“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.”

Friday at 3 p.m. is the “Zero Hour”

Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has announced that Friday at 3 p.m. (conveniently after Friday prayers) would be the “zero hour” that his supporters and political allies would take to the streets to force the resignation of the current Lebanese government. This will be a defining moment in the modern history of the Middle East.

BEIRUT — Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has announced that Friday at 3 p.m. (conveniently after Friday prayers) would be the “zero hour” that his supporters and political allies would take to the streets to force the resignation of the current Lebanese government.

The so-called March 8 movement, which takes its name from the massive March 8, 2005 demonstration that was to “thank” Syria for its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, is dominated by Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militant group that fought Israel to a standstill the summer. Because of its “divine victory,” as Hezbollah called it, and what Nasrallah says was insufficient fealty to the group’s war on the part of Fuad Siniora and the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, Amal and the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement were demanding veto power in the cabinet. (It’s widely assumed that the March 8 movement, which is supportive of Syria, is trying to derail the U.N. tribunal set up to try suspects in the case of the murder of ex-premier Rafik Hariri, in which Syria is suspected. Veto power in the cabinet would grant them this power.)

They didn’t get the expanded number of seats in the cabinet, as there’s already been an election and there won’t be another one for parliament until 2009, so now they’re taking to the streets to topple the government, which they say is exercising their “democratic rights.”

It seems March 8 has a funny idea of democracy.
Continue reading “Friday at 3 p.m. is the “Zero Hour””

Ready to Blow

BEIRUT — After today’s “funeral for Pierre Gemayel”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/11/mourning_in_beirut.php, Lebanon is ready to blow.
Tonight, about 1,000 Shi’ite youths gathered along airport road and began protesting what they said were the insults made against Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah at the funeral this afternoon. (Saad Hariri more or less said the majority claimed by Hezbollah and others in the March 8 movement was a mirage.)
Soon, a crowd of Sunni youths gathered nearby, prompting a large response from the Lebanese security forces. Local Hezbollah officials told the Shi’ite crowd to go home, but they were ignored, prompting Nasrallah to call Manar TV, the group’s television channel, and issue a call for the crowd to disperse. That, too, initially seemed to be ignored, and it is only after several hours that the protestors drifted home.
In another worrisome development, in a Palestinian camp in the north of the country (I haven’t pinned down the name yet), camp residents clashed with Sunni extremists loyal to Jund al-Sham, a group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
And finally, former Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa has withdrawn his resignation, meaning Ahmad Fatfat is no longer _acting_ interior minister. This is important because it increases the numbr of people in the Siniora cabinet who are full-fledged ministers. The cabinet is normally made up of 24 ministers, with 16 needed for a quorum. Last weekend, five Shi’ite ministers and a pro-Syrian Christian minister resigned, threatening the stability of the government. Then Pierre Gemayel was killed, bringing the number of absent ministers to seven. If two more ministerial seats became vacant, Siniora’s government would be automatically dissolved.
Since Fatfat was only an acting minister, there might be some legal justification to dissolve the government if only one more minister was removed. So by bringing Sabaa back, the March 14 forces are solidfying their position and hunkering down for a long fight.

Mourning in Beirut

BEIRUT — They came by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, to central Beirut, just as they had done 20 months ago, to mark the killing of another politician opposed to Syria’s yoke on Lebanon.

Today it was for Pierre Gemayel, the young Christian minister of industry in Lebanon’s besieged anti-Syrian government. On Tuesday, three gunmen ambushed him and sprayed his car with bullets mid-afternoon in a Christian neighborhood, killing him and further plunging the country into political crisis.

But in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut, today was a day of defiance for the mostly young, mostly Christian masses who came down to stand up to Syria, they say.

“We come for the sake of Lebanon,” said Khaidon Issa, 55, from the Christian neighborhood of Achrifiye in east Beirut. “Martyr after martyr, where is this going to end?”

Opponents of Syria's President Bashir Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally, vent their rage on the images of the men.
Opponents of Syria’s President Bashir Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally, vent their rage on the images of the men.

Gemayel is the fifth assassination of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed Feb. 14, 2005 in a massive car bomb near downtown Beirut that also killed 22 others. The protests that followed on March 14 were massive — by some accounts, one-fourth of Lebanon came to Beirut that day — and prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. Since then, there have been 15 car bombs and other violence, most of which has been blamed on Damascus in its attempt to destabilize Lebanon and regain control over its smaller neighbor.

“I think March 14 was a historic day for the world,” said Naim Boushahine, 21, a hairdresser from Hammana and a supporter of the Druze party, the Progressive Socialist Party. “Because of that day, God willing, Lebanon will achieve its full independence.”

While hundreds of soldiers and riot police surrounded the square, people pounded drums, waved thousands of Lebanese flags — alongside those of their respective political parties — and giant loudspeakers played former speeches of Gemayel, who once said he was prepared to die for Lebanon’s freedom.

His voice boomed forth: “There are people who are planning every moment to overthrow the government.” It was a poignant statement; many believe Gemayel was killed to reduce the anti-Syrian cabinet to fewer than 16 members. If that happens, and there are only two ministers standing against that fate, the government will fall.

But among the crowd, rather than letting Syria and its Lebanese allies — Hezbollah, Michel Aoun and President Emile Lahoud — topple the elected government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, some were planning their own revolution.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we’re going to Baabda,” said Boushahine, referring to the presidential palace and home to the staunchly pro-Syrian Lahoud. “We’re going to liberate the palace from the cockroach that lives there.”

Others were less direct, but in agreement.

“We hope that Lahoud resigns today,” said Tariq Najjar, 22, from a town called Abadieh. “We hope that today that Lahoud hears our voices and (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) know that we are the majority of Lebanese people.”

As the square began to fill up, the red and white Lebanese flags contrasted sharply with the deep, azure blue of the sky. Young men and women held up signs of Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, emblazoned with the words, “Shove Your Civil War,” a rejection of the assumed plot by Damascus to foment civil war in Lebanon in order to take control of it again. Some burned posters of Lahoud and Assad.

At 1 p.m., Gemayel’s body was brought to the Maronite St. George Cathedral in downtown Beirut, while thousands of Lebanese stood outside. Osman Hamze, 20, a student of computer science in the heavily Sunni town of Tripoli, said he had come down to stand for “the truth” about all the killings done in Lebanon since that fiery February day, 20 months ago.

And after that?

“Tomorrow is a normal day,” he said. “But we won’t forget our killers.”