Crisis Intensifies In Lebanon As Hezbollah Takes To Streets

Crisis Intensifies In Lebanon As Hezbollah Takes To Streets
December 2nd, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Crisis Intensifies In Lebanon As Hezbollah Takes To Streets

Crisis Intensifies In Lebanon As Hezbollah Takes To Streets
Washington Post
December 2, 2006
Pg. 1
By Anthony Shadid
BEIRUT, Dec. 1 -- Hezbollah and its allies escalated Lebanon's month-long political crisis into a popular confrontation Friday, sending hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets, parking lots and sidewalks of downtown Beirut, vowing to topple the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and reorient the country.
The city's stylish downtown, to some a symbol of recovery from the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, was awash in red-white-and-green Lebanese flags, interspersed with banners in the colors of various sectarian and political leaders. The winter sun glinted off coils of wire and barricades encircling the colonnaded government headquarters nearby, where Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. But the crowd was more festive than angry, more celebratory than militant, as the theater of the moment intersected, perhaps a little dissonantly, with the drama of a struggle as decisive as any in Lebanon's history.
"I wish that our prime minister and his ministers were here among us today, rather than hiding behind army tanks and barbed wire," Michel Aoun, an influential Christian leader allied with Hezbollah, told the crowd. "The one who has support of his people does not need barbed wire." Moments later, he added, "I call on the prime minister and his ministers to resign."
In symbolism, numbers and aims, the protest marked a collision between two countries that have coexisted uneasily inside Lebanon following the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, when dueling protests convened in downtown Beirut over Syria's 29-year military presence here. They share almost no common ground: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by Hezbollah or the accommodation promoted by Siniora's government; the influence of Hezbollah's patrons in Iran and Syria or that of the government's French and American allies; a divided social perspective, one more religiously traditional, one more liberal. Also at issue is the extent of power due the long-disenfranchised Shiite Muslim community, the country's single largest, that Hezbollah and its militia largely represent.
"One Lebanon, one voice!" some people shouted Friday. But the question playing out across downtown Beirut, under the statue of one of Lebanon's founders, Riyad es-Solh, was the same question asked at Lebanon's independence in 1943 and so often since: What kind of Lebanon?
What is happening is more than just a political struggle unleashed by Hezbollah's demand in October for a share of the cabinet that would give it an effective veto over government decisions. Competing narratives of the country's past and future are on display.
Both sides utter the same words -- independence, sovereignty, national unity -- yet they hold two visions of what those words represent. In broadcasts, both Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and Siniora urged their supporters to fly the Lebanese flag, either at the protest or, for the prime minister's supporters, from their homes. Each man speaks with sincerity underlined by the desperate conviction that the other side poses an existential threat. Both claim legitimacy from a long list of martyrs, whether Hezbollah's dead in this summer's war with Israel or Hariri and other anti-Syrian figures assassinated in Beirut since his death.
And both speak with certainty of a majority they claim to represent in Lebanon.
"Us," sign after sign read Friday. In Arabic, the consonants used can also mean, "We want a clean government."
"The government ruling us right now is dictatorial. It's a minority claiming to be a majority," said Boudy Mbarak, 24, a Christian supporter of Aoun from the village of Balouneh. "And I think we're showing today who's the majority."
Behind him, chants cascaded across the crowd: "Siniora out! We want a free government!" Drums added a cadence to the slogans thundering from banks of speakers. Youths danced in circles: "Hey, hey, you government of thieves!"
With Friday's protest, the crisis now gains momentum. Hezbollah has said the demonstrations will be open-ended. Long after nightfall, white tents went up in the downtown area, where thousands of people were expected to stay indefinitely, and speakers blared Hezbollah anthems. Groups lit fires with placards, one reading, "All of us for the nation." Others played cards or smoked water pipes in a carnival-like atmosphere.
"I'm staying until the year 2100 or until Sayyid Hasan speaks again," vowed Hassan Karnib, a 20-year-old protester, using an honorific for the Hezbollah leader.
If the protests fail to force the government's resignation, flatly ruled out by Siniora in a speech Thursday, Hezbollah's supporters have talked about resignations from parliament, work stoppages or civil disobedience to shut down ministries.
The group's opponents, sensing that Friday's mass demonstration was the biggest card it had to play, promised to wait.
"They decided to go to the streets. Let them do that, and let them stay there as long as they want," said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze community, who has shifted alliances since the civil war and is now one of Hezbollah's most outspoken opponents. "We will stay in our homes, raise our flags and wait one month, two months, as long as they want."
Hezbollah announced the protest Thursday, and by early morning the movement, among the best-organized in the Middle East, was in full swing. The southern suburbs, devastated by Israeli bombing this summer, were almost frenetic, with buses plying roads and flags of Hezbollah and Lebanon flying from windows. Mopeds sped through streets plastered with portraits of Nasrallah, who has inspired a cult of personality among his followers and others in the Arab world. "I promise you victory always," read one of his posters near a warren of shops along a street snarled with traffic.
Protesters ventured downtown along streets adorned with the iconography of Hezbollah's opponents. One sign read in French, "I love life." Another, written in red, said in Arabic, "We want to live." Both were critiques of Hezbollah's celebration of martyrdom.
"They don't love life; they love the throne," quipped Maha Kanj, 16.
A Hezbollah placard read: "Because we love life."
Each side boasted of the numbers, or lack thereof, at the protest. Hezbollah's television station, al-Manar, put the figure at 1.5 million. Future Television, loyal to Hariri's son, Saad, who has inherited leadership of the Sunni community, estimated tens of thousands. Although it was larger than last week's funeral for assassinated cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, it appeared smaller, according to anecdotal impressions, than the March 14 protest that climaxed last year's demonstrations.
While al-Manar provided minute-by-minute coverage of the protest's early hours, Future broadcast a cooking show. During the protest's peak, Future broadcast a split screen. On one side were images of an empty Martyrs' Square, with troops, armored personnel carriers and firetrucks barring demonstrators from entering. On the other were images of protests the night before in support of the prime minister. On al-Manar, the numbers themselves were the message: "This is probably the view Siniora had of the demonstrations," the announcer said as footage rolled. "We wonder whether he heard and saw."
Hezbollah went to lengths to portray the demonstration as less its own and more an expression of what it calls the national opposition. No Hezbollah speakers appeared; Aoun, a Christian, gave the main address, although the number of his supporters paled in comparison to Hezbollah's. The demonstrators themselves were eclectic, from sober-looking clerics in traditional robes to supporters of Aoun who had dyed their hair his group's trademark orange. Others had donned orange wigs and cowboy hats. Some of the slogans were sectarian: "God, Nasrallah and all the southern suburbs." At times, though, the crowd aimed for chants with broader appeal: "Green, yellow, orange," the colors of Hezbollah, an allied movement and Aoun, "we want to topple the government."
The slogans played on themes that Hezbollah and its allies have pushed relentlessly since the crisis began. Corruption was a key complaint. Many chants were directed at Siniora, some ridiculing him for crying in public during the war. "We've had enough lies and tears," one went.
Often the language was directed against the United States' sway in Lebanon. Nasrallah has called the government more loyal to U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman than Siniora himself, and in conversation after conversation, protesters, occasionally even Aoun's supporters, cast the protest as a way to deflect U.S. influence, usually ignoring the roles played by Iran and neighboring Syria as Hezbollah's allies.
"This is the government of Feltman!" shouted Zein Sleiman, 16.
"Siniora is an Israeli," added his friend Samer Salim.
"No, he's an American," Sleiman answered. He paused. "There's no difference!"
In some ways, the most poignant theme was the legacy of this summer's war: Hezbollah's opponents blame it for starting the conflict; Hezbollah celebrates it as a victory, with anger at what it sees as the government's lack of support as it fought. The war's imagery suffused the conversations and message of the protest. In Lebanese politics, the conflict left Hezbollah emboldened, and the sequence of events has proved an unbroken chain, with Hezbollah now pressing for unprecedented power.
As Ali Younis sat with his three sons, he used the words heard so often among Hezbollah's supporters in southern Lebanon during the war: pride and empowerment.
Behind them a banner played on a slogan from the conflict: "As with victory, change is coming, coming, coming." Younis spoke with the fervor of a man who wants to be listened to.
"I'm staying until the government falls," he said, narrowing his eyes. "Dignity is more important than anything else."

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