You cannot protest in the Middle East. That has become clear in Iraq, as more than 200 people have been murdered by snipers and security forces. On Tuesday, Hezbollah and supporters of the Amal Movement Party attacked a peaceful protest in Beirut, scattering soldiers and civilians and destroying their tents.
Iran and its allies are concerned that protests will challenge its attempts to slowly consume Lebanon and Iraq. Any mass mobilization of young people or anyone who wants to dissent must be crushed. In Iraq, it is being crushed with bullets and tear gas canisters purposely fired at people's heads.
In Lebanon, in front of the world's media where Hezbollah tries to pretend it is a normal political party "defending" Lebanon, it is crushed differently. But in the end, Hezbollah, the "resistance," is only good at bullying average people and silencing them, just as it silenced former prime minister Rafic Hariri with a car bomb in 2005. Today, Rafic's son, Saad, is set to resign as prime minister. It has been more than 14 years since his father was murdered and the rage from the murder helped push Syria to leave Lebanon and momentarily left Hezbollah stunned.
Iran is concerned that protests will challenge its attempts to slowly consume Lebanon and Iraq.
But Hezbollah clawed its way back. It launched a war on Israel in 2006 to try to gain legitimacy and to preserve its arsenal. Then, it involved itself in the Syrian Civil War in 2012, sending its fighters there. It hijacked the parliament and the presidency, forcing its candidate through. Even though it has only 13 seats in parliament, it is allied with Amal's 17 parliamentarians and the Free Patriotic Movement, giving it strength.
It showed its strength on Tuesday after a week of protests had left Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wondering what to do. Nasrallah needs to pose as if he is resisting Israel, not as if he is a stagnating oligarch thirsty for power in Lebanon and seeking to wrap Hezbollah's tentacles around the country. So when young people came to the streets and inspired Lebanon in the last week, those people had to be stopped, lest they take away the crown of sectarianism that Hezbollah wears. Human chains and people doing nice things in Beirut, things not involving showing off rifles and missiles and talking of martyrdom, the way Hezbollah does in its rallies, were looked on with suspicion by Hezbollah.
Nasrallah has warned of "strife" and Hezbollah hints of "foreign interference," the conspiracies borrowed from pro-Iranian parties in Iraq. Nasrallah is a close ally of Iraq's Kata'ib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah, and Qais Khazali of Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr Organization, all of them similar to Hezbollah in Iraq. Khazali even toured Hezbollahstan in southern Lebanon to look into Israel and say that Iraqi Shi'ite militias will fight alongside Hezbollah.
Since Tuesday morning, tensions boiled over between Hezbollah, Amal and the protesters in Beirut. Tents were attacked and security forces "unable" to stop the attackers. In reality, the security forces could but they know their place. When Hezbollah needs to show its muscle, it will, and the army or others will back down. After all, no one wants another civil war. Attacks on the protest tents were caught on video in Beirut. It was an organized mob attempt to stifle the protest. It is a reminder of the 2008 clashes in Lebanon between the Future Party and Hezbollah, which also led to Hezbollah entering west Beirut and showing its ability to project power. This is the Iranian model, one perfected in suppressing protests in December 2018 and in 2009.
Nasrallah had prepared for this moment from October 25. That was the same day that Iraqis went back to the streets to protest, often attacking pro-Iranian party offices. In Iraq, some 200 people have been killed. In Lebanon, Nasrallah flexed his muscles a bit on October 25 when some clashes and images of Hezbollah members parading in vehicles were shown. He accused the protests of being supported by outside powers, including the US and Gulf countries. Nasrallah even made sure to include a Lebanese flag in his broadcast to show that he cares about Lebanon and not just Hezbollah and Iran.
So far, Hezbollah's tactic was to send goons to attack the protesters who pretend to be locals. They are reticent at a full confrontation with security forces in areas like Riad al-Solh square. Now all eyes turn to Hariri and, of course, what comes next. But Hariri knows what happens if he does anything too aggressive or confrontational. He'll end up like his father. He'll end up like Samir Kassir, Pierre Gemayel Jr., Kamal Jumblatt and all the rest who have been assassinated over the years in Lebanon.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.