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Anti-austerity protests have swept Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and now Lebanon. As’ad Abukhalil discusses how Lebanon is joining what seems like a second Arab Spring focused on a demand for social justice.

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

Lebanon has been experiencing mass protests of the past week. Protestors are chanting, “The people want the fall of the regime,” which is a direct quote from the 2011 Arab Spring chants that brought down the authoritarian governments of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Protests started last week when the government revealed a plan to tax WhatsApp calls, but the protests quickly spread and now include many more demands for social justice. As a result, the Christian Party Lebanese Forces recently left the coalition government in order to protest against the government. Prime Minister Saad Hariri demanded that the government come up with a reform plan within 72 hours, and it has. But the protestors continued to demonstrate, saying that they do not believe the government’s sincerity.

Assad Thebian is one of the protesters who gave an interview to Reuters. Here’s what he had to say.

ASSAD THEBIAN: We are used to Hariri’s promises. Before the elections, he promised 900,000 jobs. They all promised reforms and to fight corruption, and here we are a year and a half later. What a lie. They claim to change, and they are the ones who are corrupt themselves.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the protests in Lebanon is As’ad Abukhalil. He’s a leading expert on Middle East politics and is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. Also, he regularly writes for his website The Angry Arab News Service. Welcome back, As’ad.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Thank you for inviting me.

GREG WILPERT: When we covered the recent protests in Iraq, we discussed here at The Real News how the multiethnic quota-based government system imposed on Iraq by the U.S. occupation forces is now crumbling and that the people there are protesting against it. Now Lebanon, which also has a multi-sectarian or multiethnic government system that was put in place after the civil war, also seems to be facing major protests against the system. Can you explain to us what it is about the way the government is designed that makes corruption more likely and that leads to people to demonstrate against it with such anger as they are?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: It’s fair to say the United States emulated the Lebanese model when it created this corrupt system inside Iraq. The Lebanese system was set up by French colonialism, and it was very much designed to divide the Lebanese people according to sectarian lines and divisions. This has been reinforced over the years and the decades by a political system that distributed the spoils to the elite but from various different sects. The current crisis can be traced back to 1992, when there was the billionaire who was thrusted on Lebanon against the wishes of the people of Lebanon. His name is Rafic Hariri. His son is currently the prime minister; he is also a billionaire. And he was a voice for the combination of an alliance of the Syrian regime, the Saudi regime, and the United States. And basically what we are witnessing is the result of neoliberalism at large. The Lebanese economy is based on pure capitalism. And what Rafic Hariri over the decades has done is to follow the recipes of the World Bank and IMF under the tutelage of the United States, by the way.

Let us not set aside; the United States is heavily involved in what’s happening in Lebanon today. So much of the uprising today, for example, was focused against the Central Bank governor who has been responsible for the acute economic situation where the economy is based on profiting the pockets of big banks of Lebanon and the various billionaires who all are politicians inside the country. And there is massive corruption. And Rafic Hariri, what he has done is accentuated the socioeconomic injustices in Lebanon by removing all support for the public sector of Lebanon. He destroyed the Lebanese University. He destroyed the public broadcasting in Lebanon. He tried to gut out the social security system. He underfunded all public schools and hospitals, and so on, because he wanted to build an economy that would be based on servicing the tourism of wealthy people from the Gulf countries; basically the sex industry, the casinos, restaurants, and no productive sector of the economy.

The Lebanese cannot take any more. And there is a very unfair tax system which is to the benefit of the wealthy class. Just to give listeners an idea of how unfair it is: When Rafic Hariri was killed in 2005, he left behind a fortune of $16 billion. The Lebanese government managed to divide the taxing scheme where his kids, his inheritors, did not have to pay a penny of that big fortune. We now see a more progressive trend. This current movement is different from 2015. The 2015 movement was led by people like the individual who was cited in the soundbite, who are not radical in any way and not progressive in any way; and it went nowhere. This time around is a much more radical agenda and left-wing groups–Lebanese Communist Party and their allies–are far more active than before. And hopefully, they are going to be able to set the agenda. Because if that doesn’t happen, the Lebanese state is going to be able to resurrect itself and come back showing an ugly face.

The so-called set of reforms that were announced by the Prime Minister yesterday where the typical ones that would not change the system in any way; that would not hurt the Lebanese economic elite. He announced, for example, a reduction in salaries of the wealthy members of parliament and the minister to the tune of 50%. But that’s not going to affect them, because these people make so much of their money outside the system from the various corruptions and schemes that they have related to the Lebanese public budget. It is for these reasons that they are now ready to demand to restructure the whole system to get rid of the Central Bank Governor, to refuse the advice of the World Bank and IMF which has only impoverished Lebanese people, and to change the Lebanese economic class because there is a class conflict in Lebanon. It’s not sectarian. Whether you are Sunni or Shiite or Christian or Muslim, all of you are suffering from a system that is the billionaires who come from different sects. So just as the elite is united in their aggressive capitalism, the public and the masses are now exhibiting signs of unprecedented union that is also cutting across sectarian lines.

GREG WILPERT: When demonstrators shouted, “The people want the fall of the regime,” in Syria, Hezbollah back then sent thousands of soldiers to support Assad. We hear that people in Sour in Southern Lebanon are actually shouting, “The people want the fall of the regime.” Are they not going to be afraid of Hezbollah, or are they intentionally defying–

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, let me dispute your account entirely. I am from the region of Tyre and I know the area well. My family is from Tyre, my ancestors are from there. It is not that the Syrian regime was facing an uprising. Syrian regime was a brutal regime. Peace-seeking people have every right and deserve to get rid of that regime; no question about that. But your account that there was an uprising and that Hezbollah went there and supported… It wasn’t like that at all. In fact, what happened there was outside intervention in Syria on the side of rebels by Israel, the Gulf countries, the United States, and Western Europe. And they were directing all their effort against Hezbollah as well. And they were sending car bombs into Lebanon. At that point in 2013, long after the ruling elite of Lebanon, the pro-American so-called Western coalition of March 14; after they were arming and financing militias like Al-Nusra, like ISIS even, and various groups related to them inside Lebanon, in Tripoli; after that, Hezbollah went to intervene. Even then, I am not a fan of their intervention. But your account is not true.

As far as the people of South Lebanon fear Hezbollah; why should they be afraid of that, Greg? Hezbollah members are participating in what’s happening in Lebanon today. And the speech that was given by Hassan Nasrallah two days ago in fact identified with the desperation and the demands of the protesters, even though he said that the fall down of the regime is not possible.

Now, I am all in favor of bringing down the regime. But it’s easier said than done in a place like Lebanon. Because in Lebanon, like Syria, we have elections. They are not free, and they are corrupt elections, and so on. And there’s foreign money; Western Gulf, and so on. So you can easily say, “Okay, let’s have another election,” and there’ll be another corrupt elite and it will regenerate itself. The people in South Lebanon are more afraid of a movement called the Amal Movement. I worry that you may have been influenced by Western media. Western media only focuses on obsessing with Hezbollah. The corrupt group in South Lebanon amongst Shiites of South Lebanon is the Amal Movement. It is the one that has been sending its thugs two days ago, and even yesterday, to try to crack down against the rebellion. Hezbollah was not on the side of the Amal Movement. I mean, the picture is much more complicated than it is being portrayed in the Western media.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well I’m very grateful that you make that correction. I was wondering, though, about the protests; of the comparison also of course to protests in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and Iraq. Lebanese protesters seem to be making references to the 2011 Arab Spring just as they have been in these other countries. Now, talk to us about the connection between these movements–that is, the Arab Spring–and what’s going on right now.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: There is a collective Arab identity. And there are collective aspirations among the Arabs that are reflected in their support for the Palestinians and their opposition to U.S. wars and Israeli aggression and occupation in the Middle East. So there are these commonalities that are often missing from Western coverage of the region. People in the uprising in Lebanon are identifying with the struggle of the people throughout the region. But they also have learned–and I hope they learn more from the lessons what was witnessed–which is, as soon as there is a threat to a regime, the entire coalition of the counter-revolution coalesce together and start acting. And that comprises the United States, Western Europe, and Gulf countries; and they are already interfering in what’s happening in Lebanon today. The United States, within three days before it announced a lame statement in which they spoke about the right of people to… I mean, the United States has no place to interfere or to make their opinion because they are the sponsors of the corrupted elite of Lebanon.

Saad Hariri is a puppet of the Western European countries, the United States, and the Gulf regimes. Who brought him into power, who has supported him over the years? He is responsible for the economic mess as much as or the same degree as his father because he inherited that legacy which has been accentuated ever since. So the lessons of that uprising–and that’s what being stressed–is that you should be wary of what the other side is preparing against you. You should be pushing forward. Do not listen to compromises that they may offer; to certain carrots that they may offer you along the way. They have to push all the way without any compromises; to have a very radical plan. The plan should not be replacement of one puppet by another puppet of the West or the Gulf countries, but it should be to bring down the entire system.

And for that reason, progressives like myself and others are calling for a transitional government of radical progressives who have been the early critics of the corruption and the capitalism of Rafic Hariri. These are the ones who are entitled and deserve to lead us into the transitional phase. I am critical of some of the demands by the conservatives in the currents which are calling for another election. Another election; what’s it going to do? It’s going to basically witness Gulf countries and the West throwing money like before to make sure that the wealthy billionaires are elected again.

GREG WILPERT: Finally, As’ad, why is it that the protesters are not afraid of being crushed by the government in Lebanon, just as the protesters were crushed by the el-Sisi Government in Egypt? Aren’t they concerned that this might be happening?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: That is very unlikely because the Lebanese Army is very weak. And also, there is a group in Lebanon, which is Hezbollah, which is stronger than the Lebanese Army. And I cannot see a situation where Hezbollah will sit back while the Lebanese Army is cracking down against the protesters. Many of the protesters–as I had said–are supporters and members of Hezbollah, along with many other parties. Now the Lebanese forces, this right-wing reactionary group that you mentioned which resigned from the government, they just wanted to exploit the situation in their favor. But they are very exposed. They are part of the corruption; they are puppets of Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and they are not going to go far in their exploitation. They are part of the problem, and people were chanting against them as well.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. But of course, as usual, we’re going to continue to follow this. I’m speaking to As’ad Abukhalil, professor of political science at Cal State Stanislaus. Thanks, As’ad, for having joined us again.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Thank you for inviting me.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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