Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

"Who's burning Beirut?" January 29, 2007.

Beirut was burning again last week, and wealthy donor nations met in Paris to discuss aid for reconstruction after last summer's war. Who is doing what and how does it get reported? World report wants to know.

Protests that had run in Beirut continuously and nearly non-violently for almost two months came to an end this week.

American reports on the protests usually state that "Hezbollah militants are trying to bring down Fouad Siniora's elected government."

European and Middle Eastern reports may point out that Siniora has refused to form a unity government.

Zaid Al-Ali, an attorney at the New York Bar who specialises in international commercial arbitration, described the conflict for openDemocracy in the UK early last December, using somewhat less partisan terms: "The opposition demands that the government should step down and that new elections should be held but the government refuses" (Al-Ali openDemocracy Dec 8 06), he said.

If the current Lebanese government has a majority in parliament then why, you might ask, should it step down?

Ali explains, "It was clear immediately after the ceasefire was declared on 14 August 2006 that, one way or another, a realignment would have to take place within the government."

The March 14 coalition which had formed the government after the Cedar Revolution in March 2005 argues that its government is legitimate and that a change of cabinet can only be accomplished when the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud leaves office, or through dialogue between all parties, and a package deal that includes the disarming of Hezbollah. (Sami Moubayed ATol Jan 27 07)

But Hezbollah is not the only opposition player. Also in early December, the Guardian's Clancy Chassay reported from Beirut that on the third day of protests--that would be December 3--"tens of thousands of Christians gathered to support the opposition which is calling for the western-backed government to step aside and allow the formation of a more inclusive cabinet."

"More inclusive cabinet" in this context refers to Hizbollah's demand that the government be reconstituted to include the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a mainly Christian party headed by former General Michel Aoun that has been in opposition since 2005.

According to Ali, "Many Lebanese argue that Aoun is the only politician with a genuine political programme designed not to protect privilege but to promote economic and social growth in the country" (Al-Ali Dec 8 06).

That may surprise Canadians. When it reported on the event at all, the CBC usually referred to the protesters as "Hezbollah supporters" or a "coalition of largely pro-Syrian opposition groups."

On December 10, a CBC headline proclaimed "Hordes of Hezbollah supporters protest against Lebanon's government." Buried halfway down the piece, one sentence did concede that "Christian factions are split between the two camps."

But the FPM do not fall easily under either the Hezbollah or the pro-Syrian rubric. They are Christians, not Shi'a Muslims, and prior to March 14, 2005, Aoun was staunchly opposed to Syrian control of the country and spent 15 years in exile.

In a statement issued on December 6, 2006, Aoun declared that "(those) who are ruling us today were in power during the era of Syrian tutelage. They only changed their masters...(This) corrupted government, which has an economic strategy based only on loans and debts, is incapable of carrying out reforms that would allow a better use of the assistance".

A week before the CBC headline about "hordes of Hezbollah supporters" according to the Guardian, "Organizers estimated that more than 70,000 Christians gathered for the mass outside Saint Joseph cathedral... [on] the third day of anti-government protests."

Sonya Saab, a 35-year-old advertising manager told the Guardian "The Christians are being marginalised today, just as they were under the Syrians. We are invisible to the foreign media," she said sitting outside one of the hundreds of white tents erected to accommodate the opposition's indefinite sit-in to bring down the government.

Al-Ali describes

"Walking in downtown Beirut [during the first weeks of the protest as] a curious, inspiring yet somewhat depressing affair. The area [he said] remains one of the busiest in the city, but the usual crowds of bourgeois families dawdling in restaurants too expensive for most Lebanese to visit have been replaced by a stream of protestors from less privileged backgrounds who are calling for the government's demise.

"All open spaces have been occupied by tents and protestors who spend their time either chanting witty anti-government slogans, [or] singing, smoking water-pipes and sleeping. The vast majority are peaceful, although the skirmishes that have taken place have prompted the army to issue a rare statement appealing for an end to the country's political deadlock. At the same time, the sit-in has forced another economic slump - almost all the businesses in the area, some of the most important ones in the country, have shuttered their doors" (Ali openDemocracy Dec 8 06).

This week almost two months later during a general strike called for Tuesday, violence erupted in Beruit and additional fighting broke out on Thursday at the campus of Beirut Arab University and the offices of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Opposition groups claim that the government, and armed groups loyal to parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri, ordered sabotage in the streets of Lebanon, to give the opposition a bad image. Aoun added that the Lebanese Forces (LF) of his Christian opponent Samir Geagea (also a member of the March 14 coalition) were armed in the streets of Beirut, stationed as snipers on rooftops, attacking members of Hezbollah and the FPM.

"We did not attack people or property," Aoun said, adding, "unlike Lebanese Forces militiamen who came down armed with guns and looking for blood." The general...accused the Lebaneses Forces of trying to establish 'militia rule' in Lebanon. He asked: "What kind of a government condemns the burning of tires but not the deadly attacks by armed men?"

The first day of chaos led to the killing of three and the wounding of 340 from all parties." Within 24 hours the demonstrations were over.

At the same time, Arab and western governments were meeting in Paris to pledge $7.6 billion of aid to Lebanon.

It has to be said that G7 governments and their allies who were present in Paris are in the habit of pledging the same money over again as often as they think the press will continue to report it. Typically, they also promise much more than they deliver. Then there is the so-called ghost aid. In Canada's case, more than 50% of aid money is "tied" which means that it has to be spent on Canadian products and expertise. So that it is not so much aid as it is a grant to our own economy.

Perhaps more important, might be to remember that "Of all of the major political parties in [the Lebanese] government [and all the governments in the world], Hizbollah was the quickest to react. Hot on the heels of its impressive resistance against the might of the Israeli military, the party announced the day after hostilities ended that it - and not the government - would compensate all victims of the war. This created an incredible impression of professionalism, power, efficiency and sensitivity throughout the country and the Arab region as a whole" (Ali Dec 8 06). Hezbollah was putting actual cash in people's hands more than 5 months before the promises arrived from the big, wealthy donor nations in Paris.

According to Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, Saudi, Iranian and Syrian authorities at the very highest level have been consulting with one another "to resolve the Lebanese crisis and achieve a just settlement that would be satisfactory to both parties".

For its part, "the US State Department released a statement blaming the opposition for the violence and saying it was 'deeply concerned' about Lebanese factions 'allied with Syria' that 'are trying to use violence, threats and intimidation to impose their political will on Lebanon'" (Ghazal Daily Star Jan 24 07).

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "... we won't work with individual ministers from Hezbollah and we won't meet with them."

"In Beirut on Friday, Hezbollah supporters appealed for unity among Lebanon's factions at a funeral for a student shot during clashes on Thursday between government loyalists and Hezbollah followers that killed four people" (Reuters Jan 26 07).

Parliamentry Speaker Nabih Berri and the Leader of the Future Movement Saad Al-Hariri on Thursday called for self-restraint on the part of their followers urging them to evacuate the streets as a result of the earlier clashes.

After violence erupted, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, the charismatic Hezbollah leader, issued a fatwa asking the Lebanese people quote "to fully cooperate with the Lebanese Army and to respect army measures already adopted or those due to be adopted in the next few hours. Everyone should evacuate the streets, remain calm and leave the stage for the Lebanese Army and security forces."

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