by the stormy present
Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:32:20 AM EST
The protests are being portrayed in much of the Western media as a sectarian battle, or a coup attempt--engineered by Hezbollah's two main allies, Syria and Iran--against a US-backed Lebanese government. Those are indeed factors underlying the complex and dangerous political dance happening in Beirut. But the biggest motivator driving many of those camped out in downtown isn't Iran or Syria, or Sunni versus Shiite. It's the economic inequality that has haunted Lebanese Shiites for decades. It's a poor and working-class people's revolt.
An important article from the diaries -- whataboutbob
I get a little frustrated by popular misconceptions about what's happening in Lebanon -- and not just misconceptions in the media, but on blogs, including a recent post on Daily Kos that was lauded on the front page but woefully lacking in some critical information; the comments were even worse. Everyone acts like they know what they're talking about, but very few people do.
That's one of the reasons I don't write much about Lebanon here, even though I know the place reasonably well. It's impossible to really know all of it, and impossible to talk about with any sophistication without including a raft of background and disclaimers about absolutely everyone involved. Nothing is ever, ever, ever simple in Lebanon.
So it is with great pleasure that I can recommend this article by Mohamad Bazzi, which ran in The Nation earlier this month.
A major theme highlighted by the protesters is that Siniora is backed by the Bush Administration--and that alliance did little to help Lebanon during last summer's thirty-four-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. A few days into the sit-in, Hezbollah hung a large banner from a building showing Siniora embracing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, over a collage of dead Lebanese children Photoshopped onto his back. It reads, "Condy--Thanks," a reference to Siniora's meeting with Rice during the war, when US officials refused to endorse a quick cease-fire. "Thank you for your patience Condy, for some of our children are still alive," it reads.
But in most conversations with people at the sit-in and protests, economic concerns quickly emerge: Siniora's government is corrupt, has failed to reduce Lebanon's crippling $41 billion public debt and has done little to improve people's lives. Shiites are especially forgotten in the country's economic planning. Many at the sit-in have been out of work for years, or lost their jobs after the recent war.
"Our country is getting poorer, and Siniora's government is not talking about it," says Hadi Mawla, a 22-year-old graphic design student who came from the dahiyeh on the protest's first day, which drew hundreds of thousands to downtown. "Our standard of living is falling, while other Arab countries are improving. We Lebanese used to make fun of other Arab countries. Now they have great big cities like Dubai. And we're going to end up like Egypt--with a very poor class, a very rich class and nothing in between."
This class battle transcends sectarian boundaries. Hezbollah has formed an alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Maronite Christian politician and former army commander Michel Aoun. With this coalition Hezbollah is trying to prove that it's not a purely sectarian party, it's not seeking to impose an Islamic government and it's willing to ally not just with nationalist Sunnis but also with Christians. Because Aoun stresses honest government, accountability and economic equality, he and Hezbollah seemed like a natural fit. By playing up its alliance with Aoun--and downplaying its partnership with the notoriously corrupt Shiite Amal party--Hezbollah can reinforce the reputation for honesty shared by many Islamist movements in the Middle East.
To many Shiites, Hezbollah's ascendance put them on the political map. There's a word Lebanese have used to put down a Shiite: mutawali, which roughly translates into "country bumpkin." It's a term freighted with meaning--of dispossession, prejudice, deprivation. But Shiites have appropriated it and now use it with pride. "During the civil war, we mutawalis were insulted and put down. Hezbollah gave us a new sense of dignity, and that's the most important right we can have," says Mawla, the graphic design student. "Hezbollah made it possible for us to stand, without fear, and shout from the rooftops that we are mutawalis."
It's a long article, and I encourage everyone to go read it in full. (And, for the record, it's much better than anything Robert Fisk has to offer....)
As for what's been happening in the last three days... as Bazzi says, it's a dangerous time. My view is that the leaders of both sides have been playing a very dangerous game of brinksmanship, spreading misinformation and exacerbating the political divisions in a matching pair of cynical power plays. The rhetoric has gotten angrier and more intransigent, and there is no sign that either side is willing to compromise. The leaders are manipulating their followers, pushing buttons that should not be pushed.
Something needs to change, but I hope against hope that it does not happen through violence.
To close, more Bazzi:
Locked in a state of perpetual conflict, Lebanon today faces the same choice it had in 1990, when the civil war ended. It can replicate the political system that it had before--based on corrupt sectarian warlords dividing up the spoils of the war they perpetuated--or it can try to produce a stronger and more egalitarian system, one that isn't based on religious divisions and that won't consign its largest sect, the Shiites, to the care of an Iranian-funded religious party.
We can only hope.