The message Hezbollah is sending through street protests

The economic crisis in Lebanon has worsened, increasing pressures on the daily lives of citizens and mistrust between the authorities and the people.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Challenges and frustrations. Lebanese protesters clash with riot policemen as they try to break through security barriers in front of the cabinet office in central Beirut’s Martyr Square, September 29. (AFP)
Challenges and frustrations. Lebanese protesters clash with riot policemen as they try to break through security barriers in front of the cabinet office in central Beirut’s Martyr Square, September 29. (AFP)

Lebanon has been shaken by a series of street protests in Beirut and several other areas, with main roads blocked with burning tyres. The protests were largely spontaneous and limited in size. Small as they were, however, they were not devoid of political messages.

There is no doubt that the economic crisis in Lebanon has worsened, increasing pressures on the daily lives of citizens and mistrust between the authorities and the people.

There is another aspect to the crisis, however, in what can be seen as the repercussions of the US sanctions on Hezbollah and those that are the result of frustration of the international community, particularly France, with the failure of the Lebanese authorities to carry out required reforms for the release of the funds garnered in the CEDRE conference.

Lebanon recently experienced a shortage of US dollars in the currency market, a mini-crisis of sorts resulting from the “abnormal phenomenon” of withdrawing large quantities of dollars from the market.

Lebanon’s central bank refused to supply dollars to the market because activity was running contrary to the usual currency transactions. This led to the rise of the dollar exchange rate to 1,700 Lebanese pounds while the central bank of Lebanon maintained its rate of slightly more than 1,500 pounds to the dollar.

The protected financial mafias bought dollars at currency exchange shops and other outlets at attractive prices. More than one Lebanese financial expert spoke of operations moving large quantities of paper dollars to Syria.

Other monitoring sources advanced the theory of Hezbollah’s decision to rely on the black market for its foreign currency needs to offset the consequences of the sanctions and meet its financial needs because it has become increasingly difficult for the party to use usual bank channels because Lebanese banks have become very cautious about participating in them.

Hezbollah recently stepped up its attacks on the central bank governor because he is responsible for the country’s monetary policy. The central bank is also the authority responsible for overseeing Lebanese banks and consequently is the authority that the US Treasury Department will hold accountable for guaranteeing the compliance of Lebanese banks with US sanctions.

Sanctions on Hezbollah led the party, specifically Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, to turn to Tehran for help. Hezbollah circles said Nasrallah’s visit to Tehran, following his renewing his loyalty to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, took place in the context of providing financial resources to Hezbollah.

These circles like to repeat that “Nasrallah spoke forcibly with the Iranian leadership about the need to give priority to supporting Hezbollah financially and at the level required by reality, especially in the event of an Israeli aggression on Lebanon.”

What senior US Treasury officials said during their visit to Beirut appears to be much more serious than what had been rumoured. The Trump administration is aware of a network of major interests and benefits run by Hezbollah from within official institutions.

The party is also in charge of a mafia-type network of legal and illegal business interests belonging to Lebanese and non-Lebanese. US sources said Lebanon has become an illegal market for Iranian products, especially in the medicine and steel sectors, benefiting from Hezbollah’s control of illegal ports and of its direct and indirect influence over the legitimate ports.

Economic analysts said the US position indicates that the course of sanctions, although slow, is a long-term policy aimed at producing a complete separation between Hezbollah and its various arms as well as between Lebanese institutions, whether official or private.

This course is not without risks and cannot guarantee the success of the US goals but it seems that scaring financial parties in Lebanon about the danger of linking their interests to Hezbollah’s has produced some results.

This is what led Hezbollah to send more than one message through the protests. The party is basically saying that it won’t allow it to be suffocated economically and, if suffocation is inevitable, then all of Lebanon will suffocate with it.

The protests involved political messages, the first of which was that Lebanon is ready to live in political chaos if economic pressure and financial sanctions continue on Hezbollah.

A second message was that security and stability in Lebanon are not an unavoidable destiny and anyone wishing for security and stability in the country, be it the Europeans or the Americans, must first deal with the fact that Hezbollah is the key to stability.

A third warning to the banks, one that the party promoted in the media, was that protecting Lebanon from US sanctions requires protecting Hezbollah as a Lebanese component rather than an external force and that the behaviour of the central bank governor is no longer acceptable and justifies his firing.

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