Beirut falls under siege

Hezbollah's Shiite followers vow to bring down government

December 03, 2006|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The sit-in staged by Hezbollah supporters so far has done little to dislodge the U.S.-backed government, but it has managed to turn the Lebanese capital inside out - literally.

Some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the country, Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, have abandoned their homes in suburban slums to camp out on the nation's most expensive bit of real estate. Often trudging through Lebanese history as war refugees, they have managed to displace Lebanon's wealthiest shop owners. They have also surrounded Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, barricaded inside his office.

The demonstrators are not the usual frequenters of Beirut's glitzy downtown. Their clothes are scruffier, their food cheaper; out of modesty, virtually all women disappear before midnight. The men link arms and dance in the streets, wave Lebanese flags in a round-the-clock rally and hunch over backgammon boards. Mostly, they sit and wait for the government to fall; they have vowed to stage escalating protests until Siniora and his ministers resign.

The scene is a snapshot of Lebanon's internal contradictions. The message of Hezbollah and allies of the powerful Shiite organization is clear: We are here. We are Lebanese, too. And we are numerous enough to demand political change.

"My parents are sleeping in a tent in the south, and I'm sleeping here in a tent," said Issa Fallah, a 38-year-old Hezbollah supporter who said his family home was destroyed during last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah. "This land is for all Lebanese. We have paid for it with our blood."

One Beirut neighborhood was razed by religious fighting during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. When then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led the stone-by-stone reconstruction of the crushed downtown, it was a deliberate metaphor for the country - an expression of optimism that Lebanon could leave its bloody past behind.

Later, when Hariri was assassinated in a 2005 hit widely blamed on Syria, it was here that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese flocked to demand independence from Damascus' military control and political tampering. The demonstrators were rewarded with the collapse of the Syrian-backed government and the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Hezbollah and its followers were never part of that history. The Shiites were the gaping contradiction, undercutting the heady talk of religious unity during the anti-Syria protests.

Shiite Muslims have languished for generations in the impoverished eastern and southern outskirts of the country. Shiite Lebanon was where Hezbollah took root, not only as a band of fighters that stood up to Israel, but also as an efficient welfare network. The group built schools, founded clinics and helped squatters win the right to stay in their homes.

Now Hezbollah has led its masses into the center of the capital, pledging to stay, crippling the economic life of downtown, until the government resigns. To Siniora and his allies, the open-ended campaign of civil disobedience is an attempted coup.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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