BEIRUT — Lebanon is caught in political gridlock in the face of sustained opposition to the U.S.-backed government.
The government is refusing to give in to opposition demands for more representation. The government says it is there to stay; so do the protestors.
Their opposition is very visible. Scores of tents, many with solar powered television sets, wooden walls and doors, and cooking facilities fill several huge parking lots at the foot of the heavily barricaded headquarters of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government.
The site is mostly quiet during the day, but in the evening thousands stream into the camps to listen to speeches, drink coffee and tea, smoke hubble-bubble pipes, and talk. And, in the Riad es-Solh Square, they watch the huge movie-sized screen of Al-Manar television news (Hezbollah’s TV station).
“We’re here demanding full participation of all different groups in the political decision- making of our country,” a 27-year-old organiser at the site who gave his name only as Jirgus told IPS.
The protest is already bringing results, he said. “One of the advantages of this sit-in is that people from the north are meeting people from the south, and different religions are uniting.”
Like everyone else IPS spoke with at the sit-in, Jirgus said he would continue with the protest as long as it took.
“As long as this government continues with their pro-U.S. and pro-Israel policies, and continues to choose not to allow all people fair representation, we are left with only this choice,” he said.
Four big political parties participated in a huge protest rally Dec. 10 last year, probably Lebanon’s largest ever. That demonstration was immediately followed by the launch of the sit-in.
The four parties are Hezbollah led by the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah, the Free Patriotic movement led by former general Michel Aoun who is a Christian, the Amal movement led by Nabih Berri and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Several smaller parties of various religious confessions are also participating in the ongoing protest.
The opposition insists that the cabinet must resign in favour of a national unity government. Siniora’s cabinet continues to refuse this demand. The government is in survival mode, but continues to have the backing of the United States, France and Saudi Arabia.
Many protestors are raising basic issues that go beyond party loyalties.
“Our goal is companionship while the government’s goal is to serve corporate interests,” a primary school teacher who gave his name as Marada told IPS. “We have two million of Lebanon’s four million people that are not represented by these elitists, who only care about their own interests. I’ll stay here as long as it takes. The government didn’t leave us with anything, so we have nothing to lose.”
Opposition supporters say that both disparity of wealth and unequal representation in government are critical problems, that are feeding the protests.
“We are peacefully contesting the government to show that people without a voice are actually the majority,” Ali Hamir, a 55-year-old translator at the sit-in told IPS. “It is only rich people who have a voice in this current government, while the middle and lower classes are not listened to. There is a class mentality in this government.”
He added, “We are open-minded and want to live with all communities, but we are opposed to class-based oppression.”
Hamir said he will not end the sit-in until the opposition wins. “Our breaths will last long. We will not stop until we reach our goal. We do not despair.”
Others are happy at the unification amongst the different parties.
“It’s new for us to be together with all of these other groups,” a student from the Free Patriotic Movement who gave his name as Aran told IPS. “It is good because Muslims, Christians and all of the confessions are here together. We hope this experience will be diffused throughout society.”
Streets lined with concrete barriers and two levels of barbed wire separate the camp from government buildings. Lebanese soldiers keep watch over the protestors. But the protesters seem to ignore them; there is more of a party atmosphere within the camp.
But this is a party with a purpose.