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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Lebanon bans all protests after calls for demonstrations by Syrian activists 

A demonstration to 'defend the rights of Syrians in Lebanon' was planned to take place in Beirut on Tuesday, but was cancelled by organisers after fears of violence

Syrian refugees ride vehicles in Arsal as they head towards the Syrian region of Qalamoun on July 12, 2017. AFP
Syrian refugees ride vehicles in Arsal as they head towards the Syrian region of Qalamoun on July 12, 2017. AFP

Lebanon has banned all protests after calls for demonstrations against what activists say is the government’s mistreatment of the country’s large Syrian refugee population.

Interior minister Nohad Machnouk announced the ban on Twitter late on Sunday, saying: “After talks with the relevant security authorities, we took the decision not to approve requests to protest from anyone to preserve peace and civic security.”

A demonstration in solidarity with Syrian refugees was planned to take place in downtown Beirut on Tuesday, two weeks after it was revealed that four refugees had died while in custody of the Lebanese army. The protest was quickly painted by opponents as anti-government in nature, spawning calls for pro-army counter protests. As fears of violence rose, the solidarity protest was called off by organisers.

Local media reported that the administrator of a Facebook group promoting the refugee solidarity protest had been detained on Monday. Some, including prominent politicians, spread the theory that the protest was simply a ruse to escalate conflict between the refugees, the army and the Lebanese people.

The four men who died in custody were arrested alongside 350 or so other refugees after Lebanese soldiers were attacked by suicide bombers while raiding refugee camps in the border town of Arsal on June 30. No soldiers were killed in the attacks.

The Lebanese army maintains that the men died of pre-existing conditions, but activists allege the men were tortured. Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition opposition umbrella organisation claims that refugee camps were attacked by Hizbollah and the Lebanese army in retribution for the bombings, resulting in the deaths of up to 29 people.

Since the incident, anti-refugee rhetoric has hit a peak in Lebanon, with leading politicians calling for the expulsion of the estimated 1.5 million Syrians who have found refuge here. Human rights groups warn that forcing Syrian refugees to return to their country while it is at war would be a violation of international law.

Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, said the protest ban was an attempt to prevent heated political arguments over the fate of the refugees from turning into a conflict on the streets. But, he added, it was also an attempt to shield the army — an institution dependent on foreign donations — from possible damage if it did indeed commit abuses.

“The reputation of the army is at stake, which could jeopardise international funds and support,” he said. “It seems that the Lebanese government prefers to stop protests and defuse any potential repercussions domestically or internationally that undermine the political establishment or dialogue with the military.”

While the interior minister explicitly tied the protest ban to avoiding unrest amid heightened tensions over refugees, there are concerns it is part of a larger effort to quell dissent in the country.

The ban comes as parliament is expected to vote on a controversial tax hike this week, an unpopular move in a country where the government is unable to provide basic services and is largely viewed as corrupt. The vote had already attracted calls for protests at this week’s legislative session.

Blogger and activist Gino Raidy sees the ban as part of an attempt to suffocate free speech in Lebanon.

“It’s very obvious that since the new government was formed and the new president was elected [last October], we’ve seen a rise in trying to suppress any kind of talk that is not in line with the government’s,” he said.

“Before you used to get journalists and bloggers and activists questioned only — now you see them spend a few days in jail for a tweet or a Facebook status.”

Bassam Khawaja, a Lebanon researcher with Human Rights Watch, described the protest ban — as well as the increased anti-refugee rhetoric that has accompanied it — as worrying.

“It’s concerning that the ban was issued without any time limit attached to it. That seems to be a restriction on freedom of expression. But there is no information on whether it will be actually enforced,” he said.

Already on Monday, at least one protest was held despite the ban, with armed forces veterans closing down a road as they called for better pensions. And the interior minister himself called for street protests earlier this month against celebratory gunfire.

But it remains to be seen whether demonstrations held by Syrians and protests on politically charged subjects such as alleged human rights abuses by the army will be tolerated.

Mass protests erupted in Beirut during the summer of 2015 when rubbish piled up on the streets of the capital following the closure of Lebanon’s largest landfill. The demonstrations quickly morphed into a movement against the government and its inability to provide services and corruption.

At times, the protests turned violent, with authorities using tear gas, water cannon and non-lethal ammunition to disperse the crowds.

Activists and observers have intensified warnings in recent years that Lebanon is edging away from democracy. The country has not had a general election since 2009 — and while elections are scheduled for May of next year, past promised elections have been scheduled only to be cancelled.

“I think we are drifting a bit from the democratic principles that Lebanon used to be well known for and the wide space of freedom we used to have,” said Mr Raidy, the blogger.

“And I think the reason is that people keep [using] the excuse of extremism, which is sadly what most Arab countries do … in explaining why they are taking away some of the people’s freedom and expecting them to accept it without putting up a fight or asking questions.”