiations, and has promised to have “an active presence” in the next government, though they have also said that talks remain in their early stages. Hezbollah remains opposed to the idea of a purely technocratic government. Its leadership has alleged that proposals for such a government are a U.S.-engineered plot to re-engineer Lebanon’s political landscape according to American interests and upend the results of the May 2018 parliamentary elections, with the goal of installing a compliant Lebanese government that will ultimately turn on Hezbollah.
Some reports, however, indicate Hezbollah isn’t actually worried about the loss of its power if it is excluded from the government. It merely doesn’t want to appear to acquiesce to an alleged U.S. “veto” on its participation in the cabinet.
Hezbollah’s overall stance on the protests has remained mostly consistent. The group continues to allege that international actors, and their political allies, are attempting to hijack an otherwise legitimate protest movement and use it for political ends. However, Hezbollah’s leadership is also apparently attempting to walk-back some of Nasrallah’s harsher rhetoric about the protests during his second speech on the October 17 uprising, and trying to rehabilitate its image as the party of the downtrodden and the masses.
Simultaneously, Hezbollah has also continued its propaganda campaign to undermine the protests, at least among its base. In addition to spreading conspiracy theories about the protests’ funding, its leadership and media have latched on to legitimate concerns – like protesters blocking roads and isolated incidents of affiliated thugs setting up checkpoints to charge tolls or ask for identification – to undermine the protests and subtly present the entire uprising as a burden on the country.
Hezbollah’s strategy appears to have worked. Indeed, blocking Lebanon’s already-congested roads does place a burden on the average citizen attempting to go to work or school. Doing so was the uprising’s sole “trump card” to pressure the political class for reforms. In fact, some observers have noted that as the Lebanese Army and security forces have forcibly prevented protesters from blocking roads, the uprising has lost steam, allowing Hezbollah and its political allies to regain the initiative.
However, this seems to be a precautionary measure by Hezbollah, attempting to thwart any potential threat to the group before it becomes too large to control. In fact, according to certain reports, Hezbollah isn’t worried about the protests, and considers the few voices calling for its disarmament to be “mere political talk,” rather than a real threat to its arsenal. Moreover, protest supporters, leaders, and spokespeople ––like former MP Robert Fadel, current MP Paula Yaacoubian, and Dr. Halimeh Kaakour—have stressed that the uprising and its goals do not pose a threat to Hezbollah’s weapons or “Resistance.”
David Daoud is a Research Analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) on Lebanon and Hezbollah. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidADaoud.