In Baalbeck, “Hezbollah’s throne finally shaken"

The Shiite inhabitants of the city prefer to demonstrate in Beirut where they can protest loudly and forcefully.

Students from Baalbeck’s public schools taking part in the demonstrations. Photo taken from Bahia Solh's Facebook page

At the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek, Souheil Raad, a doctor and member of the city council, is putting the final touches to the debate which is to be held for young people this coming Friday. In this city of the eastern Bekaa region, one of the most important strongholds of Hezbollah and to a lesser extent of the Amal movement, taboos and fears were finally broken. Inhabitants of this locality have joined from day one the protests movement that has been sweeping Lebanon, even though they are still a minority. Since then, activities, mainly debates, are being held daily, initiated mostly by women, in order to keep the flame of the revolution alive.

"Hezbollah’s throne was finally shaken”, said Bahia Solh, an Arabic language teacher. "Even though there aren’t many of us in the streets, we succeeded in scaring them (Hezbollah)”, she added.

Taking a puff of her cigarette, Solh noted that women are the ones behind all the initiatives (to support the protests): from offering roses to the soldiers at the very beginning of the revolution, to banging pots and pans in the streets of Baalbek, organizing a women’s protest, and last a vigil held in tribute for Alaa Abu Fakhr, a member of the Progressive Socialist Party shot on November 12 in Khaldeh. "A few days ago, I organized two demonstrations that attracted students from the city’s public schools for girls. Many of them joined the protests against the will of their parents,” said Solh. The new generation is one step ahead of us. They have started to get out of Hezbollah's influence. Young people, whose parents are members of or affiliated to the Hezb (or Party as abbreviation of Hezbollah), are taking part in the protest movement. They have realized that the party has done nothing for the socio-economic development of the city, and they are saying so to their elders. They are convinced that it is high time to put an end to clientelism and to flattery in the hope of getting a job or medical care. They are aware that these are their most basic rights." Solh noted that “boys are missing at this students’ movement because very few do pursue their education. They usually leave school at a very young age in order to enlist in the ranks of Hezbollah."

Pressures and Intimidations

In the early days of the revolution, the demonstrations were taking place at the Jabali roundabout, at the entrance of Douris, before moving to Khalil Moutran’s square in Baalbeck, following attempts to intimidate the protestors by some of the region’s clans. Members of these clans took part in the protests during the first four days of the movement, before they decided to keep away after (Prime Minister) Saad Hariri promised on October 21 a general amnesty law that would be adopted before the end of the year. "This (amnesty) law is of direct concern to them since the majority of drug traffickers and persons sought by justice are originally from Baalbeck", said Hussein Hassan, a professor at the Lebanese-American University.

"This protest movement has nothing to do with drug traffickers,” said Abdullah Shall, a doctor. “Its goals are very noble. Poverty has plagued the inhabitants of Baalbeck and corruption has reached record levels. This is not the image that we would like to convey of our city, knowing fully well that it has been removed from the map of Lebanon. Yet, we are attached to our country, and we want Lebanon to be the country of freedoms and dignity."

Shall explained that the participation of the inhabitants in the demonstrations is timid. "However, this city should have been at the top of the list of the regions that have rebelled, especially since it has been suffering from decades of deprivation at all levels", he observed. To him, such a reluctance to take part in the demonstrations is mainly due to "the persistent fear of the city’s residents with regard to Hezbollah, to the confessional and communitarian fanaticism, such as the allegiance to the Zaim (leader), but also for economic reasons, because they need to work to support their families”. "Moreover, parents are forbidding their children to take part in the demonstrations for political, partisan and social reasons. Added to this is the pressure exerted by the parties on their supporters", Shall said.

Unlike Nabatiyeh, Tyre and Beirut where protesters were attacked by supporters of the Shiite Amal-Hezbollah tandem, the protesters in Baalbek were spared from such a violence. However, they are being victims of intimidations exerted on them on a daily basis.

Hussein Yaghi, a young protester and head of the “Safe Side” NGO, which raises awareness about the danger of celebratory gunfire and stray bullets, said that "car convoys waving Hezbollah flags tried to provoke protesters after the second speech" (of Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah), in which he insinuated that the protest movement was funded by Western embassies. “In addition, some people are receiving phone calls with veiled threats”, he added.

"Hezbollah's apprehensions regarding the popular uprising are legitimate,” said Souheil Raad. “But to accuse the protest movement of felony was unacceptable. After Hassan Nasrallah's second speech, people close to the Hezb began to question the objectives of this movement … as if we were implementing an external agenda. They are subjecting us to very strong psychological pressures."

Demonstrating in Beirut

All the people we have met maintain that this revolt is important because it has broken the “chains of subjugation”. "Hezbollah claims to be fighting even abroad, for the sake of freedom and dignity," said Souheil Raad. “What about our freedom and dignity here in Baalbek?"

Noting that "Hezbollah’s weapons are an asset in the hands of the State against Israel's goals and intentions", Raad emphasized the need to differentiate between Hezbollah’s resistance and the revolution. "Our demands are purely of a socio-economical nature", he maintained. Since 1992, the local deputies and ministers of Amal and Hezbollah have done nothing for the development of Baalbeck, which remains under the yoke of the drug dealers”.

In the “ City of the sun”, the revolt is therefore mainly led by the Sunni community, the Shiites having withdrawn from the (protest) square following Nasrallah’s second speech. "They (Shiites) have distanced themselves from the revolution", noted Hussein Hassan. Shiites prefer to demonstrate in Beirut where they can loudly and forcefully shout slogans such as "All of them without exception", words that they cannot voice in Baalbeck where many of them have economic interests with Hezbollah. If the party decides to punish them, they will no longer be able to sustain themselves financially. The Hezb has established in the city a social, economic, family-based and religious system that is hard to break. Furthermore, some Shiites continue to take preventive measures, and are reluctant to publicly express themselves."

This is confirmed by Bahia Solh, who points out that many people affiliated with Hezbollah "secretly support the revolution". "They encourage us to continue the (protest) movement as they are aware that they cannot do that openly," she said.

In this context, Souheil Raad explained that a Baalbeck-Hermel tent was set up on Emir Bashir’s street which connects Martyrs Square to Riad el-Solh’s (in Beirut) with the aim of making this region’s voice heard. Nevertheless, he believes that it is "important to keep on demonstrating in Baalbeck itself". "The strength of this popular uprising lies in the multiplicity of the places where demonstrations are taking place”, he noted. “Each place reinforces the other. By pursuing the activities in the city, we are influencing even those who are staying home. Somehow, some of them feel uncomfortable because they are not part of this movement."

"Although we are few in number, this movement remains important as it has managed to mobilize the young people who are the future of this country," said Shall, who concludes by focusing on "the scourge of confessionalism which is eating away at the country."

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 18th of November)

At the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek, Souheil Raad, a doctor and member of the city council, is putting the final touches to the debate which is to be held for young people this coming Friday. In this city of the eastern Bekaa region, one of the most important strongholds of Hezbollah and to a lesser extent of the Amal movement, taboos and fears were finally broken. Inhabitants of this locality have...