In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks

Rally on August 29, AFP

Rally on August 29, AFP

In the latest installment of our In Translation series – brought to you as always by the crack translation team of Industry Arabic – we look at commentary from within Lebanon on the “You Stink” movement. These protests, sparked by the failure of municipal garbage collection services, have taken on an unexpected amplitude, targeting corruption and the political impasse (the country has no president and its parliament’s mandate expired in 2013) created by its sectarian politics. The article below, from An-Nahar newspaper, discusses the attempts by the Lebanese factions to use the protests to resolve the impasse over the presidency to their advantage. 

“All of Them Means All of Them”: A Third, Civilian Way for Rights and to End the Gridlock?

Rosana Bou Moncef, An-Nahar31 September 2015

The countries now closely observing the situation in Lebanon would like to see the political authorities take up the popular demands that have brought thousands of people out into the streets. People are hurling charges of corruption against officials, although some of the officials are trying to exempt themselves from these charges and shift the blame to others, while they continue to huddle around the Cabinet table or around sectarian leaders complaining of insult and neglect. Most of the countries watching would not like to see the current order seriously disturbed, although they would like to see the Lebanese people form a peaceful civil force or a third force that could compel officials to take the interests of the people into account, or grant them more attention than they do to their own. This is based on the idea that the Lebanese people and Lebanese youth in particular have a dynamism that obliges them to confront the political class and claim their rights, rather than emigrate and leave officials to run their fiefdoms and tend their personal interests.

Some people are invoking the statements of US Ambassador David Hale, who told Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam that the US backs his government but also supports the right of protestors to express their opinion and not face repression. It is possible that some countries are pushing for the Lebanese authorities to respond to the protesters’ demands so that a deteriorating situation or even collapse of Lebanon is not added to the list of priorities to address, at a time when the countries of the region do not have time for this. Meanwhile, some actors are afraid that the deterioration of the situation or the fragmentation among political actors will lead to hasty solutions that might favor the interests of some over others. Although all politicians are at least paying lip service to the popular demands, most of them are worried either about those they consider to be behind the mobilization of civil society, or that their rivals will piggy-back on this movement and steer it toward their own ends.

The organizers of this movement have tried to steer clear of the slogans of one faction or the other, and they have tried to prevent these forces from claiming them for one side or accusing them of being in the opposite camp. The strategy has first and foremost been to target the Minister of the Environment and call for the Minister of Interior to be held accountable. However, if the protesters’ firm demand leads to the election of a new president, it could clear the way for other measures that the Lebanese are demanding, such as a new government and an electoral law for new parliamentary elections. If the government cannot respond to demands, this could create real pressure not only on Lebanese factions but also on international actors.

To see the protesters hold up pictures of officials accusing them of corruption and calling for all of them without distinction to depart has been embarrassing for many politicians, but their reactions have differed. General Michel Aoun [the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and a key political ally of Hezbollah seeking the presidency, which under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing arrangement is reserved for Maronite Christians] was not pleased to see his picture among those that the Lebanese are fed up with and want to see depart from the scene. He is trying to distance himself from the others, casting accusations of corruption on them and continuing to present himself as the sole candidate for the presidency.

The response to Aoun was the slogan “All of them means all of them” and other calls by the protesters to bar him from reaching the presidency, on the grounds that he is another one of the figures whom the Lebanese are sick of. It would be hard for a man to be elected president who the people have already called on to depart like the rest. There is a stark contradiction in the fact that Aoun has handed over the leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement to a young person but is not allowing young people the opportunity to become president. Meanwhile, with regards to some of those that General Aoun is trying to sideline, their names were previously unheard, and now the situation arising from the protests could snowball and impose a reality that would go against Aoun, especially if the army is forced to respond. General Aoun fears a scenario that could lead to this result, while his opponents fear another scenario – one cooked up by Aoun’s allies in an attempt to award him the presidency now that all other attempts have failed. As MP Mohammed Raad has said, “If you go after Aoun, you’re going after Amal and Hezbollah.” The challenge is now to pry Speaker Nabih Berri away from his understanding with Prime Minister Tammam Salam and return him back to the March 8 camp. [March 8 is the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led movement of which Aoun is also an ally. It arose in response to the March 14 movement, which called successfully for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. An-Nahar newspaper is pro-March 14.] 

Nor does Hezbollah like seeing the picture of its Secretary-General among the pictures of Lebanese politicians whom the Lebanese are blaming for the deteriorating situation. Hezbollah has only been embarrassed into grudgingly accepting the image of head of [pro-Hezbollah] Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc Mohammed Raad among such protest pictures. Like Aoun, Hezbollah does not accept any responsibility, and although it has objected to decisions taken by the “majority” in the past, this was only for well-known political reasons; it did not actually object to decisions pertaining to people’s day-to-day affairs. They have all continued to sit around the Cabinet table nonetheless.

Other factions have expressed appreciations of the popular movement only in order to absorb it, by working with it on the basis of a road map or an action plan that would restore respect for the people’s wishes and interests, in the absence of parliamentary elections that require politicians to court votes. This situation is a unique opportunity for young people to take the initiative and prove their ability and willpower to create change. So why don’t we let them develop their own action plan to achieve whatever can be achieved?