When Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah asserted that protests could provoke “chaos” or “civil war,” was this a warning or a threat? Within minutes of his speech, motorbike convoys of Hezbollah supporters fanned out across Beirut, breaking up rallies. Throughout the day, demonstrators were attacked by masked men chanting “Labaik Nasrallah.”
Protesters derisively rejected Nasrallah’s patronizing platitudes, threats and half-baked conspiracies. Rebutting his suggestion that suspicious foreign elements were sponsoring the protests, citizens videoed themselves declaring “I am sponsoring this revolution.” I witnessed tangible examples of this outbreak of national solidarity, with friends of mine purchasing umbrellas and plastic raincoats for fellow demonstrators when it rained. Others distributed food or provided entertainment.
Comparable defiance against foreign interference played out across Iraq this weekend, with posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei torn down in Shiite holy cities, chants against Qassem Soleimani, and attacks against proxy paramilitary offices. More than 63 were killed and 2,500 injured in a single weekend, despite Iraq’s fragmenting administration pledging to avoid lethal force. In towns across the south, ugly clashes between protesters and Iran-backed militants create the impression of a nation perilously close to the brink of civil war.
For those of us who have long despaired of Lebanon’s political direction of travel, this assertion of national identity represents an exhilarating beacon of hope that radical change is possible. Protesters are grimly aware that their demands won’t be achieved overnight. Yet a fresh zeitgeist of collective national unity has been awakened vis-a-vis the corrupt and complicit governing classes, which have conspired to pillage the nation’s wealth — with detested figures like Gebran Bassil the focus of particular ire.
After decades trapped within a sectarianized straitjacket, Lebanon’s sects recognize this poisonous narrative of “divide and conquer” for what it is. They poured on to the streets as a single nation, declaring their common aspirations of “dignity,” jobs, accountability, and protecting Lebanese sovereignty.
For decades it was possible to deny the extent of Iranian interference. Previously, it was the Syrians who sought to micromanage our lives. We meekly accepted Hezbollah’s rhetoric that it was protecting us against Israel’s or, latterly, Daesh’s hostile designs. But was Hezbollah defending Lebanon when it massacred Syrian oppositionists? Or when hard currency is sucked out of the economy to cushion Tehran from the impact of American sanctions? Or when Nasrallah declared that Khamenei is “our imam, our leader, our master… Iran is the heart of the axis, its main center, its strongest supporter?”
How dare Nasrallah accuse patriotic demonstrators of accepting foreign assistance when he is the living embodiment of foreign meddling: Iranian arms, Iranian money, Iranian identity, and Iranian orders.
The “barrier of fear” has been shattered, with an erosion of the unquestioning loyalty Hezbollah demands from Shiite communities. Mothers mourned children returning from Syria in body bags. With a sharp fall in Iranian salaries for fighters, stipends to the families of “martyrs” and welfare payments, there is growing realization of the downsides of dependence on Tehran, particularly when the cost may ultimately be a ruinous war with Israel.
More than a million Lebanese on the streets, dancing, singing and chanting for revolution, represents a fundamental challenge to everything Hezbollah stands for. This includes aspirations for Lebanon’s cultural and economic renaissance and for a model of governance that is genuinely accountable and representative — as opposed to avaricious factions monopolizing the right to represent us by default due to the sect or community we were born into.
Tehran’s malicious intentions are more glaring in Baghdad, with the government dominated by Iran-backed paramilitaries with Iraqi blood on their hands — including that of dozens of protesters murdered by militia snipers. These paramilitaries control vast areas of Iraq, yet it was in their strongholds that the most significant outbursts of anti-Iranian rage have manifested themselves.
Shiite Arabs are waking up to the realization that the ayatollahs of Tehran aren’t generously donating billions of dollars for the pious causes of protecting pilgrims and refurbishing religious seminaries. This isn’t kinship, it’s a naked power grab. Soleimani would happily forge alliances with Satanist cults or atheist revolutionaries if it served his goal of dominating Arab nations. Last week’s disclosure that an Iranian assassination squad targeted Iranian dissidents in Albania illustrates Tehran’s obsession with spreading terrorism and mayhem around the globe.
Permanent Iranian hegemony over proud Arab nations is impossible. Iran itself is imploding, not due to outside pressures but from Iranians themselves courageously emerging year after year to challenge their oppressors. The mullahs’ regime is a fleeting moment in history and, the moment they cease exporting billions of dollars of stolen national wealth to bankroll overseas anarchy, their hated mercenary proxies will vanish in the blink of an eye.
We must take Nasrallah’s civil war threats seriously. Tehran cast Syria into the inferno of civil war to protect its puppet Bashar Assad. The Lebanese are still living the acrimonious ramifications of their previous civil war, which ended 30 years ago.
Infiltrators triggering disturbances and violence at rallies are simply the beginning of coordinated efforts to sow “fitnah” (rebellion) among Lebanese citizens once again; because, when the Lebanese are at one another’s throats, beholden to sectarian lies, they become powerless and easily dominated.
If the entire Lebanese nation can sustain its miraculous unity, all things become possible. There are two stark options: United, Lebanon can again flourish as the “Switzerland of the Middle East;” divided, it will continue its current trajectory as an impoverished, isolated Iranian satellite.
The sectarian, kleptocratic governing bureaucracies of Lebanon and Iraq are like mighty fortresses built of glass. Some of those standing on top of these glass citadels have already realized that their best interests lie in climbing down and uniting with fellow citizens. Woe betide those still posturing atop these glazed follies when the nations ultimately decide that the time has come to shatter them to pieces.