A recent crackdown on civil liberties threatens to shut down one of the few remaining liberal spaces in the Middle East today. Lebanon—which is governed through a sectarian regime that consolidates power in the hands of a few ex-warlords and businessmen—has remained a bastion of openness in the Arab world where cultural figures, political activists, and journalists can openly debate major ideas. Beirut in particular remains a vital forum of dissent and critique not only for Lebanon but for the entire Arab region, whose capitals have descended into chaos over the past decade as a result of theocratic and military dictatorships. Today, however, a recent rearrangement of political power is slowly tightening the boundaries on what is and isn’t allowed to be discussed or questioned while simultaneously strengthening Hezbollah’s stranglehold over the country.
Cultural spaces in Lebanon are usually governed by a set of values that are antithetical to the principles upheld by authoritarian parties and Lebanese warlords, many of whom are threatened by free expression. Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military organization in the country, and therefore has the keenest interest in closing down one of the only serious arenas for fostering and developing a coherent political opposition. Unfortunately, the recent erosion of civil liberties in Lebanon coupled with state-sponsored censorship campaigns and crackdowns threaten to eradicate these spaces in which Hezbollah is most vulnerable.
Emboldened by a recent set of political and military achievements, Hezbollah can now draw on support from authoritarian allies and religious conservatives from other political currents to make a sustained assault on free expression and critical cultural activity in Lebanon. If this accelerating crackdown succeeds it will be a great loss for Lebanon, which struggles to sustain any meaningful opposition even in the cultural sphere—and it will also be a blow to the region. Lebanon has historically served as an incubator and a forum for political and cultural debate—a sort of Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner in a region notoriously lacking open forums. Today however, that space is under assault, one which comes on the heels of a wide reshuffling of political power in the country.
A Clear Divide
The rupture, then resolidification, of the Lebanese political establishment over the past ten to fifteen years created the window through which the flowering of social and cultural dissent took root in the country, as well as the terms of the establishment’s current modes of repressing that dissent. A close look at these developments will reveal how cultural forces have accumulated so much leverage over the status quo, and over Hezbollah in particular.
Between 2005 and 2013, the Lebanese political landscape was divided between two hostile camps. The assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14th, 2005 segmented major political actors into two blocs. The anti-Syrian regime group March 14 (M14), led by Saad Hariri’s predominantly Sunni Future Movement (FM), allied itself with the Maronite Lebanese Forces (LF) Party, headed by Samir Geagea and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). To oppose them, the pro-Syrian regime bloc March 8 (M8) was formed, which included current president Michel Aoun’s Freedom and Patriotic Movement and Shiite groups Amal and Hezbollah.
Cultural spaces in Lebanon are usually governed by a set of values that are antithetical to the principles upheld by authoritarian parties and Lebanese warlords, many of whom are threatened by free expression.
March 14 accused the Syrian regime’s president Bashar al-Assad, which had de facto rule over Lebanon at the time, to be behind the killing. Months of protests and pressure from the international community led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon on April 26th, 2005, ending a twenty-nine year occupation. An International Criminal Court investigation into the assassination was subsequently launched.
The political jostling between those two factions, which basically split the country in half, allowed in that period for the liberalization of political activity and expression, especially with respect to the press, civil society, and cultural spaces. This meant that whatever type of dissent brewing at the time was often employed by the opposing camp when useful, or either completely ignored and deflected.
However unbridgeable it may have seemed, the gap between Lebanon’s major political pillars has started to shrink in the last decade, especially as political parity between the two blocs has become increasingly uneven. In particular, a series of turbulent power shifts during this period threw into relief Hezbollah’s growing influence. In May 2008, when the M14-headed government moved to dismantle a communications network set up and operated independently by Hezbollah, armed forces belonging to the militia group attacked several FM and PSP offices in Beirut and the Shouf mountains, ruthlessly taking over the capital in a few hours. A stalemate ended when Qatar brokered a deal that gave M8 veto power in a unity government to be formed later in the future. In 2009, Walid Jumblatt, who had laid much of the groundwork in 2004 and 2005 that led to the formation of M14, left the group, citing differences over the possibility of rekindling of relationships between Lebanon and Syria at the time. In 2011, M8 ministers resigned en masse over disagreements concerning the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri. These resignations toppled the government, and Saad Hariri, then the prime minister, was sent into political exile.
These series of setbacks, coupled with Hezbollah’s 2012 decision, on behalf of the Syrian government, to join in the Syrian Civil War, a decision which went unchallenged inside Lebanon, made very clear Hezbollah’s ascendancy to the role of main power broker in Lebanese politics. It also signalled a future reshuffling of alliances and power in Lebanon across the board.
A New Era
In 2013 and 2014, M14 and M8 parliamentarians voted together for the extension of both parties’ parliamentary mandate, citing dire security concerns in neighbouring Syria. In 2015, when major protests broke out in Beirut over trash pile-up in the city, opposing factions of the political mainstream condemned the demonstrations in unison while greenlighting the harsh crackdown on activists and organizers at the time. In May 2016, M14 and M8 parties formed a unified municipal list to run in the Beirut municipal elections in which they beat a spirited opposition list formed by academics, civil society actors, and activists. Yesterday’s staunch foes ran a combined campaign for local authority over a city that witnessed their armed fighting less than a decade ago. The death knell to the M14–M8 dichotomy came later in 2016 when Saad Hariri, having returned from exile, supported the nomination of his long-term nemesis Michel Aoun to the presidency. Once elected, Michel Aoun designated Hariri to form a coalition government encompassing all of Lebanon’s major political power brokers.
A common consensus had finally set in among the Lebanese political elites. They would be allowed to share, distribute, and govern economic affairs, patronage networks, and business interests; however, matters of national security, foreign policy, and sovereignty were Hezbollah’s prerogative alone. Michel Aoun conveniently termed this phase as “Al ‘Ahd el Jdid,” or “The New Era.”
Crackdown on Dissent
This “New Era” of Lebanese politics now pitted activists, journalists, artists, and their advocates against a relatively unified political establishment, one no longer in grand conflict with itself and instead, fearful of dissent and public disgruntlement. The years since the formation of Aoun’s coalition government thus have witnessed an increase in detention and arrests of activists, artists, and journalists, often at the behest of powerful politicians, businessmen, and religious institutions. In fact, the powerful warlords who rule Lebanon have tacitly joined forces in an accelerated crackdown, which seems designed to erase unauthorized or independent voices from the public sphere.
In December 2017, Nader al-Hariri, the then head of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s office, filed a lawsuit against journalist Fidaa Itani accusing him of libel and defamation over an investigative report he authored. Itani was later sentenced to six months in jail on June 29, 2018 over another libel suit brought against him by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, for a Facebook post that criticized the minister. In January, the military tribunal in Beirut sentenced in absentia D.C.-based journalist Hanin Ghaddar for six months in prison for supposedly “undermining the Lebanese Army.” Also in January, journalist Mohammed Zbib had to appear before a criminal judge in Beirut for writing an investigative report in which he uncovered corruption by Minister of Interior Nouhad Al Mashnouq. Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces party, in November 2017 won a defamation lawsuit against Al Akhbar newspaper after it published a critical article about the Maronite leader.
This “New Era” of Lebanese politics now pitted activists, journalists, artists, and their advocates against a relatively unified political establishment, one no longer in grand conflict with itself and instead, fearful of dissent and public disgruntlement.
As mentioned above, the crackdown included targeting the online activity of activists and dissenters, even on social media. On July 17, Imad Bazzi, a prominent activist and freedom of expression advocate, was told to head to the offices of the Cyber Crimes Bureau for questioning over a Facebook post in which he asked people to negatively rate the Lancaster Eden Bay hotel, a controversial beach resort built on public land. One week later, Charbel Khoury was held for eight hours by the same bureau for a Facebook status joking about Saint Charbel, a nineteenth century Maronite saint from Lebanon. A suit was brought up against him by the Catholic Media Center and he was forced to delete the post, and has been barred from using Facebook for a month through a court injunction. In January, army intelligence detained activists Obada Youssef and Tima Hayek for three days and twenty-four hours, respectively, following Facebook posts in which they criticized Lebanese political leaders. A month earlier, the Minister of Justice ordered the prosecutor general to bring charges against U.S.-based writer and professor Assaad Abu Khalil after a tweet in which he called for the disarmament of the Lebanese army.
Censorship of films and artists has also increased as of late. In early 2018, the Ministry of Interior banned the movie Jungle after it was revealed the author of the book on which it was based was Israeli. Rana Eid’s film, Panoptic, which addresses controversial topics such as abuse and detainment of migrant workers and state surveillance, was censored and removed from Lebanese cinemas on March 24 by the Directorate of General Security.
Sometimes security forces will act at the behest of religious institutions. Poet Mustafa Sbeity went to trial for posting about Mary Mother of Jesus on his personal Facebook page. Critics deemed the post offensive and “inciting sectarianism.” Several groups, including the Lebanese Forces, urged for the government to press charges against him. The sixty-five-year-old ended up spending fifteen days in detention. According to Human Rights Watch, Lebanese Internal Security Forces arrested a prominent LGBT rights activist and pressured him to cancel several of this year’s Beirut Pride events despite supposedly having clearances and assurances from security officials that they could take place. Last year’s Pride events and celebrations were also cancelled after pressure and threats by the Association of Muslim Scholars.
Cultural Spheres Unarm Hezbollah
The establishment’s prickliness is shared by Hezbollah—even though the Party of God often tactically avoids dabbling into cultural affairs and discussions, it equally dislikes critical expression and freewheeling culture, as a recent incident involving a Lebanese filmmaker displays.
The awards bestowed at the Cannes Film Festival are among the most prestigious in today’s film industry, so when Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki won the jury prize and became the first Arab female director to win a major prize at the event, her achievement was widely celebrated back in Lebanon. Labaki is held in high regard in Lebanese society: her films are fondly thought of by people and she has slowly cultivated a sense of national pride around her work. But not everyone in Lebanon reveres Labaki, who appeals to a particular anti-sectarian Lebanese demographic.
Manar Sabbagh, a lead anchor on Al Manar, the Hezbollah-affiliated television channel, said on Twitter that enough glory had been given to Lebanon by Hezbollah members killed fighting in Syria over the years, implying that jubilation over a Cannes prize was superfluous. Nawaf el Musawi, a Hezbollah member of parliament, went further, stating, “enough Labaki, enough fuss, when things get serious only your arms can protect you,” presumably meaning Hezbollah’s arms. Their views were met with wide condemnation from Lebanese society, to the point where Hezbollah had to release a statement distancing the organization from what Sabbagh and Musawi had said. Musawi later deleted his post.
By shutting off these spaces, political actors will be closing off an effective, non-traditional space and vehicle for expressing opposition sentiments and preserving a sphere independent of Hezbollah’s political preferences.
It seems that Labaki’s film, Capernaum—which stars Zain Al Rafeea as a Syrian child refugee in Lebanon who takes his parents to court over the dire state of affairs to which his life has come—struck a nerve with Hezbollah representatives and mouthpieces. Al Rafeea himself had been a refugee in Lebanon, fleeing the conflict in neighboring Syria, a conflict in which Hezbollah is an active participant, and on the side of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime to boot. The movie’s main premise, which attempts to highlight the absurd and arbitrary cruelty that modern-day conflict and subsequent displacement places upon young victims, must have felt particularly pointed to Hezbollah’s chiefs.
An uproar swiftly developed on social media platforms and cultural circles following Sabbagh and Musawi’s responses to the Cannes award. Many decried the self-righteous and almost macabre culture of death and martyrdom on which Hezbollah members seem to constantly dwell and elevate. Hazem Saghieh, a prominent political analyst and intellectual, wrote, “The Lebanese director’s work proves that another Lebanon exists, a smarter, relevant, beneficial, and wholesome Lebanon than the one peddled by ‘Resistance Lebanon’ [referencing the culture of resistance Hezbollah has championed since its inception]. ‘Resistance Lebanon’ is nothing but a laborious heavy burden upon the country.”
The reactions forced Hezbollah officials to put out a statement denying that Sabbagh and Musawi’s views were representative of the organization, even claiming the comments were unnecessary. For the most dominant political group in Lebanon, cultural affairs—which often lays bare its illiberal and regressive political ideology—have proved to be its kryptonite.
Hezbollah is one of the most powerful political organizations in the Middle East. It efficiently provides a set of social and economic services through a welfare network that runs parallel and independent of Lebanon’s own failing social security network. It staffs its own military apparatus that takes part in regional conflict with impunity and with no accountability by the Lebanese state and public, equipped and guided by its regional backer, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Recently it has been buoyed by a majority in the Lebanese parliament for the first time in thirteen years. However, Hezbollah, much like its Iranian sponsor, is a socially and morally conservative Islamist organization. Enforcing these conservative norms on its community of supporters, mainly from Shiite society, is easy. However, when it comes to addressing Lebanese society as a whole, it often stumbles or tries to evade the situation.
Lebanese authorities’ assault on civil liberties and spaces of expression has been supercharged in the past few years. Though these crackdowns might stem rising dissent against the Lebanese political establishment, it will only truly serve groups like Hezbollah in the long term. By shutting off these spaces, political actors will be closing off an effective, non-traditional space and vehicle for expressing opposition sentiments and preserving a sphere independent of Hezbollah’s political preferences.
The Middle East is in a dire state. The counterrevolutions launched in the wake of the Arab Uprisings have mostly erased any sort of liberal or democratic progress brought forth by the initial protests. Egypt continues to buckle under the weight of a new era of repression by the dictatorship of president Sisi. Democratic norms are slowly fading in Turkey as President Erdogan expands the privileges of his office to imperial-like status. Bashar al-Assad and his allies have recently succeeded in gaining back territory around Damascus and in southern Syria the regime has not held since 2012. Iraq is a desolate place beset by abhorrent levels violence and corruption. If authoritarianism takes hold in a city like Beirut, it would not be just activists and artists who suffer; rather, it would be to the detriment of Arab societies across the region.
Cover Photo: BEIRUT, LEBANON – MARCH 13: Protesters wave Lebanese flags during a demonstration on March 13, 2011 in Beirut, Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Lebanese opposition supporters demanded Hezbollah be disarmed as they rallied to mark the sixth anniversary of a popular uprising against Syrian troops in the country. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images)