Monday, February 28, 2005

Eyes on Beirut

Anyone who would like a front row seat to another historic sequence of events should direct his attention to Lebanon.
The popular press carries so many reports of bombs and assassinations that it is hard to figure out which ones are most imporant. All are tragic, like the street crimes other tragedies that the media uses as they create what passes for news. But not all are historic. My sense is that events now unfolding in Lebanon are not routine. Forces that have been in place for years, the balance of power called by one source "Pax Syriana" because of Syria's powerful influence in the region, are beginning to shift. The political equivalent of a tsunami seems to be about to happen.

This most recent car-bombing of a Lebanese leader has galvanized popular opposition to Syrian overseers in a way that has not happened before. It is possible that Syrian power can again succeed in subduing yet another attempt to disturb Syrian hegemony. But this time, finally, there seems to be something of a critical mass that has not been seen before.

Bloggers who live in the area are reporting.
Here are snips from one blog that read like a movie script.

Monday post:
As many people know by now, the opposition to the government here has planned a general strike for Monday, Feb. 27 to coincide with the parliamentary deliberations on the Hariri assassination and the expected confidence vote. There is also a planned surge in the ongoing demonstrations at Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut (see previous posts) on the same day, and Lebanon's security services have been busying themselves since yesterday afternoon erecting barricades, diverting traffic, closing area business (including pubs and restaurants in the downtown area), and basically making their presence felt quite effectively.

New TV (and others) echo the report that all demonstrations and protests are banned until further notice, and a curfew will be in effect starting Monday morning. I am not sure when exactly this curfew will begin, or even which parts of the city are affected - this is often the case with such announcements here. Maybe the Interior Ministry's announcement was originally explicit and clear and the television stations just messed up their version of the announcement; getting accurate information about anything around here often requires the ability to read minds as well as to disregard the reams of inaccurate information that many people are so eager to provide. Regardless, nobody seems to care right now; my wife and I just came from Monot Street (most of the restaurants and clubs are open, but they are empty - best time to get a late dinner, by the way) in lower Achrafieh. Instead, everyone seems to have made the last half-kilometer walk from Monot down to Hariri's gravesite, for there are thousands of people there right now.

I have no idea how they authorities here are planning on enforcing a curfew in THIS town anyway.

Agence France Presse seems to have better information than Lebanese television - the protest ban goes into effect at 1:00 a.m. local time. Also, it appears that as I write this, interior ministry troops have begun exercising crowd control measures to disperse the protesters in the area. And right in the middle of a speech by Nayla Mouawad, too. Their efforts seem to be having little effect on the core group of protesters, only on new arrivals, it seems.

And this morning...
Future TV reports that Walid Jumblatt is now with the protesters in the downtown area (haven't seen him yet on TV, but all his deputies are there at the time I write this). Also, far from the intentions of the security services surrounding the protest site, Lebanese soldiers appear to be yielding to protesters that manage to evade the primary dragnets around the area - just letting them through in some cases, and in others waiting for a crowd to develop before letting them join the core group. Right now, it looks like additional protesters are having a fairly easy time getting in to the demonstrations as long as they come on foot and just keep walking until they find a weak spot in the cordon. One commentator on Future even noted that soldiers themselves are directing protesters to the aforementioned weak points. We can infer that there exists substantial sympathy for the opposition within the Lebanese army at this point. Prime Minister Karami is watching his comments about the weakness of the army develop a life of their own, I guess; he should not be at all surprised.

In the October 2000 demonstrations in Yugoslavia that deposed Slobodan Milosevic, it was precisely this kind of sympathy for the opposition within the security services that ended the Milosevic government. Milosevic had become too reliant on his interior ministry police and on rural thugs who were on his payroll to intimidate his opponents, and he paid for it when a real opposition to his regime developed. Ultimately, the checkpoints of his own police were coopted with money; demonstrations grew in numbers and in strength; security cordons collapsed; the parliament was breached. Within days Yugoslavia had a new president, and within weeks Milosevic had been arrested by his own interior ministry police.

As I said in a previous post, following Lebanese politics is not only dry, but complicated.
This is different. The streets is where the political rubber hits the road.
For anybody who is interested, two or three bloggers seem to be doing an excellent job of reporting. If any of them has any hidden agenda, I have not been able to find it so far.

Abu Aardvark............Across the Bay............Caveman in Beirut

This is exciting and important stuff.
Those who fail to make room on their plate for some of this will later wish they had.

* * * * *
...the political elite of the opposition, the Maronite Church, and the masses -- are saying on the streets. They want a free, independent and sovereign Lebanon. Jumblat has been talking like the most ardent Lebanonist of the '40s. The idea of a consociational Lebanon ... is what people are effectively saying when they come together for Lebanon, as Lebanese Druze, Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, etc. In other words, the thing that unites them in their diversity is Lebanon. But not any Lebanon, rather, it's a Lebanon where all these communities coexist and share power. You cannot get any more Lebanonist than that.
...Lebanese Muslims got a taste of the Arab order for a quarter of a century, where they paid a high price in assassination and heavy-handedness. Finally, it was enough. Syria tried to hit the Druze (Hamade) and the Sunnis (Hariri) and both have dumped that quintessentially Arab nationalist political order and opted for a free, pluralist (i.e., one that doesn't deny the Sunnis' Arab identity) and sovereign Lebanon with its political system which is based on consensus and compromise, not assassination and oppression. So it was indeed that "shared enemy" so-to-speak that managed to spark the conviction that the best way for Lebanon (and Lebanese Sunni Muslims and the Lebanese Druze) is for it to be separate from Syria and to run its affairs in its own way (in anthropological terms, this is called the "circumstantialist" understanding of the formation and formulation of ethnic identity and the drawing of ethnic boundaries. It's responsive and interactive. It's opposed to the "primordialist" view which sees ethnic identity as a pre-established static constant.) It wasn't the civil war alone that gave rise to a nation (cf. Theodor Hanf). It was life under the Pax Syriana that made all the Lebanese realize that they can do a lot better dealing with themselves by themselves in a Lebanon big enough for all of them and shared by all of them as their homeland. Josh Landis once wrote on his site how the Lebanese Sunnis were stuck: on the one hand, they have sympathies for an Arab identity, and most adopt it. On the other hand, as Lebanese, they also have a sense of uniqueness. However, as Josh pointed out, they don't have an independent Lebanese narrative of their own! The Lebanese narrative is de facto a Christian-written narrative. Ironically, as Asher Kaufman points out in his book, this narrative (even the Phoenicianist element) has become so pervasive that even those who oppose it are influenced by it. But more importantly, maybe these current events, which have drawn Jumblat into an effectively Lebanonist rhetoric, will inspire that Sunni narrative. That needs to be watched closely. The Syrians knew the importance of the Sunnis when they planned the hit. Unfortunately, they didn't plan on this reaction. They certainly didn't plan on the "lebanonization" of the Sunnis.

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