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US ends freeze on $100m in military aid to Lebanon

In protest-hit country, debate tents draw in the street

TRIPOLI: People gather at a tent where Lebanese anti-government protesters debate and discuss political and economic topics as part of an ongoing awareness at Al-Nour Square in this northern port city on Nov 27, 2019. — AFP

WASHINGTON/TRIPOLI: US President Donald Trump’s administration said Monday it has released $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon that had been quietly frozen for months amid US complaints about the clout of Hezbollah. A State Department official and a congressional aide, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the assistance has been unblocked by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. “The money is good to go,” the State Department official said.

The Trump administration has been tight-lipped on the reason for the hold-up in support for Lebanon but has been pressing the government to distance itself from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant movement close to Iran. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who included Hezbollah members in his cabinet, resigned a month ago in the face of major street protests. The State Department official said there had been “some disagreements about the efficacy of US aid” to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

But the official defended the military as a “national institution” in a country long divided on confessional lines, and praised its “high level of capability” in fighting extremists such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State movement. “It defends Lebanon’s borders; it is an excellent partner to the United States in counterterrorism and fighting Sunni jihadi Islamists,” the official said. “They have responded in recent weeks – I think in impressive fashion – in terms of protecting demonstrators from violence, demonstrating, I think, the fact that they are a national institution,” he said.
But the official said that detractors pointed to “isolated incidents” in which the military has kept its distance from Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by the United States. The militant group has fought Israel for decades, including through a guerrilla campaign to end the Jewish state’s occupation of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah still maintains a formidable arms stockpile with support of Iran and by some experts’ measures is more powerful than the Lebanese army.

Debate tents
A secular state, early elections, solving poverty. Every evening, Sarah Al-Ghur joins other residents of Lebanon’s second city Tripoli to debate how to fix her protest-gripped country. “I’d rather take part in the discussions than applaud or shout out slogans,” says the 32-year-old in the city’s Al-Nour square. After years of disillusionment and apathy, a freefalling econo5my and anti-government protests have spurred Lebanese back into political debate.

Across the Mediterranean country, squares where protesters have denounced mismanagement and corruption have also become centers of spontaneous discussion. In Tripoli, Ghur walks between debate tents, stopping outside one where dozens of people are discussing a “roadmap for the revolution”. Men and women of all ages sit on the floor, huddle on benches, or stand arms crossed, listening to the latest speaker.

Nearby, protesters revel to the sound of patriotic tunes and techno beats. “I’ve discovered laws I knew nothing about,” says Ghur, her hair trimmed short and wearing a dress. “Now I’m more aware of my rights and my duties,” she says, in an impoverished city that has emerged at the forefront of the protests. A young protester takes the microphone to say he thinks the “popular revolution” must evolve towards “political dialogue”. He calls for “early parliamentary elections”, as a first step towards an overhaul of the political system.

‘They’d lost all trust’
Every evening from 5 pm to 9 pm, Tripoli residents gather under the tents to rebuild their country one idea at a time. University professors, activists or even economists are often in attendance. They talk of secularism and sectarianism, in a country whose legacy from a devastating 1975-91 civil war is a political system that seeks to maintain a fragile balance of power between the myriad of religious communities.

They discuss poverty, in a country where around a third of the population are poor, and the World Bank warns that proportion could soon rise to half. But they also discuss what they view as the questionable independence of the judiciary, alleged corruption, plummeting public funds, and sometimes urban planning.

In Tripoli, half of all residents already live at or below the poverty line. Some six weeks into the protest movement, demonstrators in the northern city have continued to gather on a daily basis, even as numbers dwindle in other parts of Lebanon. The government resigned on Oct 29, but no concrete measures have been taken to form a new cabinet since.

Philosophy professor Hala Amoun says that, before the protests, most Lebanese had long given up on any political activity. “They’d lost all trust in the political class,” she said in classical Arabic. Lebanese have long complained of endless power cuts, gaping inequality, unemployment, and alleged official graft. But last month a proposed tax on calls via free phone applications such as Whatsapp, pushed them over the edge and onto the streets.

‘Meaning of a revolution’
“This revolution is people becoming more aware,” said the woman, who appeared in her forties, wrapped in a warm red coat. “But taking to the streets was not enough. They felt they needed to understand, to know more.” Every evening, she heads down to the square to help dissect the “structural problems” of political power in Lebanon. “Lebanese are hungry for knowledge,” she says. “It’s as if they needed to re-examine their economic, social and political reality, to understand how their political and sectarian leader is controlling their life.”

Nadim Shakes, a doctor, is one of the proud initiators of the debate evenings, which he calls “awareness raising conferences”. The aim is to “think about the country’s future, what will happen after this revolution,” says the 47-year-old, wearing a dark blue jacket over a slightly unbuttoned shirt. Around the tent, young participants sit together in small groups, chatting in hushed tones or raising their voices when they grow excited or want to make a point.

In one corner, students discuss whether or not they should continue an open-ended strike that will make them lose a year of lectures at university. Noha Raad, a 49-year-old Arabic language teacher, said she was delighted to be learning something new every evening. “People need to be made aware,” she says, dressed in a flowery shirt and blue cardigan. But mostly, she said, “they made us understand the meaning of a revolution”. – AFP

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