Lebanon's Anti-Government Protesters View Army As Unifying Force

Nov 15, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 9:43 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In many countries, people protesting their government often fear intervention by the military. But in Lebanon, as demonstrators recently drove a prime minister from power, soldiers helped protect protesters. That's made the country's armed forces popular. So why is the United States withholding military aid to Lebanon? NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Beirut.

ALI ITANI: The army will never be against us. Even if they make mistakes, we will never be against them. They are our families. And they are the reflection of our country.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: That's 30-year-old Ali Itani (ph). Anti-government protesters in Beirut see the army as a symbol of the unity they're fighting for. It's one of the few institutions where all of the country's religious and ethnic groups work together. Even though this week the army shot and killed one protester for the first time, generally, it's protected the demonstrations.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: We all love the Lebanese Army. And we want the army to come.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Not the others - the ministate within a state.

ESTRIN: Who are you talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESER #2: You know very well who I'm talking about - about Hezbollah.

ESTRIN: These protesters don't want to use their names as they talk about Hezbollah. It's part of the government and still has the support of many and has a militia even stronger than the Lebanese army. That's why it's confusing them that the U.S. has now frozen aid to the military. About half of the annual $200 million in military aid is on hold. A senior administration official wouldn't say why, but these protesters have a guess - pressure.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: They want us to get rid of Hezbollah, which is very hard now for us to get rid of Hezbollah. We cannot go against somebody that has weapons, and you don't have weapons.

ESTRIN: The army has weapons, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESER #2: Yes, but they cannot fight them. They have much more armaments than the Lebanese army.

ESTRIN: The U.S. aid to Lebanon's army is under review. It could be released anytime or not. The White House has long pressured Lebanese officials to distance themselves from Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and is an enemy of Israel. But like the protesters, analysts say withholding money from the army is not the way to do it. Bilal Saab is a former Pentagon official at the Middle East Institute who wants the U.S. to keep funding the army.

BILAL SAAB: You still have to move along with that process of what you call state building, and that includes building an effective military as down the road a credible alternative to Hezbollah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Army veterans are among the protesters. Their names reflect their diverse Christian and Muslim backgrounds.

JOSEPH ASMAR: Joseph, Tony, Muhammad, Maurice, Abdullah...

ESTRIN: These men used to fight each other during Lebanon's civil war but eventually all joined forces in the reconstituted national army and began training with the U.S. military. One veteran keeps a reminder as his ringtone.

(SOUNDBITE OF REVEILLE RINGTONE)

ASMAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Another, retired General Joseph Asmar (ph), used to work on military procurements. He says the army gets most of its weapons and equipment from the U.S.

ASMAR: (Through interpreter) The Lebanese army is really vital for the U.S. The only other option would be small militias competing against each other. Lebanon's survival is dependent on the army, and the Lebanese army's survival is dependent on U.S. support.

ESTRIN: Support that the Lebanese army may not be able to count on now.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.