Ever since Hezbollah and its allies began an open-ended protest against the US-backed government on December 1, Beirut’s gilded downtown–built for wealthy Lebanese and foreign tourists–has become more authentically Lebanese. Where Persian Gulf sheiks once ate sushi, families now sit in abandoned parking lots, having impromptu picnics, the smell of kebabs cooked over coals wafting through the air. Young men lounge on plastic chairs, smoking apple-scented water pipes, and occasionally break out into debke, the Lebanese national dance.
Most protesters are too poor to afford $4 caffe lattes, but men hawking shots of strong Arabic coffee for 30 cents apiece are doing a brisk trade. Nearly all businesses are shuttered, but a few enterprising store owners have figured out how to cater to the crowd. One hair salon converted itself into a sandwich shop, selling cheese on bread with a cup of tea for $1. The smiling cashier works behind a counter filled with L’Oréal hair products.
“I never came to downtown before these protests. I can’t afford to come here. If I ate a sandwich here, I’d be broke for a week,” says Emad Matairek, a 35-year-old carpenter from the dahiyeh, the Shiite-dominated suburbs of Beirut. “It’s well-known that this area was not built for us.”
The protests are being portrayed in much of the Western media as a sectarian battle, or a coup attempt–engineered by Hezbollah’s two main allies, Syria and Iran–against a US-backed Lebanese government. Those are indeed factors underlying the complex and dangerous political dance happening in Beirut. But the biggest motivator driving many of those camped out in downtown isn’t Iran or Syria, or Sunni versus Shiite. It’s the economic inequality that has haunted Lebanese Shiites for decades. It’s a poor and working-class people’s revolt.
In Riad Solh Square, amid dozens of white tents erected for Hezbollah supporters to sleep in, there is a stage with a huge TV screen and rows of loudspeakers mostly positioned toward the Grand Serail, the Ottoman-era palace where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Cabinet are hunkered down. Between the tents and the palace, behind eight-foot-high coils of barbed wire, there are hundreds of Lebanese soldiers toting M-16s and sitting atop armored vehicles. Every night thousands of people gather in front of the stage, within earshot of the Serail, demanding that Siniora either resign or accept a national unity government that gives Hezbollah and its allies greater power.