Sunday, January 28, 2007

Reflecting on Recent Outbreak of Violence

The recent outbreaks of violence reflect a large part of unresolved issues left over from the civil war.

The points of contentions and the political posturing reveal tensions which are completely Lebanese and not foreign. One supporter of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement referred to unresolved issues from the civil war to reinforce his description of deficiencies among various pro-government factions.

Based on his line of argument, Lebanon's decision to avoid national reconciliation talks after the civil war appears to have been a mistake.

However, as of today, it looks like there will be a lull period of two weeks, during which political heads will meet and attempt compromise.

Yet, one should not hold one's breath.

After listening to Rice's remarks at the Paris III conference, it seem the US will only back Siniora's government. The US does not seem keen in reaching compromise with the opposition which could empower the Hezbollah. As Rice explained she thought Siniora would best promote American ideals.

Because of this position, it would seem difficult for pro-government and anti-government forces to reach compromise. The inability to reach compromise on a political level could take a negative turn, as tensions are high and need an outlet to release pressure.

On the street level, things are very tense. Tuesday and Thursday's protests spiralled into the type of violence leaders could not contain.

On Thursday, a mudslinging match between two student at the Beirut Arab Universtiy flared up. "Reinforcements" from different political factions were called in. To stop the escalated situation which turned violent, phone lines were cut on Thursday.

But the protective measure occured too late as "reinforcements" arrived outside the university, armed with sticks, knives for the most part.

However photographs in the local papers the next day revealed that civilians were carrying handguns and semi-automatic machine guns.

As the army shot in the air to keep protesters apart, nerdowells took advantage of the noise to shoot off their weapons.

Local press reported that snipers on roof tops were spotted.

After six hours of strife, things began to calm on their own as the evening set in.

As things cooled, most of Beiurt was in shock. By then Hariri and Nasrallah appealed for calm via phone calls aired on the competing TV channels. A curfew was set in place.

During Thursday's violence which broke out at the university, youths in different parts of the city set up unofficial road blocks asking all drivers for ID papers.

One driver I spoke to the following day was livid. He felt that his religion was being targeted. He explained that when he was asked for his papers, he told the youth he was Lebanese like the youth. By the time he described what had happened he seemed irate, excitedly exclaiming: "We are all Lebanese!"

Unofficial road blocks in general are both provocative and oppressive for those who have lived through the civil war.

The taxi driver who lived through the civil war ws furious that boys who do not remember the civil war would do such a thing.

A second source of frustration to most people on the street, is that the army and police simply can not stop these road blocks from happening.

The army is not equiped to deal with civil disobedience. It neither has rubber bullets, nor water cannons. If they were to use the equipment they had on the streets, it would lead to massive blood shed.

And where there is less army such as outside Beirut, squirmishes have taken place as well. But this time, some have been between competing factions within the Christian community.

The question in front of us, is not only a rivalry between sunnis and shias, but the tensions are also between pro and anti-government movements.

Anti-government movements want a greater share of political representation such as Hezbollah and the popularly led Free Patriotic Movement by Aoun. However, their agenda and approach threatens the status quo.

And in the meantime, a source at the Hariri backed Moustaqbal Youth movement (pro-government) alluded to fueling tensions so as to get international attention. The source explained "we want to media to say Hezbollah led protest" because we want the world to focus on Hezbollah.

So as usual the situation is complicated, and no one is innocent. But civilians who want peace feel threatened.

Because of the recent squirmishes, people in the neighborhood of Tariq Jadideh (pro-government/ Moustaqbal supporter) are complaining about not having weapons, and accusing Hariri of abandoning them by not arming them.

When asked how does a gun help the piece, the answer always points to the need for protection from all of those who do have guns.

When asked why not rely on the army? The answer is what army? How could they stop anyone, they are also members of the society.

Based on the recent events, the general feeling is that the government need to work hard for the next two weeks to decide on compromise which could help de-escalate the crisis and deflect the tension.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Beirut Protests Turn Violent

January 23, 2007 - Beirut

15:48 - Volleys of gunfire went off downstairs. Men scrambled in the street yelling. The Lebanese army worked hard at holding back rival factions from attacking each other. Soldiers ran back and forth forming cordons in attempt to secure the streets and separate the riotous men.

A bullet, then the discharge of a magazine, a second discharge, a single bang, and more gunshots: rioters were not dissuaded from throwing rocks during the gun battle.

From the terrace, looking down eight floors to the street, a man was carried by a group of men, wounded. He was lifted into a SUV, which sped off.

News sources reported different numbers. One source says 100 men were wounded. The Lebanese paper, An Nahar, published 38 wounded of which 25 caused by bullets. As of this evening, today’s events have claimed three lives.

My apartment abuts Hariri's Moustaqbal TV, and is up two buildings from the headquarters of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, and two blocks away from the Corniche which was then filled with pro-Hezbollah and Amal supporters brought up in mini-vans from the south.

On my street corner was the confluence of 3 factions Future Movement (pro-government), Hezbollah/Amal (anti-government), and pro-Syrian nationalist (anti-government), a Sunni/Shia mix. It has been place of tension since early this morning.

I was woken up to men yelling in an altercation. Young Lebanese men were setting garbage on fire in tipped over dumpsters, and lighting tires strewn across the width of the street. Arguments ensued broke out as the army moved in to clear the streets and scatter the men.

The fighting prompted me to go out on a morning walk though the city.

My first stop: the supermarket next door to pick up a phone recharge card. Most of the employees had not made it to work.

Zubaida, a cashier, however was triumphant. "I made it through, it took an hour to come to work. We pushed our way through a road block."

The store manager however was more downcast.

"Do you think half of the staff will make it?" I asked.

She puckered her lips and nodded downwards lowering her eyes. The movement of her head is the Lebanese "no". "I don't think so", she added quietly.

The night before, the opposition forces called for a general strike enforced by blocking the roads to keep people from going to work. The strike was aimed to step up pressure on Prime Minister Siniora to resign. In turn, a resignation, would lead to an interim PM to appoint a new cabinet, hence pro-Syrian government.

Leaving the supermarket, John who accompanied me and I headed out toward the Corniche. We walked toward the towers of black smoke rising from behind the buildings.

Hanging just below Beirut’s skyline was a black film of pollution. The air smelled like burning trash and rubber.

Along the Corniche, by the Pigeon Rocks, men in makeshift dark outfits wore short beards, wollen caps, and cheap shoes. They stood in bands along the street.

There was no traffic. Mini-vans, which had brought the opposition supporters from the countryside, were double-parked in the road. More tires had been set on fire. The army stood by vigilant.

Three lads about sixteen explained that had arrived around 630am. They had come up from Nabatiye, a stronghold of Nabil Berri's Amal and Hezbollah.

"What were they here for?" I asked.

"For Siniora to go out", they answered smiling.

"And then what?" I continued. The boys paused, they did not know.

Coming up to another few men seated on the sidewalk, I asked one man where he came from this morning. "We are all Lebanese", he responded.

"Ok, but where from?" He started up again: "You are from America, we are Lebanese".

I told him I was from France, and Paris to be precise, and asked again, "Where was he from? " He went quiet, not knowing what to answer.

By this time a Hezbollah security guard approached telling everyone to stop speaking to me. The group, which grew in size became more tense. “No more talking” repeated the security guard, and these men seemed to have nothing to say.

The clothes and symbols we wear, the accents we have, our skin color are the inhibiting factors, which led to misunderstanding and silence.

Had I worn something different, would have they told me they were miserable about the unfinished construction; the bribes paid to Berri for ”security”; the laws which complicated reconstruction on illegal plots; the still sporatic electricity; the defunct roads and high unemployment? But rather defiant in their groups they had nothing to say.

Peeling away from the coast, Hamra was quiet. Most shops were closed. There was little movement except for the occasional tough looking motorcycle or scooter driving by. Stains of burned tires marked the street, but there was no more sign of protest.

The only neighborhood devoid of protesters pointed to Hamra’s effective overseer. Left over from civil war days, the monthly "protection" tax paid to the Mafiosi styled boss was obviously a dollar well spent.

Yet Hamra’s calm was misleading. By the time we crossed over to downtown, the tunnel to the airport road was filled with smoke. Youths with covered faced, walking across the littered highway, poked smoldering piles with metal bars.

By Sodoco, a yellow bulldozer pushed dirt across the street building a waist high blockade. Blockades were taking place all across the city, including in other regions of Lebanon.

Sitting on the sidewalk next to young men some of which were masked, the conversation began. "What are you doing here?" they asked.

I am looking at the beige of the dirt, and the black of the smoke. Behind this there is a tall unfinished new building which is beige and black, and behind it is the black poke marks in the beige sandstone war memorial.

"What are you doing here? I asked them.

"What do you think of the country?" they answered.

I think the country is beautiful, "What do you think of the country?" I retorted. “What do think of all this smoke?”

“We want to be given a chance, we want a new government who can give us a second chance”, explained Hussein.

Abdellah Khalaf standing next to Hussein: “We want real independence. Independence against the present government, which talks about unity, but maintains sectarianism at the root of its survival. It divides us. And they are thieves. At the end of the day we want equality between all the sects within the same country, and we want work.”

But the economy is bad and the Lebanese who can afford it are leaving in droves.

The men nodded, Hassan answered: “But they have to come back, we want them to come back. A new government will instill a new economic program which will be good for work.”

Another problem is "I am from the south”, said Hassan, “and the government did not help us this summer in our fight against Israel”.

Another youth joined in: “Now this war is over the government. We only get 2 hours of electricity a day in Dahiye where I live. I feel the government has abandoned us”.

Up at place Sassine in the heart of the Maronite neighborhood of Ashrafiye, Emile Moukarzel, a supporter of the extreme right Christian political group, the Lebanese Forces (pro-government) responds to the statements: “We don’t trust their politics.”

Sittting at Starbucks’ sunlit terrace, Emile wore black aviators and a midnight blue corduroy suit, over a black turtleneck. He explained: “Why do you think Electricity du Liban don’t to collect the electricity bill in Hezbollah neighborhoods. People there haven’t paid for electricity since the end of the civil war, why? It is because they have weapons. They say their weapons are for the outside, but they are for inside.”

“You see, us Maronites, we are Christians and we are Lebanese, we lean to the west. The Hezbollah, they are Muslims, they are Arabs loyal to the East. That is the difference between our national unity and theirs”, continued Emile.

Loudspeakers attached to the top of a white car drove by blaring out a military sounding song. Some people at the terrace stirred. “That is for the Lebanese Forces, it says that we are not scared” Emile said with pride.

“You know, in terms of demographics, we the Christians are smaller than the shias. They have more numbers, but in Lebanon is not based on politics of numbers, politics of pluralism”, emphasized Emile. “To solve this, Lebanon should be split into a federation”.

“But what happens with the split Christian community?” I asked.

The man sitting to my left spoke up: “Aoun is a megalomaniac who has his eye only for the presidential seat. Hezbollah is using him as a Christian cover to get more power in politics. The other problem is that Aoun and Hezbollah want to break the status quo but that is not possible”.

“You see Aoun has switched camps too many times, he was with America, France, and then he turned to for support for Syria and Lebanon. He made deals with president Lahoud, which increased the split along the Christians. No, really the man is a phenomena, he can’t be trusted”.

As we spoke, mobile phones beeped around the terrace announcing text messages. Skirmishes in the popular neighborhood of Corniche Mazraah had broken out between Hezbollah and the Sunnite dominated Hariri party. The army sandwiched between the rival groups was having trouble calming the tensions. Gunshots were reported.

The army was heavily deployed in Corniche Al Mazraah. Most of the crowd had dissipated, by the time we reached the area, however there was still a group of 80 young men, sticks in hand taunting the army. Along the street by the armoured vehicles, hundreds of shell casings littered the ground.

This was one of many flare-ups of violence, which had broken out throughout the country.

A taxi drove up: “Where are you going?” the old taxi driver asked. “Raouche” we answered. “That will be tough, the roads are closed. Where else do you want to go?”

Dropped off near the house, we walked a little more along the Corniche, completing a loop from this morning.

Bored youths were busy hitting street signs with their sticks. Others sat by looking blank. A block away from home, a crowd had amassed in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken, rhythmically thumping the exterior fa├žade of the fast food restaurant.

As we made our way to the apartment, the streets leading to it were filled with crowds of chanting men and soldiers keeping the groups separate. But as groups filtered through different entrances, rioters rushed throwing stones. Within minutes the gunfire had broken out.