Over the weekend, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to protest against their country’s corrupt political culture. The immediate cause of their concern, and anger, is that the country’s garbage has not been collected for a month and has come to pose, as Lebanon’s health minister warned, a “health disaster.” More generally then, the protests were directed at Lebanon’s political class and most of the country’s leadership, including Prime Minister Tammam Salam. Even after the violence that killed one demonstrator and injured many more, some observers are now hopeful that this growing protest movement (aptly named “You Stink”) might kick off a genuine revolution against the Lebanese political system and bring real democracy to the jewel of the Levant.
Tragically, this is not the case. In reality, the “You Stink” movement is conclusive evidence that for the majority of Lebanese, law-abiding and freedom-loving, their situation is hopeless.
The protests against Lebanon’s political class began in earnest and were quickly overtaken by proxy forces acting on behalf of a few very prominent members of that political class. Photographs show the political affiliations of the thugs sent to the streets to cause mayhem—tattoos and other markers identify them as members or allies of Hezbollah and Amal, the party of God’s sometime Shiite partner and frequent rival for communal favor. Some are saying that followers of Hezbollah’s Christian ally Michel Aoun joined Hezbollah and Amal to attack the army and security forces, who then escalated by opening fire—rubber bullets and also it seems live ammunition—on unarmed civilians. Hence the protest organizers, fearing more bloodshed, have decided to postpone future demonstrations, at least for the time being.
In the aftermath, it’s hard to piece together exactly what happened. Why for instance would Hezbollah send its followers to the streets to attack an army that it controls and has enlisted in its sectarian war against Sunni fighters? Some speculate that Hezbollah wants to topple the government, or that it wants to block certain political appointments. Other interpretations are even more elaborate: some are saying, for instance, that Aoun is mad at Amal chief Nabih Berri because he openly rejected Aoun’s presidential bid. Then Aoun went after the army because the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces hates him, and he hates him in exchange. Hezbollah lent some token support to Aoun because—well, why not? It costs them nothing because they know that it’s irrelevant.
In other words, it doesn’t really matter why thugs were sent because, well, that’s Lebanese politics—petty and pathetic. Which is to say that the premise of “You Stink” is right on the mark: Lebanon’s political class is venal and corrupt and that’s why they regularly put innocent Lebanese in the middle of their mafia feuds.
But the other reason that it doesn’t really matter is because the premise of the “You Stink” movement is missing the point entirely, because the real problem with Lebanon isn’t the country’s craven politicians. Indeed, it was the 800-lb. gorilla himself who reminded everyone last weekend that the real problem with the country is the well-armed terrorist organization that serves as Iran’s praetorian guard on the eastern Mediterranean. The problem is Hezbollah. Everything else pales in comparison.
When critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action explain that Iran will use the cash windfall from its multi-billion dollar signing bonus to assist its allies, we tend to emphasize that the money will buy more weapons for Iran’s regional proxies. That’s of course true, but in the case of Hezbollah, the money will also be lavished on a Shiite constituency that is very anxious about its central role in the Syrian conflict.