While Lebanon’s protests remain focused on the economy and widespread corruption, Washington is increasingly determined to exploit the movement as a geopolitical weapon in the region.
By Rania Khalek
This is the first installment of a two-part report. Read part two here: “US-backed parties have infiltrated Lebanon’s protests, pushing the country toward war amid economic collapse”
Lebanon erupted in massive protests this October. The demonstrations transcended sect and class, and quickly spread across the country. The movement was spurred by the levying of regressive taxes and the persistence of a corrupt neoliberal order that has mismanaged the economy and hollowed out the public sector while enriching a handful of elites amid a looming economic collapse.
Though the protests remain focused on class issues and corruption, the US is increasingly determined to co-opt the movement for its own goals. At the forefront of Washington’s agenda is ousting Hezbollah from the Lebanese governing coalition and marginalizing the Shia political-military movement as a means of weakening Iran. In its place, the US and its proxies inside Lebanon are demanding a “technocratic” government with no interest in resisting Israel.
Former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman explicitly spelled out US interests during recent congressional testimony, proclaiming that the protests “fortunately coincide with U.S. interests” against Hezbollah. He urged stepped-up American intervention, emphasizing “the value of domestic initiative combined with external [Western] support.”
Leftist groups responded angrily to Feltman’s rhetoric, staging a protest outside the US embassy and posting a massive billboard in downtown Beirut depicting the former diplomat above a slogan calling on Washington to leave Lebanon alone.
American meddling in the protests is not yet a full-scale operation, however it has been seen through the presence of US-backed political parties and activists backed by the most familiar outfits of the US regime-change machine: the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US Institute for Peace (USIP), and USAID.
Together, these elements are seeking to popularize the call for a technocratic, Hezbollah-free government in provocative actions across the country.
A leaderless resistance pressures the government
Based in downtown Beirut, the protests initially included Hezbollah’s working-class base and civil society activists, symbolizing a rejection of the sectarian power-sharing system that was installed under French colonial rule and re-enforced under the post-civil war Taif agreement.
Within days, however, the protests began to morph into a strange leaderless mix of middle and lower middle class students, along with liberals, civil society and NGO activists, US-backed political parties, small leftist groups, hipster types, and anti-Hezbollah activists.
While the vast majority of protesters simply sought a functioning government that could provide for their basic needs, the current make-up of their movement and lack of ideology among most demonstrators created a wide opening for meddling by outside actors. This was especially true for the US, which has honed methods to co-opt anti-government protest movements and manipulate them into carrying out regime-change goals.
In Lebanon, the US has been openly determined to overturn Hezbollah’s win in the 2018 elections that gave it a majority alongside its coalition allies the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party, and Amal, a Shia party. This governing coalition enabled Hezbollah to protect its traditional interests, among which deterring Israel is paramount, without serving as the face of the government.
Hezbollah grew out of Israel’s occupation in Lebanon, and managed to liberate the south from Israeli occupation in 2000 and again when the Israelis invaded in 2006. Hezbollah was also crucial to the defeat of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the collection of US-backed extremist groups in both Syria and Lebanon in the proxy war that began in 2011.
Today, the pro-Hezbollah March 8 coalition represents one of the two major political blocs that divide the Lebanese polity. The other is the American- and Saudi-backed March 14 alliance.
The March 14 bloc includes the Future Party, headed by Sunni leader and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has been hobbled since the Saudis withdrew their financial support and briefly kidnapped and tortured him. Then there is Druze leader Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which is neither progressive nor socialist; and the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian leader and formerly imprisoned war lord.
According to cables published by Wikileaks, Geagea was the main US embassy contact during the 2008 clashes between the two blocs. In meetings at the embassy, Geagea repeatedly asked Washington to supply his militia with weapons against Hezbollah.
On the other side is the March 8 bloc comprised of the Shia parties: Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic and well-known spiritual leader, and Amal, which is headed by the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri. The final component of the coalition is the Christian FPM, led by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Since the civil war, these parties have defined Lebanon’s political make-up and substantially influenced regional dynamics.
The protests that have swept Lebanon over the past month have placed enormous pressure on the governing coalition, while offering perceived political openings for its most opportunistic opponents – especially those with historic ties to the US.
Due to the irresponsible decisions of the ruling politicians seeking to pit their streets against each other, the situation has escalated in recent days. To understand how the potentially explosive situation has developed, it is important to examine the genesis of the protests.
Rising up against a failed oligarchy
On October 17, protests erupted spontaneously in downtown Beirut in reaction to a raft of regressive taxes. These included a tax on Whatsapp, one of the only free methods of communication in an otherwise expensive telecommunications market.
But the levies were themselves preceded by a series of events that led to the inevitable explosion. In early October, Lebanon’s forests were devastated by wildfires due in large part to government negligence and ineptitude. The state had for instance failed to even pay for the most basic maintenance of the helicopters needed to put out the fires.
At the same time, a shortage of US dollars, which Lebanon’s economy depends on, led to panic about a looming collapse — something economists have been predicting for years.
The public rage was compounded by the fact that 30 years after the civil war, the weak Lebanese state was still not able to provide basic services like 24-hour electricity, potable water, or waste management. This was a result of the neoliberal order that was imposed on Lebanon after the civil war by international financial institutions in coordination with the country’s ruling elites.
Lebanon’s main political parties are run by civil war-era warlords who have exploited a dysfunctional system to make themselves billionaires. They and their children flaunt their wealth in the streets and on social media.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri presents perhaps the most visible and cartoonish example: the ultra-wealthy fail-son was revealed in October to have sent $16 million to his South African mistress.
Another factor driving the protests was frustration with the country’s sectarian system, which generates corruption and gridlock. Under Lebanon’s power-sharing agreement, the president must be a Christian Maronite; the prime minister must be Sunni Muslim; and the speaker of parliament is mandated as a Shia Muslim.
This dynamic forces Lebanese citizens into a state of dependence on their communal sect leaders for services rather than the state, leading to a weak central government. The different sect leaders are extremely corrupt and have enriched themselves through nepotism, theft, and a Ponzi scheme economy.
The powerful banking sector is also politicized; it has been turned into an enemy of Hezbollah through its partnership and cooperation with American sanctions. Moreover, the head of the Central Bank, Riad Salamah, has aspired to remove the FPM-affiliated foreign minister, Gibran Bassil, and replace the current president, Michel Aoun. He also wants to weaken Hezbollah, which he and the banking sector view as a magnet for US sanctions and, therefore, a liability to their bottom line.
Recently imposed US sanctions have already led to the liquidation of a Shia-owned Lebanese bank, Jammal Trust, on the highly dubious grounds that it was financing Hezbollah activity. (Jammal Trust was, in fact, a close ally of the US embassy and partnered with USAID to fund literacy programs in the country).
There was little doubt that an economic crisis was on the way in Lebanon, but US sanctions have accelerated the process. Sanctions against Hezbollah and anything deemed remotely affiliated with the Shia political movement are a part of the US’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran. They aim to bleed Hezbollah’s social welfare programs, which ultimately hurts the poor in their constituency, and threatens the businesses of wealthy Shias as well.
In such a precarious economy, a few US sanctions were all that was needed to immiserate a large sector of the Lebanese public.
This was the backdrop to the display of mass outrage that erupted in downtown Beirut this October. At first, a small group of demonstrators occupied the area. They included middle class activists from a 2015 protest against a lack of sanitation as well as poor Shias. In the course of their demonstration, they ran up against a convoy belonging to the minister of education, Akram Chehayeb. His bodyguards reacted with fear and then hyper-aggression, firing their rifles into the air.
Videos of the violent spectacle spread on social media, provoking more citizens to join the protest. The next wave of demonstrators aimed their anger at the downtown property that belongs to Solidere, the real estate privatization and redevelopment company of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which profited tremendously after the civil war while transforming the ruins of downtown into a bubble of inaccessible luxury.
The next two days saw groups of young masked men on motorbikes efficiently coordinating roadblocks across the city, lighting garbage bins and tires on fire. Many of them were Hezbollah supporters.
Above: Young men on motorbikes set up roadblocks with trash cans and burning tires. October 18, 2019
Above: Young men set fires to block the road. October 18, 2019
“We started destroying and blocking what we believed is sucking the last cent out of our pockets: Solidere,” one of them told me.
Meanwhile, the protests ballooned, filling the streets downtown and spreading to other parts of the country, bringing in people from all classes and sects. But the momentum was short lived.
Hezbollah’s base played an important role in the protests in the early stages, hoping the street actions would provide opportunity to pressure Amal, the rival Shia party headed by Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament. Berri is viewed as one of the most corrupt politicians in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s attempted reforms to help the poor had been obstructed by Amal, hence the attempt to put pressure on Berri. Amal was up to its eyeballs in corruption, feasting on the Shia share of the public budget, and constantly provoking Hezbollah’s constituency.
Days into the protests, Hezbollah supporters from the student unions made a strong showing in protests outside the Central bank. But then, they were sideswiped by the right-wing.
US-aligned parties join the protests
On day three, Samir Geagea, the leader of the US-backed Lebanese Forces (LF), removed his four ministers from government, supposedly in solidarity with the protests. LF is a right-wing pro-American party that had been one of the most brutal militias in Lebanon’s civil war. And Geagea’s decision changed the course of the movement.
Walid Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) threatened to remove his own ministers, placing his party in the opposition. Meanwhile, LF and PSP supporters joined the protests by obstructing major roads outside of Beirut: LF blocked the main highway at Jal el Dib and other areas in the north while PSP blocked the roads in the south.
Next, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, placing his Saudi- and US-backed Future party on the side of the protesters as well. Future was now in the protest ranks, reinforcing the blockading of roads in the south alongside members of PSP.
As these forces stepped up their involvement, working-class Hezbollah supporters began to withdraw from the movement, especially as certain elements began chanting against Hezbollah and its weapons. Suddenly, the protests had assumed a familiar and ominous March 8 versus March 14 feel.
Throughout this period, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah delivered several speeches criticizing the protests as vehicles for outside funding and hostile political parties. His rhetoric only inflamed the protesters and deepened the well-entrenched resentment of Hezbollah.
The billionaire Prime Minister Hariri had been a staunch ally of America and Saudi Arabia who even holds Saudi citizenship. Before his resignation, Hariri was part of Hezbollah’s governing coalition. Coalition leaders feared that the Americans would target the whole government and place the country under crushing sanctions without a Western-aligned figure like him. Determined to delegitimize the coalition, Saudi Arabia forced Hariri to resign at gunpoint in 2017, but he ultimately returned to the government.
This time around, Hariri leveraged the protests to try to pressure Michel Aoun to drop his son-in-law Gibran Bassil as foreign minister, whom anti-government elements blamed for giving Hezbollah legitimacy on the international stage. But Aoun wouldn’t budge. So Hariri resigned.
Hariri’s resignation not only obstructed the government from dealing with the economic crisis, it exposed the role of Hezbollah in the government and thereby risked a new round of sanctions. Hezbollah leadership believed that the prime minister’s departure was influenced by the US and the Saudis, and with good reason given the history.
As the political divide widened, the protests became increasingly dominated by members of the middle class and the Western-backed civil society and NGO sector. This element diverted the initial working class demands for justice into an all-out attack on Hezbollah, its weapons, and its leadership.
The popular chant “killun yaani killun,” or “all of them means all of them,” which was initially directed at Lebanon’s entire cast of leaders, soon turned into an anti-Hezbollah slogan, with protesters adding, “and Nasrallah is one of them.” Clashes between supporters of Amal and Hezbollah and the middle class demonstrators soon followed.
The White House was initially cautious and quiet about the protests, uncertain where they might lead. But a day after Hariri’s October 29 resignation, Pompeo issued a statement supporting the protests and the formation of a new government.
Suddenly, a series of panelists and think pieces materialized explaining how the US should exploit the situation against Hezbollah — and, by extension, Iran. Washington views everything in Lebanon through an anti-Iran lens, and sees Hezbollah purely as a proxy of the government in Tehran.
The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank funded by weapons companies and Western governments as well as Bahaa Hariri, the brother of Saad Hariri, published a plea for Trump to exploit the Lebanon protests as a pretext for forcibly disarming Hezbollah. The author was Frederic Hof, the former US special envoy to Syria and a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center, which is named after the father of Saad Hariri.
Those who had worked to turn the so-called Arab Spring in Washington’s direction were out in force again.
Enter the NGO industrial complex
Unfortunately for Washington, the core of the protest movement remained primarily focused on the economic crisis. Though Hezbollah had bolted the protest ranks, leftist groups like the Lebanese Communist Party, Citizens in a State, the Shaab (People) Movement, and other socialist-oriented elements remained involved.
In the past weeks, these groups had been holding discussion groups and working to influence as many protest participants in a left-wing direction. However, they represent a small slice of Lebanese society and lack the resources of US-backed parties and civil society groups.
By contrast, the Sabaa party is flush with funding. It was founded by Jad Dagher, a notoriously shady Lebanese businessman who used to belong to the Phalange, another right-wing Christian party close to the US which carried out infamous massacres during the civil war.
Dagher and his company DK Group were added to the US sanctions list in 2014 for allegedly aiding the Syrian government, but were removed from the list in 2016. On average, the removal of a company from the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list takes around eight to 10 years, leading some to wonder what kind of deals Dagher cut to get him off the list in just two.
Sabaa, which claims to have a disdain for political parties, is considered by the left to be a right-wing party operating under the guise of non-sectarianism and liberalism. The group has kept up a significant presence in downtown Beirut’s Martyr’s Square, setting up a PA system that blasted music so loud it was difficult to have any sort of meaningful discussion. Notably, the group kept its name and logo absent from all protest materials. Some left-wing activists I spoke to suspected that Sabaa was using the blaring music to drown out their ability to organize effectively.
The other large group present at the downtown protests was Beirut Madinati, a liberal group founded by civil society activists and professors from the American University of Beirut. This group emerged from the 2015 “You Stink!” protests, which mobilized against the lack of trash pickup and other middle class civic concerns.
One of Beirut Madinati’s most high-profile founders is Jad Chaaban, an AUB economics professor who has worked at the World Bank and founded the Lebanese Economic Association, a business roundtable that receives support from USAID, Booz Allen, the World Bank Group, and the Ford Foundation. It goes without saying that he is considered an ally in Washington.
Then there are the groups of artists who use slogans from Syria’s protests, but updated for the Lebanese context. For instance, the famous chant “erhal erhal ya Bashar” (leave leave oh Bashar [al-Assad]), which was heard in Syrian cities back in 2011, was remixed to “erhal erhal ya Aoun,” referring to the Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
Many of the NGOs that are present express solidarity with the economic demands at the core of the protest movement. However, these groups are funded by outside forces and inculcated in the discourse of American and European liberalism.
A perfect example is Legal Agenda, a Lebanese NGO financed by the European Union, the Swiss embassy, the German government-funded think tank Heinrich Böll Stiftung, and the Open Society Foundation of anti-communist billionaire George Soros. The organization offers legal advice to marginalized groups, a noble cause to be sure. Some members appeared to be assuming an anti-Hezbollah line, however, commenting to me that they were convinced the militia had plans to use its weapons on protesters.
Another notable NGO is Megaphone News, a social media oriented outlet that bills itself as independent, but which is funded by the European Endowment for Democracy, the European government-backed sister organization of the US regime-change outfit the National Endowment for Democracy. Founded in 2017, Megaphone has played a critical role in the production of memes, videos, and music since the start of the uprising.
These various groups do not necessarily share a unified agenda and do not always get along. Perhaps the only thing that brings them together is their resentment of Hezbollah.
The leftists are upset with Hezbollah for its domestic policies. They argue that Hezbollah is complicit in the neoliberal policies that have ruined the economy – or at the very least, that Hezbollah has not done enough to confront the notoriously corrupt players in their coalition.
They are also angry that Hassan Nasrallah criticized the protests as a vehicle for foreign influence. After scuffles broke out between Nasrallah’s supporters and protesters, he instructed his constituents to leave the demonstrations to avoid further clashes. This upset the leftists even more, as they wanted Hezbollah to continue contributing manpower and resources to the movement.
However, Hezbollah supporters argue that their party has not been in power long enough to change anything. They insist on a strategic alignment with parties like FPM and Amal in order to protect their capacity to resist Israeli aggression. And they are convinced it is necessary to be wary of foreign influence over protests in a country like Lebanon that outside powers are constantly meddling in.
Given the participation of their pro-American political rivals and the anti-Hezbollah sentiment among some segments of protesters, Hezbollah members understandably view the protests with deep suspicion.
At a demonstration of students from Lebanese American University (LAU) and American University of Beirut (AUB) on October 26, for example, there were chants in favor of disarming Hezbollah. Others chanted against Nasrallah. To Hezbollah ears, this rhetoric amounts to a call for the wholesale destruction of their movement.
At that same event, AUB president Fadlo Khuri joined student protesters, encouraging them to continue expressing themselves in the streets. Khuri’s sudden support for free expression came as a surprise to some who have worked under his administration. They describe him as right-wing and in line with US foreign policy.
Since Khuri took over AUB, pro-Palestine and pro-Hezbollah faculty have complained about his relentless hostility. It was Khuri, for example, who blocked Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita from securing a permanent position at the school. But now he has suddenly become a champion of free speech.
Hijacking the protests
The leaderless, ideologically diffuse nature of Lebanon’s protest movement leaves it vulnerable to hijacking by powerful outside actors. Almost anyone can show up and inject their agenda into the movement, but under another name.
Most participants in downtown Beirut say they hate politics, had no interest in the country’s affairs before the protests, and appear easily moved by anyone with a slick message. They are the perfect audience for groups like Beirut Madinati and other civil society groups that spout empty platitudes and always seem to skirt the issue of Israel.
A telling moment arrived a week into the protests when an American AUB lecturer, Robert Gallagher, grabbed the microphone at a political discussion in downtown Beirut to call for the creation of a parallel government. Rather than shout Gallagher down, his audience erupted in applause.
US 'colour revolution' agent tries to hijack Lebanese protests. Robert L. Gallagher, formerly US embassy, telling young #Lebanese people "we have to take over the functions of government". Gallagher is in #Lebanon since 2007 and a professor at the #American University of Beirut pic.twitter.com/oilhXUt1wI
— tim anderson (@timand2037) October 29, 2019
Regardless of the intentions of the leftists involved, Hezbollah views the calls for the downfall of the government as an attempt by its adversaries to reverse the party’s democratic victory in the 2018 elections.
The dividing line between protesters and those critical of the demonstrations has become so extreme that friendships have ended. Some Lebanese are no longer invited to gatherings with friends for merely criticizing the Western-backed elements of the protests. And families supportive of Hezbollah have blocked relatives online for attending the demonstrations.
Despite the in-fighting, the leftist parties are still supportive of Hezbollah’s role as an armed resistance organization. This differentiates them from the liberals and right-wing elements in downtown Beirut who are centering their resentment on Hezbollah to an almost obsessive degree.
Rania Masri, an official with the leftist party Citizens in a State, has insisted that pro-resistance groups remain in the protest square rather than cede the ground to reactionary conservative groups.
“Do we let others who are involved decide the discourse? Or do we try to influence the discourse? We consider ourselves to be responsible therefore we will not be bystanders,” Masri remarked to me. “Foreign intervention is a given. The question becomes how to deal with them and protect the country. We have to be wise. And not leave the political discourse to them.”
While leftists attempt to hold the line, pro-US parties and activists affiliated with NGOs and civil society groups have been most successful in crafting the protest demands and occupying the media limelight. These elements have been especially adept at popularizing the call for a technocratic government that would boot Hezbollah out of any future administration.
Demanding a technocratic government, looking to Hong Kong for inspiration
The protest demand which has garnered the most media attention has been the call for the installment of a “technocratic government.”
Activists from civil society groups have been pumping out printed fliers and posters clamoring for a technocratic government. Some of the major local media outlets owned by oligarchs with competing political agendas suddenly began reporting, with an unusually unified message, that the main protest demand was for technocracy.
This call quickly spread among non-ideological protesters across the country who have proven themselves to be susceptible to catchy slogans.
But what does a “technocratic government” mean in practice in Lebanon?
It would not necessarily comprise a non-political government, but one that would negate the key political issues that are confronting the country, especially Israel, Palestinian refugees, and the plight of the country’s poor.
Most importantly, a technocracy would mean a government without Hezbollah that cannot resist Israel or the extremist Gulf proxies that threatened Lebanon during the war on Syria. This is why Hezbollah and its allies have been so staunchly opposed to replacing the current government.
Unsurprisingly, this demand, which was initiated by pro-American political parties and US government-funded outfits, is music to the ears of Washington.
In his November testimony to congress, former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman highlighted the advantage in the demand: “With the demonstrators calling for a technocratic rather than political government, our public messaging can emphasize our expectation that a new Lebanese government, if it seeks international support, should effectively and immediately address the reform aspirations of the Lebanese people,” he said.
By clamoring for a technocracy, the veteran US operative argued, protesters can “seize the next electoral opportunity to strip Hezbollah of the parliamentary partners it uses as force multipliers to assert its will politically.”
The US Institute for Peace, a State Department cut-out that was founded under Reagan alongside the NED, echoed Feltman’s call.
#Lebanon's protesters have several commons core demands: the resignation of the current cabinet; a new, technocratic, reformist government; and the reduction of taxes on poor communities. https://t.co/9ianOF9wbg
— U.S. Institute of Peace (@USIP) October 28, 2019
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Feltman’s longtime informant, was the first to publicly call for a technocratic government, and has continued to do so. With his eyes on the presidency, Geagea has blamed Hezbollah for obstructing the formation of this technocratic government while lashing out at his Christian rivals, the FPM, for their alliance with the Shia party.
The social media influencer Gino Raidy also amplified the call for the appointment of a technocratic government. Raidy is a popular blogger who sits on the board of March Lebanon, an NGO that receives funding from NED in addition to the British and Canadian embassies.
Through his Western-backed organization, Raidy has argued against the Lebanese government imposing boycotts on Israel. He has also expressed disdain for activists in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on his personal blog.
Raidy recently bragged on Instagram about meeting with a Hong Kong protester in Lebanon on November 11 – the same day Nasrallah gave a speech emphasizing need for Lebanon to defy the United States and open up to China.
This was not the first time Raidy has expressed interest in Hong Kong. Three days into the Lebanon protests, he wrote on Instagram, “If we need to, we will resist like our brothers and sisters in Hong Kong.”
The Hong Kong protests have rapidly transformed into a separatist movement that has overseen terrifying acts of violence against supporters of China, including the recent lighting of a man on fire for disagreeing with anti-Beijing activists. An elderly man was killed with a brick for the same reason.
Many Hong Kong opposition figures receive funding from the same US sources as Raidy, and are openly coordinating with American political leadership.
Raidy admitted on his widely read blog that his initial excitement about getting involved in the protests had everything to do with exploiting anti-Hezbollah sentiment. “The moment that made me get in my car and drive down to protest, was seeing men and women in Dahieh and Nabatieh coming out and showing clear dissent towards the Shia duo of Hezbollah and Amal,” he wrote.
Antoun Issa, a non-resident scholar at the UAE-funded Middle East Institute, also called for a technocratic government, tweeting, “Protestors demands are clear – from north to south, to Beirut and the Bekaa. An independent, technocratic government.” Soon after, Issa agitated for Washington to use the protests in Lebanon and Iraq against Iran.
After his recent resignation, the longtime US ally Hariri conditioned his participation in a future government on it being technocratic and politically neutral. Hezbollah, meanwhile, was pushing for a mixed government with space for both politicians and technocrats.
With Hariri refusing to budge on his insistence on a technocratic government, negotiations over the formation of a new cabinet have collapsed, plunging the government into a gridlock as economic catastrophe looms.
Bringing Ukraine to Beirut
Hong Kong is not the only US-backed color revolution upheaval being marketed to protesters in Lebanon.
On November 8, a group called ARD.NEWS screened the controversial Netflix documentary “Winter On Fire.” The film presents a one-sided view of the Euromaidan protests, completely erasing the neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist elements that formed the front lines of the demonstrations to topple the government and replace it with a hopelessly corrupt, EU-friendly technocracy.
This conflict has turned Ukraine into Europe’s poorest country, rendering its citizens dependent on a remittance economy and desperate to leave. A civil war has broken out in the country’s east, where the US has supplied arms to the Ukrainian military and ancillary groups like the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion to fight Russian-backed separatists.
“Winter on Fire” has also been screened at anti-government US-backed protests in Hong Kong and Venezuela. The film is essentially a how-to guide for effectively shutting down a city and toppling a government through violent, sustained street protests. (ARD.NEWS has also featured the NED-funded activist Gino Raidy at their events.)
ARD founder Michel Saman is a 28-year-old French-Lebanese entrepreneur who left his travel startup in France to participate in the protests in Lebanon. He and his ARD colleagues live mostly outside of Lebanon. They hope that by screening films like the one about Ukraine, they can help inspire the protesters in the country, though it is unclear what they hope to achieve.
“And if it turns bloody, we live outside, we’ll come back in five years and revolution, revolution, revolution. But there is a chance right now,” Saman told me.
He added that the uprising in Lebanon has presented a market opportunity.
Asked how ARD was financing its project, Saman stated, “So far we didn’t need any funding. Yes a lot of organizations here are funded, but we’re not serving food. We’re really educating the mind for free. It costs us $50 for a speaker. Instead of having a beer I just pay $50, you know it’s nothing.”
When ARD’s event host Maya Acra asked the audience what similarities they saw between the protests in Lebanon and Ukraine, she was met with blank stares. No one raised their hand to speak during a question-and-answer period. Weeks later, when the documentary was screened in Tripoli, its impact remained unclear.
It remains to be seen whether the protests can be co-opted and redirected towards US-centric regime-change goals. For now, they remain focused on the economy, but the atmosphere is growing more tense by the day.
In part two of this report, we will see how US-backed political parties are employing provocative tactics to turn up the heat on Hezbollah and its allies, while hardliners in Washington refine their plans to exploit the deepening economic desperation of average Lebanese citizens.