Two of the most powerful countries in the Middle East that will seek to influence Lebanon in the wake of the explosion that gutted the port of Beirut – and has killed and injured thousands of people – are concerned about protests upsetting their plans. Media in Iran and Turkey were noticeably silent on the massive protests in Beirut on Saturday. Sunday morning found few if any reports in the pro-government media of both states.
How to explain the lack of coverage? While media linked to Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates, were covering the protests on the ground – with some appearing to even enthusiastically embrace them – these two, big countries were more reticent and skeptical. In Iran's case the answer is clear: Iran supports Hezbollah and any protests in Lebanon are sure to challenge the religious terrorist group's stranglehold on the country. For Turkey the game plan is more complex.
Media in Iran and Turkey were noticeably silent on the massive protests in Beirut on Saturday.
Turkey's vice-president Fuat Oktay and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Beirut on Saturday. Surrounded by a huge entourage of men, apparently bodyguards, the Turkish delegation seemed to meet only with male Lebanese citizens and then promised to help rebuild the port that was destroyed. In a bizarre initiative, Turkey also said it would grant citizenship to ethnic Turks in Lebanon, a play for ethno-populism that seemed out of character with the non-sectarian support other countries were giving. It was not clear in this statement if Turkey's main goal in Lebanon is to create a foothold as it has in Iraq, Syria, Qatar, Somalia and Libya in recent years.
Pro-government media in Ankara seemed to ignore the protests or emphasize how "violent" they were, according to TRT. For instance, the Turkish national public broadcaster made an unconfirmed claim that a police officer was killed, and asserted that protesters had set up symbolic nooses "to hang politicians for corruption." Indeed, protesters had done that. But they had targeted Hezbollah's leader and specific leaders.
Ankara seems worried Lebanon will remind Turks of the days when they could protest.
Ankara seems worried that the protests in Lebanon will remind a Turkish public that increasingly faces bans on dissent at home of the days when they could protest. For instance, in recent months Turkish politicians have been handed long jail terms for merely critiquing the government on social media.
Iranian media ignored the protesters or pushed conspiracy theories. For instance, Fars News didn't mention the protests on its homepage on Sunday, but did have an article asserting that the French were responsible due to colonial rule. Tasnim claimed "suspicious elements" had infiltrated the protests and attacked government ministries in Lebanon. This followed reports in other pro-Hezbollah media about how the protesters have a secret plan to destroy files linked to corruption. But the protesters are protesting corruption, so why would they destroy the files? The goal of these reports is that Iranian-backed Hezbollah can then claim the protesters tarnished files at various ministries and "sabotaged" the investigation.
It's clear that Turkey and Iran, as well as other states, are preparing their narratives. They must tread carefully because much is in flux in Beirut and their media need to weave narratives that will fit long-term government goals. These narratives are already quietly being formed, on social media and online.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.