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memri
December 3, 2019 No.
1493

Lebanese Protests Place Hizbullah In A Bind – Part II: Hizbullah's Position On Protests Evokes Unusually Harsh Criticism Among Its Supporters, Prompts Wave Of Resignations From Pro-Hizbullah Daily 'Al-Akhbar'

Introduction

The mass protests in Lebanon over the economic crisis and government corruption, which broke out on October 17, 2019, placed Hizbullah in a bind which made it difficult for the organization to formulate its stance on them. Hizbullah, which for years has been presenting itself as the defender of the oppressed and fighter of corruption, felt compelled to show solidarity with the protesters, who are decrying the difficult conditions in the country and demanding to punish government corruption. The fact that Shi'ites in Lebanon identify with the protests and their demands, and have participated in them, is another factor which makes it difficult for Hizbullah to come out against them. However, once it realized that many of the demonstrators' demands – specifically the demands for the resignation of the president and government and the holding of early parliamentary elections – posed a threat to the stability of the government, in which Hizbullah is a major component, the organization quickly changed its position. It began attacking the protests, claiming that they are funded by foreign countries, chiefly the U.S. and Israel, with the aim of sowing chaos in Lebanon and harming Hizbullah. Things came to the point where, on several occasions, activists from Hizbullah and its ally, the Shi'ite Amal movement, violently attacked protesters and tried to disperse them.[1]

Hizbullah's dilemma regarding the protests is also shared by its supporters, especially by journalists with the pro-Hizbullah daily Al-Akhbar, and it appears that several of them do not agree with the Hizbullah position. Broadly speaking, Al-Akhbar adopted Hizbullah's narrative that the protests had been derailed by foreign elements that took control of them. This claim was made in the paper on a daily basis, including in articles by its editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Al-Amin. However, the doubt expressed by Hizbullah, and especially by its leader Nasrallah, regarding the authenticity of the protests, and in particular the violence of Hizbullah activists towards protesters, apparently did not sit well with some of Al-Akhbar's writers. Following these violent incidents, the daily took the unusual step of publishing articles harshly critical of Hizbullah, including one by Ibrahim Al-Amin himself, and another by a writer who described himself as a staunch Hizbullah supporter but nevertheless accused the organization of turning a blind eye to government corruption.

Subsequently, after Al-Amin decided to readopt Hizbullah's position regarding the protests and stop the criticism against it, five Al-Akhbar journalists, some of them senior, resigned in protest of the daily's bias and its hostility towards the protests. Some two weeks later, two senior reporters with the pro-Hizbullah television channel Al-Mayadeen resigned as well. These reporters gave no specific reason for their resignation, but some speculated that they too were motivated by the channel's hostile coverage of the protests.

This report reviews the criticism expressed against Hizbullah in Al-Akhbar, and the resignation of the Al-Akhbar journalists.    

Al-Akhbar Editor To Nasrallah: Stop The Brutal And Unjust Violence Against Protesters

On October 30, 2019, after Hizbullah and Amal activists attacked protesters in South Lebanon (especially in Al-Nabatieh and Tyre) and Beirut, Al-Akhbar editor-in-chief Ibrahim Al-Amin harshly criticized the attackers, whom he identified as Amal activists only, and called on Nasrallah, Amal's ally, to prevent the recurrence of such events. He wrote: "Let me take this opportunity to address the attitude of the resistance and its supporters [i.e., the Amal movement] toward some ordinary citizens who, faced with the injustice perpetrated against them, consciously decided... to raise the level of their resistance and to cry out in protest. Employing the usual methods of protest, they expressed their opinion against the government and the corrupt authorities... What happened in Al-Nabatieh, Tyre and central Beirut can be described in only one way: as the ugliest sort of brutality...

"I am personally acquainted with Mr. Hassan Nasrallah. I have known him for a long time and I know his heart and mind. I know how he is [often] hard with himself and his family for the sake of [pursuing] a just cause. I know how often he has restrained himself and remained silent in the face of grave transgressions, just in order to protect the resistance... I know he knows the meaning of manliness, nobility of spirit, and human dignity. I know how much he feels for every child, man and woman, every father and mother, and therefore I ask him: Is it possible that you, [Hassan Nasrallah], will not take the initiative to stop this ongoing injustice your brothers are suffering just because they expressed an opinion that contravenes that of the leader and his associates?

"Let us be clear and honest. The Amal movement is directly and fully responsible [for what happened], from its head [Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri] to its [other] political leaders – ministers, MPs, municipal council members, security officers, clerics and [other] influential figures – as well as the thugs and the army of strongmen who acted to humiliate people and punish them just because they were protesting the [poor] performance of the government, of which Amal forms a sizable part...

"Every [incident in which a] resident of Beirut, South [Lebanon] or the Beqaa Valley was humiliated or pressured in order to prevent him from voicing his opinion, changing his opinion, or leaving his home [and taking to the street] is a barbaric incident that blackens the face of its perpetrators. The offenders must be punished, along with those who are behind their acts of brutality. This demand is no less important than the demands of the poor for a country where justice prevails."[2]

Suppression of a protest in Lebanon. The sign says "Revolution" (Source: Al-Nahar, Lebanon, October 29, 2019)

Lebanese Journalist To Nasrallah In Al-Akhbar Article: Hizbullah Has Ignored The Government's Corruption; Your Statements Enraged Many Hizbullah Supporters Who Identify With The Protests

Two days later, on November 1, 2019, Al-Akhbar published an article by journalist Maher Abi Nader. After professing support for the resistance and admiration for Nasrallah, he addressed Nasrallah and pointedly accused Hizbullah of turning a blind eye to the corruption of the government in return for the government's disregard of its weapons. He also condemned the Amal and Hizbullah activists' "barbaric repression" of demonstrators, and rejected Nasrallah's doubts regarding the authenticity of the protest, stating that it is a sincere outpouring of frustration by Lebanon's poor, some of whom are Hizbullah supporters and deserve its sympathy, rather than its hostility.

Abi Nader wrote: "Like you, I was born and grew up in the Al-Nab'a neighborhood, part of the belt of poverty that surrounded Beirut before and after the civil war. Despite the ideological disagreements between us, I, like you, espouse the idea of opposing injustice, oppression, poverty and occupation. I regard you as a leader the likes of which the Lebanese people and Arab nation did not manage to produce for many long decades. I address you with love and appreciation, in a clear and sincere manner.

"First, honorable Sayyed [an honorific title denoting people accepted as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad], I would like to say that the so-called 'presidential' arrangement [i.e., the agreement reached in 2016 and implemented until recently, according to which Michel 'Aoun became president and Sa'd Al-Hariri prime minister], did the resistance a grave injustice. [This agreement] granted the presidency to [Hizbullah's] ally Gen. Michel 'Aoun, and the role of prime minister to Sheikh Sa'd Al-Hariri. But the secret part of the arrangement was [an understanding that] the resistance [i.e., Hizbullah] would turn a blind eye to the government's economic and fiscal policy – namely to the systematic corruption that prevails in the country – and in return, [the government] would  ignore the weapons of the resistance and officially legitimize their existence. The first injustice here is the treatment of the weapons of the resistance as weapons of a group, party or sect, rather than as weapons of the homeland... The second injustice is that [the arrangement] transforms the resistance into a guardian of the bastion of corruption and all its components, whether voluntarily or by force of circumstance...

"Honorable Sayyed [Nasrallah], under this 'presidential' arrangement, which did the resistance an injustice, you were forced to accept a government whose makeup you could not tolerate... and an economic and fiscal policy [that drove] the country towards the abyss of poverty, hunger, want, unemployment and bankruptcy, until the situation became unbearable... The straw that broke the camel's back was the decision of the media minister, which was also endorsed by the ministers of the resistance within the government, to tax WhatsApp calls, a free service that is based abroad and which the Lebanese state has no right to tax. This drove the public to take to the streets, regardless of religion, sect or party, [chanting] slogans unprecedented in Lebanon's history...

"Between [the time of] your first speech after the outbreak of the protests and your second speech, the people's demands did not change, nor did their pain and hunger. But your position towards the protest movement did change. I agree with you that certain elements and embassies tried to forcefully infiltrate the protest and derail it from its course... but they did not succeed.

"Sayyed [Nasrallah], the calls heard [at the protests] against you and against the resistance were voiced by a small group of demonstrators... a group that represents [forces] that were your partners in the government and your allies in the professional syndicate elections... Resistance members started reacting to this small group... by barbarically and violently repressing protesters in Al-Nabatieh and Tyre, which are strongholds of the resistance, causing some people – including former resistance fighters – to be injured, wounded or imprisoned. Later, dozens of unknown individuals on motorcycles stormed the main center of protests [in Al-Nabatieh and Tyre], waving Hizbullah and Amal flags. [They] also raided the protesters in [Beirut's] Riad Al-Solh Square, calling out slogans [of support] for you.

"Your latest speech, Sayyed [Nasrallah], enraged people who support, love and cultivate the resistance. These supporters of the resistance [simply] do not want it to become the one that defends the bastion of corruption from its [i.e., the resistance's] own support base, [namely from] poor people [who live in every part of Lebanon], from the tip of the north Beqaa Valley to the southernmost tip [of Lebanon], including in the Dahia [Hizbullah's stronghold in Beirut], some of whose areas have become hotbeds of want and poverty. These [Hizbullah supporters] do not regard these mass protests as the product of [foreign] embassies that hatched a plot against the resistance, [as you claim].

"Oh Sayyed [Nasrallah], these people want to hear an apology for the gravely mistaken [actions] committed by certain elements against the resistance and its supporters and public, and against the demonstrators. Those who dared to place the resistance in conflict with its [own] people... by means of their brutal behavior at the scenes of the protest, [behavior] that does not befit the resistance members and their upbringing and culture, must be severely punished. Honorable Sayyed [Nasrallah],... just as the resistance is a natural outcome of the occupation, the popular protest, belated though it may be, is a natural outcome of the injustice, oppression, corruption and thievery. I call upon you to return the resistance to the bosom of the people and to its natural [position] of solidarity with the pain, the hunger and the outcry of the people..."[3]        

Al-Akhbar Journalists Resign Over Its Hostile Coverage Of The Protests

However, despite his criticism, Al-Akhbar editor Ibrahim Al-Amin ultimately maintained his support for Hizbullah and its positions. Apart from the two critical articles quoted above, the daily's articles and reports continued to claim that the protests had been politicized and were controlled by foreign elements seeking to harm Lebanon and especially Hizbullah. As a result, five of the daily's journalists resigned over what they called the daily's slanted and hostile coverage of the protests.

The first to resign was Al-Akhbar's culture reporter Joy Slim. In an October 29 Facebook post, she clarified the reason for her decision, lashing out at the daily for its position on the protests and even holding it responsible for the violent attacks on protesters by Hizbullah and Amal activists. She wrote:  "Today I resigned from the Al-Akhbar daily after working there for five and a half years. The past few days were decisive for me. I gave up hope that the paper's coverage of the uprising [would change]. For months, or even years, it kept explaining why [such a protest] must break out; but the minute it did, it rushed to join the counter-uprising and even advanced conspiratorial and inciting rumors that contributed to [prompting] the recent attacks on protesters in the streets by 'residents,' as Al-Akhbar called them on its Facebook page. The paper's stance on the protests, and the way it covered them in the days after they broke out, was almost scandalous, in my opinion. The paper bears partial responsibility for every drop of protesters' blood spilled by [those] 'residents,' supporters of the ruling parties [Hizbullah and Amal]."

Slim added: "This resignation comes at a difficult time for me, personally, but I nevertheless decided to take a leap into the unknown... rather than stay in a [work]place I felt had betrayed the people at the most crucial moment, myself among them..."[4]

Three days later, on November 4, Mohammad Zbeeb, the head of the daily's economic section, resigned as well. He tweeted: "In order to remove any doubt, [let me clarify that] I resigned from the Al-Akhbar daily... in protest of its stance towards the uprising."[5]

Mohammad Zbeeb's tweet

The other three reporters resigned On November 5. Sabah 'Ayoub, who had been with the paper since its inception and had served as its deputy editor, its opinion section editor, and most recently as the head of its website team, tweeted: "I resigned from Al-Akhbar for a number of reasons, chief among them its coverage of the October 17 uprising."[6] Viviane 'Akiki, who worked in the paper's economic section, tweeted: "I resigned from Al-Akhbar for professional reasons related to its coverage of the popular uprising, as well as other reasons having to do with its professional performance, which were never addressed..."[7] Muhammad Al-Jannoun tweeted: "I hereby announce that I have stopped writing in Al-Akhbar, because it does not recognize the legitimate right to [hold] the popular protests [of] the October 17 revolution. I thank the daily for the opportunity it gave me for five years, [but] it is inconceivable that freedom of the press should be influenced by politics or affiliation."[8]

As stated, a fortnight later, two reporters from the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen channel, which is likewise affiliated with Hizbullah, resigned as well. The first to resign was senior journalist Samy Kleyb, who was among the channels' founders and is known as a supporter of the Syrian regime, Hizbullah and its allies. He tweeted on November 22: "I resigned from Al-Mayadeen today, prompted by my positions, beliefs and conscience. I wish them ongoing progress and success."[9] Although Kleyb did not specify the reasons for his resignation, some speculated that, like in the case of the Al-Akhbar journalists, the reason was the channel's hostile coverage of the protests."[10] Two days later, journalist Lina Zahredine, who had been with the channel for eight years, announced her resignation, writing: "Due to the historic moments were are experiencing, I found it necessary to resign from Al-Mayadeen. I wish the channel longevity and our peoples [the Arab peoples] a better future..."[11] Her resignation too was seen in the Lebanese press as an act of protest over the channel's coverage of the current events in Lebanon.[12]

 

*H. Varulkar is director of research at MEMRI; C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] For more on Hizbullah's hostility to the protests and the reasons behind it, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No.1492, Lebanese Protests Place Hizbullah In A Bind – Part I: Hizbullah's Hostility To The Protests And The Reasons Behind It, December 3, 2019.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 30, 2019.

[3] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 1, 2019.

[4] Facebook.com, joy.slim.18, October 29, 2019.

[5] Twitter.com/mzbeeb/status, November 4, 2019.

[6] Twitter.com/sabahayoub, November 5, 2019.

[7] Twitter.com/vivianeakiki, November 5, 2019.

[8] Twitter.com/mhdJannoun, November 5, 2019.

[9] Twitter.com/samykleyb, November 22, 2019.

[10]   Almodon.com, October 22, 23, 2019; Independentarabia.com, janoubia.com,October 24, 2019.

[11] Facebook.com/LinaZahredine, October 24, 2019.

[12]  Almodon.com, October 22, 23, 2019; Independentarabia.com, janoubia.com,October 24, 2019.