BEIRUT — I returned to Beirut after eight months and a hot summer war and found that the city had little changed, at least on the surface. My old neighborhood in West Beirut was intact. Civil war reconstruction continued downtown. More restaurants and pubs had opened close-in on the east side of the city. Solidere sported a brand-new Starbucks. Beirut did not appear to be reeling from war. Post-Syrian gentrification had proceeded as scheduled.
On second glance, though, all was not well. I was the only guest in my eight-story hotel, and I genuinely shocked the staff when I stepped into the lobby first thing in the morning. “Why are you still here?” one bartender asked me. Almost all my friends and even acquaintances left the country during the July War and hadn’t returned. Milk was still hard to come by in grocery stores and even some restaurants because the Israeli Air Force destroyed Lebanon’s milk factory. Party and sectarian flags were flown on the streets in abundance, a tell-tale sign that the post-Syrian patriotism and unity were coming apart.
All that and, you know, the private army of an enemy state was threatening to topple the government.
I had barely arrived and recovered from jet lag before Hezbollah took over the streets. I asked Carine, one of my few remaining friends, if she wanted to join me downtown for the festivities, but she refused to be seen anywhere near the made-for-TV event. She didn’t want to artificially inflate Hezbollah’s head-count by one. So I went down there alone with my camera and notepad.
Aside from Hezbollah, the Baath Party, and a few irrelevant crackpots on the radical left, no one in the world thinks of liberal-democratic protests and sit-ins in Lebanon as a “crisis.” But nearly everyone — including the Arab League and every Arab government in the world except for Syria’s — recognizes, for one set of reasons or another, that it’s a problem when a guerilla and terrorist army loyal to another state tries to topple an elected government.
I try my best to be accurate. But these reports are not “objective.” My writing is personal and unapologetically biased. If you want bloodless and neutral coverage of the ongoing crisis in Lebanon, find a writer or reporter who doesn’t care about Lebanon, who can shrug at its problems, who only cares about the place because it’s a “story,” who can yawn and sleep soundly while it convulses and explodes. There are plenty around. The rest of us will take sides.
I ate breakfast at Paul, a little French bistro across the street from a Lebanese army checkpoint that marked the beginning of Hezbollah’s freshly occupied territory downtown. The café was a bit quieter than usual, but if you had just parachuted into Lebanon, hadn’t picked up a newspaper, stayed inside the little bubble the bistro provided, and refrained from discussing the impending crisis, you would have no idea a political storm was scheduled and coming.
Many Beirutis in the Sunni and Christian neighborhoods (which is to say, most of Beirut) feared political and sectarian violence in the streets. I didn’t so much, at least not at that time. The Lebanese army had deployed in full force. The city looked like a besieged war-time capital braced for an invasion.
Hezbollah also dispatched their “discipline” men to prevent and break up fights. It was oddly comforting, but nevertheless so, that Hezbollah’s pragmatic higher-ups would be protecting me and everyone else from their fans. Many people worried about civil war, but no one seemed to want it. So there was no war.
Hezbollah wasn’t the big threat in any case. Hezbollah is Lebanese. Hezbollah has to live there with Christians and Sunnis and Druze. More worrisome were what one former Aounist I know calls “the flies on their backs” — the Syrian intelligence agents who have every incentive to foment chaos and violence.
The rally was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. I went downtown at 1:00.
Die hard supporters of Hezbollah set out early into the empty streets of Beirut
Hezbollah asked (ordered?) its members and followers to fly only Lebanese flags at the rally downtown. A swarming mass of menacing green and yellow “resistance” flags wouldn’t look good in front of the cameras.
So Hezbollah waved the benign and patriotic cedar tree flag instead.
Some Hezbollah supporters didn’t get the memo or chose to ignore it.
But the “resistance” logo for the most part wasn’t in evidence.
Most Lebanese Christians, Sunnis, and Druze never visit Hezbollah’s strongholds. “Why the hell would I want to go there?” a friend once asked me. “For some sight-seeing?”
I go to Hezbollah, though, and I did it again a few times on this trip. After having done so within days of the rally, the sheer cynicism of flying the Lebanese flag in front of the cameras is painfully obvious.
Lebanese flags are ubiquitous in the Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions of Lebanon. Lebanon is perhaps the most be-flagged country I’ve ever seen. But Lebanese flags scarcely exist in the areas under control by Hezbollah. (They have a state-within-a-state, after all, with parallel institutions, schools, military, police, and foreign policy. Why not flags, too?) The cedar tree flags downtown are mere props in a media battle. Hezbollah wants to look mainstream and patriotic. A road trip to the south shows this is a lie. (I’ll document my trip south in future articles.)
Michel Aoun’s (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement did fly its orange flags downtown, though.
The Aounists are Hezbollah’s Christian fig leaf, the only non-Shia party of any significance that dared form an alliance with a party so implacably hostile to the Lebanese project. What good would a fig leaf be if it were invisible? So the Aounists burnished their orange. The Aounists had to be seen.
I felt better with the Aounists around. The Hezbollah demonstrators who came downtown two hours early were the true believers, the ones who would have come down even if Hezbollah had not paid them to do so. (Each person was paid 30 dollars to attend the rally, and everyone who stayed downtown in the camps was paid another 30 dollars for each day they stayed.) Hardly any women were down there at 1:00, and many of the men who were there were pumped full of macho swagger like coked-up frat boys looking for fights.
The Christian Aounists in orange may be fools for forming an alliance with a bullying Islamist army. But they are civilized people who have no interest in war or jihad. I knew that if anyone in the crowd were to give me any trouble the nearest group of Aounists could provide a friendly refuge. I do not agree with their politics, but I instinctively like and trust them as people. (You would, too, if you knew them as I do.)
A handful of other micro-parties showed up — Marada, the Communists, and a few that were so insignificant I did not know they existed until I ran into them. Most damning was the presence of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
The SSNP, founded by Antun Saada in 1932 and modeled after the Nazi and Fascist parties of Germany and Italy, is the most vicious and sinister of all Lebanon’s parties, more so even than Hezbollah. Last week seven members were arrested by Lebanese police and several truckloads of weapons and explosives were captured. Ali Qanso, the party leader, defensively said “we are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.” If the Syrians use Lebanese proxies to carry out bombings and assassinations, the SSNP are most likely the culprits.
(Johns Hopkins Professor Fouad Ajami, who grew up as a Shia in South Lebanon, wrote about Saada and the SSNP at length in his masterful Dream Palace of the Arabs.)
Their flag is a spinning swastika. Naturally they are aligned with Hezbollah and belong to the so-called “March 8” opposition coalition.
Hezbollah blasted ear-splitting military music through gigantic speaker towers. Some of it was cheesy and sounded more or less like the same patriotic pop I heard at March 14 rallies last year. Some of it, though, sounded exactly like the soundtrack to a fascist putsch or revolution.
Squads of rowdy militant teenagers shouted “Nasrallah! Nasrallah! Nasrallah!” and violently pumped fists in the air.
A loutish gang of young Shia men walked along the line of separation between the downtown rally and middle class Christian East Beirut. They loudly booed and jeered as they looked east, all but daring the residents to come out and “get some.” Echoes of Northern Ireland.
A twelve year old kid with a Hezbollah flag saw me and sneered.
Hezbollah’s own security goons with their walkie talkies and ear pieces stared at me and closely watched every single move I made.
A small angry-looking child dressed in military fatigues wandered around loose on his own.
It was a slightly creepy environment, but for the most part uneventful. Nobody got in my face (yet). So I went back to Gemmayze in East Beirut and had a beer while waiting for more people to show up.
Gemmayze begins only one block from downtown where the rally was held, but its quieter civilized streets felt like another country.
I snapped a quick photo of a “No War” sticker on the door to a French bar called Godot.
“That’s from July,” the bartender said as he stepped out to talk to me. “It is not from this war.”
“You think this is a war?” I said.
“It is shit,” he said. “It’s bad for everybody, for the government and the opposition.”
“You’re independent then,” I said.
“I have no side,” he said. “I’m proud to be Lebanese, but I have no side.”
His name was Chibli and he told me Godot was open throughout the July War. His little bar became something of a haven for visiting foreign correspondents. I didn’t see any visiting foreign correspondents in Godot on that day, nor anywhere else on any other day either.
Godot was closed, though, until 4:00. So I went to Torino, the only place open in a neighborhood where support for Aounists was slim and support for Hezbollah has always been zero.
Such a surreal place, Beirut. Inside the bar was a world of hipsters, booze, good conversation, Italian-style espresso, flirting, and Depeche Mode on the stereo. Outside was Hezbollah, guns, tanks, and the army.
A car roared past bristling with Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Marada flags. Marada is a tiny party in North Lebanon headed by Suleiman Franjieh — who lost his parliament seat in the last election — that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Syrian Baath Party. Seeing Aounists and Marada in the same car was truly bizarre. During most of Syria’s post-war occupation of Lebanon the Aounists were at times the only people in the country who bravely demonstrated in public against the regime. They were beaten, arrested, and sometimes tortured for their acts of defiance. Aoun’s newfound alliance with the old enemy enrages most of the Christian community. The FPM is less popular than ever as a result.
Tension within the Christian community is higher now than it has been since the end of the war 15 years ago. But the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance lowers the tension between Christians and Shia. Since the odds of inter-Christian fighting are vanishingly close to zero and the odd of Christian-Shia fighting are slightly higher, the Aounists may have a point when they say their alliance with Nasrallah is a buffer against civil war. Nevertheless, the alliance is ugly to see.
I went back downtown at 2:45. The crowd was burgeoning now, and genuinely enormous.
Martyr’s Square, though, and the gigantic empty spaces around it, were blocked off by razor wire and the army.
Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is buried across the street from Martyr’s Square, and his grave had to be protected from tens of thousands of angry Shia who might desecrate it if a mob mentality were to develop. So when you see photos of large masses of Hezbollah protesters, keep in mind that the anti-Syrian rally on March 14 of last year filled the same space you see above in addition to filling the much larger Martyr’s Square area to the east of downtown.
Hezbollah likes to claim their rally was larger. But it is not physically possible for it to have been larger. They filled the space allotted to them, but they had much less space to fill.
The Aounists have the dubious distinction of having been present at both rallies. I doubt they understand how these photographs are interpreted abroad, and how crazy it must look that a supposedly liberal Christian political party is aligned with an Islamist terror militia. Don’t they understand that this makes Lebanon look like a nation of terrorists and terror supporters to people outside the country? Lebanon’s politics are strange and misleading enough to people who understand how the internal jockeying and consensus system works.
So when I found two Aounists in orange sitting at an outdoor table at the French café next to downtown I asked if I could join them and if they would be willing to explain themselves to a primarily American audience.
“Of course,” they both warmly said and gestured for me to sit.
“Pull up a seat,” said the man on the left. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
Click here to read the next installment.
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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten