Alex Rowell

Berri initiative seeks to nip #YouStink in bud

Lebanese people at Martyrs

On Sunday, one day after tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens flooded downtown Beirut in what was possibly the country’s largest-ever non-partisan demonstration, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri announced an initiative aimed at tackling some of the myriad governmental failures whose accumulation over the past year has now led to an unprecedented wave of spontaneous street protests.


Described by Berri as “our last chance,” the initiative is an appeal for dialogue between Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the leaders of seventeen parliamentary blocs representing all sides of the political divide. Items on the agenda reportedly comprise – and are strictly limited to – presidential elections; “the work of” cabinet and parliament; determining a new parliamentary electoral law; discussing administrative decentralization and a repatriation law; and supporting the army and security forces. Major parties, including Hezbollah, the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, and the Free Patriotic Movement, quickly declared their support for the idea, and September 9 has been set as the date of the opening session.


Berri says he conceived the idea before any demonstrations occurred, having developed it in coordination with ambassadors of influential states. Yet Future Movement MP Bassem al-Shab, while corroborating this claim, told NOW the eruption of street action accelerated the timetable.


“The protest movement in the streets became unmanageable,” said Shab. “Something had to be done. There was a feeling that if this was to continue, it would not lead to an outright civil war, but it would lead to further disruption; chaos. It would become unmanageable, [especially] with a looming financial and economic crisis. I think the Speaker felt that he should make a quick initiative to address the situation.”


If so, one obvious challenge the Speaker will face is that his initiative, even if fully implemented, falls well short of the stated demands of the protest organizers. #YouStink, the group that initiated the first demonstrations more than two weeks ago, has explicitly said it seeks the election of parliament – whose term, originally set to expire in 2013, has been extended by MPs till 2017 – before the election of a president, since the Lebanese constitution stipulates the head of the republic must be elected by MPs.


“Our position is clear,” #YouStink spokesperson Marwan Maalouf told NOW. “This parliament is illegitimate. We want [parliamentary] elections first, and then the presidential elections.”


However, Berri, and the parties in favor of his initiative, appear to be banking on it producing sufficient fruit to appease the majority of demonstrators. Specifically, the election of a president – by whatever means – looks to be the prize politicians hope to hold up to the public to cool temperatures on the street.


“The Speaker’s movement is basically to absorb this [anger], and I think it may lead somewhere,” Shab told NOW. “If we do elect a president, it means that we have a new government, new ministers, new appointments in the security positions. It will initiate a change of faces that would defuse this anti-system movement.”


While acknowledging a presidential election would constitute a “morphine syringe,” analyst Ali al-Amin told NOW he was unconvinced it would suffice by itself to placate demonstrators – some of whose demands range from the resignation of the cabinet to a radical overhaul of the entire sectarian power-sharing system of government.


“Unfortunately, the election of the president will be [presented] as if it is a great achievement for the Lebanese; they will try to send a message to the people that we did a very great job by electing a president,” said al-Amin. “But electing the president won’t change things on the ground.”


Whether it will or not, the political establishment has evidently resolved to give it a try. And, according to Shab, they are supported in this by all relevant stakeholders in the regional and international community, above all Iran, the powerful patron of Hezbollah. Alarmed by the prospect of prolonged unrest in Lebanon while the larger geostrategic battles still rage in Syria and Iraq, Tehran is now willing to reverse its opposition to a neutral, consensus candidate for Lebanon’s presidency, Shab told NOW.


“The gamechanger is going to be the Iranian position,” said Shab. “The Iranians obstructing the election of a president by supporting [Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel] Aoun was tenable while the government was functioning, and the security situation was acceptable, and the economic and financial situation was good […] Now the Iranians cannot afford to have disruption of this base they have when the real fight is in Syria. It’s no longer tenable to keep the country without the president.”


“The Iranians are revisiting their position vis-à-vis the presidency. And I think the venue for that regional international mood is going to be this dialogue.”


Alex Rowell tweets @disgraceofgod


Amin Nasr contributed reporting.

Saturday saw what was perhaps Lebanon’s largest-ever non-partisan demonstration in downtown Beirut (AFP)

The protest movement in the streets became unmanageable,” said Shab. “Something had to be done.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Too late for Berri and his dinosaurs to have a dialogue. The cat is out of the box, and in his own senile way, Berri, whose ass is glued to the seat of speaker, is trying to row against the current. They have had their stupid dialogues before, and they got nowhere. They say this time is different, and they're right. This "dialogue" will not about the imbecilic defense strategy which is not a priority for people, it will be about saving their hides from imminent extinction. Yet, they will succeed, and just like Aoun is trying to out-compete the rebellion, Berri and his friends and enemies will rally the "loyalist" aristocracy against the plebe, and will use force to quell the mounting riot. They will pour their herds into the streets, character-assassinate the leaders of the rebellion (atheists, financed by foreign powers...). They have been at it for 50 years; they know what to do. They did it in the 1970s. This crisis is a repeat of the late 1960s-early 1970s when an urban secular elite began unseating the sectarian dinosaurs in the 1972 elections and challenging the sectarian order. To retaliate, the dinosaurs unleashed their plebeian peasant herds (of all religious colors). The 1975 "Civil war" was in many ways a war between an educated secular elite pushing for modernization and change on one hand, and the peasants, many urbanized after massive migrations from villages into cities, on the other side. They maintained their primitive customs in their new city enclaves and attacked people within their own community who expressed opinions contrary to the dogma of a Christian-Muslim divide. Today, after that secular elite baby boom generation has begun returning from exile, they and their westernized children are bringing back to the fore a new confrontation with the dinosaurs who had reasserted their hold on power using the Syrian occupation during the 1990-2015 interim, and who are today transmitting power to their own children.

    September 3, 2015