A protestor enters the abandoned opera house in Beirut, Lebanon. October 21, 2019. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

A protestor enters the abandoned opera house in Beirut, Lebanon. October 21, 2019. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

Psychological Warfare in Times of Revolution

Day 83: Tuesday, January 7, 2020

From the very first week of the October 17 Revolution, Lebanon’s ruling parties resorted to war to protect their gains. This war was waged both directly, through violent suppression, as well as through public morale. Protesters faced a triad of counter-revolutionary strategies designed to push them off the streets: official repression, partisan violence, and crucially, psychological warfare. Without psychological warfare, the ruling parties risk losing the streets. 

The first tool of psychological warfare is persuasion. Political parties began this campaign by trying to convince the general public, especially their increasingly dissenting supporters, that solutions are around the corner in the form of reforms and such populist gestures as lifting the banking secrecy for accounts tied to FPM and Amal Movement political officials. They also announced the reduction of officials’ salaries, invoking Hariri’s reform paper which is no more than a collection of so-called solutions, ranging from populist, fictional, to downright harmful propositions. The sole objective has been to return to pre-October 17 conditions. Through this method of psychological warfare, not only does power confound its critics, but it also makes them guilty of, and holds them responsible for, delayed reforms. Through this tactic, the state is able to shift the narrative so that what appears to be standing in the way of system-wide reform is not the corrupt authority, but the dissenting citizens themselves.

The second tool is intimidation in three forms. The first is economic intimidation, which consists of blaming the protesters, particularly their tactics, for the economic collapse.The second tool is intimidation in three forms. The first is economic intimidation, which consists of blaming the protesters, particularly their tactics, for the economic collapse. The governor of the Central Bank issued a public statement condemning them, which he then retracted. In a similar move, the minister of health claimed that the protesters’ actions are preventing the distribution of much needed medicines and medical supplies to local hospitals. While the revolution was born from the womb of the economic crisis, and not the other way around, these statements are meant to deflect responsibility.

The second form is political intimidation, which also consists of blaming the protesters, this time for the political vacuum following the resignation of PM Hariri and the ruling class’s inability to find his replacement. This position is conveyed in a speech given by Hezbollah’s secretary general cautioning of the dangers of political vacuum. Yet ensuring a smooth transfer of power is the direct responsibility of the governing parties who have constitutional privileges, not the duty of the protesters who are demanding their basic rights. Third and most crucially is security intimidation, which shifts the responsibility of providing security from the official security apparatuses onto the protesters.

This logic holds the protesters responsible for the deteriorating security condition throughout the country, where we have neither an effective security apparatus nor an accountability mechanism against violent partisans who have been supporting the ruling class’s campaign of repression and intimidation since the onset of the revolution. For the protesters demanding basic rights, this form of intimidation creates the impression that their movement is in fact hurting the country politically, economically, and especially in terms of security. TV figure Georges Ghanem promotes this position, warning of a looming civil war, echoing Elias Bou Saab, minister of defense, one of the most prestigious security posts in the country, who claimed that the crisis is dangerous and troublingly reminiscent of the civil war.

The third aim of psychological warfare is to enforce “civility,” to discipline speech, to break freedom of expression. On October 17, many Lebanese broke the barrier of fear, not only criticizing their traditional leaders, but going as far as cursing them in “neutral” public areas, like Riad el Solh and Martyrs’ Square, but also in their strongholds. By breaking through this barrier of fear, the Lebanese have effectively practiced the ultimate freedom of expression, following years of systemic oppression, partisan persecution, and legal prosecution. This newly found freedom signaled the end of the god-like status of sectarian leaders. Accordingly, the state found itself needing to restore its “sanctity” — shattered by the infamous “Hela Ho” chants — to reestablish itself. Since Day 1, politicians have criticized any and all chants and slogans irrespective of content, going as far as to justify partisan attacks on protesters on the basis that the latter’s criticisms and insults went overboard; the third speech of Hezbollah’s secretary general exemplifies this position. Thus the state has tied stability to polite speech, reframing free speech to indirectly suppress critics. 

The third aim of psychological warfare is to enforce “civility,” to discipline speech, to break freedom of expression. Another attempt to sabotage the revolution is by recreating the constructed bipartisan divide of the last 15 years, March 8 versus March 14. By reigniting this fabricated confrontation, the aim is to overshadow the long years of joint corruption and to hijack the revolution.“All of them means all of them,” however, has become an effective slogan against this manoeuver, reinstating and re-stating the basic principle that the parties in power form a hegemonic totality. This explains why some parties have been trying to coopt the slogan for themselves, including (now former) Foreign Minister Jubran Basil on independence day, and President Michel Aoun in one of his interviews

The fourth aim of the war on public morale is to wipe out independent thought. When people rise up against their sectarian leaders, against authority, they gain independence of thought and action. Such independence is dangerous in the eyes of parties who forged their dominion through decades of clientelism, when absolute loyalty was for sale. From Week 1, these parties have used their media outlets and speeches to launch accusations against protesters, such as that they are serving foreign agendas, as Nasrallah said in some of his speeches, or that they are funded by foreign interests, such as the claims that the United states funded a crosscountry solidarity bus. By linking revolutionaries to foreign embassies and intelligence agencies, authorities are telling the protesters: You are not as independent as you think; you are simply a cog in the wheel of dark and shadowy agendas. The hope is to sow doubt and confusion among protesters, to lure them away from the ambiguity of independence and back to the clarity of subjugation.

Along similar lines, some ruling parties depict the revolution as the sole work of their rival parties (those who are trying to hijack the revolution such as the PSP, the Lebanese Forces, and the Phalangists). The purpose is to convince protesters that they are in fact aiding the very same parties they despise, and should return swiftly to the fold of their own parties. The primary example is the Free Patriotic Movement’s claim that the Lebanese Forces are behind the protests because they stand to gain the most. The irony of such conspiracy theories and their fear mongering is that the real conspiracy lies in the hold that civil war parties have on power, and in their constant rebranding through decades of corruption, theft, mismanagement, and failed economic-financial policies. 

[T]o counter attempts to thwart the uprising, we must understand the war being waged on public morale and arm ourselves with facts, clarity, and revolutionary poise. The fifth element of psychological warfare turns the revolution’s strongest attributes into its Achilles’ heel. Through their media outlets, ruling parties take aim at the best elements of the revolution. For example, the decentralized nature of the uprising is weaponized to portray the protests as exclusive only to certain areas or specific politicized issues. This is done through media blackouts, like that of the night of October 30, which undermine the cross-regional unity achieved in the revolution. Likewise, the spontaneity of the protests is cynically manipulated to imply they must have secret backing (from embassies). Moreover, the absence of specific leaders of the revolution is used as an excuse to delay any reforms or respond to any of the protesters’ demands, as articulated in the president’s statements. The conclusion we can draw is that the ruling parties fear this very absence of declared leaders. For what use are the leaders currently in power, if the revolution can succeed without leaders? Psychological warfare is an existential issue for the ruling leaders.

The regime, its parties, and its media industry have at their disposal sufficient material and coercive resources to delay reform. Yet recapturing public opinion is not easy. Which is why, to counter attempts to thwart the uprising, we must understand the war being waged on public morale and arm ourselves with facts, clarity, and revolutionary poise. Revolution is a marathon, not a sprint, and the road is paved with mines.