LEBANON SPIRALING INTO CHAOS & COLLAPSE
By Vincent Lyn
My first trip to Lebanon was on 26th March 2017 and an eye-opening experience it was. Now having returned 4 times since then, it has been extremely rewarding and has kept me returning, but with the ongoing crisis that has enveloped the country that has turned into a battleground as clashes escalate, the future looks very grim indeed.
In the 1960’s Lebanon was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East and Beirut the Paris of the Middle East. Having extensively read about its recent history starting in 1975 with the Civil war and Syrian occupation. Then in 1982, the PLO attacks from Lebanon on Israel led to an Israeli invasion. A multinational force of American, French and Italian contingents joined in 1983 by a British contingent were deployed in Beirut after the Israeli siege of the city, to supervise the evacuation of the PLO.
During this time a number of massacres occurred, such as in Sabra and Shatila and in several refugee camps. The war eventually ended at the end of 1990 after sixteen years; it caused a massive loss of human life and property, and devastated the country’s economy. It is estimated that 150,000 people were killed and another 200,000 wounded. Nearly a million civilians were displaced by the war, and some never returned. Parts of Lebanon were left in ruins. The political situation in Lebanon significantly changed in the early 2000’s. After the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the death of Hafez Al-Assad in 2000, the Syrian military presence faced criticism and resistance from the Lebanese population. On 14th February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb explosion. Leaders accused Syria of the attack, while Syrian officials claimed that the Mossad was behind the assassination. The Hariri assassination marked the beginning of a series of assassinations that resulted in the death of many prominent Lebanese figures.
The assassination triggered the Cedar Revolution, a series of demonstrations that demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the establishment of an international commission to investigate the assassination. Under pressure from the West, Syria began withdrawing, and by 2 26th April 2005 all Syrian soldiers had returned to Syria.
On 12th July 2006, Hezbollah launched a series of rocket attacks and raids into Israeli territory, where they killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others. Israel responded with airstrikes and artillery fire on targets in Lebanon, and a ground invasion of southern Lebanon, resulting in the 2006 Lebanon War. The conflict officially ended on 14th August 2006, which ordered a ceasefire. Some 1,191 Lebanese and 160 Israelis were killed in the conflict.
Beirut’s southern suburb was heavily damaged by Israeli airstrikes. In 2007, the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp became the center of the 2007 Lebanon conflict between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam. At least 169 soldiers, 287 insurgents and 47 civilians were killed in the battle. Funds for the reconstruction of the area have been slow to materialize.
On 9th May 2008, Hezbollah and Amal forces, sparked by a government declaration that Hezbollah’s communications network was illegal, seized western Beirut, leading to the 2008 conflict in Lebanon. The Lebanese government denounced the violence as a coup attempt. At least 62 people died in the resulting clashes between pro-government and opposition militias. On 21st May 2008, the signing of the Doha Agreement ended the fighting.
In early January 2011, the national unity government collapsed due to growing tensions stemming from the Special Tribunal Government, which was expected to indict Hezbollah members for the Hariri assassination. The parliament elected Najib Makati, the candidate for the Hezbollah-led 8th March Alliance, Prime Minister of Lebanon, making him responsible for forming a new government. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah insists that Israel was responsible for the assassination of Hariri. A report leaked by the Al-Akhbar newspaper in November 2010 stated that Hezbollah has drafted plans for a takeover of the country in the event that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon issues an indictment against its members. In 2012, the Syrian civil war threatened to spill over in Lebanon, causing more incidents of sectarian violence and armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli.
Fast forward to the present I landed in Beirut, Lebanon on October 17th 2019 making my way to Damascus, the capital of Syria. Though I couldn’t have chosen a more untimely day the protests and demonstrations began. Lebanon’s dysfunction and mismanagement, a cause of the protests, has its origins in the country’s sectarian political system enshrined following the Taif agreement, which took place in 1989, almost thirty years before the 2019 protests began.
But just the drive from Beirut-Racific Hariri International Airport to the Syrian Frontier Border was an experience not for the faint of heart. What was on any given day an easy 90-minute evening drive turned into a nightmare performance of 4 hair-raising hours. Blocked roads, and the growing frenzy of people creating a stir at every corner. As I reached the border on three occasions the roads were either blocked by crowds of protestors or military convoys trying to keep the peace. But as soon as we heard gunfire my driver quickly backed up and proceeded to find another way to get across the border. Here we were escaping from Lebanon to get to war torn Syria, what’s the irony in that? Each day the news reports coming out of Lebanon were getting increasingly more and more chaotic. So it raised the question how was I going to get back to Beirut? On October 25th we made the decision to once again drive, taking the back roads and staying off the main highways that were now ablaze with burning tires. The drive this time took 5 hours but we made it without any problems. The hotel that I always stay at was pretty much empty, streets were quiet and so I ventured downtown to Martyr’s Square an easy 15-minute walk from my hotel. Each day the intensity and mobs of people that at the time were relatively peaceful started to grow and with each passing day the scenes started becoming very violent. Smashing storefront windows, putting up barricades, burning tires and blocking roads to the airport and main highways.
On October 19th Lebanese national Hussein Al-Attar was shot and killed during a protest. Former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab’s bodyguards fired on protesters, no one was killed, but four were injured. The General Secretary of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, addressed the nation in the morning, speaking against the imposed taxes. However, he indicated that Hezbollah was against the government resigning and instead asked citizens to divert blame from Hariri’s cabinet to the previous government, which was also to blame for the state of the economy As the protests carried on throughout the day, there were alleged reports of Amal Movement militant group harassing and opening fire on protesters in Tyre.
Due to the mounting pressure from protesters, the Lebanese Forces announced their resignation from the cabinet. Samir Geagea, their leader, had previously blamed his opponents for “obstructing the necessary reforms,” but since declared his “lack of confidence in the current cabinet.”
On October 20th hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in locations throughout the country, making it the largest demonstrations since 2005. Gunfire was heard outside the Tripoli office of Firas Al-Ali, an associate of Hariri. None were injured with the clash, and security forces were quick to act. At 6:00PM, protesters across the country united to sing the national anthem together. On October 21st a general strike was called across the country demanding an end to the country’s economic problems. Some protesters began clearing away demonstration debris in Beirut after a social media call to keep the streets tidy and clear. In the afternoon, an emergency cabinet meeting was held. After the meeting, Prime Minister Hariri held a press conference in which he announced various economic reforms including halving the salaries of legislators and members of parliament, reducing the deficit by about US$3.4 billion in 2020 with the help of the Lebanese central bank and the banking sector, distributing financial aid to families living in poverty and giving US$160 million in housing loans. These proposals were unsuccessful at quelling protests. At night, several motorcyclists hoisting Hezbollah and Amal Movement were recorded heading towards the protests in central Beirut but were intercepted by the Lebanese Army. Soon thereafter, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement denied any involvement with the motorcyclists.
By October 27th tens of thousands of individuals took part in a “human chain” which was held on the coastlines from the Northern city of Tripoli to the southern city of Tyre — encompassing 171 km — organized with the intention to show the unity of the Lebanese people. Pope Francis addressed the Lebanese people expressing their struggle in the face of challenges and social, moral and economic problems of the country, expressing he’s praying that Lebanon can continue to be a place of peaceful coexistence, and urging the Lebanese government to listen to the concerns of the people. The day I left Lebanon and flew back to NYC October 29th Black-clad Hezbollah and Amal Movement supporters attacked protesters in Beirut, tearing down and setting fire to the tents set up by the protesters, throwing plastic chairs, and beating anti-government protesters. Many among the angry mob chanted: “God, Nasrallah, and the whole Dahyeh,” in reference to the southern suburb that is a stronghold of the Iranian-backed militant group. They also chanted, “Shia, Shia”, as a reverential reference to the country’s Shiite Muslim sect. The Hezbollah and Amal Movement supporters also attacked TV crewmembers and destroyed live broadcasting equipment for the MTV (Lebanon) and Al Jadeed television channels, claiming that they were upset at the roadblocks and insults to their leader. Public squares across Beirut filled with protesters shortly after. Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a televised address on the afternoon of the 29th of October. Several hours after the resignation of the Prime Minister, celebrations swept the nation with demonstrators cautiously welcoming the resignation celebrated through fireworks, songs, and releasing flagged colored balloons. But it was to be a celebration that was not going to last very long.
The week on Friday January 17th 2020 as the Lebanese protests entered its fourth month, protesters blocked several main roads across Lebanon, including a vital road connecting central Beirut’s east and west. Hundreds of protesters were said to have also gathered outside the Lebanese central bank and close to the parliament, the Times of Israel added. On Friday morning, the roads were also blocked in second city Tripoli by protesters, but later in the day the roads were cleared, according to France 24. Human Rights Watch has urged authorities to free detainees that haven’t been charged with a recognizable crime and that the Ministry of Interior should quickly hold security officers responsible for the excessive use of force on protesters. HRW also claimed that protesters and media officials had been struck by riot police.
The following day October 18th in an attempt to break up gatherings of anti-government protesters attempting to reach Martyr’s Square, dozens of people have been injured as security forces used water cannons and tear gas to dissipate the protesters. Furthermore, demonstrators have been spotted at Martyr’s Square throwing rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, as well as shining lasers at them to interrupt series of tear gas rounds, CNN reported. More than 60 wounded people are believed to have received treatment, while at least 40 people have been rushed to the hospitals, the Lebanese Red Cross stated. In total, Reuters reported that more than 370 people had been injured in the day’s protests. Within the past few days the country has been spiraling on the brink of chaos and anarchy. Today the Lebanese authorities are bracing for even more violence that has rocked Beirut these past couple of nights.
Speaking with my colleagues on the ground in Beirut and Tripoli the economic situation is disastrous and people can no longer get their money out of the banks. Causing extreme high unemployment with an increase in prices by 50% on many essential items. Many people are unable to pay for basic bills or school fees. UNRWA the U.N. organization that has been fostering care for decades to the Palestinian population of refugee camps are trying to fundraise for emergency assistance but not many donors are showing interest. And let not forget it’s affecting the economic situation with its neighbor Syria as if things couldn’t get any worse for them. Lebanon hasn’t seen this kind of crisis since the 1975–1990 Civil War and it has the all the ingredients of being far worse.
Even by the standards of the calamities that struck it in the 20th century, Lebanon has never been more vulnerable than it is now amid the coronavirus crisis. The economy is projected to shrink by 12 percent this year, while half the government’s budget will go to service a debt burden that has reached 170 percent of GDP. The share of Lebanon’s population below the poverty line is believed to have jumped to 75 percent from the pre-pandemic level of 50 percent. Each day that passes Lebanon’s banking system could very well collapse causing a tidal wave that would cascade across the region. Time will tell.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts