Too Far or Not Enough?: Lebanese React to Political Propaganda Removal Campaign

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Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib (L) watches as his body guard tears down an Amal Movement poster in Beirut on the first day of the implementation of taking down all political posters in Lebanon's major cities. Al-Akhbar/Haitham Moussawi

By: Rana Harbi, Nasser Elamine, Jinan Mantash

Published Thursday, February 12, 2015

Last week, an otherwise fruitless dialogue between rival political parties Hezbollah and the Future Movement culminated in a decision to remove all political posters and party flags from the walls of Lebanon’s major cities.

The decision, aimed at defusing sectarian tension within Lebanese society, has been met with mixed feelings by the Lebanese public, some of whom consider it a promising initiative, while others oppose it claiming it is contradictory to democratic values. Generally, the move is viewed as a symbol of political incompetence that highlights the inability to come to an agreement on more important matters.

Al-Akhbar English spoke with residents in the capital Beirut, the southern city of Saida, and Lebanon’s second largest city Tripoli about their views on the move.

Complaints of a selective ‘clean-up’ in Beirut

In the western Beirut neighborhoods of Sanayeh, Zoqaq al-Blatt and al-Zarif, all posters of political leaders, party flags and banners have already been cleared off the walls. The only remaining political symbol is the Lebanese flag. Tuesday was the cut-off for cleaning up the area, according to locals. Over 1,000 posters were removed from public walls.

With the exception of a minor protest surrounding the removal of images of men martyred in the wars with Israel and in the Syrian conflict, the clean-up went smoothly. “It is a step forward towards reducing the sectarian tension among the Lebanese and we welcome it,” one of the locals told Al-Akhbar English.

Residents generally considered it a positive gesture. Some complained, however, that the posters and other political symbols were only being removed from particular areas, while other “less important areas,” as one local put it, were being overlooked.

“They are only removing them from streets where people can see them. Go to the poorer areas, where the sectarian tension is at its highest, and see, they’re everywhere,” a police officer said.

Others considered it an attempt to divert attention from the two parties’ inability to agree on anything substantial.

“It’s probably to hide the fact that their dialogue is going nowhere. They can always bring them back if the sectarian tension is working in their favor again,” a local said.

The southern suburbs of Beirut known as Dahiyeh, which is predominantly associated with Hezbollah and Amal supporters — though its inhabitants hold a variety of political views — has not been included in the initiative. However, it has been met there, as in all other areas, with varying opinions.

Radwan Assaf, owner of a popular coffee shop in the Mar Mikhayel-Chiah area, strongly backed the decision because he believed it would help decrease sectarian tension.

“Everyone is a member of a certain political party, but there is no need at all to show that. Political banners and posters segregate areas in a sectarian manner,” Assaf said. He went on to say that “if an area is dominated by a certain political party, that definitely does not imply that all residents are supporters of this party. If the posters remain, an unavoidable stereotypical categorization of areas persists.”

He offered Noueiri-Msetibe, the area he resides in, as an example, where he said flags of the Amal movement dominate the area; even though people of other political leanings live there, everyone is “automatically categorized as belonging to this party.”

Other neighborhood residents, though they favored the removal of posters of political leaders in general, opposed the removal of pictures of Hezbollah fighters killed in action.

“All photos belonging to the army and Hezbollah martyrs should not be removed. It is necessary to keep them because these men are fighting for a cause to defend the country, and keeping their photos keeps their memories and cause alive,” Hammoud, another regular at the coffee shop, said.

Sadeq, a van driver, backed the removal of the posters and banners, but said that the effect of the removal would not be apparent for years.

“If the campaign succeeds and the banners and flags are all removed, the next generation will not have any psychological barrier when entering certain areas,” Sadeq said. “These photos and banners have increased rifts by letting people of specific political belonging to gather around each other. This generation will still be aware of the segregation between certain areas, but the next generation will definitely not because there will remain nothing to remind them of that.”

Others supported keeping the banners, but for unexpected reasons. Alaa, one of the people in charge of the vans near the Lebanese University in al-Hadath, vehemently opposed the removal of the posters due to the lack of clear street names and addresses in Lebanese cities.

“Imagine I want to guide someone to where I am, I would tell them I am under Nabih Berri’s photo near the university gate. If they removed this poster or any other poster, how would I identify roads and street corners?” he asked.

Eliminating a ‘reminder of the civil war’ or threatening free speech?

Driving from South Lebanon to Saida, the wind-torn flags of Hezbollah and the Amal movement hang loosely from power poles on both sides of the road. They have been torn for weeks now because of the weather, not the campaign.

Upon reaching Saida, where the initiative is being implemented, one is not greeted by displays of sectarianism and paramilitarism.

The streets of Saida are usually adorned with flags and pictures of political and religious figures, covering lamp posts, private and even public property.

But utility poles and decaying walls have been stripped of political banners and flags, while remains of posters and pictures litter the streets — a fresh scene in a city with a history of sectarian tensions.

Saida has seen a lot of internal conflicts, most notably in 2013 when the Lebanese army clashed with supporters of Salafi Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir.

The clashes between Assir’s militants and the Lebanese army in June 2013 resulted in the death of 17 soldiers and two citizens, as well as Assir’s disappearance.

Speaking to people in the streets and cafes of Saida, the consensus among residents seemed to be that the removal of political posters was only a superficial change.

“I think the Lebanese government is trying to grasp the nettle, and do what it believes is a healthy move that will strengthen community relations,” Bilal Bizri, a 24-year-old reporter for Saida TV, a local news website, told Al-Akhbar English. “However, it is flawed and insufficient.”

According to Bizri, the decision to remove all political signage and party banners was built on a shaky foundation and hence would not persist in the long term.

“Two political parties held talks, arrived at a rather superficial agreement, and then forced it on the people and other political groups,” he added. “So what happens if they disagree? They will give us the green light to suffocate the city with banners and flags again?”

“If the move seeks to defuse tensions, does that mean these political parties have been allowing flags and banners to heighten tensions?” Bizri asked.

Using public spaces and buildings in Saida to impose political dominance was perceived by many as a threat to peace and cordiality.

“The new measures are a positive step, but police enforcement of this issue is inconsistent,” Abu Firas told Al-Akhbar English as he pushed his vegetable and fruit cart along one of Saida’s dusty sidewalk. “Look,” he said pointing at a picture of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“If you want to remove the pictures of Maarouf Saad you should also remove those of Hariri,” Abou Firas argued. “I know they removed some, but they need to remove all of them.”

Maarouf Saad was a Lebanese politician and activist who was the founder of the Popular Nasserist Organization. He was killed in March 1974 during a protest against the monopolization of Saida’s fish trade.

Meanwhile, some saw the measures as a crackdown on freedom of expression.

“It is our right to express our political and religious affiliations,” Randa Saleh, a 36-year-old mother of two, told Al-Akhbar English. “Democracy is having the flags up but being okay with it … celebrating diversity and embracing differences.”

In Saleh’s opinion, instead of removing the flags, the Future Movement flag should flutter alongside the Hezbollah flag.

For some, the decision failed to differentiate between sectarianism and nationalism.

“I’m for cleaning up the streets from provocative graffiti and flags but I’m against banning banners that call for national unity and peace,” Youssef Kleib, a 24-year-old pub owner in Saida told Al-Akhbar English. “Sectarian displays have a negative effect on a psychological and sociological level, whereas nationalist ones give a feeling of oneness to all the people by showing them that despite our differences we have one thing in common: our love of this country.”

“Not all political parties are sectarian ones,” Kleib said. “There are nationalist parties that seek to ensure mutual engagement and cultural diversity.”

“Yes, there should be flags and banners but they should have civic, not ethnic or religious, connotations,” he added.

“Because blood has been shed in the past, these flags and pictures are constant reminders of the civil war and they can lead to tensions, especially when they are on display in a city filled with victims of political violence,” Salah Skafy, a 25-year-old hotel management graduate told Al-Akhbar English.

Skafy, however, was skeptical about the outcome.

“Even though I don’t think removing the flags will help overcome the very confusing, overlapping and multilayered fabric of this community, I believe it is a start,” he explained.

“When we put up flags and banners with political and sectarian connotations we are creating decisions in an already conflicted environment,” Skafy stated, “We are dividing neighborhoods and streets into ‘we’ and ‘they,’ ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe.’ It creates a hostile atmosphere.”

“Many feel like they are sidelined, misrepresented and conflated and this has broken down social bonds in the city,” he added. “I hope this step will lead to more engagement, help build up confidence and trust, and strengthen each individual’s sense of belonging.”

Ignoring the roots of sectarian tension

Meanwhile in Tripoli, the campaign was being implemented — to an extent.

Lebanon's second largest city has seen frequent violence. Hundreds have been killed in fighting between the two neighborhoods since the outbreak of the war in neighboring Syria.

“If the aim of the campaign is to project an image of Lebanon as civilized and secular, then they need first and foremost to change the sectarian system and get rid of all the political elite,” Aline, an interior designer from Tripoli, told Al-Akhbar English.

According to Aline, even if the banners were removed, people “will continue to be manipulated by the politicians who have been the main cause of sectarian tensions in the city.”

Contrary to Aline, Danya, a Lebanese American University student, was more hopeful.

“In Tripoli, they've done a great job removing most of them except two long posters of [Justice Minister] Ashraf Rifi on the city’s entrance,” she said.

Echoing similar comments from Beirut and Saida, Danya said that the decision should be implemented fully and without bias.

Meanwhile, Ali, a street artist from Tripoli, had a different take on the issue. He said the decision would push those seeking to express their political and religious beliefs to find a way around it.

“By removing these flags and banners, artists will have a chance to become more creative when it comes to self-expression,” Ali explained. “Instead of simply hanging a flag they will be forced to find another way, something that I find interesting and exciting.”

Ali believed the decision might help boost graffitis that have a political, social or sociopolitical message.

“It’s good to cleanup the streets, but I’m hoping it won’t become a crackdown on art and freedom of expression,” he added. “As long as it is a political decision and not a law, I think this will be exciting.”

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