‘These issues were always bubbling beneath the surface. That is troubling because they once led to civil war’
Lebanese men are taking security into their own hands, wielding batons and torches as they patrol Beirut’s unlit streets in what they consider a way to reassure those who feel unsafe in the collapsing state.
Critics are worried that the initiative echoes Lebanon’s troubled past. To others, like David Daoud, research director of Lebanon, Israel, and Syria at the United Against Nuclear Iran NGO and a non-resident fellow of the Atlantic Council, it’s “par for the course.”
“Lebanon has always been a place where citizens have taken security into their own hands. It’s why we have Hezbollah, a symptom of the weakness of the state’s institutions,” Daoud told i24NEWS, referring to the armed Shiite political movement.
“Like any mafia, they don’t want their own community succumbing to the conditions that brought Lebanon to where it is – corruption, lack of a cohesive national identity, economic mismanagement, and so on,” he continued.
“So there are a lot of ‘private’ initiatives to make up for the deficiencies of the state. If parents want their children to get a good education, they send them to private schools. To fill the gap of electricity shortages, there are power generator mafias. This isn’t the first example of such an endeavor.”
The initiative – organized by a civil society group founded by Christian politician Nadim Gemayel and which currently has 98 recruits – is the latest manifestation of Lebanon’s ongoing economic meltdown that has left much of the state paralyzed, fueled poverty, and led to a spike in crime.
Gemayel urged that it was launched to complement the work of Lebanon’s security services, acting as a buffer to the lack of manpower due to the crisis.
In the eyes of the scheme’s supporters, the vigilantes help keep the streets clean of crime. But for those critical of the group, it is a reiteration of when the civil war from 1975-1990 sent Lebanon into a state of collapse with militias controlling the streets.
Gemayel rejects the criticisms: “We are not a militia, we are not armed, we don’t have rockets or drones,” he said, referring to Hezbollah. The lawmaker’s father, Bashir, led the main Christian militia in the civil war until he was assassinated in 1982 after being elected president.
“The big problem we are suffering today in Beirut and all of Lebanon is that there’s no electricity, there’s no security, no feeling of reassurance, and all the streets are dark,” Gemayel said, describing the state as “absent.”
Daoud also considered the lack of arms in Gemayel’s neighborhood watch a “big distinction” from the militias decades ago.
“There is this association with the militias before and during the civil war, but they were armed to the teeth. If they only had torches, civil war wouldn’t have happened. So the comparison is somewhat sensationalist,” he said.
“But at the same time, it’s symptomatic. Lebanon has always been a veneer. All these issues today were always bubbling beneath the surface. It’s demonstrative of the unworkable conditions under which Lebanon was created. And that is troubling because those conditions once led to civil war.”