Ongoing Defiance/Political Gridlock in Lebanon

Last night, 19 April, Jeff and I visited the ongoing opposition sit-in near the Lebanese Parliament. In sum, there are four main political parties which participated in a sprawling protest on December 10, 2006, probably Lebanon’s largest ever, immediately followed by the launching of a sit-in against the U.S./France/Saudi Arabia-backed government.

The parties are as follows: Hezbollah led by the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah, The Free Patriotic movement led by former Christian general Michael Aoun, the Amal movement led by Nabih Berri, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. There are other smaller groups, like the Christian Marada movement, also involved.

Scores of tents, many with solar powered televisions, wooden walls and doors, and cooking facilities fill several huge parking lots at the foot of the heavily barricaded headquarters of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government. Mostly quiet during the day, during evenings thousands of people stream into the camps as the sun sets to listen to speeches, drink coffee and tea, smoke hubble-bubble pipes, talk, and watch the huge movie-sized screen of Al-Manar television news (Hezbollah’s TV station) in the Riad es-Solh Square.

Beside the screen is a huge billboard showing the current day of the sit-in, which was day 138. There are also posters of several opposition supporters who were killed when sectarian/political tensions have flared over the last months.

Tents_church_and_a_Marlboro_cigarettes_advertisement_at_the_protest_sitin_in_Beirut_1342_p.jpgThe opposition insists that the cabinet resign in favor of a national unity government. Siniora’s cabinet continues to refuse this demand, and is basically in survival mode as the political deadlock persists.

In the shadow of a juxtaposition of banners of Hassan Nasrallah and assassinated former-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with banners of various political groups and their leaders, I interviewed several people, ranging from independents who simply oppose the current government to members of each of the main opposition groups. The common sentiment is one of defiance and a willingness to continue the sit-in as long as it takes to obtain results.

“We’re here demanding full participation of all different groups in the political decision making of our country,” a 27-year-old organizer named Jirgus told me, “One of the advantages of this sit-in is that Lebanese people from the north are meeting Lebanese people from the south and different religions are uniting.”

I asked him how long he would continue to protest. “As long as this government continues with their pro-U.S./Israel policies and continues to choose not to allow all people fair representation, we are left with only this choice. Our opposition will continue.”

A student with the Marada movement named Mohammad teaches primary school and comes to the camp each evening after his work is done. “Our goal is companionship with the government’s goal is to serve corporate interests,” he said, “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.”

Knowing I am from the U.S., he added, “The U.S. government wants to rule the world, but they will fail. Look at history-all empires are eventually demolished.”

A student named Aran from the Free Patriotic Movement, who has been at the sit-in from the first day told me, “It’s new for us to be together with all of these other groups. It is good because Muslims, Christians and all of the confessions are here together. We hope this experiences will be diffused throughout the entire society.”

Ali Hamir, a translator standing outside the main tent in which families were gathering and children played, told me he was there as an independent and not affiliated with any political group.

“I’m here as a Lebanese,” he said, “We are peacefully contesting the government to show that people without a voice are actually the majority. It is only the 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 waved his arm across the air and added, “These people are not sheep. Most of them are educated and know how to live in peace. We are open-minded and want to live with all communities, but we are opposed to class-based oppression.”

I asked him how long he thought the sit-in would continue.

“We have long breaths. We will not stop until we reach our goal. We do not despair. We can wait as long as it takes.”

Streets lined with concrete barriers and two levels of concertina wire separate the camp from government buildings, in front of which Lebanese soldiers mill about with M-16’s slung over their backs. But the protesters ignore them, and there is more of a party atmosphere within the camp.

As night arrived, two huge spotlights aimed directly onto the Grand Serail building which is the headquarters of the prime minister. It is located at the heart of downtown Beirut just a few meters away from the Lebanese Parliament. The Grand Serail was illuminated, flooding most of it in light. It was said that many of the MP’s continue to sleep inside (or try to) for fear of leaving and being unable to return. This symbolic message from the opposition couldn’t be clearer.

Near the spotlights is a large banner upon which Condoleeza Rice is portrayed as bending over and teaching pupil Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in “The New Middle East School.”

It reads:

Courses in the following Majors by the teacher Condoleeza Rice:

1) Sectarian conflict

2) Taking countries’ resources by force

3) Corruption and theft

4) Constructing and deconstructing security apparatuses

5) Taking control of free countries’ sovereignty