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People's Revolt in Lebanon | The Nation

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People's Revolt in Lebanon

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In the 1960s and '70s, when Shiites were first making the migration from the rural south and Bekaa to Beirut and other cities, the central government left their fate to the clans and feudal landlords who held sway in the agricultural hinterlands. By 1970, when the Palestine Liberation Organization began creating bases in southern Lebanon, the Shiites were on the front line of a conflict between the PLO and Israel. A Shiite cleric named Musa al-Sadr created Amal, the first Shiite political party, which later turned into a militia. To an extent, Amal supplanted the feudal lords as protector of the Shiites.

About the Author

Mohamad Bazzi
Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University, is a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.

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After the Israeli invasion of 1982, Hezbollah emerged to fight the Israeli occupation. It was more disciplined and less corrupt than Amal, although Hezbollah was always dependent on Iranian funding and support. When Hezbollah's grinding guerrilla war forced Israel to end its occupation in May 2000, the militia was hailed throughout the Muslim world for achieving what no Arab army had done before: force Israel to relinquish land. With the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah moved into the vacuum in southern Lebanon, opening clinics and schools and providing small-business loans.

To many Shiites, Hezbollah's ascendance put them on the political map. There's a word Lebanese have used to put down a Shiite: mutawali, which roughly translates into "country bumpkin." It's a term freighted with meaning--of dispossession, prejudice, deprivation. But Shiites have appropriated it and now use it with pride. "During the civil war, we mutawalis were insulted and put down. Hezbollah gave us a new sense of dignity, and that's the most important right we can have," says Mawla, the graphic design student. "Hezbollah made it possible for us to stand, without fear, and shout from the rooftops that we are mutawalis."

In 1990, at the end of the fifteen-year civil war, Lebanon's political class chose to continue its sectarian system. The current crisis is rooted in that choice, which began with the 1989 Taif Accord, brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria. The agreement called for all militias to disarm--with the exception of Hezbollah, whose militia was labeled a "national resistance" against the Israeli occupation. Leaving traditional warlords in place, Taif enshrined the political partition among the country's rival sects: Power must be shared between a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite speaker of Parliament. Each of the major players in the war seized a piece of the government and extended the sectarian system to the lowest rungs of the civil service. This arrangement was ripe for exploitation by outside powers, especially Syria, which dominated Lebanon from 1990 until last year.

One man had a chance to change the economic underpinnings of this system, and perhaps eventually cast aside its entire sectarian basis. He was Rafik Hariri, a billionaire construction tycoon who served as prime minister for most of the 1990s and until late 2004. But Hariri failed at building a healthy postwar economy. He rebuilt downtown Beirut at the expense of the hinterlands, and he focused on luxury sectors--banking and upscale tourism--instead of Lebanon's productive sectors, agriculture and small industry. Hariri was trying to return to the prewar economy, which was driven by Lebanon's role as a transit center for oil money from the Persian Gulf. But by the 1990s oil producers no longer needed the Lebanese banking system; they had Dubai.

"Everything that the government built around here means nothing to us," says Matairek, the carpenter at the downtown protests. "What they should have done was strengthen the Lebanese army. All the money they spent to fix this downtown--what's the use of it, if the Israeli warplanes were able to bomb us, and the Lebanese army wasn't able to stop it?"

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