People's Revolt in Lebanon
"Our country is getting poorer, and Siniora's government is not talking about it," says Hadi Mawla, a 22-year-old graphic design student who came from the dahiyeh on the protest's first day, which drew hundreds of thousands to downtown. "Our standard of living is falling, while other Arab countries are improving. We Lebanese used to make fun of other Arab countries. Now they have great big cities like Dubai. And we're going to end up like Egypt--with a very poor class, a very rich class and nothing in between."
The economic dimension to the protest can be seen everywhere. Around the square there are hand-drawn posters of Siniora sitting on a chair made of stacks of dollar bills. From the stage, a projector shines slogans highlighting economic demands onto a building that houses the ultra-chic Buddha Bar, with its two-story Buddha statue inside. The swirling projector makes its point: "No to the government of VAT" and "No to the government of seafront properties."
This class battle transcends sectarian boundaries. Hezbollah has formed an alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Maronite Christian politician and former army commander Michel Aoun. With this coalition Hezbollah is trying to prove that it's not a purely sectarian party, it's not seeking to impose an Islamic government and it's willing to ally not just with nationalist Sunnis but also with Christians. Because Aoun stresses honest government, accountability and economic equality, he and Hezbollah seemed like a natural fit. By playing up its alliance with Aoun--and downplaying its partnership with the notoriously corrupt Shiite Amal party--Hezbollah can reinforce the reputation for honesty shared by many Islamist movements in the Middle East.
Hezbollah's charismatic leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah--ever skillful at tapping into the Shiite tradition of empowering the dispossessed--often highlights the class dimension of his group's campaign. "They will hear us in all the palaces of the ruling coalition," Nasrallah thundered on December 7, in a speech via video-link to the protesters downtown. He was calling for a huge turnout at a rally three days later, where crowd estimates ranged as high as 1 million. "From the homes of the poor, from the shantytowns, from the tents, from the demolished buildings, from the neighborhoods of those displaced by war, we will make sure that they hear our voices."
There's a long tradition of the Lebanese state leaving Shiites to fend for themselves and waiting for religious or charitable groups to fill the vacuum. This happened over decades, long before Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s. Hezbollah's "state within a state" was possible only because successive governments willfully left a void in the Shiite-dominated areas of south Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the dahiyeh.
"The central government always liked outsourcing the problems of the south. First they gave it to the Palestinians, then they gave it to the Israelis, and they gave it to Hezbollah from 2000 to 2006," says Khalil Gebara, co-director of the Lebanese Transparency Association, an anti-corruption watchdog group. "Hezbollah does what every political party does: They went and created a dependency network."