AMMAN, JORDAN - An online video purportedly deemed offensive to Shi'ite Muslims has sparked unrest in Lebanon, which remains on edge amid anti-government protests that have been ongoing since mid-October.
Late Monday, hundreds of angry supporters from Lebanon's two main Shi'ite-majority parties, Hezbollah and Amal, stepped up the ante, clashing with the security forces and anti-government protesters camped out in central Beirut after the video, shared online, showed a man insulting important Shi'ite figures. A link between the video and the attack on the protest camps was not determined.
At least three cars were set ablaze, one reportedly after it was driven into the groups of men. Police were pelted with stones and fireworks and responded with tear gas and water cannon. Protests sparked by the video also broke out in the south and the Bekaa Valley. News reports say the undated video was made by an expatriate Lebanese Sunni from the majority Sunni city of Tripoli.
Additionally, Monday marked the third consecutive night of violence in the area around parliament in the capital city. The trouble erupted just hours after President Michel Aoun announced yet another delay to talks on naming a successor to Prime Minister Said Hariri, who resigned in October but has continued to govern in a caretaker capacity. A Sunni Muslim, Hariri has re-emerged as a candidate for prime minister. Anti-government protesters say he is linked to corruption.
Protesters have been demanding an end to the sectarian political system—a handful of elites in charge since the 1975-90 civil war-- whom they say has engendered patronage and corruption. They accuse leaders of robbing the country to the point of bankruptcy and exploiting networks of clientelism to benefit their clans and families, while keeping the Lebanese divided. They are also railing against high unemployment and poor public services, including the lack of sustained electricity and waste removal.
Habib Malik, an associate history professor at the Lebanese American University, told VOA that the demonstrations are still relatively mild compared to those in Iraq and Iran, where protesters are also demanding changes to their respective governments.
“That is actually one of the encouraging signs. The kinds of violence perpetrated there is not easy to replicate in a place like Beirut. Whoever is out to instigate violence, are those who are against the popular uprising; namely, the supporters of parliament speaker Nabih Berri or Hezbollah,” Malik said.
Protesters have accused militant Hezbollah leaders and Berri of playing a significant role in the economic and political problems engulfing this tiny Arab country found in the eastern Mediterranean, once known as the "Switzerland of the Middle East."
But Malik also underscored that the violence “really shows the level of frustration on the part of Hezbollah and supporters of Berri who are unable to stop this movement and cannot resort to the murderous tactics that they have used in Iraq and Iran.”
Reuters and other news agencies have reported that Iran-backed militias have deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops during Iraq’s deadliest anti-government protests in years, shooting and killing demonstrators there.
“The level of violence will more or less remain; it could spike a bit, but Beirut is a very different kettle of fish from Baghdad or Tehran,” Malik said.
But Malik warned that while some of Lebanon’s sectarian leaders have used cronyism for personal gain, the political system based on religious identity likely cannot be swept away as quickly as the protesters may wish.
"Below the surface there remain very strong sectarian currents,” he said. “The protesters are very frustrated about this, but they don’t realize that you cannot wave a magic wand and parachute secularism onto a place in the Middle East where fundamental identity for centuries, on the personal as well as communal levels, has been defined in sectarian or religious terms. It’s not easy to do away with that overnight."
Malik said that without the establishment first of real citizenship rights and rule of law, some of the country's minorities could be swept up in rule by the religious majority, instead of a secular system they seek. He said real change could take a generation.
"This, in a sense, is a reality check on some of this very pure and justified enthusiasm of the street protesters. They are fed up with the corruption, these families and these leaders,” he said. “I would hope that they are able to make a dent in this monolith, but it is not going to happen anytime soon in the sweeping manner they are asking for."
Lebanon is experiencing “a social transformation, a revolution in the norms underpinning Lebanese society,” says Maha Yahya, who directs the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“Demands by protesters to bring down the regime are an indictment of the catastrophic political and economic mismanagement of the country by its political class,” she wrote in a Carnegie paper titled, “In With the Old, Out With What?”
Straining under an economic crisis with prices soaring, mass layoffs and salary cuts, Lebanon is likely heading to default on its debts, Fitch Ratings recently warned.
Yahya said that Lebanon’s budget deficit hovers around 152 percent of GDP and net foreign reserves have declined dramatically. Citing a 2016 World Bank report, patronage politics have cost Lebanon an estimated 9 percent of gross domestic product annually. “This is in part due to the fact that the state rarely punishes corruption when it is associated with sectarian political elites,” she said.
It is believed that Lebanese public servants and their political sponsors may “directly pocket around 25 percent of public sector funds,” Yahya added, while nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line.
It is also reported that the richest 1 percent of Lebanese take in 25 percent of national income, she said. Meanwhile, the national electricity utility costs the country 11 percent of its budget deficit, but Lebanese pay twice the regional average for electricity.
Yahya believes that the anti-government protesters may not have dropped their sectarian identities, but rather “have decided to privilege a broader national identity and their rights as citizens. This has come with a realization that sectarian communities have not protected or preserved the dignity of their members or guaranteed their rights.”
Meanwhile, Western countries are urging Lebanon to form a credible government to unlock badly needed aid.
Until recently, Lebanon’s popular protests were largely peaceful from their start in mid-October until the past weekend. Dozens were wounded then after Lebanese security forces fired rubber bullets, tear gas and used water cannon to disperse anti-government protesters from central Beirut.