Lebanon's
loyalists

The other side 
of change

Mortada Alamine

All the attention garnered by the Arab uprisings in recent years has left an important blind spot: the citizens who cling to some aspects of a regime even as they resent the system as a whole. Lebanon is no exception. Supporters of its many political factions played a key role both in the massive protests that kicked off on 17 October 2019 and in the ruling elite’s ability to survive them, even as events seemed to spin out of control. 

Over the past year, the government’s default on its sovereign debt accelerated a spiraling economic crash, robbing most people of their savings, comforts, and hopes. The incoherent national response to the covid epidemic exacerbated the country’s woes while further highlighting the state’s dilapidation. Capping a series of disasters, a massive explosion tore through Beirut’s port and much of the capital. For many Lebanese, this catastrophe—born of the ruling class’s collective negligence—was indisputable proof that the current system cannot be salvaged. But for many others, it only hardened their sense of political belonging. 

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that the views expressed by loyalists have remained rigid throughout all this turmoil. Their narratives have evolved continually over the course of the past twelve months, albeit in ways that serve more to justify the status quo than to articulate a vision for change. Supporters of the country’s various factions frequently voice hesitations and ambivalence regarding Lebanon’s political future, only to then resolve these doubts through mechanisms that are surprisingly similar across the political spectrum. Understanding what gives these narratives their strength is essential to thinking through how the system functions, and the possibilities of one day changing it.

Rally

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Lebanon’s uprising was the extent to which it included all parts of a segmented and intensely polarized society. In the beginning, the protests didn’t just transcend boundaries of sect, class, generation, and geography; they also jumped the divide between those Lebanese who denounce the political class in its entirety and those who remain steadfastly committed to their own communal leaders. 

Even the most stalwart partisans of Lebanon’s diverse factions could unite behind slogans that decried poor national governance and growing economic hardship. “In the first few days, all my relatives were energetic and hopeful,” said a student whose family backs the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). “They joined some of the protests and shared their excitement over WhatsApp.” A supporter of Hezbollah similarly recalled: “I was really optimistic. I thought that we might finally get a decent country to live in.” 

A sense of unanimity between party loyalists and other protestors was reinforced through the all-encompassing, patriotic image that they projected together. As people from different sects joined in public squares, protestors revived old clichés of communal coexistence, and the Lebanese flag spread ubiquitously. A consensus seemed to form around denouncing potentially divisive signs of affiliation, like party flags and chants. Indeed, in the uprising’s early days, many heralded the movement as an emphatic, nation-wide rejection of the explicitly sectarian system that has governed the country for decades. “To start with, the protests were independent,” said a student who supports Hezbollah. “People were not voicing their traditional political views. I was super with it.” 

While loyalists, who share in the same sufferings and hopes as any other Lebanese, participated en masse in the uprising, they feared its “politicization” almost from the outset. They warned against the movement’s cooptation by their political rivals, and resented any demand that would explicitly target their own faction. Unity of purpose thus proved contingent on an abstract political agenda: The uprising’s demands remained general, stopping short of anything more specific than “toppling the regime” or “recovering stolen wealth” siphoned off by a corrupt elite. Indeed, condemning the system as a whole is a well-established trope used by Lebanese—and Lebanese politicians—to vent widespread frustration. Nonetheless, the factions’ initial bewilderment facilitated a genuine sense of unity, as partisan leaders remained momentarily silent. 

Retreat

Lebanon’s much-celebrated coming together unraveled within days, as entrenched differences began to resurface. Everyone believed in the necessity of change, but disagreed on how to bring it about. The very notion of what a revolution should be, or even look like, proved divisive from the start. 

Some of the earliest fault-lines to emerge ran along divisions of class and religious piety. Although the protests were inclusive in some ways, their carnivalesque atmosphere soon alienated more conservative sections of society. In Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, some protestors played traditional music while others danced to techno. An abandoned cinema known as The Egg hosted both seminars and raves. Revolutionaries doing yoga on the centrally located, hotly contested ring road irritated those who viewed this as an expression of upper-class entitlement. Religiously-minded participants pointed at groups openly smoking hashish or consuming alcohol to denounce the movement’s rowdiness; some upper-class, elitist protestors did the same. A supporter of both Hezbollah and Amal later reflected: “At that point it wasn’t a revolution anymore. People were drinking and dancing—they even brought in a belly dancer!”

Varying social norms fed into more profound divergences around the very meaning of protesting. Loyalists were not new to taking to the streets, but had always done so to achieve specific goals, at their factions’ command, and under their banner. Their political culture clashed with a spontaneous, open-ended, and catch-all popular movement, which loyalists came to denounce for being too diverse and unfocused. “The movement encompasses groups from the radical left to the far right,” noted a pro-FPM university professor. “It might have succeeded if it had been more homogenous.” 

Above all, loyalists struggled with what they saw as the uprising’s anarchic agenda: not just removing a failed political system, but everyone and anyone who ever held leadership within it. The movement’s most iconic slogan—“all of them means all of them”—represented a frightening prospect for many loyalists, whose sense of security and communal identity is anchored to factional leaders. As a result, chants singling out politicians—running the sectarian gamut from Gebran Bassil and Nabih Berri to Saad Hariri, Walid Joumblatt, and Samir Geagea—brought out growing defensiveness within party ranks. When protestors sang “all of them means all of them—Nasrallah is one of them,” some within the crowd would shout back: “Nasrallah is a red line.” 

Increasingly, loyalists came to begrudge what they viewed as inequities in the uprising’s narrative. They condemned personal attacks on their respective leaders as signs that the revolution was being hijacked by third parties pursuing hidden agendas. The member of a pro-FPM family described how her relatives, who at first tolerated criticism of FPM president Gebran Bassil, balked when the Lebanese Forces—a rival Christian party—sought to take control of protests in Jal el-Dib. Amal partisans saw the flurry of insults targeting Nabih Berri as an attempt to break the protests’ original purity. They assaulted protestors in Tyre, accusing them of disrespecting their political and religious dignitaries. Similar incidents occurred in Tripoli, Matn, Nabatieh, and the Shouf in response to invectives hurled at other figureheads.

This increasingly paranoid atmosphere created an opportunity for the parties to reassert themselves. Breaking with their initial silence, each offered an interpretation of events their followers could embrace. A supporter of the Lebanese Forces admitted that he only joined the uprising once his party had openly thrown its weight behind it. On the opposing end of the political spectrum, a student recalled how a speech by Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah transformed her position a week after protests broke out:

I became firmly opposed to the revolution after that speech. It was already clear to me when I was down in Martyrs’ Square that money was being spent, and we didn’t know where it was coming from. Hassan Nasrallah revealed the existence of foreign interference and funding. He also said that there were political parties coopting the revolution, and I didn’t want to be part of that. 

Past the first few days of relative unanimity, growing numbers of loyalists rallied to their factions’ official narratives. They nonetheless sought to strike a balance between endorsing the protest movement’s demands for change and denouncing the supposed presence of corrupting elements within it—with each faction expounding its own understanding of who exactly these were. 

As political identities crept back, society seemed to break down into three groups. Nonaligned citizens and many secular activists persisted with their original call for uprooting the system wholesale. Meanwhile, some factions attempted to recast themselves as “opposition” to the regime in which they were embedded: The Lebanese Forces resigned in response to the uprising; Prime Minister Saad Hariri, head of the Future Movement, stepped down soon after; and the Progressive Socialist Party walked out with him. This retreat left the government’s majority coalition—namely the FPM, Hezbollah, and Amal—to embody, more than they would have liked, what was left of the regime. Implausibly, all sides claimed to defend the revolution’s values.

This three-way split revived fault-lines that have shaped Lebanese politics since the mid-2000s, between a pro-Western camp (historically known as March 14) and an alliance centered on Hezbollah (dubbed March 8), with unaffiliated Lebanese falling in between. As the initial bonds the uprising had created broke, old party politics took over once more: These loose coalitions mutually repelled and reinforced each other, shoring up the very system that protestors aspired to transform. But how to achieve desired change through more of the same? 

Resolve

Loyalists tend to answer this question by arguing that the faction they endorse represents the best chance for any transformation amid Lebanon’s confounding political gridlock. The uprising, as they see it, only echoed demands that their parties have long made. Indeed, all parties in power have issued their own calls to abolish sectarianism and transition to a civil state. They unanimously identify corruption as one of Lebanon’s gravest afflictions, and advocate for an independent judiciary. And all clamor for the need to repatriate “stolen assets,” a catchphrase describing the corruption, capital flight, and tax evasion fueling the country’s financial collapse. “The FPM will hold officials accountable,” insisted a member of its youth division. “We are the ones working to reform laws and institutions.” Of course, such narratives systematically overlook—or at least downplay—the degree to which every party is complicit in and reliant upon the very problems they claim to redress.

At the same time, loyalists are quick to invoke myriad obstacles thrown in the way of their leaders’ reformist ambitions. First, they accuse opposing factions of obstruction. On that basis, a committed member of the Lebanese Forces absolved his group of responsibility in the country’s stagnation: 

I blame all the parties represented in the government since 2016 with the exception of the Lebanese Forces. Our representatives did everything they could. For instance, we raised many corruption cases in the media and through our MPs and ministers; no one listened. We couldn’t have pushed harder without jeopardizing the country’s fragile political balance.

Second, loyalists complain not only about adversarial politics, but about the behavior of their own allies. An FPM supporter bitterly reproached Amal for derailing his party’s plans to develop key infrastructure, despite being a coalition partner: “In recent years, the [Amal-affiliated] Minister of Finance refused to sign off on several projects submitted by our MPs.” At the other end of the political spectrum, the Lebanese Forces, the Future Movement, and the Progressive Socialist Party similarly indict one another for the country’s lack of progress, instead of forming a cohesive, constructive front. 

Third, these self-serving narratives move beyond the political arena to pin responsibility on society itself. The parties still in government conveniently fault the revolution for its own failure: In their logic, the uprising’s broadly defined demands and disruptive demonstrations impeded realistic reforms, exacerbated the economic crisis, and generally sowed chaos. Partisans argue that offensive slogans and road closures entrenched sectarian fault lines—even reviving the specter of civil war. 

Many loyalists take this idea still further, insisting that Lebanon’s real problem emanates from an insurmountably backward, tribal mentality that pervades Lebanese society. “We can only achieve change once sectarianism has been abolished from people’s minds,” noted a member of the FPM. “But if we revise the electoral law, for example, Christians would lose seats, and inevitably feel threatened.” Each faction pushes its own variant of the same logic, in which the existing system, for all its flaws, at least balances the rights of every sect. As long as people themselves are hell-bent on preserving these, the narrative goes, no viable alternative can emerge. 

Faced with such intractable obstacles, loyalists double down on the view that the only solution to Lebanon’s impasse lies in seeking more power for their own camp. While acknowledging the need for a transition, a journalist close to the Future Movement concluded that the way forward was to double down on the existing system: “The best thing that can happen to Lebanon is for each party to fully govern its own sect.” A Hezbollah supporter painted his own ideal scenario: “This country should be ruled by a single person or party, whichever that is. Of course, my preference would be Hezbollah.” 

Indeed, across the political spectrum, the revolution has intensified factional affiliations rather than eroded them. “Our support for the FPM only increased since the uprising,” said a member of its youth division. “We are convinced of our political project, now more than ever.” This hardening of attitudes reverberates across party lines, as one faction’s resolve reinvigorates the others’. Ironically, these mutually reinforcing dynamics only recreate the very stalemate that led to popular unrest in the first place. The absurdity of this cycle is not lost on party followers, who must resort to yet more powerful narrative devices to overcome it. 

Rationalize

As partisans seek to reconcile their earnest desire for change with deep-rooted factional loyalties, they fall back on a well-worn ability to reinterpret events in ways that suit their worldview. The ensuing narratives often take for granted the connection between faith and faction. One student drew a direct line from creed to partisanship: “As a religious Shia, my political views derive from my religious beliefs, and Hezbollah best represents this relationship.”

This form of identity politics typically assumes the language of a greater cause, such as defending against Israel or otherwise upholding Lebanese sovereignty. But each faction is quick to translate such agendas into existential threats the community itself must fend off. For Hezbollah supporters, for example, a diffuse sense of danger will combine Israeli bombings, US sanctions, and Sunni radicalization. Sunni, Christian, and Druze loyalists all entertain their own feelings of insecurity, rooted in the assassination of their figureheads, armed clashes between partisans, and attempts to encroach on their political prerogatives or sectarian strongholds. For many loyalists, the overarching “cause” ultimately recedes into the background, overtaken by an ironclad belief in a given party’s role in protecting its community. 

The powerful association of religious identity and politics—and the defensive reflexes that underpin it—grants factions remarkable latitude. Rather than hold parties responsible for their shortcomings, loyalists shift responsibility toward rival groups and their foreign backers, whose designs are far more devious and dangerous than merely obstructing reform. Illustrating this tendency to favor Machiavellian schemes over more commonsense explanations for events, a pro-FPM university professor said of the country’s ongoing crisis:

It’s like Lebanon had always been on the edge of a cliff, swinging back and forth. Now, it’s been pushed over and is falling, and instead of anyone giving us a hand, they’re allowing us to fall further and deeper. Look, I personally believe that this is all part of a plan, to force Lebanon to accept the permanent settlement of refugees. That’s how you make someone accept something: You hurt them and make them weaker, and then you offer them a deal.

These narratives imply that rank-and-file loyalists can do little in the face of such high stakes: The magnitude, complexity, and opacity of the threats leave them to depend almost blindly on their leaders. “Hezbollah’s leadership has always made wise decisions,” said a party supporter. “I trust them whenever they say that it’s not the right time for certain things—whether domestically or regionally, in the military or political spheres.” 

Just as the greatness of the cause makes leaders untouchable, it also justifies their failings. Lack of tangible results can be downplayed relative to the party’s historic achievements, and attributed to the formidable enemies they must contend with. Although some loyalists will admit to their party’s shortcomings when it comes to basic governance, these weaknesses pale in comparison to the crimes of others. In other cases, partisans wave off a leader’s flaws with reference to his far more momentous accomplishments. “Nabih Berri may have stolen,” conceded an admirer of Amal. “But he gave services and infrastructure to the people in the South.”

Consequently, loyalists have responded to each new phase of Lebanon’s downward spiral by lowering their expectations, rather than asking more of their representatives. In the name of the cause, they take in stride the state’s breakdown and its dire effects on their daily lives. When asked how he and his social network were dealing with the economic downturn, a supporter of Hezbollah and Amal said: “We have a clear enemy that is working to undermine us; our only fight is with Israel. It’s a challenge, but we need to be patient and strong. This is our doctrine, even if we starve.”

For the more fortunate, the best way of remaining faithful may simply be to leave. “I no longer see a future for myself in Lebanon, so I will move with my family to the US,” said another upper-class Hezbollah supporter. Her political allegiances remained unshaken even as she could no longer bear Lebanon’s steady decline, as if to say: When all else fails, change the country, not the narrative.

* * *

Even as most loyalists decry the status quo, they nonetheless actively contribute to it. This mechanism—which is almost identical across all factions—is precisely what makes the Lebanese regime so stubbornly coherent, despite all its dysfunction. It derives its strength not from any capacity to deliver services, but from interlocking narratives that vindicate each other. Loyalists often recognize this vicious cycle, even as they remain hostage to it themselves. Speaking after the blast, a supporter of the Lebanese Forces shared a bleak forecast: 

The uprising has lost most of its backing. Few still believe in its ability to bring about necessary change. Change could still happen through elections. But even then, I think that everything would stay the same: The Shia will vote for Amal and Hezbollah, the Druze for Joumblatt, and so on. Each sect will still vote for the same parties; even us, we will again vote for the Lebanese Forces. This is because sectarian identities are tied to these parties.

For the factions, this system is most convenient, as it requires almost no effort on their part. Identity-based narratives are the cheapest form of politics, hinging more on symbols than on practical investments or achievements. This logic is all the more vital given Lebanon’s deepening, country-wide bankruptcy, which will further deplete the factions’ already weak capacity for social support. 

This also means that the parties are endlessly putting their own supporters to the test—asking them to remain unconditionally loyal while receiving ever less in exchange, at ever greater costs to all. Because the parties assume there is no breaking point, they feel that they can push harder and harder toward it. At some stage, Lebanon’s loyalists may reject this descent into the abyss. They are unlikely to rebel, but that may not be necessary anyway: If they only demand more of their factions than the hollow narratives that perpetuate the political system, some change may finally come.

14 October 2020

Mortada Alamine is a fellow with Synaps


Methodological note and credits: The data displayed in all graphs comes from a survey conducted between March and June 2020 by the author in collaboration with Rim Saab, Rima Majed, and Arine Ayanian. The 60-question survey, part of the author’s Master’s thesis in social psychology, encompassed a sample of over 400 respondents; this sample was diverse but not random, relying on circulation via the author’s expanded networks and social media. As such, these results should not be viewed as representative of Lebanese society writ large, but rather as a basis for further investigation via a larger and more systematic survey. 

Visual design credits: Rosalie Berthier

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