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Half of Lebanon rallies to demand sweeping changes

Published Dec 12, 2006 9:32 AM

Dec. 11—George Bush doesn’t like what’s happening in this small Arab country. “Hezbollah extremists are trying to destabilize Lebanon,” he says. He claims that Syria and Iran are behind it all.

Lebanese people stream across bridge over
Shuhada Square in Beirut, Dec. 10.
Photo: Samia Halaby, Al-Awda NY

Bush is no more honest about Lebanon than he was about Iraq. What’s happening here is a movement of the people on a scale rarely seen in history. It is like the Palestinian Intifada or the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Yesterday more than half of Lebanon’s four and a half million people filled the streets around Parliament to protest the U.S.-backed regime of Fuad Siniora. From morning on, this city’s avenues to the south were a sea of people as hundreds of thousands walked in from the Dahye—Beirut’s working-class southern suburbs. The highways were a slow-moving river of cars, vans, buses and trucks bringing hundreds of thousands more from cities and villages all over Lebanon.

The rally was the largest in 10 days of protests that began with a rally of almost two million on Dec. 1. Since that day, thousands have been staging a sit-in in and around the two main squares of central Beirut. They vow they will not leave until their demands are met.

They sleep in tents, and there are more tents every night. In the evening their numbers multiply further as thousands stream in after work and school to attend nightly political rallies and concerts.

The protesters are women and men, adults and children. They are workers, students, farmers, homemakers, professionals, small business people, the self-employed and the unemployed.

In a country long divided by religion, they are Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Orthodox and Maronite Christians, Druze and Armenians, and secular Communists, socialists and nationalists. They are members of many political parties, labor unions, student groups, women’s organizations. A majority of Lebanon’s union members took part in the Dec. 10 demonstration.

‘For the first time we are together’

“Our country has been so divided by religion and region,” said Ghada, a student from the Dahye. “For the first time we are all together; for the first time we are meeting each other and finding out about each other.”

Most are working class. And they all express common sentiments. They are tired of a regime that enriches bankers and land speculators while the people get poorer, a regime that has burdened the country’s four million people with a $44 billion debt, half of it in just the past four years.

They are tired of a 35-percent unemployment rate that has forced hundreds of thousands of young Lebanese to emigrate, of New York City prices in a country where the minimum wage is $250 a month (and many earn less), of a regime that tried to disarm the people’s resistance when Israel attacked Lebanon last summer.

Most of all, they are tired of a government that follows the dictates of the United States, while that country arms Israel to murder Lebanese and Palestinians. This is a struggle for national independence.

On Thursday night, Dec. 7, tens of thousands of people filled Beirut’s Riad Solh and Martyrs Squares to watch a televised address by Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, general secretary of Hezbollah and leader of the resistance against Israeli occupation. Hezbollah’s base is among Shiite Muslims, Lebanon’s largest and poorest group. But it won support and admiration in all of Lebanon’s communities when it repelled Israel’s U.S.-funded assault on Lebanon. And it continues to win support for its social and reconstruction work in the war-ravaged communities of South Lebanon.

Hezbollah is the largest party in the National Opposition. There are many others. These include the largely Shiite Amal Movement led by Nabih Berri, the Free Patriotic Movement led by retired general Michel Aoun, and the Marada Party, led by former Prime Minister Suleiman Franjieh, both Christians. The Movement for Unity, the Democratic Party and the Struggle Movement, whose main support is among the Druse, are also in it. Also included are the Lebanese Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Peoples Democratic Party, the Arab Democratic Party and the Movement of the People.

‘Gov’t encouraged Israeli attack’

In his speech, Sayid Hassan Nasrallah revealed that some in the ruling March 14 Coalition had encouraged the U.S.-Israeli attack on Lebanon and that the state’s Internal Security Forces had aided Israel in its efforts to track down the leadership of the resistance. “Can anyone accept that in a time of war, the prime minister ordered the Lebanese Army to seize weapons being delivered to us as we were trying to defend our country from Israeli attacks?” He called for a pan-Arab tribunal to investigate the conspiracy.

He repeatedly expressed solidarity with the people of Palestine and Iraq and warned of U.S.-backed intrigues to provoke sectarian warfare in Lebanon as it has in Iraq.

Sayid Hassan saluted martyr Ahmad Mahmoud, who was murdered last Sunday by supporters of the government. “When they killed Ahmed Mahmoud, they wanted to push us to clashes,” he said. “I tell them that we refuse civil war and discord. Our weapons have only been raised against our Israeli enemy.”

But he vowed that the movement would not retreat or surrender. “The door is open for negotiations, but we will not leave the street before achieving the goal of saving Lebanon.”

On Friday, Dec. 8, Imam Fathi Yakka, who is Sunni, led Shiite and Sunni Muslims in a joint prayer service. Before prayer he told worshipers, “This sit-in will foil the American project in Lebanon just as the resistance broke the myth of the invincible Israel during the July-August war. This massive protest can last not only for one more week or month but for years until it defeats the American [U.S.] plot. Lebanon will be the cemetery of the ‘New Middle East.’ ”

At the Dec. 10 rally Sheikh Naim Qassam, Hezbollah’s deputy general secretary, called on “those holing up in their mansions” to hear the voices of the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. He warned Siniora’s regime that “U.S. support and the backing by some Arab and Western states will be futile.”

‘Barbed wire is no protection’

Michel Aoun said, “In the few coming days, we expect to change the status quo. And this must be the last big rally we’ll call for because in the next one there will be no room for all the protesters. Barbed wire will no longer protect the Grand Serail because people will move there naturally and without any instigation.”

The Lebanese democratic movement’s demands seem modest: that Prime Minister Siniora form a new cabinet in which the National Opposition has greater representation. But deeper issues are clearly at stake.

This movement has alarmed not only Lebanon’s ruling parties and their economically privileged base. It has frightened the White House and the Pentagon, Downing Street and the Elysee Palace. The kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia have joined the chorus of worriers, as has Egyptian president-for-life Mubarak, not to mention the apartheid regime in Tel Aviv.

Washington turned Iraq into a killing field in the name of “democracy.” In the name of “peace,” it arms Israel to starve and massacre the people of Palestine. But when the Lebanese people unite across sectarian lines to demand democratic reform, the White House and corporate media call them “terrorists” and “extremists.” For the masses of poor and working class people inside the United States, the people’s movement in Lebanon should serve as an example.