Besieged Beirut has a new flavor

Times Staff Writer

The massive sit-in staged by Hezbollah supporters so far has done little to dislodge the U.S.-backed government, but it has managed to turn the Lebanese capital inside out -- literally.

Some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the country, Shiite Muslims, have abandoned their homes in suburban slums to camp out on the nation’s priciest bit of real estate. Though they often have trudged through Lebanese history as war refugees, now they have managed to displace Lebanon’s wealthiest shop owners. They also have surrounded Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, barricaded in his office.

The demonstrators are not the usual frequenters of Beirut’s glitzy and freewheeling downtown. Their clothes are scruffier; their food is cheaper; out of modesty, virtually all women melt away before midnight. The men link arms and dance in the streets, wave Lebanese flags in a round-the-clock rally and hunch over backgammon boards.

Mostly, they sit around and wait for the government to fall; they have vowed to stage escalating protests until Siniora and his ministers resign.


The scene is a snapshot of Lebanon’s internal contradictions, and a scrambled glimpse of the two distinct groups that coexist in a single nation. The message of Hezbollah and allies of the powerful Shiite organization is clear: We are here. We are Lebanese too. And we are numerous enough to demand political change.

“My parents are sleeping in a tent in the south, and I’m sleeping here in a tent,” said Issa Fallah, a 38-year-old Hezbollah supporter who said his family home was destroyed during the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah. “This land is for all Lebanese. We have paid for it with our blood.”

Flooded by tens of thousands of Hezbollah followers and their allies, downtown Beirut has acquired the trappings of a shabby, pious neighborhood. Near shuttered French bistros, vendors hawk kaak, cheap slabs of bread. Young men roast tomatoes over fires built from garbage.

Shops selling Cuban cigars, Rolex watches and Gucci dresses stand dark and deserted, metal grates tugged down over the windows. Stained tents clutter the parking lots where luxury cars usually sit. Men pray near the locked door of the Buddha Bar, a high-end nightclub where, on an ordinary weekend, scantily dressed women drink champagne and dance the night away.

“This place is usually where the rich are,” said Ali Rida, a 20-year-old supermarket employee from the southern city of Sidon. “Beirut symbolizes everything for the Lebanese.”

That symbolism cuts deep: This neighborhood was razed by religious fighting during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. When Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led the stone-by-stone reconstruction of the crushed downtown, it was a deliberate metaphor for the country -- an expression of optimism that Lebanon could leave its bloody past behind.

After the 2005 assassination of Hariri, widely blamed on Syria, it was here that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese flocked to demand independence from the military and political influence of the government in Damascus. The demonstrators were rewarded with the collapse of the Syria-backed government and the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Hezbollah and its followers were not really a part of that history. The Shiites were the gaping contradiction, undercutting the heady talk of religious unity that bubbled in these streets during the anti-Syria protests.

Shiites have languished for generations in the impoverished east and south of the country. Even when they poured into the capital to escape poverty and war, they ended up squatting on the fringes of the city.

Neglect of their plight provided the fertile ground in which Hezbollah took root, not only as a band of fighters that stood up to Israel, but also as an efficient welfare network. The group built schools, founded clinics and helped squatters win the right to stay in their homes.

Now Hezbollah has led its masses into the center of the capital, and it has pledged to stay there, crippling the economic life of downtown, until the government resigns.

To Siniora and his allies, the open-ended campaign of civil disobedience is an attempted coup.

“This part of town is for the French, for the Americans, for the rich,” said Ali Hamdan, 30, a member of the Shiite Amal party. “It’s not for us anymore. It’s not really Lebanon. This is only on a map.”

In a mockery of the nightclubs around them, a band of young men from the southern suburbs pitched an enormous tent of clear plastic on the sidewalk. Inside, they pounded on a drum and pranced to the beats. Outside, wistful would-be partyers were turned away by stern bouncers.

“We want to stay here only to sing, dance, have fun,” said Bilal Khazen, a 20-year-old student who had tied a Hezbollah flag over his shoulders like a cape. “This place will help us overthrow the government.”

Jad Salim, an 18-year-old engineering student, huddled in a hooded sweatshirt near the razor wire, soldiers and tanks blocking off the hill leading to the prime minister’s office.

“We were all attacked by Israel, and this government didn’t do anything. If it weren’t for Hezbollah, Israel might be here now,” Salim said. “Now they are the ones responsible for what might happen tomorrow.”