“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling”

Here’s the latest I filed from Lebanon. “A much shorter version”:http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/index.ssf?/base/news-10/116556152129650.xml&coll=1 appeared in the _Newark Star-Ledger_, but here’s the full account:

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s capital is once again a tinderbox, ready to blow because of political rivalries exacerbated by sectarian tensions. Increasingly, the political disputes — which are ostensibly over international tribunals, presidential terms and the legitimacy of a government — have grown into religious disputes, mirroring the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites across the region.
Which leader one supporters is often determined by one’s faith. Shi’ites support the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has called for the overthrow of the current government as being too close to the United States and cutting Shi’ites out of power for too long. Sunnis, however, support the current government because it is lead by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who is a member of the Future Movement, a political party headed Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered ex-premier Rafik, who was killed in 2005.
“The political issues are sectarian,” explained Tariq Tarqawi, 20, who is, in order, a Palestinian, a Sunni and a car electrician. He lives in Ard Jalloul, a mainly Sunni neighborhood that abuts the mainly Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut. “They love Nasrallah, we love Hariri.”
It’s a political crisis that has come to a head in the past week, with hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian supporters filling downtown Beirut and street clashes between Sunni and Shi’ite youths from rival neighborhoods. Nasrallah says his people will continue to demonstrate and paralyze central Beirut until the government resigns. Siniora says he’s staying. Where this ends up is anyone’s guess, but it’s already turned deadly.
Ali Ahmad Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shi’ite from the neighborhood, was killed Sunday night in fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Ard Jalloul. Details are murky, but residents say Shi’ite protesters apparently entered the neighborhood spoiling for a fight.
“If we hadn’t fought them, they would have come in here and broken everything,” said Khalid Hashem, 20, a Sunni from the neighborhood. He was, he added, a friend of Mahmoud. “The Shi’ites are known for this.”
According to others, the intruders chanted slogans and insulted Sunni religious figures.
“We could not bear it anymore,” said one woman in a pharmacy whose husband would not allow her name to be used. “I did not like Hariri and I had nothing against the Shi’ites, but now things are changing. This is not a political demonstration anymore.”
Both Shi’ite and Sunni partisans blame the other side for the shooting, but the question remains: Who killed Ali Ahmad Mahmoud?
The situation is so knife-edge balanced that the head of Lebanese army warned that his forces were being strained to the breaking point as they tried to cope with the security downtown and maintain calm through the tenser neighborhoods of the city. If the protests continued, or worse, turned more violent, the army would be unable to cope, he said.
On Monday, Mahmoud’s body was taken down to the demonstration surrounding the Grand Serail, the old Ottoman fortress that serves as the prime minister’s office and now, the sleeping quarters for a significant portion of Siniora’s cabinet.
The sight of Mahmoud’s coffin brought a fresh surge of fury at the government and protestors crowded around the ambulance carrying it. Many carried signs proclaiming Mahmoud a martyr. “Martyred at the hands of the government’s militias,” read one.
Almost gone were the initial political considerations that had brought the hundreds of thousands into downtown Beirut: the international tribunal, presidential terms and Shi’ite representation. Monday was a day of mourning and passion.
“The blood of the Shi’ites is boiling,” chanted the protestors. “Death to Siniora.”
Downtown Beirut is a tent city, with the canvas constructions lined up below the Grand Serail, like many a besieging army has done over the centuries in this part of the world. At any hour, chanting protestors crowd up against coils of concertina wire while Lebanese Army and Hezbollah discipline men keep them relatively at bay.
For Iman Fakhiya, 29, from the Shi’ite town of Taibe in the south, this protest is simply a matter of fairness for the Shi’ites, who have traditionally been the underdogs in Lebanon.
Hezbollah gained support in the south because the government in Beirut rarely provided services to the rural and impoverished South and Bekaa Valley, the homelands for the country’s Shi’ites. And over 23 years, since its formation in 1982, it has softened its Islamic rhetoric, and now provides for Shi’ites when the government doesn’t, such as schools and hospitals, and defends them when the elite of Lebanon won’t. Even today, on online forums revolving around events in Beirut, supporters of the government often talk of the Shi’ites downtown as “scum” and dirty outsiders.
“I think my parents’ generation accepted this but we won’t,” she said. “They want to keep us down. We just want our rights. Why is the presidency for the Christians and the prime ministership for the Sunnis?”
For her, it is only a matter of time, literally. She would stay for as long as it takes, she said, no matter how uncomfortable she was.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said as she pulled the blanket tighter. “We’ve been hurting for a long time. We are used to it.”

Also, I’ll be traveling for the next few weeks, so postings will be infrequent. I hope things don’t get out of control here.
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Massive protest swamps Beirut

BEIRUT — In a massive show of force, Lebanon’s protestors loyal to Hezbollah and its political allies poured into the streets of downtown Beirut by the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing last weeks show of support for the government and delivering a sweeping rebuke to Lebanon’s political establishment.

The streets, squares and bridges of several neighborhoods were a sea of red and white Lebanese flags as supporters of the Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal, as well as the Christian groups Marida and the Free Patriotic Movement, took to the streets in an attempt to topple the U.S.-backed government.

“The real problem with this government is that they did not stand with us during the war,” said Muhammad Obaid, 40, a Hezbollah supporter, echoing a common complaint of the opposition, which is also called the March 8 coalition.

Hezbollah, which is supported and armed by both Syria and Iran, captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12, prompting a massive retaliation by the Jewish state that turned into a 34-day war. More than 1,000 Lebanese died — mostly civilians — and the country’s infrastructure and industries were devastated. Hezbollah feels that the government in Beirut, which is led by Sunni politician Fuad Siniora, didn’t support it enough and even quietly hoped for it to lose the war so that the Shi’ite group would no longer be a viable political opponent.

Hezbollah emerged stronger than ever, however, and demanded more power in the government for itself and its allies in the March 8 coalition. After six cabinet ministers from their political bloc resigned, and Christian industry minister Pierre Gemayel was murdered, the March 8 forces hope to force the resignation of the Siniora government so that new elections can be held — which they feel they will win.

“The government will fall today,” Obaid said confidently.

Obaid comes from a small town in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut, a stronghold for Hezbollah. He said that the group had paid him to drive his bus to ferry protestors to Beirut. From his village alone, he said there were four large buses and 15 minibuses.

By any count, the crowd was massive, easily topping 1 million people. It was unclear how many people were in the streets because of the sheer numbers, but today’s protest may have surpassed the original 2005 protest that gave Siniora’s bloc its name — the March 14 movement. That protest, coming exactly a month after the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri, led to the end of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, a defeat the regime in Damascus would like to undo with its allies in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah.

Packed and partying crowds of mostly young people stretched from the Christian neighborhood of Gemayze to the east, to the government buildings ringed by concertina wire on the other side of downtown toward the west, and from the site of Hariri’s grave near the port up to Sodeco Square in the Christian enclave of Achrafiye. They filled alleyways and overpasses, and all seemed to carry a flag of some sort.

Most carried the Lebanese flag, its red and white stripes framing a green cedar, but becoming a dramatic sweep when thousands upon thousands of the banners waved. But the Lebanese could not resist putting their own party’s stamp on their outfits, with Hezbollah members draping the milita’s flag about their shoulders and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriot Movement supporters wearing orange sweatshirts or baseball caps.

The crowd for the most part was friendly and respectful of the call by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah not to damage property or resort to violence, but a group of young toughs did celebrate the murder of Pierre Gemayel, by saying, “Congratulations to Pierre, when is Geagea next?” Samir Geagea is the leader of another Christian political party called the Lebanese Forces and is particularly hated by the Shi’ites of Lebanon. “We want your wife, Hakim,” they chanted referring to Geagea’s nickname and his wife, considered one of the more beautiful women in Lebanon. Their jibe was an ugly, sexist chant.

They called the interior minister a Jew while Hezbollah security stood by, watching impassively. It was only after I asked the youths why they were chanting such things — and their violent reaction when I said “I’m a reporter” in my badly accented Arabic — that the Hezbollah security guard intervened.

“They are not polite,” the guard said as he pushed me away roughly. “I don’t want you talking to people who aren’t polite.”

The March 8 movement has vowed to stay in the streets, staging sit-ins until the government resigns. As night fell, trucks carrying portable toilets and water tanks arrived while tents were being set up in Martyrs’ Square.

“If they don’t step down, we will stay here,” said Hayan Ismael, 22, a physics student from the Bekaa village of Bednayel and a supporter of another Christian group. He said protest organizers had timed the protests for Friday afternoon before the weekend to minimize the economic impact of shutting down the heart of Beirut, indicating that March 8 may be expecting a resolution by Monday morning. Downtown merchants have been complaining for months since the war about all the disruptions to business.

“Every day the government stays and doesn’t step down, it makes the economy suffer,” said Ismael.

Siniora, however, vowed last night not to step down.

“We will not allow a democratic government to be toppled or its institutions,” Siniora said in a televised address. “Nor will we allow a state within a state. We are the legitimate government and responsible for all Lebanese.”