20070124 - Toufoul Abou-Hodeib - (Text and photos)

Hamra Street at the intersection with Jeanne d'Arc.

When the opposition called for a general strike on Tuesday the 23rd they were aware that given the geo-confessional composition of Lebanon, the strike would have limited success. Furthermore, the banking and economic sectors' call for considering Tuesday a normal working day underscored their de facto alliance with the ruling coalition. Many employees felt, rightfully or not, that they were under threat of being laid off if they were to join the strike - a kiss of death in the current economic situation.

The opposition, therefore, opted for a show of power. Rather than reveal the degree of active support behind the opposition, the strike was to reflect the breadth and multiconfessional character of the opposition's support base. Tens of thousands of supporters from different confessional backgrounds took to the streets of their regions across Lebanon and began cutting off the streets in the early hours of the morning in an attempt to enforce the strike. Despite the opposition's emphasis on the peaceful nature of these actions, even regular Lebanese realized that cutting off roads would be considered a provocation by many and that ensuing clashes were inevitable.

Lebanese army between the two factions on Corniche al-Mazra'ah.

On Tuesday morning in Ras Beirut there were little signs of what was brewing for the rest of the day. The traffic flow through the streets was thin. There was only a small number of joggers, fishermen, and strollers on the seaside. The vast majority of the shops were shuttered and the streets were quiet. Apart from the ashes of unsuccessful attempts to cut off Hamra street at some crossroads, it felt like any given Sunday... on a Tuesday.

Ras Beirut's relative calm was not surprising. Despite its confessional mix, there are no major party turfs running through it. The situation was very different in other parts of the country including the boulevard of Corniche al-Mazra'ah which separates the pro-Hariri, largely Sunni quarters of Tariq al-Jdideh and al-Mala'ab from the pro-Amal and pro-Hizballah Barbour quarter to its north. Several clashes took place during the day between the young men of the two neighborhoods.

The aftermath of the morning clashes on Corniche al-Mazra'ah.

Banners raised across an empty lot on the side of Tariq al-Jdideh.

I arrived on the scene in the early afternoon during a pause in violence. The Lebanese army had enforced calm and placed its tanks and soldiers between the two factions. Tension permeated the air, stones littered the normally bustling road, and broken car and window glass littered the sidewalks. While excitement showed on the faces of many participants, the soldiers looked plain weary.

The two groups of men raised competing banners and shouted slogans in each other's faces across an empty lot. I was standing among soldiers and journalists who had congregated on the boulevard next to the men of Barbour. Suddenly, silence fell on our side as necks craned to the sound of drums and singing erupting from Tariq al-Jdideh. Whistling followed and families watched from their balconies as a banner with Rafiq al-Hariri and his son, Saad, was propped up to face us. Whistling followed again as the banner was turned around revealing Fouad Sanioura on the other side. Shortly after another banner was produced featuring Saddam Hussein and Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the Sunni mufti of the Republic. Qabbani is very close to Hariri's Future movement and had led Friday prayer in the Saraille (government building) in solidarity with the government during the protests in downtown Beirut in December. The banner disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

One of the intersections on Besharah al-Khouri.

The scene changed suddenly down the road further east. A contingent of Internal Security Forces were positioned at the intersection of Corniche al-Mazra'ah and Besharah al-Khouri. Besharah al-Khouri is a main artery connecting downtown Beirut, where sit-ins continue, to the mostly Shia southern suburbs. In the direction of downtown the road was cut off at several intersections by burning tires and smoldering trash containers flipped on their sides.

A couple strolled arm in arm between columns of black smoke. The entrances to secondary roads were cut off by perfunctory measures and the army made no effort to clear them. One man dressed in army fatigues sat on a chair by a smoldering tire seeming entirely at ease. Gangs of teenage boys hung out at some intersections occasionally shouting cars away. Although vehicles could pass from one side of the highway to the other, not too many tried to.

The view on Besharah al-Khouri looking south.

A throng of boys in their early teens suddenly started running in a trot in the middle of the street shouting:

Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali
Damm il-Shia bi-yighli ghali
(The blood of Shia boils over)

When one of them mentioned Mu'awiyah, he was immediately silenced by the older boys.

At the statue of Besharah al-Khouri dirt mounds and the husk of a burnt out car cut off the road completely. Hassan Nasrallah's latest speech blared from a car carrying Lebanese flags. Men of different ages milled about quietly and chatted at the intersection. Not a woman was in sight. Police and army watched the colorful scene. Some were in riot gear. Some were inside their tanks. All hovered silently on the sidelines.

Congregations at the statue of Besharah al-Khouri.

Ironically, the most tranquil place of all on Tuesday was downtown Beirut. I sat under the bridge for a cup of coffee brewed over coal in a relaxed atmosphere among friendly faces. There were no soldiers in sight. "They would get beaten [if they come here]" explained a man from Amal. "Even *we* are not allowed to show our weapons" he said lifting his shirt and revealing a gun. He looked worried. It was still three o'clock and news was making its way about the deaths in the north. "There are young men who want to take up arms. We have trucks loaded with weapons," he said pointing vaguely in the direction of downtown. "They want to spill blood. They say they can take Beirut in three hours. But Hizballah will not let them. al-Sayyid [Hassan Nasrallah] will not allow it".

Young boys at one of the fires set on Besharah al-Khouri.

The feeling that the confessional leaders still have the situation under control was echoed by Nasrallah in the speech he gave the following day. It was not mere control, however, but controlled chaos playing into Tuesday's confrontations. The situation could have been worse. The question is: why was it allowed to get to that? In a long series of escalations and counter-escalations, Tuesday revealed that confessional leaders are not afraid of things getting a little out of hand. The opposition had forced a strike in an obviously tense situation. This is hardly a move aimed at avoiding clashes and, according to opposition figures, they are willing to go to further extremes. On the other hand, the call for a strike was faced with the ruling coalition's call for a showdown. This is not the behavior of a government that feels equally responsible towards all its citizens or of a party seeking to avoid confrontations.

In their belief that they can call their people off the streets when they need to, both sides are using the *threat* of civil war as a bargaining chip. In the process, layered over an already complex history of Lebanese civil strife, other demonic details come forth. The ghost of Iraq is purposefully evoked on Tariq al-Jdideh. Ali and Mu'awiyah still battle for control in young Shia minds. A new generation of Lebanese too young to remember the civil war clamor for a little war of their own. Faces of dead people are raised on every street. Ghosts staring each other down in contest with the threat of violence in one hand and promises of truth and historical justice in the other. Who will blink first?

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Last modified: Fri Jan 26 22:39:04 2007