Lebanese Independence Day: The joke that needn't be

November 22 is always an occasion for black humor in Lebanon, but perhaps this year more than ever. There’s a way out, however, for those feeling the blues: Election Day in May 2018.

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Like a birthday after the age of 29, Lebanese Independence Day is one of those occasions on which it’s generally politer not to dwell with friends. The less said, the better; it’s probably best, indeed, to say nothing at all; but if it’s absolutely unavoidable, the one thing it cannot be is straight-faced. “Happy Dependence Day” goes one of the more familiar English-language puns habitually exchanged in tweets, WhatsApp messages, and Facebook statuses. The Arabic equivalent is the one-letter switch from Yawm al-Istiqlal (“Independence Day”) to Yawm al-Istighlal: the Day of Exploitation.

November 22nd has long been a day for weary Lebanese black humor of this kind, but surely this year calls for it more than most in recent memory. It was an open question till the very last minute whether the prime minister would physically be able to attend the ceremony in Beirut, and indeed were it not for some eleventh-hour shuttle diplomacy by French President Emmanuel Macron, Saad al-Hariri might well have still been holed up in his gilded cage in Riyadh, where he’d been instructed by the Saudi Arabian monarchy to tender his resignation on Saudi-owned television two weeks previously. Hariri had no doubt felt many things when—per Reuters’ reporting—he was “summoned” to the Kingdom on November 2nd; his phone confiscated upon landing at Riyadh airport; a pre-written resignation statement thrust into his hands shortly before going live on air—but one wonders whether “independent” was one of them.

Such is the current state of the leader of what used to be called the March 14 coalition; the ostensible torchbearers of the 2005 “Independence Intifada.” On the other side of the political table sits Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful faction in every sense of the word; a militia and de facto parallel state that appoints presidents, launches wars, and, according to prosecutors in The Hague, assassinates prime ministers—all at the behest of an utterly unaccountable foreign theocracy.

One needn’t dig into old black-and-white videos from the ‘80s on YouTube to find Nasrallah voicing his allegiance to the Iranian regime (though the videos are all there for anyone interested). Only two days ago, Nasrallah could be seen in his latest TV address thanking the ayatollocracy in the most saccharine terms for their sponsorship of the occupation of southeast Syria:

To the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the General, the Dear Brother, al-Hajj Qassem Soleimani […] and with him the brothers in Iran; His Eminence the Imam, the Leader, al-Sayyid [Ali] Khamenei; the officials in the Islamic Republic; the Iranian people; the Revolutionary Guard in Iran; the entire Islamic Republic; it is truly our duty […] to direct our gratitude. This is the least of our duty.

Not to withhold credit from wherever it was due, the legendary struggler and resister against Western imperialism also offered his “esteem” to “the distinguished and special efforts undertaken by the Russian forces; the Russian air force, which made a great and illustrious contribution in this battle.” This is, of course, the same Nasrallah who memorably stated last year that, “the budget of Hezbollah, its salaries, its expenses, its food and drink, its weapons, and its rockets, are [all] from the Islamic Republic in Iran […] as long as there’s money in Iran, it means we have money.”

One sees, then, whence the Lebanese get their cynicism. But there is, possibly, a bright side for anyone still not quite jaded enough to have given up looking for it: the rift between this abject, unembarrassable servility at the official level and the mood on the street has perhaps never been wider.

The flagrant, undisguised contempt with which the Saudis treated Hariri in the past fortnight has triggered an unprecedented backlash in the very Lebanese communities from whom the Kingdom traditionally drew its strongest support. In the northern, predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli, photos of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman were burned, sparking a mini-panic that led to the interior minister ordering the removal of all remaining photos. Reports from the southern city of Sidon, the Hariris’ hometown, similarly reveal local discontent with Riyadh. Some of the apparently spontaneous outburst of support for Hariri in areas not known to be enamored of him is in fact fraudulent, as the journalist Habib Battah discovered when he asked pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalist Party heavies on Beirut’s Hamra St who exactly had put up the “#We_Are_All_With_You” posters of the prime minister on the block, and they admitted it was Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and themselves. But much of the sentiment is unquestionably genuine, as when the interior minister himself—a political risk-avoider if ever there was one—took a naked jab at Saudi when asked if Hariri’s brother Bahaa might be installed in his place, replying, “In Lebanon things happen through elections, not pledges of allegiance.”

In a very short period of time, the new Saudi leadership has managed to Alienate the two wings of Lebanese Sunnis. The socially conservative ones and the secular Hariri-supporting ones.

— Mustapha Hamoui (@Beirutspring) November 10, 2017

Nor is it the Sunni ‘street’ alone that’s seen conspicuous disquiet in recent weeks. When a number of supposedly unlicensed street stalls were removed by force last month in the mostly Shia Hayy al-Sillom quarter of Beirut’s Dahiyeh suburb—the notorious so-called “stronghold” of Hezbollah—a remarkable and rare protest broke out, led by enraged residents of the low-income neighborhood. “You’ve brought calamity to the Dahiyeh,” shouted a veiled woman interviewed from the scene on TV, addressing the Party of God directly. “We have martyrs by the thousands […] in every house there’s a martyr, in every house there’s someone injured […] shame on you.”

More striking still were the words of one muscular man that very quickly made the rounds on social media: “Stop sending the Party’s youth to fight in Syria. Fuck you, and Syria.” (Both the man and the aforementioned woman, and others who made similar remarks, later issued a not-especially-persuasive joint public apology, which was not enough, the man later added in another video, to stem the continuing influx of death threats he was receiving.)

This loathing for the ruling clique, newly vocalized by ordinary Sunnis and Shia alike, could present an opportunity for change in Lebanon, were the structural obstacles built into the system precisely to forestall such cross-communal partnership not so formidable.

Then again, are they so formidable? Last year’s municipal elections showed—with the successes of the secular, nonaligned Beirut Madinati (“Beirut Is My City”) campaign in the capital; the Baalbek Madinati spinoff in Hezbollah’s birthplace; and, in his own way, the renegade Ashraf Rifi in Tripoli—that independents can in fact overturn the conventional wisdom, and, in Rifi’s case, beat the incumbents outright. Unless Lebanon’s members of parliament decide to unconstitutionally extend their mandate for a fourth—yes, fourth—time, there will be parliamentary elections, for the first time in nine years, just six months from today. The electoral law is not favorable to independents, but it does, on paper, allow for partial proportional representation, which is an improvement on its predecessor. Those Lebanese feeling the blues this Independence Day, then, might instead turn their thoughts to the impending Election Day, when they will have a chance to do what no Saudi, Iranian, or Syrian citizen can, and vote their politicians out of office.