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Eyewitness in Beirut: A Truly Divided Nation


A pseudonymous friend in Beirut sent this eye-witness report, on December 3.

A truly divided nation

Time will tell what today's developments in central Beirut will bring, but this morning's two major events are symbolic of the deep divide that separates the political camps which now make up Lebanon.

Enemies of the Nation

My Sunni Muslim wife and I returned at noon from the 2006 International Beirut Marathon, which had been postponed for one week because of the period of mourning following the assassination of the conservative Maronite-Catholic Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel on 21 November. Traditionally located in and around the predominantly Sunni old city of Ras Beirut, this event symbolically begins just across the former "Green Line" in predominantly Eastern Orthodox Achrafieh. To get to the starting point we had to pass by the now massive tent city surrounding the Serail, or Lebanese parliament, in which the democratically elected, so called 14th of March majority is now holed up. Seeing that we were obviously marathon participants, a likeable, young, orange clad guard, supporting former Military Commander Michel Aoun warned us to stay clear of the campers, many of whom would consider us to be "enemies of the nation" because we were not part of their opposition movement.

The climate in the capital was relaxed in the early morning hours; getting past the sleepy campers, making breakfast between their Hizbollah military tents and material appropriated from summer refugee donations by the Saudi and Turkish Red Crescents, proved to be unproblematic. The segments of the camp were clearly divided up along party lines in disciplined military fashion, this operation obviously well planned in advance. Only the tiny Communist camp grounds were made up of civilian tents bearing images of "sainted" Che Guevara and their party's legendary hammer and sickle.

Reminiscent of a medieval besieging army, the opposition's tents lay in formation at the foot of the historical Ottoman complex housing both the Lebanese Parliament and the offices of the Council of Ministers, Lebanon's governing body. Although those opposing the country's first fully democratically elected government couldn't be more at odds on social, cultural, economic and philosophical issues, they are united in their insistence that the American/European backed leaders must go. Made up of a wide spectrum of Islamists, Marxists, secular nationalists and former Christian and Muslim warlords, it would seem clear that this coalition is bound to collapse the moment they achieve their goal, leaving the field open for Hizbollah to take control of their disintegrating ranks.

Cosmopolitan Rainbow

The mood within the crowds of marathon participants couldn't have been more at odds with that in the tent city. The hundreds who actually run the 42 kilometre event Ė along with a large contingent of "special" wheelchair contenders - are joined each year by tens of thousands of social activists, families with children, school classes and commercial sponsors. Their much shorter "Fun Run" offers artists, human rights activists, neighbourhood initiatives and student groups the opportunity to air their goals and demands creatively, while helping to swell the ranks of the marathon and help cover its expenses.

Without intending to do so in advance, the International Lebanese Marathon participants represented the other - many would say the true - Lebanese nation. The huge Marathon Village, which had been set up in mid November by the commercial sponsors and NGOs supporting the annual event, had remained in place during the week that the marathon was postponed. As we signed up the previous day, collecting our runner's number, info materials and bag of sponsored goodies, many working in the "village," which looked more like a fair grounds, were apprehensive about the next day. My wife and I ran in the "Equal Citizenship" bloc of the Fun Run, which demanded that women have the right to give their Lebanese nationality to their children and husbands. Our group was made up of '68 vintage feminists, young women wearing the Muslim "hijab" covering, foreign fathers from Europe, the Middle East and North America and a variety of sympathisers.

It Takes Two to Tango - Call their Bluff!

From where I stand, the overwhelming majority of the Lebanese do not stand behind the opposition. Though as divided as their political enemies, the pro-government factions are united around the desire to rebuild their country economically, institute a European style rule-of-law political system based on EuroMed membership and prepare the country for its next round of national elections in 2009. Though seldom mentioned, the draft election law, which was presented to the nation 6 weeks before the outbreak of the Summer 2006 War between Israel and Hizbollah, may actually be the main reason for the opposition's fear of democratic transition. The new law was discussed and drafted in one of the most transparent and democratic processes that I have observed since living and working in Beirut as of 1999. It enjoys the backing of all major Western human rights and electoral reform NGOs and would begin the process of gradual political secularisation, foreseen in the Taif Agreement, that ended the Civil War in 1990.

It is only a matter of time before the forces gathered around the Serail will attempt to storm the parliament. Rumour has it, and I have been able to independently confirm this, that it was the Saudi government which forced them to back down on the evening of the first day of demonstrations on 1 December. Whatever the opposition does, the government should not resort to counter-violence. The only thing uniting the disparate oppositional forces is their common foe; they have neither a clear list of demands nor a project for the nation. With each blow, the Council of Ministers should take one step backwards while at the same time continuing to govern the nation and represent the will of the majority of the population. Sooner or later the misguided and opportunistic within the ranks of the Hizbollah lead forces will begin to melt away, revealing both their "unity movement's" real goals and actual power structures. The sight of this should be motivation enough for the 14th of March supports to regroup and re-establish their authority.

As we headed home in the bright noontime sun, after enjoying this year's multicultural 10 kilometre Fun Run, we passed a contingent of several hundred Communist demonstrators heading for centre city to help topple the government. Calling for an end to global imperialism and Western intervention, this group seemed strangely out of place. One wonders what the Islamist leadership plans to do with these and other supporters once they reach their goals. Can one find the answer in the study of recent Iranian history?

Evgen Sencnik

Beirut 14:30, Sunday, 03 December 2006

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Replies: 1 Comment

Though I agree with the authors comment that the Lebaneese government would best expose the hardened Hezbollah supporters by responding non-violently; One should also consider the perception of other groups who seek to topple the government. If the government appears weak to their people; the peolpe will loose faith in them. If the government appears weak to the other aggressors it will engourage them to launch attacks as well. Lebanon is in a fragile political situation. Though they may get the approval of the west, the west will not send aid on their behalf. It is up to the current government to control the situation. This requires skillfull PC and strong, loyal security forces to maintain control. Fighting violence with peace only works when used against an oppressor and you have the eye of the world on you. The Lebaneese government is not viewed as a helpless people under the thumb of imperialists; they are on their own.

Posted by OMFG @ 12/05/2006 07:16 PM CST

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