Anti-Government Protests Continue In Lebanon And Move To Include Hezbollah Leader

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 26, 2019 4:37 pm
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A taboo has been broken on the streets of Lebanon as anti-government protesters demonstrate for a ninth day. Some are chanting against a man long considered untouchable, the leader of the militant group Hezbollah. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Beirut.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in Arabic).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Everyone means everyone. Protesters want their leaders to resign, but these protesters add an extra verse to the chant. Nasrallah isn't an exception. They're talking about Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. This chant has sparked debate among protesters. Should their anger over government corruption and lack of services be directed at Hezbollah, too? Hezbollah is a dominant force inside Lebanon's government, the same government protesters oppose. But Hezbollah is also revered by many here for fighting Israel with its arsenal of rockets.

HASSAN: My first name is Hassan, like Hassan Nasrallah.

ESTRIN: Hassan, like many others in this story, gives only his first name because of the sensitivity of talking about Hezbollah.

HASSAN: If we don't have Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, Israel was here right now, not us.

ESTRIN: That's one sentiment. I meet a lawyer named Jad who thinks very differently.

JAD: We know that Hezbollah is, if I may say, a cancer, and a cancer is inside the economy, inside the government, inside everywhere. It's, like, trying to be everywhere.

ESTRIN: Hezbollah is Lebanon's newest political player. It joined the government in 2005. The U.S. considers it a terrorist group. This summer, for the first time, the U.S. slapped financial sanctions on Hezbollah lawmakers and is promising more. Jad's businessman friend Lino says Lebanon's financial crisis will only deepen if Hezbollah's political power grows.

LINO: Imagine the biggest threat is just becoming like Iran. Your currency will be culturally depreciated. You will be outlawed from the international community. You will just - imagine getting out of this crisis with the debt we have if he have Hezbollah in the government.

ESTRIN: He's encouraged because protests have broken out for the first time in Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon's south, closer to the Israeli border. We visit one in the town of Nabatiyeh.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting in Arabic).

ESTRIN: About 100 protesters crowd a street that usually sees religious parades and Hezbollah marches. We ask 23-year-old Mohammed whether his frustration with the government includes Hezbollah.

MOHAMMED: There is a consensus here that Hezbollah MPs and ministers are not as corrupt as other ministers. The problem is that they've been silent throughout these years.

ESTRIN: Silent about the government's endemic corruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah gave a TV address today. He says he respects the protesters but rejects their call for the government to resign. He's walking the thin line between trying to be one with the people and protecting his group's influence in government. Lina Khatib with the think-tank Chatham House.

LINA KHATIB: Therefore, even though Hezbollah is not about to be uprooted because of the protests, it is definitely feeling threatened and definitely feeling the pressure from the street.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Chanting in Arabic).

ESTRIN: Some are coming to the streets in favor of Hezbollah.

So we're towards the front of the protest, and we're seeing something that we haven't seen all week, which is about a group of 50, 100 young men chanting in a circle in praise of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Chanting in Arabic).

ESTRIN: The Hezbollah supporters start charging toward protesters, who chant back, peaceful, peaceful.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (Chanting in Arabic).

ESTRIN: Soon the Hezbollah supporters leave, but each day, they're back with bigger numbers and more aggression.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.