by Amir-Hussein Radjy, 21 April 2020
Covid-19 arrived in Lebanon exactly four months and three days after street protests, triggered by the country’s financial crash, erupted against its sectarian rulers and the corrupt system they preside over. The first cases of the new illness were Lebanese pilgrims who had flown back from visiting Iran’s shrines, which had remained open despite the spreading outbreak there.
I arrived at the Beirut airport the same evening. It took less than 24 hours for the virus to become the newest battle in the proxy war between Iran’s allies and its US-backed enemies in the Middle East. A reporter for the leading Lebanese daily Annahar, Asrar Chbaro, went to the airport to check what measures, if any, officials were taking to screen passengers flying in from Iran. A Hizbullah supporter accosted her as she was speaking with disembarking passengers, yelling that she was disrespecting ‘those who were close to the martyrs’, meaning Shia militants who have died fighting on President Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian war. A second Hizbullah supporter grabbed her mobile. ‘Why do you only talk about planes coming from Iran?’ he asked, before forcing her to unlock the phone to delete the videos she’d taken interviewing the passengers.
Beirut’s Rafik Hariri international airport is named after the billionaire prime minister who was killed in a car bombing after turning against the Syrian-Hizbullah alliance in the early 2000s. Control over the airport led to street clashes with the militant group when Hariri’s son, who inherited the Sunni-held premiership, removed the Shia head of airport security, closely trusted by Hizbullah. Today, a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could force Lebanon to reform the administration of its customs, airport and ports, the control of which are still widely seen as vital to Hizbullah (‘If they don’t like you, pah! They come take you at the airport and you disappear,’ a former adviser to Hariri père warned me).
Hizbullah’s detractors quipped that Iran was gifting Lebanon disease as well as missiles now — another example of how difficult it is to disentangle the smallest political disagreement in Lebanon from bigger regional conflicts.
Muhammad Obeid, a former information ministry director who describes himself as close to the militant group, dismisses this as untrue. ‘Hizbullah is not naïve enough to work publicly,’ he explained,’ but brings its weapons and arms by land directly from Syria through ‘its own ways.’ Neither US sanctions nor reforms to the banking system worry him much. ‘Hizbullah top leaders don’t use smartphones, or Visa or MasterCards,’ he said archly, ‘and they don’t travel to any foreign countries, except Iraq, Syria and Iran, maybe Moscow sometimes.’
His assurances were sincere but not completely convincing. Hizbullah’s leaders acknowledged last year that US financial sanctions were affecting them. The coronavirus outbreak in Iran has also strapped its patron’s purses, pushing Tehran to take the unprecedented step of requesting emergency funding from the IMF. The malignant virus, it seems, has added another volatile and unpredictable pressure on the Iranian-funded ‘Axis of Resistance’ in the Middle East.
The debate over stopping flights from Iran raged in Lebanese news media for the week following Covid’s arrival into the country. Hizbullah’s detractors quipped that Iran was gifting Lebanon disease as well as missiles now — another example of how difficult it is to disentangle the smallest political disagreement in Lebanon from bigger regional conflicts.
That week, I visited the Annahar offices to meet with one of the newspaper’s board members, Marwan Hamadeh, who is a parliament member and former minister many times over. He says that Hizbullah ‘grabbed’ the ministry of health in this and the last government ‘not because they were expecting coronavirus but because they wanted to find new markets, and a new source of foreign currency.’ He paused to blow his nose, reassuring me that he has a seasonal cold, not the new virus. Hamadeh is an old ally of Walid Jumblatt, the 70-year-old Druze chief whose followers refer to him by the Ottoman title of ‘bey’. Jumblatt has aligned his party against the Shia bloc and its backers in Damascus and Tehran
Hamadeh is francophone and debonair, with the manners of one accustomed to dealing with diplomats, journalists and Levantine warlords. He said, without hesitation, that all flights to Iran should be suspended, for at least two to three weeks. ‘It’s not an anti-Iranian measure,’ he said, adding that it might not be enough to stem the further spread of the epidémie across Lebanon’s borders. ‘You will have a lot of problems also with people coming through road, because Syria is a place where Hizbullah fighters train with Iranian fighters and are in contact with Al-Quds officers.’ The delay in stopping travel with Iran is another example, he says, of Lebanon privileging its relationship with Hizbullah’s Persian patrons over its Arab partners.
Annahar’s glass tower sits in the middle of the Dubai-style downtown that Hariri’s money built over the rubble left behind after the 1975-90 civil war. (Only the Rue des Banques, where the self-interest of the different warlords met, was spared destruction during those years.) Since the October uprising, rioters have smashed some of its high-end shop windows, and the surrounding boulevards’ unsold, empty luxury flats have come to represent the failure of Lebanon’s freewheeling, free-market and iniquitous clientelism. Graffiti has spread across the area’s walls with the revolution’s slogan, ‘All of them means all of them.’ There is only disgust now for Lebanon’s sectarian leaders who destroyed the country during the war, and then rebuilt it for their own profit.
But every person I meet — protesters and political figures alike — qualifies the slogan killhum yaani killhum. ‘People’ve had it up to here’, Hamadeh says when I repeat the slogan to him, holding his hand up to his brow. The walls outside his offices are filled with derisive graffiti portraits of his patron, Jumblatt, but he says the protesters are targeting Hizbullah above all, even if ‘they don’t dare raise the voice more against its hegemony.’ He says protesters understand Lebanon’s sovereignty needs to be restored through one army, rather than through one army and one Iranian-armed Shia militant group. Now, he says, Hizbullah is ‘falling into its own contradiction’ by refusing to seriously negotiate a bailout with the IMF, and in delaying the government from closing the land and air borders to arrivals from Iran, both of which show it takes its orders from Tehran.
‘All of them means all of them’, Obeid demurred: ‘it is proportional.’ This is the common defence of supporters of Hizbullah, who say the ‘Resistance’ isn’t corrupt, only its partners in the ruling establishment. He lists different Druze, Christian, Shia and Sunni leaders as running the kleptocracy set up by Hariri after the war. ‘Hizbullah has its own political agenda,’ he admits, in holding onto its alliances with political bosses like Nabih Berri, who leads the Amal party and has been speaker of parliament for nearly three decades. (Berri’s son-in-law, an army colonel, holds a top post in Beirut airport security now.) In a US State Department cable published by WikiLeaks, Obeid claimed Berri had amassed a fortune of $2bn while in office. He has no love for the system himself. ‘We are living in a very unsophisticated confessional regime.’ He is worried that many Lebanese youth want to leave the country; his own daughters live in London and New York.
The politicisation of the virus has become a measure of how ‘all of them means all of them’ doesn’t mean the same thing across Lebanese society.
When he was young, Obeid knew ‘Imam’ Musa Sadr who led Lebanon’s Shia awakening in the 1970s and founded Amal, before his mysterious disappearance in Libya. The imam’s movement presaged the Iranian-backed ‘resistance’ against Israel in the 1980s. Obeid tells me that Iran is a ‘wonderful country’ that he loves to visit. ‘I have deep relations,’ he tells me, speaking at a slow, considerate pace, ‘with all the parties of the Axis of Resistance.’ I ask if flights to Iran should be stopped because of the coronavirus. ‘It’s a boycott directed toward Iran for political reasons,’ he says. ‘Some political leaders in Lebanon only concentrate on this issue, Iran, because they hate Iran, they hate Hizbullah.’ The real agenda is implementing the ‘deal of the century’ for Israel, he says. In his view, this is why President Donald Trump killed the Iranian general Qassim Soleimani.
Annahar is almost bankrupt, among others affected by Lebanon’s financial crash. Its offices are largely empty of journalists, many of whom Hamadeh says haven’t been paid for months. By the entrance is the newspaper’s front page the day after its owner, Jibran Tueni, who was killed in the wave of bombings that targeted anti-Syrian politicians following Rafik Hariri’s own assassination in 2005 (Hamadeh was also targeted). Today’s uprising would be unthinkable without the so-called Cedar Revolution that followed, when a million Lebanese of all sects flocked to nearby Martyrs Square demanding that Syrian troops leave Lebanon, and an end to Damascus’ tutelage. But the leaders of the political alliance that sought to build from the anti-Syria protests — Jumblatt, Hariri’s son, Samir Geagea, and others — are those who protesters seek to overthrow today. ‘Hariri was the kind of type who bought loyalty, when he was gone, it all fell apart,’ his former advisor told me, about the years of political and economic dysfunction that followed 2005. It’s a judgment with which Obeid, oddly, agrees.
The slogan ‘All of them means all of them’ started with the You Stink protests that erupted in 2015 over the ruling class’ failure to deliver basic services like collecting trash from the streets or a 24-hour electricity supply. For the first time, many activists said, Lebanese people were united in leaderless protests against the confessional regime that divided them. A civil society movement grew that aimed to win parliamentary seats in the elections that followed three years later.
Walid Jumblatt, when I met with him at his residence while reporting on the elections that May, was wearily amused by my questions over whether this movement within civil society could change Lebanon. His father Kamal’s death, he said, showed how impossible it was to ‘deconfessionalise’ the political system. Kamal Jumblatt was, by most accounts, a genuine socialist before he was ensnared in the civil war and assassinated for turning against the Syrian invasion in the late 1970s. ‘We failed,’ his son said, of the socialist party that he inherited from his father. ‘We failed to have one political system which gives equal rights, equal opportunities, and to separate the state from religion, we just failed.’ He said the spirit of 2005 driving toward an independent Lebanon was dead too, with Hariri’s son doing little to stem Hizbullah’s influence on the government, Bashar al-Assad winning the war in Syria, and the ‘Persian empire’ rising. I said his view of the Levant’s future sounded grim. ‘Why do you say grim?’ he complained, ever wily and indefatigable. ‘It is realpolitik.’
Many of the protesters I speak with despair over the 2019 uprising’s future, yet the independent politicians, economists, lobbyists and civil society leaders, who weren’t at the forefront of the ‘revolution’, even if they broadly support its demands, say that street pressure is working. Paula Yacoubian, the single civil society candidate to win a parliamentary seat, compares the fight against corruption with Lebanon’s fight against the Israeli occupation before. ‘Hizbullah,’ she tells me, ‘is responsible at least for not stopping the corruption, they are the biggest most powerful party.’ She says promises for reform from the ruling ‘mafia’, like removing confessional representation in the parliament where seats are allocated by Christian and Muslim sects, are ‘the biggest lies.’
Many of the protesters I speak with despair over the 2019 uprising’s future, yet the independent politicians, economists, lobbyists and civil society leaders say that street pressure is working.
We are speaking in the halls of Lebanon’s parliament, trailed by her personal photographer. Yacoubian, a media celebrity and former news anchor with the Hariri family’s Future Television, interviewed Prime Minister Saad Hariri when his Saudi patrons appeared to hold him hostage in Riyadh, forcing him to resign as punishment for cooperating with Hizbullah. ‘You have political parties that would listen to any ambassador,’ she says. Street pressure is working in another way; she says being assassinated, as happens often with those leaders who take an independent line in Lebanese politics, ‘isn’t on the menu’ just now.
A new protesters’ chant is wishing ‘corona’ on individual political bosses like Jebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law and head of his Christian-run party. But the politicisation of the virus has become a measure of how ‘all of them means all of them’ doesn’t mean the same thing across Lebanese society. ‘This coronavirus has pulled the veil back on the supposed unity of the revolutionaries,’ one prominent civil society leader tells me. She cites a protest group representing a bourgeois businessman in East Beirut, the Red Line, who demanded flights be stopped to Iran, but not Italy, though the outbreak was worse there when we spoke. When she objected on Facebook to their post, ‘Christian friends’ answered that they’d go to Italy or France for medical treatment, but never Iran.
Ahead of its dallying Iranian allies, Hizbullah has treated the corona outbreak in its own country gravely. The party’s revered and turbaned chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has warned Lebanese people not to ‘confessionalise’ fighting the disease but unite in the ‘war’ against it. The warning, pronounced with the leader’s faint lisp, is ironical. Hizbullah’s plan to mobilise 25,000 people, including doctors, nurses, and volunteers associated with the group, is likely to vindicate those who fear it has misappropriated power within the country.
A recurring claim among protesters is that civil society must step into the breach, in the way that sectarian groups like Hizbullah have before, by providing the services that Lebanon’s failed state cannot. But the virus is a worrying reminder that Lebanon needs a strong state, and not just a strong civil society, to overcome its many crises, Ziad Baroud told me. Leaked US State Department cables describe Baroud, a former interior minister, as one of Lebanon’s rare uncorrupt public figures. He now calls himself a ‘militant’ for a civil state, but worries that without persistent unity the ‘revolution’ will fail to reform and rebuild the Lebanese state from within. ‘Everybody could be the victim of the virus,’ he says. ‘It’s not about sects or regions, we’re all under attack.’
Amir-Hussein Radjy is a journalist based in Cairo; he has contributed to the Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Republic, among others.