When Failure Marks a New Beginning

It took me weeks to get myself back together and write about the three-day hunger strike, for many reasons. Maybe it was disappointment with the results. Perhaps it was the accompanying feeling of restlessness and helplessness.  Maybe it was just the realization yet again that the path towards reform and justice is a long and bumpy ride, with ups and downs. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we end up falling hard; only to regroup, reorganize, and fight back. Otherwise, we would not be worthy of the dream we have, the dream of living in a fair , just, and democratic community.

I remember how it all started. Long before the arrest of Journalist Hassan Alleik  (of Al-Akhbar Daily) by the secret services, I met with several activists and bloggers to discuss how bad things have gotten in terms of freedom of expression in Lebanon. In 2005 we thought that with the end of Syrian armed, political and secret service domination over Lebanon we would enjoy greater liberty and freedom of expression. My dream crashed shortly after that. Just a few weeks after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon I was arrested and imprisoned for three days for asking people to raise their voices and call upon the ex-President Emile Lahoud not to represent Lebanon in the UN council meeting.  Lahoud was not democratically elected, yet forced on the nation by the Syrian regime.

Throughout the years that followed, I have been monitoring the situation in Lebanon, again with its ups and downs. I saw Lebanon moving (on paper) from a “Not Free” society to “Partially Free”. I witnessed the second democratic elections in Lebanon in 2009. Even then, it was obvious that the current political elite in Lebanon intended (and intend) to do nothing about freedom of expression and democratic reform in the country – both the March 8th and March 14th coalitions were (and are) too busy dominating sectors of the Lebanese political and economic map, working for power and their own good instead of establishing a true rule of law.

Violations of human rights increased with time. Fines and lawsuits against newspapers, televisions channels, media outlets, and journalists became commonplace, and it reached the point where they began to target bloggers. As Michel Suleiman became the first president of Lebanon after what was called “the new independence,” it is clear again that the political elite are busy fighting amongst each other with weapons and the support of foreign countries. The result is another army general to rule the country, and another 7 years misery ahead.

Bloggers have been arrested on several occasions, journalists have been called in for investigation and the army secret services have begun harassing activists and calling them for “informal” meetings with one message: “Silence…”

The political elite who now split power and control the country either with money or with weapons (so-called “resistance”) even tried enforcing rules and regulations to silence the sound of activists. They tried to enforce a new information technology law under the cover of “providing better service”; the real goal was to tighten the rope and make it harder for the online community to reach out to people and become a real agent of change. We fought back, and the file was withdrawn and sent back to the drawers…

The arrest of journalist Hassan Alleik of Al-Akhbar Daily was just the pinnacle of a series of incidents targeting freedom of expression. No one can dispute that Alleik’s writings were a result  of his own imagination serving the goals of the (Syrian-Iranian) coalition. But the secret services and the martial court had no right to arrest him. There are plenty of legal ways to deal with journalists. All involve justice through a civil court; never martial court …

Activists were at a crossroads. We either had to compromise our beliefs and simply ignore the arrest because Alleik was technically wrong, meaning that we would leave a journalist (no matter what sides he takes) to face injustice on his own. Or, we could say that Alleik was wrong, but we have to support him because we believe that the values of freedom of expression enshrined in the first amendment of the Lebanese constitution are decaying. We went for the second option, and we decided that the best course of was a three-day hunger strike as of 16:00  the next day.

It was difficult to convince bloggers and activists to join the hunger strike. Lack of experience, lack of coordination, and the fact that everyone was busy managing his own issues, along with Alleik’s suspected (by activists) history of lies and suspected coordination with the Syrians all pushed us towards wrong decisions. The system once again managed to corner us.

Only four activists stepped in for the hunger strike. One of them, Nour Merheb, is a friend of mine now facing two month in prison and a fine of 100,000 LBPs for refusing to attend his trial at military court after being attacked personally by a neighbor that happened to be a soldier. The hunger strike lasted for three full days, in which we failed to convince others to join. The second day, two of the activists collapsed, yet we decided to continue right to the end to maintain our credibility among people who supported us, so that when we face similar incidents and decide to go for an open and public hunger strike we can get people to support us. The plan next time will be to take more time to notify activists, establish a better connection with the media, call international lobbyists, and most importantly get international organizations and diplomats on our side to further pressure the Lebanese government to stop its acts of oppression

Now, weeks after the end of the hunger strike, here we are, regrouping, and getting ready to face the road ahead. We have no doubt that the Lebanese government, or Lebanese system more precisely, will continue its oppression. Next time, we will coordinate better and will take it step-by-step. We have learned from our mistakes, and we are eager for the second round in this endless fight towards freedom and democratic reform in Lebanon.

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