Loyal to their ‘zaim’ until their last breath

They are bearing the brunt of the crisis. They are convinced of the need for change in Lebanon. But for them, “Killun yaani killun” — or “All of them means all of them,” the main slogan of the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising — ends where their blind allegiance to sectarian leaders begins.

Loyal to their ‘zaim’ until their last breath

With photographs, flags and mugs, loyalty to a party leader is shown. (Credit: João Sousa/L’Orient Today)

Elie,* a man in his 60s with long, tied-back hair, is sitting in his living room in a small apartment in Batroun. On the table in front of him is a cup, on which is printed a photo of him and the hakim (Arabic for “doctor”), Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader. Everything hung on his walls shows that he is a staunch LF supporter.

A member of the Christian party since the 1975–90 Civil War, Elie fought, gun in hand, for an ideal zaim, or “boss,” who according to him remains a role model in 2021.

At the same time, Elie was among the first people to take to the streets in the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising and has a fairly clear understanding of the country’s dire situation.

He speaks in a clear and determined tone as he recounts that four of his children have emigrated to either the Gulf or the United States, and the youngest is expected to follow suit next year. Having worked in the foodstuffs business for 30 years, Elie claims to have lost everything amid the crisis that has gripped the country.

“Our business was destroyed by corruption. Either you sell goods on the black market and you need political support in relation to Syria, or you work legally and you cannot compete against black market prices,” Elie says.

During the first months of the uprising, Elie, like so many Lebanese, wanted to change the ruling class. Yet, he categorically refused to “put everyone into the same basket.”

For him, as for everyone else interviewed by L’Orient-Le Jour for this article, the flagship slogan of the uprising, “Killun yaani killun” (Arabic for “All of them means all of them”), ends at his allegiance to his leader.

Elie’s zaim has nothing to do with the political and economic crisis plaguing the country, he says. But what about the LF’s militia history? For him, it is a source of pride. What about the LF’s participation in the coalition government and Geagea’s support of Michel Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency? Nothing seems to shake Elie’s unwavering allegiance.

“The LF ministers have done a very good job, and there is no corruption record against them,” Elie says confidently.

The LF has a reputation for being efficient and more structured than other political parties. But the party’s legitimacy rests above all on its past actions, which are the subject of several controversies but also give many Christians a sense of security, in case there were to be another civil war especially in the context of polarization around the question of Hezbollah.

“Institutionalized confessionalism keeps every community hostage to a criminal dichotomy — that of ego or chaos. It is an extremely difficult system to break,” says Lea Bou Khater, a senior development specialist at the Consultation and Research Institute.

‘The party gave us everything’

Antoine* hails from Zgharta, and he still lives there. He, however, received L’Orient-Le Jour’s reporters at his in-laws’ in Tripoli. His loyalty to the Marada Movement stems from a family tradition that has been maintained for decades.

Antoine is in his 30s. He recently married and has no children, and he works for a food distributor in northern Lebanon. He says his loyalty to the party stems from a historical debt owed to the Frangieh family, after they protected his family.

“During the war, the Frangieh family defended our village with their bodies and their souls. Without them, we never know what could have happened to Zgharta,” Antoine says.

The Frangieh dynasty represents security and safety for the Maronite residents of Zgharta, a city located in an environment that they consider hostile as it is predominantly Sunni.

Before the Civil War, Zgharta was just a small town known for its rotisseries and butcher shops, while its inhabitants were economically dependent on Tripoli.

The armed conflict, however, reinforced community seclusion, as was the case in other areas of Lebanon, which led to the emergence of sectarian urban peripheries.

The shadow of a new confrontation and the absence of a strong state capable of shattering community and family allegiances play into the hands of traditional parties, which have no interest in seeing their supporters become autonomous.

While Lebanon is grappling with an unprecedented political and financial crisis, everyone is wondering about the traditional parties’ electoral bases: Have they collapsed, as the uprising might suggest? Were these parties able to overcome this popular wave, or even take advantage of the crisis to reconsolidate their following?

The absence of structured and regular surveys leaves room for doubt. While the grassroots following of some parties, such as the Free Patriotic Movement, appears to have dwindled, others seem to have been maintained, which is the case for the LF and Hezbollah.

“The thawra [“revolution”] will have a minimal effect on partisan bases during the next elections,” says Nizar Abu Hosn, the secretary-general of the Progressive Youth Organization, which is affiliated with the Progressive Socialist Party.

In October 2020, the research institute Synaps published a lengthy study on party loyalists’ behavior during and after the uprising.

The report noted that 65 percent of the partisans polled in the study participated in the protests in the first weeks. More than 50 percent of the traditionally pro-March 14 supporters said they agreed with “Killun yaani killun,” compared with less than 20 percent of their pro-March 8 counterparts.

While many activists took part in the Lebanese uprising, several were quick to withdraw when this slogan became the common denominator of most gatherings and protests.

Within the Shiite community, slogans attacking Hezbollah and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, were seen as an infiltration of the protest movement by the party’s opponents.

Hussein, a Hezbollah supporter and hairdresser in Ouzai, in Beirut’s southern suburbs, says he does not feel represented by the protest movement.

He joined the protesters at the beginning of the uprising only to leave the streets when people started shouting slogans against Nasrallah.

“He is, above all, a religious figure for us. We can’t accept insults hurled at him,” Hussein, 38, says.

There has been criticism of certain political choices made by Hezbollah during the uprising, but its leader’s personality cult, just like the issue of the party’s arms, remains a red line for the vast majority of Hezbollah supporters.

“The party gave us everything. I will never turn my back on it, no matter what it does,” Hussein insists.

Hezbollah represents a protector against neighboring Israel, and also against other Lebanese communities, especially because Lebanese Shiites have long been downtrodden and left on the sidelines of history.

The party has given them back their pride, a central place on the Lebanese scene — something they do not seem ready to give up even if, like other communities, they wish to break away from the older generation’s leaders.

Like the rest of the traditional parties, but with more resources, Hezbollah retains its following through a clientelist policy, which renders the party indispensable for its supporters. The distribution of al-sajjad, or “ration,” cards to purchase foodstuffs at reduced prices in party-affiliated stores is perhaps the best illustration of this.

‘It’s the only thing that protects us’

Everywhere in Lebanon, this blind loyalty to traditional parties can be explained mainly by the fact that most party loyalists continue to financially depend on their zaims, who come to their aid, find them a job, help them with their bills and their children’s tuition fees at schools and universities.

Firas,* who is in his 30s, is a member of the Parliament police. Under his military fatigues, he wears a Nabih Berri T-shirt. For him, he owes everything to the Parliament speaker, who leads the Amal Movement. Firas’ father died a “martyr” fighting for him.

While Firas does not deny that Berri may have embezzled state money for personal gain, he says he thinks the Shiite leader did so for the good of his own community.

“The Amal Movement is by our side in difficult times. It is the only thing that protects us,” he says with the fervor of a believer.

Political allegiance is above all a family heritage, often passed down from father to son. In a strongly patriarchal society in which the image of the father remains that of absolute authority, going against the political stance of one’s grandfathers can seem challenging for a young adult.

For Bou Khater, this intergenerational conformism comes from the need for security that family can provide in the absence of a state that can ensure an economic safety net — something that could encourage young people to revolt against their parents.

“In Lebanon, parents are the only recourse for young people in terms of security and education needs,” she says.

Clientelism is, again, key in this mechanism. As young graduates prepare to enter the job market, they usually have a hard time landing work without their father’s potential political connections, notably in the public sector, the largest employer in Lebanon.

These young adults’ life experience, mostly living in their parents’ house, does not seem to be a factor favoring emancipation either. This generation was nevertheless at the heart of the revolutionary movement, some with the determination to break away from the family hearth. The independents won a majority of the 2020 student elections. Student elections in Lebanon are typically seen as an indicator of the political tide more broadly; however, some candidates linked to mainstream parties did not even run to avoid being swept aside.

Ihsan al-Safi sits in the back of his office overlooking the Tripoli port’s exclusive economic zone, next to the Mina railway station. He has worked as a freight forwarder at the port for almost 45 years. Photos of President Michel Aoun, whom he has known personally for decades, adorn several walls of his office.

“Michel Aoun has a special place in my heart,” Safi says.

A member of a large Sunni family in Tripoli’s Mina area, Safi, who is in his 60s, does not fit the typical profile of an Aoun supporter, but he largely espouses the FPM’s rhetoric.

Safi took a very dim view of the uprising, which he called a “revolt,” and said he believed it had been orchestrated to undermine the president.

For him, the slogans directly targeting the president’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, the repeated attacks against FPM offices in Tripoli and the American sanctions against party leaders and members are proof enough that the protest movement was not spontaneous.

Each political party accuses the other of manipulating the protests to political ends — a conspiracy theory that is deeply entrenched in Lebanese society.

While Aoun had placed the fight against corruption and state building at the core of his political discourse, some of his former supporters now believe that he has betrayed that cause since his arrival in the Presidential Palace.

Meanwhile, FPM partisans repeat the same arguments. “They are not letting him work — that’s the problem,” Safi says.

The Aounist party is at the head of the state. It has the largest parliamentary bloc and has had the largest number of ministers in the cabinet. Yet the idea that the zaim is being prevented by other leaders from implementing his program is widely held in Lebanon. The problem always comes from another — one who is allergic to reforms.

The composition of national unity governments, which is based on a permanent compromise around the lowest common denominator, leads to a situation in which each of the political parties can obstruct the actions of the others, shifting between pro-opposition and pro-power camps according to what serves their interests best.

‘If the same clique is re-elected in 2022, I will leave Lebanon’

Rima Ayyash is an activist and a supporter of the Future Movement. On Azmi Street, Tripoli’s commercial artery, this political and social activist from the party’s youth wing says she is often the object of criticism from protesters.

The revolutionary movement was particularly strong in Tripoli, where local barons were attacked in slogans. This young woman, however, never believed in the uprising.

“I support the Future Movement and cannot uphold the ‘Killun yaani killun’ slogan, which goes against my principles. I sincerely believe that Saad Hariri is different from everyone else,” she says.

Ayyash argues that the former prime minister was the only one to have resigned following the protests. The Sunni leader, however, returned to the political arena a year later, being redesignated the premier after Hassan Diab resigned.

“Hariri always fights for the best interests of Lebanon as a whole and not just the Sunnis. That is why I love him,” she adds.

Late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri indeed had an aid policy that went far beyond his own community. But since his death, his constituency has become somewhat secluded, with the community coiling into itself as Sunnis felt disappointed and distraught by Hezbollah’s rise to power.

“Hariri is our last chance. He is the only one able to get us out of this situation,” Ayyash says.

But Saad Hariri, the Future Movement’s leader, has served as prime minister several times and was never able to implement the reforms demanded by the international community.

“Young people, especially those from underprivileged classes, know full well that their zaim is corrupt and incompetent. But no other option is available to them,” Bou Khater said.

For Abdallah Jabbour, 29, a supermarket manager and representative of the Kataeb youth office in Metn, “Problems cannot be solved by those who created them.”

Jabbour’s party has been removed from power since 2016, so for him it cannot be held responsible for the current situation.

The Kataeb Party launched a reform project in recent years aimed at modernizing their image and adapting their discourse to cater to that of the Lebanese youth. This project, however, was never fully implemented as the party refused to completely break away from its traditions, which are feudal and communal in nature.

For Jabbour, the fact that Sami Gemayel is the heir of a political dynasty and that giant photos of him are displayed in the party’s fiefdoms does not contradict the need to implement a progressive policy in Lebanon.

He wants to see change, but this should not entail brushing aside his leader. “If the same clique is re-elected in 2022, I will leave Lebanon,” he said confidently.

For his part, Abu Hosn said that it is true that “the Druze are the majority in the PSP, but not everyone views it as the party of the community.”

He, too, says he sees no contradiction between his progressive ideal leader and the feudal nature of Walid Joumblatt’s party.

“In my opinion, change has to come from within. Rejecting the entire political establishment altogether is useless,” he argues.

He pauses, thinks and sums up in one sentence what everyone else seems to want to say: “You can’t come and tell me overnight that I don’t exist anymore.”

*The first names have been changed.

This article was originally published in French. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Elie,* a man in his 60s with long, tied-back hair, is sitting in his living room in a small apartment in Batroun. On the table in front of him is a cup, on which is printed a photo of him and the hakim (Arabic for “doctor”), Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader. Everything hung on his walls shows that he is a staunch LF supporter.A member of the Christian party since the 1975–90 Civil...