January 16 — Beirut
Two years after the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, America’s Cedar Revolution in Lebanon has gone “Citrus”. The chic Lebanese divas with maids in tow wagging protest signs on their employer’s behalf are absent. Riad El Sohl Square in downtown Beirut is now occupied by a working class tent city with “Citrus” supporters from the Opposition: Religious Shias-Hezbollah (yellow), secular Shias- Amal (green), and Christians of the Free Patriotic Movement (orange). But all are united under one banner “Clean Up the Government!”
In this exclusive part of the city, you’d scarcely notice Israel’s recent bombing. The luxury boutiques and designer gourmet shops are open for consumption, and the pastel reproductions of delicate French Mandate buildings have retained their Disneyland feel. But much of the neighborhood’s elite clientel has fled for Europe or points south like Dubai, Qatar or Riyadh.
What’s left are the lesser-haves, united against feared austerity measures. The protest encampment, surrounded by churches and mosques, defy traditional alliances. “This is not a religious jihad” or a sectarian squabble one 28 year old Christian man told me, “It’s getting Lebanon back from corruption.”
According to one taxi driver, costs of basic items like water, electricity and food have recently doubled, allegedly due to government mismanagement and sell-outs to international corporations. On Monday, the General Labor Confederation and the Opposition sponsored a sit-in against the Lebanese government’s new economic reform plan. Among other requirements demanded by the World Bank is the privatization of the national telecommunications industry.
The head of the Telecommunications Ministry, Marwan Hamade, stands to personally benefit from the billion dollar deals. At a Hezbollah rally outside Lebanon’s Parliament, a Lebanese celebrity Adel Mawla, 24, said this is typical of how the country’s interests are being siphoned to benefit greedy officials and foreign interests. “This government is fiscally corrupt” and even while these same foreign interests bombed Lebanon last summer, the Lebanese government welcomed the invaders “with coffee and tea.”
As for the natives- razor wire, armored personnel carriers and checkpoints have been erected to protect the government from them.
Beirut is a city on edge tonight, in a region tensely waiting.
To the north of Lebanon, the US is sending F-16 fighter jets and early warning systems to Incirlik, Turkey for the coming attack on Iran. To the east, American warships are taking up positions in the Persian Gulf, and Iran has recently shot down a US spy drone in its airspace.
At Lebanon’s airport south of Beirut, American C-17 cargo planes have begun delivering a billion dollar shipment of military aid “to assist the Lebanese police and army” concerning “Al Qaeda”- aka Hezbollah/civil war. In west Beirut, tanks are stationed on quiet, tree-lined street corners. Increasing numbers of army and police are on sidewalk patrol, with AK 47s at the ready. Helicopters fly over the city and port, in case.
In Beirut’s city center, I spoke to Christians from the Free Patriotic Movement about the situation. Insurance sales manager Henry Hamra 39, reflected on the brutal rule of the Syrians in his country, and America’s granting of democracy to Lebanon. “The US gave Lebanon to Syria as a gift twenty-nine years ago. The first thing the Syrian dictators did was to appoint their own puppet government officials and administrators to further their interests. Now the Americans are doing the same thing in Lebanon.” He said he felt America looked at Lebanon as a disposable asset to leverage their agenda in the Middle East. “We don’t care any more what all of you do outside this country. Just get the hell out of here and leave us alone. We want to live a normal life.”
Christian Lena Ghrayeb is a banker of 38 who disputed that the current government standoff is a sectarian struggle. “Only the Christians of Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces are with Bush. Even the Pope said Lebanon has a mission to live together with Muslims or it won’t be Lebanon. At Christmas we get gifts from the Muslims here and at Adha we give to them.”
But Ghrayeb has no love for the Syrians either. In the early 90’s she was thrown into prison and tortured by Syria’s Lebanese agents for distributing anti-Syria pamphlets in Beirut. Then how can she and Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement support US-designated terrorist group Hezbollah, who are sponsored by Syria? Isn’t their terrorism the problem here?
Ghrayeb claims Hezbollah only fought Israelis during the war- not Muslims or Christians. I asked Ghrayeb about the “full alert” recently declared by Hezbollah. “All political doors are completely closed, and there is no prospect for a settlement”, said Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV. “A major escalation is very possible.”
“Look- the 2005 elections showed 70 per cent of the Christians are with Aoun”, Ghrayeb said. “I have to tell you something- You are making the Christians here into a terrorist threat against you [America]. In a matter of time, we will strike back too.”
Later, at a near-empty cafe in the nightclub district, scared patrons ran from their tables at the sound of bombs exploding outside. It turned out to be fireworks set off by Hezbollah to celebrate Israeli General Dan Halutz’s resignation over the failure of the IDF’s summer invasion.
At the bull’s eye of this region on fire, Lebanon is in suspended turmoil. For now.
Dahiyeh–I came to this Hezbollah neighborhood of south Beirut to see my tax dollars at work. In this already crowded, destitute area, the results of American largesse were devastating. Smears of graffiti said “Made in America.”
Bomb craters now replaced entire city blocks and crunched glass glittered on the dirt roads. Singed office blocks, toppled like dominoes, still smelt of smoke from Israel’s summer attack. One apartment building near the Bir Al Abed Mosque had a massive wall nearly torn off, hanging like a concrete chad. One more vote for Arab democracy.
In the Hezbollah Information Office, I spoke with Sheikh Khoory Noor Ed Dine of the Hezbollah Political Council. He referred to his comments from a year back, in which he described Israel’s 1982 invasion. It sounded eerily like the bombing of 2006: “When the Israelis occupied our land and marched to Beirut, the UN and the whole world watched our cities burn, our farms and villages being destroyed, our children, old and young men killed. No one told Israel to leave or stop. We waited nearly one year. Then we saw they weren’t going to leave.”
Sheikh Ed Dine said Hezbollah had evolved out of necessity- not to challenge the government. “As Muslims, we believe life without dignity, life without freedom and independence doesn’t mean anything to us. So we struggled to live as we like and push the occupiers off our land. Our resistance started as military, and became political. Our people needed social and educational assistance. The Lebanese government was so weak and no one from outside came to help us. So we built social centers in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere. So now we have social, educational and medical services- not just military.”
But when the Israeli Army had first invaded Lebanon in 1982, the forerunners of present-day Hezbollah had greeted them as liberators from the PLO. “They were a relief from the prior occupiers, until they became occupiers themselves,” Sheikh Ed Dine said.
Later, on the street ouside, I spoke to a German-Lebanese father of three from Frankfurt who had his home in the hanging chad building blown up in the war. The Lebanese government reimbursed him for only a fraction of its value, so he turned to Hezbollah for help. “This home was to be for my sons someday. Now it is gone and we have nothing.”
I wondered if any of the billion-dollar US aid package for Lebanon would finance reparations. According to press reports, that money is “to fight the war on terror”: One third to train the Lebanese Army, one third for ammunition, and the other third for military spare parts, with little to spare for civilians.
American tax dollars at work, winning Arab hearts and minds.
Christians and Shias recently partied together at the Opposition tent city near Rafiq Hariri’s mosque, waiting for Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s interview on Al Manar TV. Nasrallah discussed the US plan for the Greater Middle East and the need to protect Lebanon from it. An escalation to overthrow the US-backed Lebanese government was planned for Tuesday. It would be ‘a big event’ but peaceful. “The resistance will go on!” he declared. Even the product ads that bracketed Nasrallah’s speech were edited to underscore a resistance theme. Animated soap, yogurt and other household items danced to a martial-sounding score. Rendering hand lotion militant is an Al Manar specialty.
I asked one Christian Aoun supporter if the Opposition was so sure of support and committed to democracy, why didn’t they just wait until the next elections and vote the March 14th movement out of office then?
Mary, who didn’t want to give her last name, claimed that government corruption was so bad the nation couldn’t survive three more years of it. “I hated Hariri. Many people here hated Hariri. Hariri brought us to this crisis. When he came to power in the early 1990’s Lebanon’s national debt was 1 billion USD. Now it will soon be $45 billion. When they tell you he was an enemy of Syria- don’t believe them. He worked with corrupt Syrians to exploit Lebanon. In 2001, he even gave the Golden Key of the city of Beirut to Syria’s agent in Lebanon, Ghazi Kenaan. They worked together. Now we have Saad Al Hariri…”
I also talked with a restaurant manager on posh Marad Street at the heart of Hariri country, Solidere. He said his shop was deserted because of the political situation in Beirut. I asked if what the IDF did not destroy militarily, Hezbollah/Aoun protests would end up destroying economically?
“No,” said Tawfiq, who claimed government Ministers’ infighting was the main problem. Each faction fought for their own benefit at the expense of the country. “We have a big, big problem with the government here,” he said. “But we know who is behind all this… We are 18 different religious groups and we have to get together or we are going down… ”
Tawfiq, who recently had hair to his waist but cut it after a drunk driving accident on his motorcycle, invited me for cocktails and bragged about frequenting the wildest nightclubs in town. He disputed that Hezbollah would, or even could, turn Lebanon into an Islamic Republic like Iran. “I like my scotch & Pepsi too much, followed with rose’ wine.”
Tawfiq is a Shia himself, and was one of the first to welcome tourists into Khiam prison after Hezbollah freed Lebanese prisoners there and drove the IDF out. He said it was Hezbollah that had saved Lebanon from becoming part of an Israeli Republic.
“We want to live. But we want our own country first… we have to live in peace.” Just keep it nicely chilled.
TRISH SCHUH writes about Middle East politics. She can be reached at: email@example.com