Monday, 11 December 2006

Biggest protest in Beirut history

Beirut witnessed biggest protest rally in its history
by Miriyam Aouragh

The mood in Beirut was tensed for almost a week, especially after a young Shia anti-government protester was killed by allegedly pro-government youth. But yesterday seemed more like a celebration, one big festival of resistance, actually reminding me of the great antiwar protests and European Social Forum gatherings. The opposition and their supporters are demanding the formation of a national unity government and a halt to American influence. As the protests intensified since last week, it culminated in this largest political rally ever in the history of Lebanon.

Despite the gigantic turnout yesterday, Western media seemed rather more inclined to deny the political and symbolic significance. While attempting to reach the main sites of the protests, the more than 1,5 million protestors pressured the Mobile Network systems and stop all connection for hours. In Lebanese standards this means around 2/5 citizens were in Beirut to protest, or roughly a quarter of the countries population. Even if it were half this number, it was no wonder the streets were near to empty in the rest of the country’s cities and at least 3 of Beirut’s big public spaces--Riad Solh, Martyr Square, Barbir, were required to host the men, women and children. As any possible entrance and exist to squares seemed to endlessly dwell more and more people, several things raised my attention. First of all, the repeated demand for Lebanon PM Siniora to resign during the highly politicised discourse of the platform speakers, conversations of protestors alike. Especially the links between the government and America, and the weak response to Israel’s assault raised much discontent.

Sheikh Naim Kassem, Hezbollah’s deputy after Nasrallah held one of the strongest speeches evoking massive response from the crowds and “This government will not take Lebanon to the abyss again …. Siniora, you will not be able to rule this country with an American Administration.” was welcomed by ululations and drums. Secondly, the composition of the participants was unique in its very mixed manifestation.

Having followed the Western media before coming to Lebanon, being here now it seems rather outlandish how they continue to portray the protests as merely a “Pro-Syrian Hezbollah coup attempt”—had it been an Eastern European country, hell would have broke loose and a new ‘orange revolution’ baptised, live on CNN and BBC of course. Anyone at the protests could see the reports on Lebanon are a grave misrepresentation, and if true, making it the first ever coup in history that is comprised of 2 million people thus for ever altering the meaning of ‘coup’.

Sundays' protest was also a highly mixed gathering in terms of gender, age and religion. The high participation of Christians Aoun supporters was for example unseen before as major part of the Christian community seem to shift and now publicly speak out for Aoun and against right wing Lebanese Forces leader Ja’Ja’, whose violent history still numbs many. It was normal to find groups of teenagers playing darbouka drums and dancing, next to veiled women feeding their children, students smoking argila and debating in circles, men praying together elsewhere, people passing in wheelchairs, fashionably dressed girls on high heels. And striking were the many female organisers, stewards and journalists present, shattering much of the mantra’s on backward Arab women’s oppression, and equal Western women’s emancipation.

But of course not everybody is merely moving as a flock of sheep behind the political leaders. After talking with some of the activists, it became clear there is also critical debate within this strong unity. People question for example how long this climax can last; what are Nasrallah and Aoun’s interests once they get their way? and what do they think of privatisation? what will happen if the current government succeed to divide and rule the people? Especially the last issue is still a risk in Lebanon’s sensitive political map. But as activist and one of the main organisers of Samidoun network during the war in the summer explained “With the strong urbanisation, and demographic and class composition changed over the last 30 years, also the interests and (artificial) hegemony of the different regional and religious sects witness a change which should be taken into account.”

Troops continue to guard government offices and main traffic junctions but it seems like people are not very impressed, or simply got used to it. Indeed, while hundreds shouted ‘Siniora Out!’ ‘We want a government for all, not just for the rich!” there are rumours that the protests might spark a civil war, but the mass protests has in fact been peaceful. The Shia, Sunni and Christian clerics and politicians, repeatedly pointed at unity and crossing all sectarian divisions, these expressions were welcomed by massive applause and cheers. To be honest, one rather gets afraid sitting at home alone and listening to the establishment continuously warning for sectarian conflicts and civil war. Because being together in the streets, inside the camping debate tents, and at the rallies this week, was actually pleasant and very safe, with a comradely open atmosphere.

Lebanon’s internal political enemies saw several ‘showdowns’ since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, but with the latest non-violent mass protest, it is dangerous for the Lebanese government and its Western allies to treat these protests as marginal, yet again alienating itself from the people. The protests are due to be followed by indefinite sit-ins, blockades of the highway road to the airport, and possible strikes now that several unions support the anti-government protest. If there is not going to be a civil war or violent internal sectarian strive as some automatic ‘Lebanese reflex’, than for Ghassan: ”it is most probably going to signify and introduce a shift from the old sectarian system because the majority of the people now simply says they don’t want it anymore.” And more so interesting; as the working and lower-middle classes dominate at the protests, unlike the pro Hariri protests, their often expressed economic demands cannot just be waved off as meaningless for the ‘national’ agenda. Ghassan and the leftist groups are therefore expressing concrete demand "If there will be new elections, than we want it based on 'proportionate representation', because a secular and democratic transition will break down the remaining sectarian elements, although the main parties are reluctant to go this far". The course of the protests will have to show how the developments will balance, for now the opposition as a whole seem to share a common interest to rid the government.