Saturday, 17 May 2008

Talks and rants

The AFP news agency reports on the progress of talks between the opposition and government in Doha, Qatar:

Bickering Lebanese politicians postponed the thorny issue of Hezbollah's weapons on Saturday at talks in Qatar aimed at ending a feud that drove their country to the brink of a new civil war.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani "offered to come up with a proposal on the Hezbollah weaponry issue and present it to the two parties," a Lebanese delegate told AFP.


Meanwhile Melanie Phillips of The Spectator is spitting blood over the loss of her "democratic Lebanon" (not sure if she's ever been here). Reading this gibberish gives you a flavour of the kind of stuff pumped out by Hariri's Future TV...

Here's a taste:

"What coverage there has been has presented this development as yet another round in the schismatic internal politics of Lebanon and of scant concern to us. On the contrary: it is a major development in the war being waged against the free world.

"Hezbollah is the irregular army of Iran and the means by which Iran intends to turn Lebanon into its proxy, pin Israel down from multiple belligerent fronts as a prelude to its annihilation, impose its domination of the region and thus win its war against the west.

"What is surely undeniable is the imperative need to defeat Hezbollah, and that America and Britain will either help bring that about — or will help strengthen it instead through continuing to pursue their lethally misguided strategy of appeasing Syria and Iran."

Phillips then quotes lots of Zionists and their allies to warn us that what happened in Lebanon was like "Spain in 1936".


Luckily Robert Fisk is at hand. Although Fisk had been swayed by the so-called Cedar revolution (it wasn't a revolution and there where no cedars), he still manages to keep his wits about him. He writes in The Independent:

I opened my newspaper and what did I read?

That George Bush declared in Jerusalem that "al-Qa'ida, Hizbollah and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognise the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause".

Where does the madness end? Where do words lose their meaning? Al-Qa'ida is not being defeated. Hizbollah has just won a domestic war in Lebanon, as total as Hamas's war in Gaza. Afghanistan and Iraq and Lebanon and Gaza are hell disasters — I need no apology to quote Churchill's description of 1948 Palestine yet again — and this foolish, stupid, vicious man is lying to the world yet again.

Thursday, 15 May 2008


I have picked out some of the more interesting commentators on Lebanon's "May events".

Asia Times quotes veteran journalist Nir Rosen:

"The Americans along with their Saudi allies backed the creation of sectarian Sunni militias in Lebanon, some of whom were even trained in Jordan. Their ideology consisted of anti Shi'ite sectarianism.

"But these Sunni militiamen proved a complete failure, and America's proxies in Lebanon barely put up a fight, despite their strident anti-Shi'ite rhetoric. Now it is clear that Beirut is firmly in the hands of Hezbollah and nothing the Americans can do will dislodge or weaken this popular movement."


Josh Landis, of SyriaComment blog, has this assessment:

"There will be those who believe this is part of a larger US and Israeli plan to sucker Hezbollah into overreaching only to provide justification for a second Israeli attack. I am inclined to believe that March 14 was dragged along by rash leadership. It is hard to believe Washington would be so foolish."


The Los Angeles Times interviews Hizbollah expert Augustus Richard Norton:

"While the political stalemate may continue in form, in substance the weakness of the US-supported government is now on full display. In short, what has happened is a decisive setback for the US agenda in Lebanon."

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Beirut—14 May

Update 00:01

Gunfire erupted in south Beirut in celebration at the government backdown over decision to sack Hizbollah airport official and to dismantle their communication system.

Swissinfo has details of today's Arab League mediation.


Prices of some exotic foodstuffs (like ginger) have gone heywire, while vegetables are very cheap.


"Ramzi Ali was nearly 13 when his parents took him out of school to work as a motorbike mechanic", reports Irin, the UN news agency:

"Conditions are hard, and political tensions are destroying the country," said Ali, now 14, as he manned a barricade of burning tyres in central Beirut on 7 May. "My parents just couldn't afford to keep me at school any more."


A friend in west Beirut had a discussion with one of the opposition fighters who told him "that they were getting depressed because it seems that the opposition leadership 'will screw us' and 'Siniora is still in the Serail [government offices]'."


The Los Angeles Times notes:

For a year, the main Lebanese political faction backed by the United States built a Sunni Muslim militia here under the guise of private security companies, Lebanese security experts and officials said.

The fighters, aligned with Saad Hariri's Future movement, were trained and armed to counter the heavily armed Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and protect their turf in a potential military confrontation.

But in a single night late last week, the curious experiment in private-sector warfare crumbled.

"We are prepared to fight for a few hours but not more," said one of the Sunni fighters in the waning moments of the battle.

"Where do we get ammunition and weapons from? We are blocked. The roads are blocked. Even Saad Hariri has left us to face our fate alone."

The head of a conventional private security firm in Beirut, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Sunni force was "not really ready."

"You can't just spend millions of dollars to build an army in one year," he said. "They have to be motivated and believe in something. They have to be willing to die."


Fuad Siniora, the prime minister, has announced that the decision to shutdown the resistance communication network was taken "under bad advice". In other words the government has buckled.

The opposition responded by saying that it will end its campaign of civil disobedience, once the dialogue begins.

Meanwhile the airport road, which I mistakenly thought was open yesterday, is being cleared to allow through a delegation from the Arab League.

Also Tuesday the army flooded the troubled northern city of Tripoli to end the fighting there.

It's a very hot day.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Beirut—13 May

Update 23.08

OK, I'm going to introduce a new old word for Beirut—the Green Line. That is the pile of rubble, lines of soldiers and armed elements that separates the east of the city from the west.

I first came across it in 1975 as a young boy. Then every year of my life until 1990. Since then I always made a point of crossing it every day, either by foot or taxi service. Now it's back.


A friend sent an email from west Beirut, and although she doesn't want it published, I decided to print a small section because it describes "that feeling":

'And then there are instincts. Mine were never that sharp to begin with, but they’re coming back. The growing unease that seeps up from somewhere between my stomach and my spine, that says, “leave now and go home,” or “get off the balcony.”

'A heightened sense of touch, as though my skin could see or hear, that makes me think twice, or sort of “do you really want to do that?” and “do you really believe that?”

'And a narrowing of focus, as though my third eye finally appeared, to make snap decisions: “Don’t go down that street. Turn here. Ask this solider and not that one.” Familiar sensations, but mostly in the absence – the pattern here is one of hindsight: “If I felt that, and thus knew that this would happen, why didn’t I act differently?”'


Took a tour of the Beirut. Getting across from east to west was simple. But returning was more complex. The main bridge linking the two areas is closed by the army, leaving cars to make a torturous detour through militia lines. Although there were no weapons on display, they were checking all cars passing through their area.

Hamra, the main shopping street, was half open. Many of the shops had started trading, and there were clusters of people walking about. But there are stories of growing tensions between civilians and militiamen over stopping and questioning.

SSNP flags have disappeared from Hamra's main drag.

Future TV is back on air, broadcasting from east Beirut. The presenters were screaming at the audience— guess they would after their supporters deserted them. But this gives them a chance to rally.

Saad Hariri then addressed the masses, pouring insult and accusations at the opposition. This struggle has taken a decisive turn towards rhetoric. Meanwhile the US has announced that the USS Cole is steaming towards our shores.

Suddenly the air is full of tension again.


Was woken by cars beeping their horns, construction workers, radios and the children blaring out in a school nearby. Pollution levels are up, the airport road is open and all armed men, excluding the army, have been withdrawn.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Beirut—Monday 12 May

Map shows the major clashes since Thursday.

Updated 00.12

A day of truce. Everyone is taking stock of yesterday's events. The army announced that as from Tuesday all armed groups must leave the streets.

A friend from the Dahieh says that everything is open and the Shia district is calm. But there are security people everywhere stopping and questioning young men.

There were the first funerals of Hizbollah fighters today, meanwhile there are rumours of the murder of captured fighters.


We took the opportunity to restock the fridge. Prices for imported meat in the supermarket have dropped by 18 percent. Street markets are full of fresh produce.


Michel Aoun, the head of the opposition Free Pratriotic Movement, appeared on TV to reassure the Christians that Hizbollah would will not enter their areas under a deal signed in 2006.


The Jerusalem Post gives an Israeli view of events.

Irin, the UN news agency has by far the best overview.


Met a couple of Palestinian friends, they are easy to spot these days as they have huge grins their faces. One told me that he can know travel from Beirut to the southern city of Saida without worrying about Future Current security people.


We took a tour of the city at 6am this morning, driving from east Beirut along the marina, through the hotel district and into west Beirut near the AUB (American University of Beirut). The army had its big guns out.

The night before there were militiamen of the far right Kataeb party posted outside their headquarters on the dividing line between east and west Beirut. In the morning they were replaced by an armoured car, its guns pointed at party offices.

The army's French made armour was on display in the downtown area. Little did the US and France know that all the weapons sent to upgrade the army for a showdown with the resistance are instead taking aim at the western backed government.

The majority Shia Muslim and Christian areas are peaceful, the battles are mainly taking place in the mixed areas, with the resistance and its allies in the opposition driving out pro government forces very quickly indeed.

It is without a doubt that the army is backing the opposition. It is stepping into to battles to disarm pro government forces, taking over captured positions and seizing any arms. The thinking is that the head of the army and possible president, Michel Suleiman, is clearing any opposition to his appointment from the ruling coalition.

Dozens of street cleaners where pouring into the central district during the morning, to keep it clean no doubt.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Beirut—Sunday 11 May

Update 22.39

More clashes in Tripoli. Government supporters still have a presence on the streets, distributing pictures of the late Rafic Hariri.


Seems as if the Chouf Mountains have fallen to the opposition in a day of fierce fighting. Early reports are that this was a local uprising against Walid Jumblat involving an alliance of rival Druze families and opposition parties.

The army is following in the wake of the fighting, taking over positions captured by the opposition.

There was a ceasefire at 6pm.

Beirut fell in 4 hours, now the redoubt of the Jumblat clan and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) has fallen in a day! So far this has been a lightening war by the opposition.

Above is an updated map of today's event (click for details)

(Click here for the main map showing colour key)


Heavy fighting in Aley, in the heartlands of Walid Jumblat, a key supporter of the government. Early indications are that the opposition has driven off supporters of the government.

It seems Jumblat's militia are battling with supporters of the opposition for control over this crucial Chouf mountain town (see Lebanon map above).

There was savage fighting in Tripoli Friday, with Hariri supporters attacking the mainly Christian neighbourhood of Al-Mina (loyal to Free Patriotic Movement), and clashes between Alawi and Sunni neighbourhoods.

Some more on Thursday's events:
One witness told me that she saw Hizbollah engage Salafi fighters -- a radical Sunni sect with ties to al-Qaeda (and supporters of the government). The Salafis eventually withdrew.


We took a tour of the Hamra area of west Beirut today. It was quiet, but a few families were venturing out. At first it looks like the army are in control. Their tanks and soldiers are placed in key flashpoints.

But we also saw militia fighters lurking in the alleys and the lobby of buildings.

We were stopped twice, once by security men we assumed were from Amal (part of the opposition) who demanded to know if we were part of the Democratic Left, a pro government group that sold their souls to the US project.

We were stopped again, this time by armed men who mistook one of our group for a DL supporter.

It took some persuading to convince them that we were not supporters of the government. Eventually one of them recognised our friend from TV (he had delivered a speech on the May Day demonstration calling for the government to resign).

The sight of armed men stopping and questioning people is a sad reminder of the war years.

I reported yesterday that the SSNP were firing rockets at Future Current supporters in Tripoli. It appears today that it was the other way round.

Notes of the Lebanese crisis *2

The political crisis was triggered by the policies of US imperialism, and the role of the present government in it.

The US sees Lebanon's so called Cedar Revolution as its only policy success in the region. With its occupation of Iraq descending into disaster, its failure to overthrown the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and growing popular discontent in Egypt threatening its key Arab ally, the US are desperate to hold on to its gains in Lebanon.

Part of this strategy was to induce Israel into destroying the resistance, as embodied by Hizbollah, in the summer of 2006. The US was hoping that the Lebanese government would fill the vacuum left by a defeated Hizbollah. Their war failed to achieve any of its objectives. Instead a mass outpouring of popular support carried the resistance to victory.

The question of arms held by the resistance are crucial. The US and France want all oppostion to Israel crushed and are attempting to use the Lebanese government to succeed where the Israelis failed. This strategy relied on the government, and its myriad of “security companies” to de-claw the resistance.

Last Thursday Hizbollah and its supporters routed these private security agencies in under 4 hours.

At every turn the government has created this crisis, now they are losing control over events. It is weak, but very nasty.

Notes of the Lebanese crisis *1

Union demands
The call by the General Labour Confederation for a one day strike over the minimum wage that triggered the crisis came after a massive build up of pressure from below.

Local union bodies and associations had been pressing for strike through a series of mass meetings across the country in recent weeks.

At the head of this strike call were the more radical unions, notably the shoe makers, carpenters, construction workers and farmers associations.

At the heart of their demands is a minimum wage of 960,000 Lebanese liras a month ($630). With rampant inflation, many ordinary people began to fear that price hikes would eat into the nestegg on which most families survive.

The government provoked widespread anger when it announced a rise the minimum wage to only 500,000, and limited to the public sector.

The GLC called for the one day strike on 7 May and were due to march through west Beirut. The government altered the route the night before, then launched their thugs at the protest as it attempted to gather.

Ghassan Ghosn, the head of the GLC, appeared on TV later to condemn the government and restate the demands over the minimum wage. He referred all "pointed questions" from the press to "the issue of hunger".

As the union has close ties with the opposition, the government thought it would be an easy target for intimidation. Ghosn, for all his faults (and he has many) and the union did not resort to violence, they where the victims.

The question of the economy and a living wage is complicated by the standoff between the opposition and the government. Crucially the opposition has accepted as fact the neo-liberal policies outlined by the “Paris agreements”— a series of economic conditions set by the west.

These policies have shifted the wealth from the working poor to the rich. All infrastructure, building and capital is being poured into the glitzy downtown areas that were acquired by Hariri, the rest of the country has been abandoned.

The government's economic policies are based on the direct relations between taxes and the national debt accrued by previous Rafic Hariri governments. As most of this debt is owed to Lebanese and Arab capital, popular taxes are in effect flowing into the pockets of the rich as a form of debt payments.

This has generated deep anger among the vast majority of Lebanon's working poor feeding a widespread malaise.

However as the opposition have accepted these terms they have distanced themselves from the popular mood. This made it easy for the government to accuse the opposition of using the unions.

The call for a minimum wage has been lost in the din of gunfire, but it remains a pressing issue of everyday life.