A wide range of sentiments accompanied the outbreak of the Lebanese uprising, but the sense of shock coming from southern Lebanon is unique. There has been shock about everything: the sharp escalation in the first days of the protests, the way in which Hezbollah — which, along with Amal, is the strongest political actor in the South — has dealt with the protests, the propaganda and counter-propaganda and the general state of affairs more than two weeks after the start of the uprising.
The shock also comes from the end of the exceptional circumstances imposed on the region by Hezbollah since it entered the Lebanese political arena. No longer is the group out of reach of the popular movement and its demands, which accuses them of participating in and covering up the corruption of political authorities, while also recognizing Hezbollah’s role in confronting Israel.
Our first stop was the city of Tyre, which has seen its resources plundered by the head of the Amal movement, Nabih Berri, his wife Randa, and his inner circle. Hezbollah, the Amal movement, a number of NGOs and most officers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, the multinational peacekeeping force that has been deployed along the southern border since the Israeli invasion in 1978, are all based in the city.
Tyre is the South’s most open and accepting city. Its residents are from many different sects and communities, and its beaches are some of the most famous in Lebanon.
The political actions taken against the city’s politicians at the start of the uprising were clear and unambiguous. On October 18th, demonstrators tore down the street signage of Amal MP Ali Bazzi’s office, burned and ripped up photos of Berri in several places, and stormed and burned a rest stop owned by Berri’s wife. The rest stop was a symbol of stolen public property, and storming it was a direct action for its reclamation.
Later that evening, dozens of armed men from the Amal movement went to the demonstrations to intimidate the protesters, firing live ammunition near sit-in locations and attacking them until the city’s streets and squares were empty.
Protesters returned to the sit-in the following morning in smaller numbers, shocked to find that the Amal movement had already put up more pictures of Berri around the city.
At a small demonstration along the city’s coast several days after the attack, one protester said to us: “We don’t want to chant against Nabih Berri directly, not because we want him, but because his men are thugs.”
Another young woman at the demonstration said: “The Amal movement is firing live ammunition at us and Hezbollah is telling our families to stop us from going to the demonstrations. All of my cousins were going to protests, but my uncle is a Hezbollah affiliate he stopped them from leaving the house.”
Protesters insisted on continuing the sit-in in its initial form. Their demands are about economic and class justice more so than purely political changes: most of the chants against poverty, and the rule of banks. They play revolutionary music by Sheikh Imam and Marcel Khalife, among others.
After Tyre, we drove to the Hezbollah stronghold of Nabatieh and the nearby village of Kafr Rumman, which is nicknamed “Kafr Moscow” because the majority of its residents are communists. Some are members of the Lebanese Communist Party, while others are unaffiliated.
It’s well-known that relations between Amal and Hezbollah are not as they appear. Buried beneath the alliance of the two Shia groups is a history of hostility that included armed conflict during the civil war. While Hezbollah was protecting Palestinian refugee camps in the country after the Palestinian Liberation Organization fighters withdrew, the Amal movement was carrying out a Syrian plan to root out remaining Palestinian fighters in Lebanon, attacking their camps for years.
The tensions that emerge from this civil war context extend to communists as well. After the end of the civil war and the fall of the Soviet Union, the communists’ power was greatly reduced. Several years later, the only way they could participate in resistance against Israel’s occupation was by allying with Hezbollah, which they did through a paramilitary umbrella group called the Lebanese Resistance Brigades. Yet this joint action also conceals a number of old tensions, which have occasionally resurfaced.
Hezbollah ignores the role communists played in resisting occupation, preferring to recall the Amal movement’s involvement even though they attacked Palestinian refugee camps with the encouragement of Hafez al-Assad’s regime. On the other side, communists have not forgotten that Hezbollah monopolized the resistance and sought to control all parties within it. Some even claim that Hezbollah assassinated communist fighters so that it could fully control the site of resistance.
There have been heavy social tensions between the two groups, especially over personal freedoms and social values in southern Lebanon. In Bint Jbeil in 2005, communists defied the norm of avoiding competition with Hezbollah in municipal or parliamentary elections, putting forward a competing list. They received a high number of votes but not enough to defeat Hezbollah.
As we drove to Nabatieh and Kafr Rumman, pro-Hezbollah online accounts were publishing photos of individuals they claimed organized the protests in the city and accused them of being former Israeli agents or people who are “spiteful of Hezbollah.” The movement also spread rumors that an Israeli journalist photographed herself at demonstrations in Beirut and published a report in Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. The journalist in question was actually Italian, and an Israeli paper lifted her report from an Italian newspaper.
Instead of Israeli agents, when we arrived at the sit-in in Kafr Rumman — which took place near the entrance to Nabatieh —we found people who had fought against the Israeli occupation, including one man who was held captive for nearly two decades in an Israeli prison.
But Hezbollah’s accusations had an effect. We could feel a clear distrust of visitors from the outskirts of Kafr Rumman. There, the protest was unlike any other we’d seen in the country — a silent sit-in in a circular garden, at the center of which lay a massive photo of Nabih Berri, which had not been disturbed. The silence was only broken by revolutionary music, especially that of Ziad Rahbani, Sheikh Imam and Marcel Khalife.
As soon as we entered, the demonstrators exchanged suspicious glances. A man who appeared to have an organizational role came over and asked us to show our journalist credentials, and asked to photograph them and us. He did so apologetically.
“Pardon us, but we don’t want anyone saying that Israeli press came.”
He reminisced about Nasserist Egypt; he told us that Ahmed Fouad Najm and Sheikh Imam visited his village; we listened to a qasidah he wrote about Egypt during the January revolution, but none of that eased his suspicion.
We felt that no one would be willing to talk to us without being on guard, but we found one former fighter and prisoner named Anwar Yassin who agreed to speak with us.
Yassine was a communist who fought against Israel and was taken captive in 1987. An Israeli court sentenced him to 30 years in prison. He served 17 years of that sentence before he was freed as part of the 2004 prisoner swap between Hezbollah and Israel.
“What is happening now needed to happen — both the uprising itself and the position taken by Hezbollah [supporting the authorities],” he said.
In the background of our conversation with Yassine, there were people chanting: “They say we are against the revolution? Who? The people of the South? We are the resistance.”
“When we say that we are the resistance, we mean two things: resistance for national liberation and resistance for economic and social liberation. After southern Lebanon was liberated [from 22 years of Israeli occupation] in 2000 and after the 2006 war [with Israel], the people began to think about what comes after national liberation. We must now face the mission of liberation from the power of politicians and their economic policies, which is where our position differs from that of Hezbollah.”
Our conversation with Yassine was a great opportunity — no one could outdo or cast doubt on his role in the resistance. But it was cut short when the man who searched us came over, and both of them left us after a brief whispered conversation.
At that point, it seemed best to leave the sit-in, rather than remain as an added source of tension for the demonstrators.
On the previous night, there had been wide-scale attacks against demonstrators. Hezbollah claims that the Amal movement acted alone in attacking sit-ins in Beirut on three separate occasions. But in Nabatieh, it was Hezbollah who acted against the demonstrators, beating and threatening them. Six members of Nabatieh’s municipal council resigned after the attack on the sit-in, including one who directly submitted his resignation letter to Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
One academic from southern Lebanon who follows the close relationship between Nasrallah and his followers said that the group placed itself at the top of the revolutionaries’ list of targets when Nasrallah gave a number of speeches in which he wagged his finger, defended the government and warned against its fall. This performance, and especially the continued attack on crowds of demonstrators in several locations, have placed southern Lebanon’s residents in a deadlock.
At the end of our journey, a visit to the port city of Sidon was clarifying. There, the fishermen’s union and social organization movements have been part of powerful demonstrations. Sidon has a Sunni majority and is known as the capital of the South, but it is quite different from the rest of the region.
In southern Lebanon, there are none of the celebrations filling the squares of central Beurit, where revolutionaries, indifferent to authorities, chant against any and all politicians: “All of them means all of them,” as they say. This mantra is usually followed by the name of any politician that comes to mind, including Hezbollah’s Secretary-General: “Nasrallah is one of them.” But the South represents one of the main incubators of the uprising, with chants against corruption and poverty, but also against sectarianism and calls for the fall of the system – even if they are made with more caution than in the capital.
The journey to the south highlights one of the fundamental questions of the current situation in Lebanon: that of Hezbollah’s future, both in terms of its relationship to its supporters and to the masses participating in the Lebanese uprising.
“For the two major players in the South, the crisis of the popular revolt is that it was a shocking surprise in terms of its proposals and the scope of demands,” Mahmoud Marwa, a journalist from southern Lebanon said. “ Hezbollah, in particular, has been unable to embrace it, given its calculations within the Lebanese political system.”
The uprising is also exposing the false state of peace that has been imposed on the Lebanese people, Marwa added. “This could turn the tables so that a party like the Lebanese Communist Party could turn up to the protests with tailored economic proposals, as they have already done effectively at a number of protests across cities in the South, while the other two parties are stuck in an uncomfortable defensive position.”
What does this mean for Hezbollah?
“Hezbollah must redefine itself and its ambitions in a changing environment that faces the specter of economic collapse. But does this mean its image as the party of resistance is threatened? No. Perhaps this could be the case in the long term if governance and management do not improve and the economic situation continues to worsen.”
In the short term, they are facing intensifying public vitriol, but not to the extent that they would make an exit, as some would imagine, Marwa said. “We cannot forget that its secretary-general is seen as a father figure to broad segments of southern Lebanon and that the group has built complex systems of dominance in recent years. There is also the unspoken golden rule that goes back to Fatah and Yasser Arafat’s days in the region: ‘Whoever protects the South from Israel, rules it.’”
The journey to southern Lebanon seems confusing, but it crystallizes the core question for Lebanon’s revolutionaries: Is this a revolution against the regime’s economic and social policies, or against the regime itself and all of its components?