In a region of the world where no liberty, freedom or right is a guarantee, one country stands out. Ask any Middle Easterner and they will tell you the same thing: Lebanon is a beacon of tolerance in this troubled area of the world on multiple fronts. With 18 religious sects, ethnicities, and recognized groups within a tiny stretch of land, Lebanon can be said to be one of the most concentrated and diverse nations in the world; all of the traditions, customs, rights, languages, religions, and beliefs are respected and share the same umbrella government, with smaller authorities representing each.
As a result of the sheer number of beliefs and customs – often in complete ideological contrast of one another – a grey zone emerges. In this zone is an uncontrolled space that all groups within Lebanon and the extended wider region come to play and all freedoms are guaranteed. It is an anarchic system that unintentionally created a safe haven for all.
Correction: Lebanon was a beacon of tolerance. The grey zone is getting smaller, and not all freedoms are now guaranteed. What was once a safe haven for all is now under threat, internally and externally. To understand Lebanon’s situation today, we must look at past and present, domestically, regionally and internationally.
The nation is where east and west meet, a cliché loved and laughed at in Lebanon and highlighted, symbolized and poeticized in all works of literature, cinemas, and cultural references around the world. Its point of pride is now its source of threat. Both east and west pushing at one another, hoping to tilt the balance even more so in their preferred direction, and somehow, as with the 15-year civil war that once ravaged the country, another unspoken but disturbing new Iron Curtain has appeared.
A number of Lebanese human rights organizations wrote an open letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights over activists and journalists being summoned for investigation. The Centre for Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Lebanese Center for Human Rights president Wadih Al Asmar was called into questioning by the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) Anti-Cybercrimes Bureau. Activists throughout Lebanon were also summoned for several media posts on Facebook and Twitter. In July, hundreds of protestors gathered in downtown Beirut to demand that freedom of speech is fully upheld and respected, as has always been the case in the country. 39 people have been summoned since 2016 for making public comments “criticizing the Lebanese authorities or political figures.” The law in question, relating to slander, contempt and libel directed at public officials, the state, the army, the flag or the cedar tree (the country’s national symbols), from penal code articles 383 to 386 are antiquated relics that the Lebanese parliament ratified in 1972.
The number of people charged or summer over a period of two years may seem minuscule in comparison to its regional neighbours Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Iran, but is a massive change to the agreed upon social contract status quo between citizen and state. The political parties seemed to have been principally benevolent to the ongoing changes to Lebanon’s upholding of freedom of speech, but things took a sharp turn after Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Socialist Progressive Party (PSP) criticized Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister and the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and called freedom of speech a redline. Bassil, thought to have made several of the complaints to the ISF has denied the accusation. Later, Wiam Wahhab, a former minister and head of the Arab Tawhid Party, criticized the General Prosecutor for charging Hicham Haddad.
The political satirist Hicham Haddad was charged for defaming Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia on his show. It is a crime to insult public officials or foreign leaders in Lebanon. After he was summoned to give a statement regarding these charges, he failed to appear in protest and was later charged with obstruction of justice. The next episode, he appeared on his show in a prison jumpsuit and criticized the Lebanese authorities for the charges, and was later again charged with insulting the state.
Hanin Ghaddar, a political analyst, was sentenced in absentia to six months for comments deemed insulting to the army in a talk she gave in Washington in 2014. Salim Jreissati, Lebanon’s Justice Minister, also from the Free Patriotic Movement, has denied there is an attack on free speech in the country, but the correlation, the incidences and the numbers speak for themselves.
Understanding these developments in Lebanon require understanding the larger picture as well. Lebanon is currently a political battlefield between Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional powers and sworn enemies who support opposing political parties in Lebanon’s political system (Hezbollah and the Future Movement, which ironically might soon be in a coalition government together). Both countries are notorious for their freedom of speech abuses and repression.
In Lebanon’s recent parliamentary elections – its first in 9 years – the Future Movement took a beating and lost 40% of its total seats, whilst Hezbollah emerged relatively victorious as a part of the largest parliamentary bloc. This was very likely a negative reaction to MBS’ tactic to summon Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh for consultations, only to then force his resignation on Saudi Arabian TV channels as a means to send a message to Hezbollah, and by association Iran; and then hold him in Riyadh unable to return to Lebanon. The shocking development stunned the world. That a sitting head of state would be, as Lebanese President Michel Aoun called it, subjected to a “kidnapping” by another state, is unprecedented; French president Emmanuel Macron had to personally intervene in Riyadh and plea for his release.
The United States’ withdrawal from the global stage under the leadership of Donald Trump has led to a significant repression around the world of the very values and freedoms that the US once championed. France – the colonial power – was unwilling to publicly criticize those interfering in Lebanon’s domestic affairs. As the recent diplomatic dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia has shown, European nations are now prioritizing economic links to autocratic regimes over standing up for allies and friends. Turkey, another regional power, has positioned itself as a middle ground actor between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and any direct involvement in Lebanon would draw the ire of both.
The irony of it all stems from the fact that the Lebanese authorities are using these tactics to reassure the western nations that – despite Hezbollah’s gains in the recent elections –they are not squarely in driving seat of Lebanese politics. Reassuring allies against the autocratic encroachment in Lebanon by disavowing and abusing the very values they cherish dearly. Oh, the irony.
It seems that the last stand in fighting these reprisals against freedom of speech is left down to the very men and women on the ground, the activists who risk it all, and who have heard clearly that they are left to fend for themselves. The global balance of power has tilted, and Lebanon, squarely in the middle of the world, where west and east meet, is the testing ground. It may seem like a reserved freedom of speech is a small price to pay for stability, but once they’ve won this battle, what stops the next from coming? The new Iron Curtain is inching towards the west and the people are paying the price.