The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Beirut demonstration

I think one of the reasons that the turnout of yesterday's demonstration in Beirut was so large was partly because many Lebanese (much more than the demonstrators of the so-called Cedar Revolution) resent foreign interference from the West and Israel as much if not more than they resent the actual occupation by Syria. What's worth remembering is that it wasn't that long ago that Israel occupied Lebanon or that Israel bombed civilian targets in Lebanon (remember Grapes of Wrath?) -- or for that matter that Hizbullah scored a rare national victory in Lebanon by driving the Israelis out.

I thought it was interesting that unlike the previous, much smaller, demonstrations, yesterday's demo didn't get as much play on networks like CNN nor much reaction from the governments who would have preferred they didn't happen.

And I have to wonder whether Michael Young really has it right when he writes:

Now, by supporting Syria, Hezbollah can no longer claim to be above the fray. Its desire to pursue resistance will almost certainly hit up against the reluctance of other communities, and indeed many Shiites, to see Lebanon suffer the backlash of Israeli and perhaps American retaliation.

In short, Hezbollah faces a dilemma: to defend its regional ambitions, it must preserve a Syrian-dominated Lebanese order (and Syria is working to impose one before its troops depart), even if doing so alienates the clear majority of Lebanese who believe Syria must go; or it can side with that majority, which means abandoning Syria and its own regional objectives.

One surprising thing is that if the "clear majority" of Lebanese want Syria out (something I was inclined to believe) then why were yesterday's crowds so large? A Hariri-owned Lebanese TV channel said that Syrians were coming in droves on buses to take part in the demonstrations. But I've heard from people who were there that the crowds looked mostly Shia. I asked another friend (a Brit) about it, and this is what he wrote:

Very funny question -- I met a banker yesterday whose office was near the
demo; he said, as we walked past 'I bet half of them are syrian'; in a coffee shop in Achrafiyyeh, watching Nasrallah's speech, we were told the same thing; but down at the demo itself, it looked pretty Shia to me -- lots of women dressed in the Iranian style, quite a few mullahs, quite a few men in the Hizbollahi black shirt/stubble combo.

Let's face it, Hizbullah has a lot of support in Lebanon, and is very well organized -- most of the demonstrators were Lebanese.

Related: thousands of Syrian construction workers left Lebanon after reprisal attacks after Hariri's death; contruction at several sites stopped altogether; a lot of them began returning this week, in buses...

At the end of the day, even if Western TV networks will keep showing the "people revolution" (and the people, for an Arab country, seem surprisingly wealthy and well-dressed -- read this post by Nur Al Cubicle for what I'm getting at) of the past two weeks, can we really believe anymore that there is a widespread, popular consensus against Syria? This article by Mohammed Bazzi in Newsday makes a valid point:

Hezbollah's action could mobilize the Shia plurality - Shias make up about 40 percent of Lebanon's 4 million people - and heighten sectarian tensions in a country still recovering from a 15-year civil war. Hezbollah's call has already highlighted the fact that there is no Lebanese consensus on a Syrian withdrawal, as the Bush administration has tried to argue. Without support from Shias, the anti-Syria opposition will be hard-pressed to claim it represents the majority of Lebanese.

"Hezbollah was in a very tough position after Hariri's assassination," said Hazem Amin, an editor at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and an expert on the Shia. "But now it has decided to expose the lack of Shia support for the opposition."

The fact is, most of the Lebanese people that Bush and his administration say they stood with do not share the feeling that Hizbullah is a terrorist organization or that, in the words of Richard Armitage, it is the "A Team" of terror after Al Qaeda, which is supposed to be the "B Team" (a statement even more insulting to Americans than the Lebanese.) And while even Hizbullah seemed to be encouraging the Syrians to withdraw at least to the Bekaa, perhaps not everybody in Lebanon is after regime change in Damascus after all. One of the problems is that beyond the easy "people power" rhetoric of the mass media, there are serious geopolitical considerations at stake here. It may be time to look at these rather than the superficial pictures of attractive twenty-somethings that have been the symbol of this popular uprising.