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I’m working on the first of a series of long essays documenting a road trip to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon. While I’m wrapping that up, here are some links.

ESCALATION COMING: Hezbollah says it will escalate its so-far non-violent push to topple the Seniora government.

THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET: Saad Hariri accuses Hezbollah of “political and intellectual terrorism.”

DON’T BE A SUCKER: Tony Badran explains why even talking to Syria is dangerous.

THROWING HEZBOLLAH A BONE: Israel says Lebanese murderer Samir Kuntar will be released shortly from prison, which will (in theory) eliminate one of Hezbollah’s flimsy excuses for war.

“It’s Like a Phish Concert for Terrorists”

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BEIRUT — While Hezbollah occupied the Beirut city center in an attempt to bring down the government, I teamed up with my American friend Noah Pollak, who works as assistant editor at Azure Magazine in Jerusalem, and took a trip to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon. We wanted to survey the devastation from the July War and see if we could find civilians who had been used as human shields by the Party of God.

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Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

Before we went to the south, however, Noah wanted to meet Hezbollah members downtown. He had never been to Lebanon before, and I was happy to show him around and introduce him to the “party” that fired missiles in our direction when we covered the July War together from the Israeli side of the border.

He arrived in Beirut at 2:00 a.m. His taxi driver took him alongside the edge of Hezbollah’s downtown encampment. Even in the middle of the night demonstrators were out the streets screaming slogans.

“What are they saying?” Noah said to the driver.

The driver rolled down his window and told the demonstrators an American was in the car and wanted to know what they were saying. One of the men in the street came up to the taxi.

“We will cut Seniora,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s elected prime minister. “We will cut him!”

Noah laughed to himself and knew he had come to Lebanon at the right time.

The next day I took him downtown so we could sit and talk with the malcontents and the disgruntled. First, though, we had to stop by one of the Hezbollah propaganda stands so I could buy a “resistance” scarf and go incognito into the tent city. Don’t laugh. It actually worked. All the hostile paranoia I had to put up with from Hezbollah’s security agents vanished entirely as soon as I put a Hezbollah scarf around my neck. The goons with their sunglasses and ear-pieces stopped staring at me, stopped tracking my movement, and stopped getting twitchy when I took pictures. They are strikingly obtuse individuals if wearing a scarf is all it takes to blend in.

Hezbollah Propaganda Stand.jpg

So I picked up a scarf at the stand. Flags, t-shirts, and rear-view mirror ornaments were also for sale. Noah bought the biggest Hezbollah flag he could find.

A Lebanese woman walked by and smirked as she asked us where we were from.

“United States,” I said.

“And…” she said. “You like Hezbollah?” She tried hard not to laugh at us.

“Not really,” I said under my breath so the vendor couldn’t hear. “We just want souvenirs because we think it’s funny.”

She smiled and knowingly nodded.

I bought a Hezbollah t-shirt in Baalbeck last year — because it’s ironic and funny, not because I would ever actually wear it. A Lebanese army soldier watched me hand the vendor five dollars, and he shook his head sadly in grave disappointment. He was twenty years older than me, and I doubted he would understand the flip ironic GenX/Southpark sense of humor. Surely he thought I was a duped useful idiot.

Noah and I paid for our items. I put the scarf around my neck and felt as ridiculous as I must have looked.

Me with Hezbollah Scarf.jpg

Oh well. Hezbollah’s security brutes left me alone, so it was worth it. (Needless to say, I would not dare wear that scarf in any other part of Beirut.) Noah’s complexion allows him to pass as Lebanese (or as someone from anywhere else around the Mediterranean) so his appearance wasn’t a magnet for the paranoid and the suspicious.

He and I walked toward the tent-city and passed an angry-looking group of young women on their way out. One woman narrowed her eyes at me.

“Where are you from?” she said. She looked me in the eye, looked at my Hezbollah scarf, looked me in the eye again, looked back and my Hezbollah scarf. Then she yelled at me: “Are you from the States?!”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re from the States.”

For a second I thought she was yelling at me because she was anti-American. We were at the Hezbollah encampment, after all. But that wasn’t it. She yelled at me because she thought I was a stupid American who supported Hezbollah. (Not everyone who ventured downtown during the sit-in supports the “resistance.” Some were there as horrified onlookers.)

One of the young woman’s friends took her by the shoulders and turned her away from Noah and me. As they began walking away she nodded her head and flexed her hands as though she were trying to restrain herself and calm down.

Some Westerners really do show up in Lebanon and support Hezbollah, or at least get defensive on Hezbollah’s behalf. (Meanwhile they spend all their time in the liberal parts of Lebanon where Hezbollah is hated. So on some level they know who their friends are.) I wasn’t at all annoyed that this young woman yelled at me. She reminded me of a man I met last year while hitchhiking in the mountains.

“Tell me something,” he said. “Lots of Americans come here and think we like Hezbollah. Why? We hate that. We hate Hezbollah!”

So Noah and I walked the grounds without getting any attitude or even attention from Hezbollah security. We did, however, get some unwanted attention from Hezbollah’s fans.

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The restaurant district of downtown Beirut was closed by the army to prevent vandalism

Next to the closed-off area of downtown where most of the restaurants are located is a small Roman ruin site. It was discovered for the first time in the 1990s when civil war-era rubble was cleared out of the way.

Noah and I leaned up against the railing next to two young Shia women wearing headscarves. Noah snapped a picture.

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“Look,” one of the women said and pointed down at the ground next to a pillar. “It’s a picture of Hassan Nasrallah.”

Sure enough, there is was.

Roman Site Beirut 2.JPG

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“Yeah,” Noah said. “It’s down there with the trash where it belongs.”

Noah,” I said under my breath. “No need to be rude.” I did agree with him, though, that Nasrallah belonged in the garbage.

We talked amongst ourselves, about what I don’t remember. I smiled at the two women so they wouldn’t feel bad.

Then an older man walked up to Noah and me. He said something in Arabic, something I did not understand. Then he plowed his shoulder into Noah’s and knocked Noah sideways. He hadn’t heard Noah’s insult directed at Hassan Nasrallah. Nor could he have possibly known our political views. He was just mad because he heard us speaking English. My Hezbollah scarf didn’t ward everyone off. It only seemed to work with the oblivious security agents.

“Hi,” Noah said to him as though nothing had happened. “What’s up?”

I braced myself for anything. Our rude new “friend” said something else unintelligible and stalked off.

“Merry Christmas!” Noah said to his back.

Beirut is a cosmopolitan city when Hezbollah doesn’t squat in the middle of it.

Aside from this guy and two other random hostile individuals, Hezbollah’s camp-out was more mellow than it was the first time I went down there. The passion had cooled. Fewer people screamed slogans. The energy level was lower. Most appeared to have succumbed to some kind or torpor. It isn’t easy to be hopped up on protest adrenaline for several days in a row. Eventually you have to sit down, eat a sandwich, and smoke a nargileh.

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The environment downtown was very different from what most Westerners would likely expect from a civil disobedience movement mounted by a Syrian-Iranian proxy militia.

Mellow Downtown.JPG

Prominent figures gave public speeches to roaring applause, not to bullets shot into the sky.

College students made circles with chairs and held teach-ins.

Patriotic and Arabic pop music blared through speaker towers.

Snack stands were set up all over the place.

Hezbollah Snack Stand.jpg

“Dude,” Noah said. “It’s like a Phish concert down here. Only it’s a Phish concert for terrorists.”

We walked the maze of tents and snapped pictures, looking for someone who seemed approachable enough to be interviewed. Few people paid us any mind, and we sat on a curb to drink a soda and smoke a cigarette.

Three young men walked up to us.

“Hello,” said the first. He introduced himself as Jad. “Where are you from?”

“We’re from the U.S,” Noah said.

“Welcome to Lebanon,” he said. “What is your impression?” Lebanese often ask me this question.

“You mean, what do we think of the political situation?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Eh,” I said. “We’re Americans. We’re not the biggest fans of Hezbollah.” The contrast between what I said and what I was wearing (the Hezbollah scarf) did not seem to register.

“Where are you from?” Noah said.

“From Beirut,” said another of the young men.

“Do you mean the dahiyeh?” I said. Dahiyeh means “suburb” in Arabic. It specifically refers to Hezbollah’s “capital” of Haret Hreik just south of Beirut.

“Yes,” he said. “From the dahiyeh. Have you been there?”

“I have, he hasn’t,” I said and gestured to Noah.

“This is your first trip to Lebanon?” Jad said to Noah.

“Yep,” Noah said and sipped from his drink. “It’s great.”

The five of us discussed Lebanese and international politics. The conversation was perfectly civil and pleasant even though they supported Hezbollah and Noah and I (obviously) did not. I didn’t write everything down, so I can’t quote very much. The discussion was more social and less of an interview. But I did take some notes when Noah asked a very important question.

“So,” Noah said. “What do you guys think of Iran?”

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“Syria and Iran are helping us,” Jad said. “We don’t want them to rule in Lebanon. I like drinking and chasing girls and having a good time. We don’t want to be like Iran. If Hezbollah tried to make us like Iran, that would be a big problem for us.”

They were secular Shia. And yet they supported Hezbollah, an Islamist militia that is controlled by an Islamist dictatorship. As a noteworthy counterpoint (and I’ll write much more about this in the near future), I met a Shia cleric in the dahiyeh with a PhD in religion from Qom in Iran who is a strident opponent of Hezbollah.

Counterintuitive as it may be, Islamists are sometimes supported by secular people while facing hostility from the religious. The Middle East is rarely as simple as it appears.

The Shia have long been politically and economically marginalized by the Sunnis and Christians of Lebanon. Hezbollah, you might say, is the revenge of the Shia. Their appeal is much more sectarian and political than it is religious.

Two men heard that we were speaking in English and, once again and for no other reason, felt compelled to come over and harass Noah and me.

“Where are you from!” the first man yelled.

“United States,” I said and looked away from him, uninterested.

He grit his teeth, leaned forward, and jutted his face up next to mine.

“Do you like Bush?” he demanded.

“No,” I said passively.

“Do you like Olmert?” he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister in a particularly nasty tone of voice.

“No,” I said. “No,” I repeated more forcefully. I was honest with him, too. Ehud Olmert is arguably the worst prime minister in Israel’s history. Huge numbers of Israelis agree with that assessment, and even many Lebanese I spoke to said they wished Ariel Sharon (who is seriously hated in Lebanon) were prime minister instead of Olmert.

This guy really looked like he was spoiling for a fight. If I were Olmert’s biggest cheerleader I would likely have kept my mouth shut at that moment. He was satisfied, though, when I said I didn’t like Olmert. So he and his buddy walked off.

An older fat man in a red shirt interjected himself into our conversation. He had the wide open eyes of an agitated extremist. He got into a mildly heated political argument with Noah, who remained calm and collected throughout. I was having my own conversation with the more civil and interesting young man named Jad. I did catch two telling points from the enraged man in red, however, and they bear repeating.

“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!”

This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Israel does not receive weapons from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or any other Arab country. Don’t write off what he said as just another Middle Eastern conspiracy theory, though. He is aware that an important geopolitical shift has occurred.

Sunni Arab regimes — most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia — took Israel’s side during the opening of the July War. And every Arab government in the world except for Syria’s supports Lebanon’s government against Hezbollah’s “resistance.”

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has a new talking point that seems to be filtering down. He’s accusing Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora of being a tool of the “Zionist Entity.” Seniora is continuing the July War on Israel’s behalf, according to Nasrallah, because he’s pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

Seniora gets a lot of grief from commenters in the West for not moving quickly or decisively enough against Hezbollah. Look, though, at what he has to deal with.

It’s also worth pointing out that Al Qaeda accuses Hezbollah of being Zionist tools because Nasrallah won’t allow Sunni terrorists to come into Lebanon and use the south as a launch pad for strikes into Israel.

Six Arab governments — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia — say they will pursue nuclear weapons programs now because Iran’s atomic bombs need to be countered. None of these Arab countries sought nuclear weapons to offset those acquired by Israel. They fear and loathe the Shia of Lebanon and Iran (and most likely Iraq, as well) more than they worry about the Zionists regardless of what they may say.

The wider Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East, whose epicenter now is in Baghdad, may supplant the Arab-Israeli conflict some time in the future. For now, though, the Arab-Israeli conflict is used by both sides of the inter-Islamic divide to score propaganda points against the other.

“We have one enemy,” said the angry man in the red shirt. “The Israeli army. Us and the Yehudi people are friends.”

Hardly any Jews in the world are silly enough to believe Hezbollah are their friends. Israel does have friends in the Shia community, however, even though they are a minority.

This should not be too hard to believe. When Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to evict terrorists in the (Sunni) Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Shia of Lebanon hailed the Israelis as liberators. This was the natural, instinctive, default position of Lebanon’s Shia as recently as the 1980s. It was only after Israel stayed too long and behaved obnoxiously during the occupation, and after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards infiltrated the area and whipped people up into a radical frenzy, that the current Hezbollah-Israeli conflict took shape.

Israel’s Lebanon proxy — the South Lebanese Army — later was formed in the south to combat the “resistance.” It started out as predominantly Christian, but most of its members were Shia at the end.

I was slightly embarrassed on Lebanon’s behalf after showing Noah downtown. He hadn’t met any liberal or moderate Lebanese people yet. Hezbollah would like you to believe that their warmongering and bigoted conspiracy theories are mainstream, but it isn’t so. Even their Christian “allies” in the Free Patriotic Movement part ways with them on this stuff. Only Amal, the other major Shia political party, defends Hezbollah as a militia and a state-within-a-state any more.

No matter, though. First thing in the morning Noah and I had plans to take a road trip to the South, to Bint Jbail and the surrounding region, with serious professional Lebanese enemies of Hezbollah. They were well-trained in combat and they knew the safest roads in the area. It was time to go looking for civilians who were used as human shields during the war. Our time together in Beirut was over.

Post-script: Please help support independent journalism. I have no corporate backing, and I cannot visit foreign countries and file these dispatches without your assistance.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

Interviewed by Hugh Hewitt

I’ll have another long article posted shortly. In the meantime, Hugh Hewitt interviewed me on his national radio show.

Here is an excerpt:

HH: All right. Explain to people what Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon is right now, and this is really chilling, by the way, I must tell you, Michael Totten. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. Your conversation with the young teenagers, your description of their security forces, your detailing of their ambitions, Hezbollah is a menace, and just tell people about it.

MT: Well, basically, like I said before, what they really want, more than anything else, is as much power in Lebanon as they can acquire. And although they are an Islamist party, their main goal at this point, I don’t believe, is to turn Lebanon into an Islamist state, because they know it’s impossible. For one reason, more than a third of the country are Christians, and they will fight them to the end if they try to create Lebanon as an Islamist state. But also, there is the fact that the Sunni don’t want it, either, and if they did, they would be arguing about which kind of Islamist state to have. But also, the truth is that the majority of the Shia also do not want an Islamist state in Lebanon, and they never have. And so, while Hezbollah used to say that they wanted to turn Lebanon into basically, you know, an Iranian style state, but there’s just no way that they can do this, and they’ve had internal arguments about this, and Hassan Nasrallah is actually more moderate than the previous leaders of Hezbollah, and the previous leaders were pushed aside, because they wanted to Islamicize the entire country. And Nasrallah was chosen because he was seen as more pragmatic and more moderate, I mean, moderate, really only compared to who was running the show previously. So what they really want is they want Shia power in Lebanon as much as possible. And the reason, the only way they can get it is to be the only political party in the country that has an army. And the only way that they can justify having an army is if they are in a constant state of war with the Israelis.

Read the whole thing here.

New Comments Policy

If I have never heard of you before and you show up in the comments for the first time and start hurling personal insults I will delete your comment and you will be banned from posting future comments. I will no longer issue warnings to newcomers. Babysitting isn’t my job. Only people who have proven they have something to contribute deserve warnings. Introducing yourself with an eff-you attitude will get you summarily banned, and that’s final.

Hanging With Hezbollah

“If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” — Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, October 23, 2002

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BEIRUT — After Hezbollah mounted a protest aimed at bringing down Lebanon’s elected government, several thousand demonstrators remained downtown and camped out in tents, effectively occupying the center of the city. They first tried to seize and occupy Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s office in the Ottoman-era Serail. But Seniora warned Hezbollah that if his office were taken he could not control his “street.” Translation: If you seize the state’s institutions, the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon are going to kill you. Hezbollah knew this was true, and so they backed off. It didn’t hurt that the government of Saudi Arabia backed up Seniora on this point. But Hezbollah’s occupation of the neutral parts of downtown continues even into 2007.

I ventured downtown myself the day after the made-for-TV protest was over, when Hezbollah and friends no longer wanted attention from foreign media. Their lack of interest, if I could call it that, was instantly obvious. Ubiquitous security agents with the tell-tale sunglasses and earpieces stared at me coldly and turned their heads as I walked past.

Hundreds of tents were set up in parks, parking lots, and squares downtown, most of them made of white canvass. I snapped a few pictures, and nobody stepped in to stop me.

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One group of tents in a parking lot across from the Hariri mosque were all made of black canvas. What’s up with the black tents, I wondered. So I walked over and lifted my camera to my face.

Five ear-pieced Hezbollah agents aggressively pounced on me at once. They surrounded me and screamed “No!” Then they physically pushed me away from the tents and got in my face so I could not see behind them.

I’ve been accused of spying many times while in Lebanon, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this is what the Hezbollah agents thought I was doing. Many Lebanese are paranoid — often with good reason — but no one is nearly as paranoid as Hezbollah. (As a side note, one Lebanese man who suspected I worked for the CIA literally begged me to get him a job.)

“Sahafi!” I yelled back at them. Journalist!

“No, no, no!” they yelled and pushed me away. I lowered my camera, threw up my hands, and turned to walk away. Then they left me alone.

It’s almost always like this or worse when I run into actual members of the Hezbollah militia.

The first time I met Hussein Naboulsi, Hezbollah’s media relations liaison, he was perfectly friendly. But he later threatened me with physical violence because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. On another occasion I was detained for two hours by Hezbollah because they suspected one of my photojournalist colleagues was a Jew. A reporter friend (and I’ll keep his name out of this) was harassed because of an entirely innocuous article he wrote about them for a mainstream left-wing American magazine. Chris Allbritton, who works on occasion for Time magazine, wrote the following on his blog during the July War: “Hizbullah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

This is how Hezbollah treats Western journalists. I’d say I’m surprised more journalists don’t mention this sort of thing in their articles. But most journalists don’t write first-person narratives. Industry rules generally don’t allow them to describe these kinds of incidents. Even though it has been years since Hezbollah has kidnapped or physically harmed Western journalists, some may be afraid to rile up an Iranian proxy militia that is listed by the United States government as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah informed me that I’m officially blacklisted (meaning they will no longer give me interviews or even quotes) for what I have written about them in the past.

Some journalists don’t want to burn bridges to their own access and make their jobs harder. I don’t personally care. Last year I interviewed a high-level Hezbollah official, Mohammad Afif, but it was a useless interview that wasn’t even worth publishing. My translator told me that what Afif said matched exactly word-for-word what Hezbollah says every day on their own Al Manar TV channel. Losing access to these guys isn’t that big a deal.

I walked across the street deliberately in full view of the agents who got in my face, sat down on the sidewalk in front of heavily armed Lebanese soldiers, and furiously began taking notes. I chucked inside as I did this because I knew they could see what I was doing.

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I knew they wouldn’t do anything to me, and I wanted to let them know that their bullying behavior just earned them bad press. (Israelis who hassle and rudely interrogate journalists in Ben-Gurion airport ought to learn the same lesson one of these days.) I scribbled my furious notes, looked them in the eye, scribbled more furious notes, looked them in the eye again, and scribbled more furious notes.

Hezbollah is not half as media savvy as they like to fashion themselves. Harassing foreign journalists may keep some of them in line, so to speak, but it backfires with the rest of us. Bullying writers who are free of the old school media constraints of “objectivity” is a media war equivalent of dropping a hand grenade down your pants.

At least one of the security agents was smart enough to figure this out. He slowly walked up to me.

“What?” I said as I lifted my head.

He pointed at my camera, said something unintelligible, then pointed at the black tents.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I know, I know.” I went back to writing furious notes.

“No, no, no!” he said.

What?” I said, genuinely annoyed now.

A group of six teenagers between sixteen and eighteen years old saw the commotion and came over to see what was happening. One of them offered to translate.

“He said it is okay to take pictures,” he said.

“It is okay?” I said, and completely dropped my affected hostility.

“Yes, yes,” another kid said. “Come on.” He offered his hand and helped me up.

“Thanks, guys,” I said.

“Don’t worry about them,” a third teenager said. “They are handicaps.”

“Come on!” another said. “Come with us! We’ll show you around!”

They led me back across the street to the black tents. I lifted my camera and snapped a quick picture.

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It’s not that interesting a picture. It has no real value. What a waste for Hezbollah to earn themselves bad press in order to keep this innocuous photo from being released into the world, especially since in the end I was able to publish it anyway.

But I almost didn’t get it. Another Hezbollah security agent saw me take the picture and ran up to me.

“No!” he screamed and waved his arms. He menacingly put his face four inches from mine. “How many pictures did you take!” he yelled.

“Just one,” I said.

“Delete it right now!” he screamed. “You were told not to take pictures!”

Who were these guys to tell me what to do anyway? Lebanon is a free country, Hezbollah isn’t the government, and I was taking pictures of a public parking lot.

“No,” I said, “I was just told that I could take pictures.” I looked at my new teenager friends, waiting for them to back me up.

“Yes, yes, it’s okay,” one of the kids told the agent.

“No!” the agent said. “You delete it right now!”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll delete it on one condition…if you tell me why I can’t take a picture. What are you doing here that you want to hide?”

The truth is I would have deleted it without any conditions. I didn’t care about having the picture, and the last thing I needed was to get in a fight with these people. I just wanted to know what he would say when I asked him why he was paranoid. Of course he would have no prepared answer.

“Never mind!” he said as he threw his hands in the air, turned around, and stormed back into the tents.

“What on earth is their problem?” I said to the kids who stuck up for me and offered to show me around.

“Don’t worry,” said the one who had taken my hand. “They are handicaps.”

They are, indeed, “handicaps,” at least mentally. If they actually thought I was a spy (but I don’t know, maybe they didn’t) their behavior would have told me all I needed to know. It’s obvious which part of the tent city houses the leadership and the elite. It’s the one place, the black tented section, where the agents completely freak out if you show up with a camera. If I were to call up the CIA or the Mossad and give them air strike coordinates (or whatever it was Hezbollah was afraid of) all I’d have to say is “aim for the black tents.”

The teenagers who had volunteered as my guides, translators, and advocates, led me to the much larger section of the camp where everyone lived and slept in white tents.

Hezbollah Tent City 1.jpg

“Which party are you with?” I asked them.

“Hezbollaaaaaaaah,” said the lead kid and grinned. “Here, here, take a picture of this car!” They talked and moved fast with the boundless energy of young people on an adventure.

I took a picture of the car.

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“That’s Hassan Nasrallah. Do you know Hassan Nasrallah? He is a big hero.”

“Why is he a hero?” I said.

“He resists the Israelis!”

“Are all of you guys with Hezbollah?” I said.

“Yes!” one of them said. “We are all with Hassan Nasrallah!” They said this in such a way that they expected me to share their views even though they knew I am American. At least they expected I wouldn’t mind that they support Hassan Nasrallah. I doubt they felt any hostility to me personally whatsoever.

“So, what is it you hope to accomplish downtown?” I said.

“We want Seniora to leave,” one of them said.

“We want to fuck Seniora,” said another.

“I know,” I said. “Why do you want to get rid of him, though? What do you want from the government that you can’t get with Seniora?”

“War!” said one of the kids.

“We want war!” said another.

A third kid slapped the second up the side of his head. The slapped kid laughed and pushed his hand in his friend’s face.

I couldn’t tell if this playful spat was because they didn’t agree about wanting more war, or because they weren’t supposed to admit it in front of a foreign reporter. I have met Hezbollah supporters whom I know don’t want more war with Israel. Some of them truly believe that Israel will attack no matter what and that Hezbollah is Lebanon’s only defense.

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“We want to unite Lebanon and have a democracy,” said the kid who seemed to be their leader. He was the most mature and collected, and the others deferred to him with their body language.

“You have a democracy, though,” I said. “You didn’t win as many seats in the parliament as you would like, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a democracy. You can’t always get what you want in a democracy.”

“The American government rules Seniora,” said another. “They interfere in my business.”

“In what ways?” I said.

“America helps Israel against Lebanon and sells them weapons.”

None of these kids wanted to give me their names. I took notes of our conversation, but I cannot tell you who exactly said what. These quotes will have to go unattributed.

“What about Syria?” I said. “America helps Lebanon against Syria.”

“Bush killed all those politicians because he doesn’t want peace in Lebanon.”

“Why wouldn’t Bush want peace in Lebanon?” I said.

“I don’t know!”

“Americans don’t want war in Lebanon,” I said. “It would not serve our interests or yours. Do you think Americans want chaos in Lebanon just for the heck of it?”

“We don’t hate the American people, only the government.”

“Okay,” I said. “So why then does Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly say Death to America?” I asked these questions in the most friendly and casual tone of voice I could muster.

“He only means death to the American government.”

“Why doesn’t he make that clear then?” I said.

“He does!”

“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “He says Death to America. What would you think of George W. Bush if he gave speeches where he screamed Death to Lebanon? Come on, guys. Be honest with me. I want to know what you really think.”

“I want to go to America,” the leader kid said. “I love America and I want to live in America. America is rich and free. I want to be rich and free, too.”

I think the kid was sincere. His politics are a product of Hezbollah’s schools, his community, and his peer group. But politics in the Middle East isn’t as personal as it often is in the West, in part because Middle Easterners are accustomed to having their politics dictated to them by the powerful. Politicians are usually above accountability and beyond control of the people. They assume that’s how it is in the Western countries as well.

Street-level anti-Americanism is sometimes more moderate, complicated, and contradictory than it appears from far away. There is often a vast gulf separating those in the Arab world who incite anti-Americanism and those who more passively go along with it. The difference in temperament between Hezbollah’s bullying agents and the kids who showed me around are just one example.

“So,” I said. “Who do you think won the war in July? Israel or Hezbollah?”

“Nasrallah!”

“We beat Israel!”

“Does that mean you want to do it again?” I said.

“Yes!” half of them said.

“No!” the other half said simultaneously.

One of the kids who said “no” slapped one of the kids who said “yes.” Again, I couldn’t tell if that was because they didn’t agree with each other or because they weren’t supposed to sound like warmongers in front of a foreign reporter.

Most Lebanese will give you their honest opinions, no matter how off-the-wall or crazy their opinions might be. And they’ll do it without showing even a hint of embarrassment. Sometimes, though, I’m not convinced people are being straight with me. This was one of those times.

The gang took me around the tent city and introduced me to their friends. “Check this out! Here, meet these people!”

Hezbollah Tent Gathering.jpg

“Look at that crane. Take a picture of that!”

Hezbollah Crane.jpg

“There’s Nasrallah again. Quick. Take a picture!”

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Some of their friends were clearly a little bit wary. I could read it on their faces. Who’s this American, and why am I meeting him? Most, though, were perfectly friendly. They shook my hand, smiled, and said “Welcome.”

For some now-forgotten reason I thought one of the people I was introduced to was Druze, and I was surprised. Only a handful of Druze support Hezbollah. Very nearly all of them are with Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, who heads up the Progressive Socialist Party, and with the pro-Western “March 14” government. So I was happy to meet one of the tiny fraction of Druze who were outside the mainstream.

“You’re Druze?” I said to him.

He shook his head in confusion, clearly because he didn’t understand English.

“Inta Durzi?” I said. Are you Druze?

A look of horror and disgust washed over his face.

“La,” he said. No. “Ana Shia.” I am Shia.

I didn’t mean to insult him, but apparently I had. So much of what passes for politics in Lebanon is really just sectarian animosity, which is the primary reason most Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are against Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a well-armed Shia militia, the only militia of its kind in the country. The Christians don’t have their own army. The Sunni don’t have their army. And the Druze don’t have their own army. Hezbollah’s very existence is against Lebanese law, not to mention international law. Their existence as a foreign-backed army also violates Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing pact which dates back to the founding of the republic.

“Jumblatt is a handicap,” the leader of the kids said.

“Can I take a picture of you guys?” I said.

Most said no. Almost everyone in Lebanon is paranoid about somebody or other. Most Lebanese fear the Syrians. Hezbollah fears the Americans and the Israelis.

Two of them did let me take their picture, however.

Two Hezbollah Supporters.jpg

I said my goodbyes, genuinely thanked them for their time and hospitality, and walked toward the Beirut city center where most of the restaurants and shops can be found.

Every business was closed. The military blockaded every street leading to the center of town with checkpoints and coils of razor wire. Hezbollah and their friends (apparently) couldn’t be trusted not to vandalize the portion of Beirut that had been rebuilt and refurbished by the Hariri clan whom Hezbollah views as their Sunni enemies.

I approached a Lebanese army soldier standing watch.

“Is it okay if I take a picture?” I said.

He put his hand on his heart. “No, please, not today,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “Thank you, though.”

He must have had no idea why I thanked him. The reason I did is because I appreciated that he spoke to me like a normal human being and like a typical Lebanese — friendly, welcoming, and polite. The contrast between average Lebanese (and I’m including Hezbollah’s casual supporters in that group when I say this) and Hezbollah’s official party members and elite is extraordinary. Most of the people of Lebanon are instinctively decent on a personal level no matter their political views or ideology. Hezbollah itself, though, is instinctively menacing and hostile and belligerent. Their ideology is an alien one, imported from the East, from the extremist regime in Tehran. If they ever end up as rulers of Lebanon — and it will surely mean war if they try — Lebanon will no longer be recognizable.

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If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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Hezbollah’s Christian Allies

This is the second installment in a series. You can read Part One here if you missed it.

BEIRUT — While Hezbollah staged a mass protest and sit-in downtown Beirut with the hopes of ousting the elected anti-Syrian “March 14” government, I watched from the patio of a café across the street. Sitting at the next table were two men in orange, one with an orange hat and one with a scarf, which identified them as members of Michel Aoun’s (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement, the only non-Shia political party of any significance in Lebanon that dared form an alliance with Hezbollah.

Aounists at Paul.JPG

The two Aounists smoked cigars and calmly watched the crowd. A man at the next table scowled. Everyone else ate their lunch as though nothing was happening just 30 feet away. The dread of civil war hung over Lebanon like a pall. But if these people weren’t nervous, how could I be? It’s a cliché that fear is contagious. What’s less widely understood is that calm is also contagious. Then again, we were a self-selecting lunch crowd. Thousands of Beirutis were hiding in their homes, hugging their flags, and wishing they lived in a normal country.

I asked the two Aounists if I could join them at their table, if they would be willing to explain to a primarily Western audience why they formed a political alliance with an Islamist militia.

“Of course,” they both warmly said and gestured for me to sit.

“Pull up a seat,” said the man in the hat. “Can I buy you a coffee?”

The man on the left introduced himself as Jack (yes, that’s his real Lebanese name) and said he worked as a pilot for a major airline. The other was named Antonios. He worked as a tour guide in Baalbeck.

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A portrait of Michel Aoun on a street in East Beirut

“So why are you with Aoun and Hezbollah?” I said.

“Aoun is honest and correct,” Antonios said. “Hezbollah in America is seen as terrorists, I know. I understand. But they are a large party in Lebanon and we have to live here with them. So we have to convince them to come back, to put down their arms and join the rest of us. We cannot do it by fighting.”

At least they don’t want to do it by fighting today. Another Aounist I know explained their strategy to me earlier in the year: “We’ll extend our hand and ask them to join us. But we can’t wait forever. If they refuse to disarm we’ll crack the shit out of them.”

“On the other side,” Jack said, “is the Hariri family which has governed since 1990 with and without help from the Syrians. They’re only interested in keeping the Ministry of Finance so they can pay no taxes and steal from us like they do through the cell phone companies.”

Indeed, Lebanon’s cell phone companies are the corporate equivalent of rapists. It costs two dollars a minute to call the United States from Beirut, and it costs 50 cents a minute just to make a local call. This in a country where the average salary is only 800 dollars a month. A member of my hotel’s staff told me a Mexican businessman who stayed with them recently had to pay four dollars a minute to call his wife in Mexico City.

Until the Syrians were chased out by the March 14 Movement, broadband Internet access was banned in Lebanon to prevent people from making free or cheap long distance phone calls using Skype or other Internet services. The ban has since been lifted, but Lebanon’s telecommunications infrastructure is still terribly behind the rest of the world and the region.

“Hariri spent 10 million dollars in the north on his election campaign,” Jack said. “But he stole that money from the government, from us.”

“Seniora should accept this and resign,” Antonios said. “We are voting with Aoun because he is honest and not corrupt. March 14 doesn’t want a man like that in charge of finance.”

I doubt most Aounists are aware of what happened to the left in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Liberals and leftists formed an alliance with the Islamists to overthrow the corrupt and dictatorial Shah Reza Pahlevi. After the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, though, first the leftists were liquidated, and then so too were the liberals. Soon enough only the rightist religious fanatics remained.

“I understand why you don’t want a war with Hezbollah,” I said. “But why does that mean you have to form an alliance with them? Do you really believe Hassan Nasrallah is your friend?”

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Several posters of Aoun are defaced, and placed among them is a portrait of the far more popular (among Christians) Bashir Gemayel, Israel’s Lebanese ally during the civil war.

“No,” Jack said. “He isn’t our friend. But if Hezbollah is truly a part of the government they will give up their arms.”

“Hezbollah no longer uses arms against Lebanese,” Antonios said.

This is almost true, but not quite. I found people in the South whom Hezbollah shot at with machine guns during the July War only a few months ago. But I hadn’t met these people yet at the time, and Jack and Antonios may have had a hard time accepting it even if I had told them about it.

“Hariri accepted Hezbollah’s arms back in 1990,” Jack said, which was of course true.

The situation was different then, though. Southern Lebanon was still under Israeli occupation. Hezbollah’s ideology and tactics may have been distasteful to most of Lebanon’s citizens, but foreign occupation was even more so. Hezbollah was given temporary support by the majority of the people of Lebanon for their struggle against the occupier.

Almost all that support evaporated after Israel withdrew from Lebanese territory. Hezbollah was supposed to disarm. Instead they kept their weapons and warped Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing arrangement — the Shia have their own army while no one else does. This is why Hezbollah is widely detested in Lebanon and why claims that Hezbollah is a popular people’s movement are flatly ridiculous. Hezbollah is a well-armed parochial sectarian movement that is deeply offensive and dangerous in a country where every group is a minority and none are allowed to bully or lord it over the others.

That, of course, is not the only reason Hezbollah frightens most Lebanese. Hezbollah is also, as everyone knows, a proxy militia for Syria and Iran. The Aounists may have legitimate grievances against the “March 14” government, but they’re paying precious little attention to the wider regional picture.

Tony Badran, a Lebanese research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, calls Michel Aoun a “useful idiot.”

“Aoun’s calculations fail to take in some dangerous regional realities. Syria is more than pleased to see Aoun attacking the anti-Syrian government. So is Iran, whose supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently predicted the defeat of U.S. and allied interests in Lebanon. Wittingly or not, Aoun is serving these foreign masters for free.”

Michael Young, opinion page editor at Beirut’s Daily Star, thinks Aoun has doomed himself with his useful idiocy no matter how the crisis resolves in the end.

“The general knows he and his own are the weakest link in the campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Aounists cannot long endure an open-ended sit-in, both because they are not earning salaries to do so and probably because the looming holiday season threatens to melt their momentum. And there is something else: Aoun realizes that as package deals are unwrapped left and right to resolve the ongoing crisis, his chances of seeing the presidency diminish. Indeed, the latest basket of ideas from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa includes a proposal for the March 14 coalition and the opposition to consent to a compromise president. If that process goes through, Aoun will not be the chosen one… can the general then convince Hizbullah and the Syrians that he’s their man? If the Syrians are back in town by then, their preference will be for someone more controllable; and if they are not, this will mean that all sides must accept a compromise candidate. In neither case does Aoun fit the bill.”

The strangest thing about Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah, who is of course allied with Syria, is that Aoun was for years Lebanon’s most militant enemy of Syria as the prime minister and as a general in the army.

“Why is it,” I said to Jack and Antonios, “that Michel Aoun is now pro-Syrian when for years he was the staunchest anti-Syrian leader in Lebanon?”

“Aoun is not pro-Syrian,” Antonios said. “He just wants normal relations with Syria. We can’t fight Syria.”

Sure enough, Lebanon cannot fight Syria. Not militarily, at least, any more than little Kuwait could defend itself against an invasion from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Aoun, you could say, has surrendered to Syrian power, or at least acquiesced to it.

Only the West can or will at least try to keep Syria out of Lebanon.

“What do you two think of US foreign policy here?” I said.

“We love America, but have doubts,” Jack said. “They let Syria come in here in 1991 for help in Iraq.” Jack was referring to former Secretary of State James Baker, who green-lighted Syria’s invasion and overlordship in Lebanon in exchange for “help” during the first Persian Gulf War. How Hafez Assad lent any meaningful assistance in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait has never been clear. Lebanese were sold to the Syrian wolf for a cheap price indeed, and Aoun constantly harps on this point to his followers.

“Now they put their fingers in here,” Jack continued. “They used the Syrian election law.”

The Syrians did write Lebanon’s current election law, and they did it strictly in a way that would benefit them. They gerrymandered the voting districts so that anti-Syrians were marginalized and pro-Syrians strengthened. Jack is annoyed that the US supported quick elections in post-Syrian Lebanon without first pushing for a new electoral law.

“The US will hand us over to the Syrians again for help in Iraq,” Antonios said. “That is what Washington is speaking of doing right now.”

Actually, the Iraq Study Group (headed by none other than James Baker himself) explicitly said Lebanon is off the table, that Assad cannot expect any American support for his little imperialistic adventures. But this detail has been lost in the wash, and I can hardly blame Jack and Antonios for suspecting the worst now that Baker is back.

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Michel Aoun’s portrait now appears with those of his former enemies, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and North Lebanon’s token pro-Syrian Maronite Suleiman Franjieh.

This isn’t the first time Michel Aoun made a tactical alliance with people who have little or nothing in common with him politically instead of trying to forge ties with more natural allies.

Aoun became prime minister in 1988, near the end of Lebanon’s civil war. He formed an alliance with Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad’s old Baathist rival, and openly declared war against Syria. The Aounists were the last militant anti-Syrians in the country. Nearly everyone else surrendered to Syrian domination as a way to resolve the intractable 15-year conflict. Aoun couldn’t hold the Syrians off, and he was exiled to France after his surrender.

The US used diplomatic pressure to help get him out of exile last year. But he never forgave the American government for green-lighting his defeat at the end of the war. He still harps on this point today, and so do his partisans, as though Syria would have been unable to rule Lebanon if it weren’t for James Baker — a dubious assumption at best.

Even so, the US does have the bad habit of being fickle with its friends in the Middle East. Many people in the March 14 bloc likewise are worried the US will abandon them to Hezbollah, the Iranians, and the Baath. Anti-American elements in March 14 will tell you that the reason they don’t trust America is not because they hate the US, but because Americans are unreliable allies who care only about themselves and not about Lebanon.

In any case, Aoun’s alliance or détente with Syria, like his alliance with Hezbollah, is mostly just tactical. He wants to be president more than anything else. He’ll do whatever he thinks he must in order to get it, and probably figures that once he’s in office he can do whatever he wants. Unlike the current Assad-appointed Syrian stooge of a president Emile Lahoud, Aoun would be beholden to no one. The man is a loose cannon and always has been.

Foreign policy, though, is not what most motivated Jack and Antonios. They kept steering the conversation back to corruption.

“According to the people ruling Lebanon,” Jack said, “money is the only thing that matters.”

“Nasrallah is honest,” Antonios said. “He takes care of his people. Sure he gets money from Iran, but everyone gets money from outside.”

This is most likely true. Say what you will about Hezbollah, they aren’t known for financial corruption. (UPDATE: Tony Badran deftly dissents in the comments.)

“Does Mr. Bush pay taxes?” Jack asked me.

“Of course,” I said.

“Hariri doesn’t,” he said. “This is justice?”

“No,” I said. “Of course it isn’t justice.”

“Seniora has been in government for 15 years,” Antonios said. “We have no medical scheme, no national education, 55 billion dollars in debt, and no retirement system. Why? 200 dollars a month is the minimum wage. We try to increase it, but they say they have no money. Then they spend 800 million dollars on a new company. This is why we are with Aoun. Our government is not a government. It is like we are ruled by a private corporation for the benefit of the boss.”

I liked these guys, and I sympathized with their positions and complaints. They aren’t terrorists or fascists or anything like it. They’re liberals, basically, although most of the “March 14” bloc parties are relatively liberal in a Middle East way as well. If the Aounists had more decent and respectable allies in their opposition to the government their rallies wouldn’t be considered a “crisis” by anyone in the international community.

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A large orange flag from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement flies over downtown

“Foreigners should stop sending money to Lebanon,” Jack said. “The government will just steal it. They should send someone like you here to watch exactly what happens to that money.”

“Thanks, guys,” I said and laughed. “But accounting isn’t really my specialty.”

The waiter came by the table.

“Do you want another coffee?” Antonios said.

“Get another coffee!” Jack said.

“I’ll have another coffee,” I said to the waiter.

Jack puffed on his cigar.

The opposition isn’t demanding absolute power in Lebanon. They’ll go home if the government gives Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement enough slots in the cabinet that as a bloc they’ll have veto power over government decisions. They want blocking minority status, which just goes to show you how much support in Lebanon Hezbollah actually has. Just giving them one part of a minority faction will sate them for now. If they really were a mass popular movement they would demand a lot more than that.

One reason they want veto power is so they can block the UN tribunal that will indict and punish the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Everyone knows the Syrians did it, and Hezbollah can’t have their patron in Damascus made into a formal pariah by the United Nations.

Why on earth, though, would the Aounists want to block that? The Aounists were a part of the “March 14” movement that ousted the Syrian occupiers from Lebanon after Hariri was killed.

“So, what about the tribunal?” I said to Jack and Antonios. “Do you really want to block the investigation?”

“We are worried,” Antonios said, “that [Saad] Hariri wants to use the tribunal to go after people whose faces in Lebanon he doesn’t like.”

I think I must have audibly sighed when I heard that. But these guys live in a part of the world where politics has always been a ruthless and murderous business. Political enemies really do disappear into dungeons. Voicing the “wrong” opinion in a newspaper column can get you car-bombed on the way to work in the morning. Foreign powers really do manipulate local governments for their own craven gain. Paranoia naturally thrives in environments like Lebanon’s, and I’m honestly surprised it isn’t an even bigger problem than it already is.

“We are not against anybody,” Antonios earnestly said. “We just support our country. We are normal people and we work every day.”

“Do you think there will be more war in Lebanon?” I said.

“No!” Jack said. “Not with ourselves, and not with Israel. I think there is a deal under the table between the Israelis and Hezbollah. Both sides lost and don’t want to do it again. The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case.”

I hope Jack is right, but I fear he is not. Hezbollah has restocked its arsenal. Hezbollah has made no formal announcement that its war with Israelis is finished. If Hezbollah wants peace or at least an armistice, they are keeping their intentions very much to themselves.

If Hezbollah increases its share of government power, more war with Israel is only that much more likely. And the more official state power that Hezbollah is able to garner, the more incentive the Israelis will have to attack all of Lebanon next time there’s war.

Jack and Antonios are in a terrible spot. At some point Hezbollah needs to be mainstreamed. But if they’re mainstreamed prematurely, Lebanon as a whole will be moved into Israel’s kill zone.

The alternative, though, is also quite grim.

“If Israel can’t deal with Hezbollah, how can Seniora and Jumblatt?” Antonios said. “We have to negotiate with them. If we don’t then we will divide on sectarian lines and we will no longer have a country. Look at that mosque next to the church.”

church and mosque beirut 2005.jpg

“We need this,” he said. “Christians need Muslims. And Muslims need Christians. That is what Lebanon is.”

Post-script: Please donate and help support independent journalism. I am not independently wealthy, and I have to pay all travel expenses out of my own pocket to bring you these dispatches. Your donation helps defray the costs of my trip to Beirut and South Lebanon, and may also go toward covering my next trip abroad — which is coming up soon in six weeks.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Meanwhile…

It’s the holidays, and blogging is slow. I have a longish piece coming up about Michel Aoun and Hezbollah’s Christian allies, but it isn’t quite ready yet.

In the meantime, don’t take the comments section too seriously. I have a bit of a troll infestation, a gift from the self-described Angry Arab who attacks me in part because of my race. A link from his site is a comments section destroyer.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. The axe-grinding reactionaries in the comments do not even remotely represent the people of Lebanon. They represent the readers of Angry Arab. (The name says it all.)

I don’t think the professor (yes, he’s a professor) realizes what a spectacularly bad job he’s doing of public relations for his country. I should not have to clean up his mess on behalf of his countrymen, but here I am doing it. You will really have to excuse his fans. Please. Lebanon is far kinder, more tolerant, and more intelligent than they are. I am sorry for having to say this.

I rather doubt that when I post interviews with Lebanese who were used as human shields in July, and with an Iranian-educated Shia cleric from the dahiyeh who staunchly opposes Hezbollah that he’ll feel like linking me anymore.

Hezbollah’s Putsch – Day One

Church and Mosque Beirut.jpg

BEIRUT — I returned to Beirut after eight months and a hot summer war and found that the city had little changed, at least on the surface. My old neighborhood in West Beirut was intact. Civil war reconstruction continued downtown. More restaurants and pubs had opened close-in on the east side of the city. Solidere sported a brand-new Starbucks. Beirut did not appear to be reeling from war. Post-Syrian gentrification had proceeded as scheduled.

On second glance, though, all was not well. I was the only guest in my eight-story hotel, and I genuinely shocked the staff when I stepped into the lobby first thing in the morning. “Why are you still here?” one bartender asked me. Almost all my friends and even acquaintances left the country during the July War and hadn’t returned. Milk was still hard to come by in grocery stores and even some restaurants because the Israeli Air Force destroyed Lebanon’s milk factory. Party and sectarian flags were flown on the streets in abundance, a tell-tale sign that the post-Syrian patriotism and unity were coming apart.

All that and, you know, the private army of an enemy state was threatening to topple the government.

I had barely arrived and recovered from jet lag before Hezbollah took over the streets. I asked Carine, one of my few remaining friends, if she wanted to join me downtown for the festivities, but she refused to be seen anywhere near the made-for-TV event. She didn’t want to artificially inflate Hezbollah’s head-count by one. So I went down there alone with my camera and notepad.

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Aside from Hezbollah, the Baath Party, and a few irrelevant crackpots on the radical left, no one in the world thinks of liberal-democratic protests and sit-ins in Lebanon as a “crisis.” But nearly everyone — including the Arab League and every Arab government in the world except for Syria’s — recognizes, for one set of reasons or another, that it’s a problem when a guerilla and terrorist army loyal to another state tries to topple an elected government.

I try my best to be accurate. But these reports are not “objective.” My writing is personal and unapologetically biased. If you want bloodless and neutral coverage of the ongoing crisis in Lebanon, find a writer or reporter who doesn’t care about Lebanon, who can shrug at its problems, who only cares about the place because it’s a “story,” who can yawn and sleep soundly while it convulses and explodes. There are plenty around. The rest of us will take sides.

*

I ate breakfast at Paul, a little French bistro across the street from a Lebanese army checkpoint that marked the beginning of Hezbollah’s freshly occupied territory downtown. The café was a bit quieter than usual, but if you had just parachuted into Lebanon, hadn’t picked up a newspaper, stayed inside the little bubble the bistro provided, and refrained from discussing the impending crisis, you would have no idea a political storm was scheduled and coming.

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Many Beirutis in the Sunni and Christian neighborhoods (which is to say, most of Beirut) feared political and sectarian violence in the streets. I didn’t so much, at least not at that time. The Lebanese army had deployed in full force. The city looked like a besieged war-time capital braced for an invasion.

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Lebanese Army Soldier Hezbollah Rally.jpg

Lebanese Soldiers Hezbollah Rally.JPG

Hezbollah also dispatched their “discipline” men to prevent and break up fights. It was oddly comforting, but nevertheless so, that Hezbollah’s pragmatic higher-ups would be protecting me and everyone else from their fans. Many people worried about civil war, but no one seemed to want it. So there was no war.

Hezbollah wasn’t the big threat in any case. Hezbollah is Lebanese. Hezbollah has to live there with Christians and Sunnis and Druze. More worrisome were what one former Aounist I know calls “the flies on their backs” — the Syrian intelligence agents who have every incentive to foment chaos and violence.

The rally was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. I went downtown at 1:00.

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Die hard supporters of Hezbollah set out early into the empty streets of Beirut

Hezbollah asked (ordered?) its members and followers to fly only Lebanese flags at the rally downtown. A swarming mass of menacing green and yellow “resistance” flags wouldn’t look good in front of the cameras.

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So Hezbollah waved the benign and patriotic cedar tree flag instead.

Hezbollah Protesters Arrive Downtown.JPG

Some Hezbollah supporters didn’t get the memo or chose to ignore it.

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But the “resistance” logo for the most part wasn’t in evidence.

Most Lebanese Christians, Sunnis, and Druze never visit Hezbollah’s strongholds. “Why the hell would I want to go there?” a friend once asked me. “For some sight-seeing?”

I go to Hezbollah, though, and I did it again a few times on this trip. After having done so within days of the rally, the sheer cynicism of flying the Lebanese flag in front of the cameras is painfully obvious.

Lebanese flags are ubiquitous in the Christian, Sunni, and Druze regions of Lebanon. Lebanon is perhaps the most be-flagged country I’ve ever seen. But Lebanese flags scarcely exist in the areas under control by Hezbollah. (They have a state-within-a-state, after all, with parallel institutions, schools, military, police, and foreign policy. Why not flags, too?) The cedar tree flags downtown are mere props in a media battle. Hezbollah wants to look mainstream and patriotic. A road trip to the south shows this is a lie. (I’ll document my trip south in future articles.)

Michel Aoun’s (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement did fly its orange flags downtown, though.

Aounist Protesters.jpg

The Aounists are Hezbollah’s Christian fig leaf, the only non-Shia party of any significance that dared form an alliance with a party so implacably hostile to the Lebanese project. What good would a fig leaf be if it were invisible? So the Aounists burnished their orange. The Aounists had to be seen.

I felt better with the Aounists around. The Hezbollah demonstrators who came downtown two hours early were the true believers, the ones who would have come down even if Hezbollah had not paid them to do so. (Each person was paid 30 dollars to attend the rally, and everyone who stayed downtown in the camps was paid another 30 dollars for each day they stayed.) Hardly any women were down there at 1:00, and many of the men who were there were pumped full of macho swagger like coked-up frat boys looking for fights.

The Christian Aounists in orange may be fools for forming an alliance with a bullying Islamist army. But they are civilized people who have no interest in war or jihad. I knew that if anyone in the crowd were to give me any trouble the nearest group of Aounists could provide a friendly refuge. I do not agree with their politics, but I instinctively like and trust them as people. (You would, too, if you knew them as I do.)

A handful of other micro-parties showed up — Marada, the Communists, and a few that were so insignificant I did not know they existed until I ran into them. Most damning was the presence of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

The SSNP, founded by Antun Saada in 1932 and modeled after the Nazi and Fascist parties of Germany and Italy, is the most vicious and sinister of all Lebanon’s parties, more so even than Hezbollah. Last week seven members were arrested by Lebanese police and several truckloads of weapons and explosives were captured. Ali Qanso, the party leader, defensively said “we are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.” If the Syrians use Lebanese proxies to carry out bombings and assassinations, the SSNP are most likely the culprits.

(Johns Hopkins Professor Fouad Ajami, who grew up as a Shia in South Lebanon, wrote about Saada and the SSNP at length in his masterful Dream Palace of the Arabs.)

SSNP Protester.jpg

Their flag is a spinning swastika. Naturally they are aligned with Hezbollah and belong to the so-called “March 8” opposition coalition.

Hezbollah blasted ear-splitting military music through gigantic speaker towers. Some of it was cheesy and sounded more or less like the same patriotic pop I heard at March 14 rallies last year. Some of it, though, sounded exactly like the soundtrack to a fascist putsch or revolution.

Squads of rowdy militant teenagers shouted “Nasrallah! Nasrallah! Nasrallah!” and violently pumped fists in the air.

A loutish gang of young Shia men walked along the line of separation between the downtown rally and middle class Christian East Beirut. They loudly booed and jeered as they looked east, all but daring the residents to come out and “get some.” Echoes of Northern Ireland.

A twelve year old kid with a Hezbollah flag saw me and sneered.

Hezbollah’s own security goons with their walkie talkies and ear pieces stared at me and closely watched every single move I made.

A small angry-looking child dressed in military fatigues wandered around loose on his own.

Soldier Boy Protester.jpg

It was a slightly creepy environment, but for the most part uneventful. Nobody got in my face (yet). So I went back to Gemmayze in East Beirut and had a beer while waiting for more people to show up.

Gemmayze begins only one block from downtown where the rally was held, but its quieter civilized streets felt like another country.

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Hallowed Be Thy Name.jpg

I snapped a quick photo of a “No War” sticker on the door to a French bar called Godot.

No War Godot.JPG

“That’s from July,” the bartender said as he stepped out to talk to me. “It is not from this war.”

“You think this is a war?” I said.

“It is shit,” he said. “It’s bad for everybody, for the government and the opposition.”

“You’re independent then,” I said.

“I have no side,” he said. “I’m proud to be Lebanese, but I have no side.”

His name was Chibli and he told me Godot was open throughout the July War. His little bar became something of a haven for visiting foreign correspondents. I didn’t see any visiting foreign correspondents in Godot on that day, nor anywhere else on any other day either.

Godot was closed, though, until 4:00. So I went to Torino, the only place open in a neighborhood where support for Aounists was slim and support for Hezbollah has always been zero.

Inside Torino.JPG

Such a surreal place, Beirut. Inside the bar was a world of hipsters, booze, good conversation, Italian-style espresso, flirting, and Depeche Mode on the stereo. Outside was Hezbollah, guns, tanks, and the army.

A car roared past bristling with Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Marada flags. Marada is a tiny party in North Lebanon headed by Suleiman Franjieh — who lost his parliament seat in the last election — that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Syrian Baath Party. Seeing Aounists and Marada in the same car was truly bizarre. During most of Syria’s post-war occupation of Lebanon the Aounists were at times the only people in the country who bravely demonstrated in public against the regime. They were beaten, arrested, and sometimes tortured for their acts of defiance. Aoun’s newfound alliance with the old enemy enrages most of the Christian community. The FPM is less popular than ever as a result.

Tension within the Christian community is higher now than it has been since the end of the war 15 years ago. But the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance lowers the tension between Christians and Shia. Since the odds of inter-Christian fighting are vanishingly close to zero and the odd of Christian-Shia fighting are slightly higher, the Aounists may have a point when they say their alliance with Nasrallah is a buffer against civil war. Nevertheless, the alliance is ugly to see.

I went back downtown at 2:45. The crowd was burgeoning now, and genuinely enormous.

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Martyr’s Square, though, and the gigantic empty spaces around it, were blocked off by razor wire and the army.

Razor Wire Martyrs Square.JPG

Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is buried across the street from Martyr’s Square, and his grave had to be protected from tens of thousands of angry Shia who might desecrate it if a mob mentality were to develop. So when you see photos of large masses of Hezbollah protesters, keep in mind that the anti-Syrian rally on March 14 of last year filled the same space you see above in addition to filling the much larger Martyr’s Square area to the east of downtown.

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Hezbollah likes to claim their rally was larger. But it is not physically possible for it to have been larger. They filled the space allotted to them, but they had much less space to fill.

Razor Wire Martyrs Square 3.JPG

The Aounists have the dubious distinction of having been present at both rallies. I doubt they understand how these photographs are interpreted abroad, and how crazy it must look that a supposedly liberal Christian political party is aligned with an Islamist terror militia. Don’t they understand that this makes Lebanon look like a nation of terrorists and terror supporters to people outside the country? Lebanon’s politics are strange and misleading enough to people who understand how the internal jockeying and consensus system works.

So when I found two Aounists in orange sitting at an outdoor table at the French café next to downtown I asked if I could join them and if they would be willing to explain themselves to a primarily American audience.

Aounists at Paul.JPG

“Of course,” they both warmly said and gestured for me to sit.

“Pull up a seat,” said the man on the left. “Can I buy you a coffee?”

Click here to read the next installment.

Post-script: Please donate and help support independent journalism. I am not independently wealthy, and I have to pay all travel expenses out of my own pocket to bring you these dispatches. Your donation helps defray the costs of my trip to Beirut and South Lebanon, and may also go toward covering my next trip abroad — which is coming up soon in six weeks.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas/Hannukah/Eid al-Adha/Festivus/Holidays. Hope that takes care of everybody.

I have returned to the world of the vertical and the living. But I shall not blog on Christmas or Christmas Eve. What are you doing on the Internet today anyway?

I’ll be back the day after with lots of material.

Please Be Patient

I picked up a nasty virus on the plane home from the Middle East and have hardly been able to move for two days. Blogging will resume when my fever breaks.

Out of Lebanon

by Michael J. Totten

MJT on Mt Lebanon.jpg

Photo copyright Noah Pollak

I’m back from a three-week under-the-radar trip to Beirut and South Lebanon. I wanted to write about events there while they were happening. But I went to Hezbollah’s southern “capital” of Bint Jbail, and also to their blasted-apart command and control center in the dahiyeh, the suburb south of Beirut. I’m on their “list,” so to speak, and it was both easier and safer to work without announcing my presence and giving them the chance to run interference.

I felt slightly ridiculous, like I was being too paranoid — the odds that Hezbollah would actually hurt me were miniscule. They haven’t committed any violence toward Westerners for many years. But they could have broken or confiscated my equipment and kicked me out of their area. Fortunately they did neither.

MJT with Aoun and Gemayel.jpg

Photo copyright Noah Pollak

The last three days of my trip were spent in Herzilya, Israel, at a media conference. I’m home again now and will begin writing and posting photographs as soon as I spend a little time with my wife and recover from jet lag.

Many thanks to Abu Kais for doing a terrific job guest-blogging while I’ve been out of the country. I couldn’t have picked a better person to fill in for me, especially while Lebanon was in turmoil and I had to keep quiet.

Stay tuned.

Hizbullah’s weapons, the Hariri tribunal and chapter 7

By Abu Kais

The time of compromises is over.

Nothing surprising in what follows. Here’s Mahmoud Komati, deputy head of Hezbollah’s political bureau, speaking to AP.

Komati said Hezbollah started asking for greater share in the government only after the July-August war with Israel and that one of the key reasons was to prevent the pro-U.S. government from forcing it to disarm.

“Now we are demanding it (greater government share), because our experience during the war and the performance of the government has made us unsure. On several occasions they pressured us to lay down our weapons while we were fighting a war,” Komati told The Associated Press in a huge tent, one of hundreds Hezbollah has erected for sit-ins just outside Saniora’s office.

“So after the war, we had no choice but to demand this guarantee that would give us legal and constitutional strength. If we take the one-third plus one, the government will not be able to impose its decision on us,” said Komati.

Of course, all the government tried to do is getting them to commit to discussing their disarmament AFTER the war, and as part of a "national dialogue." Hizbullah has been waging a vicious campaign against Saad Hariri, accusing him of daring to ask Hassan Nasrallah for a commitment to disarm. Although Hariri was trying to extract a promise from the holy leader to do what I said at the top of the paragraph, in hopes to avoid a resolution being passed under chapter 7– it was blown out of proportion by Hizbullah’s media and now Hariri has been declared a traitor.

Of course Hariri and Siniora should not have bothered to spare Hizbullah a chapter 7 resolution. As we saw, they wasted no time re-arming, and have shown no gratitude towards efforts to save them in the name of "national unity"—a term they interpret to mean "unity around our weapons."

For all this, the next step should be obvious to Siniora. Let the Hariri tribunal pass under chapter 7, as was suggested before the Lebanese government asked for it to pass through the Lebanese institutions. The likes of Hizbullah and their sponsors understand democracy to mean consensus on their policies, so there is no benefit in giving them the tribunal card to terrorize the country until their demands are met.

The civil war that Siniora wanted to avoid had a chapter 7 resolution forcing Hizbullah to disarm passed, will take place precisely because Hizbullah is an ungrateful, war-obsessed entity that deserves no special treatment outside the rule of law. Like the Assad regime, they use terror to get what they want, albeit in Hizbullah’s case, it is political (but for how long?).

According to al-Mustaqbal, France and the US are preparing a chapter 7 resolution regarding the Hariri tribunal, meaning the Lebanese government would be spared the need to approve it in parliament. Hizbullah and the Assad regime are being given until the end of the year to either accept a compromise being worked on by Amr Moussa, or face a chapter 7 resolution. Siniora went to Moscow because the Russians think they can broker a deal between the Lebanese cabinet and their comrades in the Assad regime over the tribunal (Assad is expected to visit Russia soon after). But Moscow might not be able to veto this one, as the French and Americans will not allow the regime and Hizbullah to blow Lebanon into smithereens. Let us not forget that UNIFIL has the mandate to intervene as a protection force if Hizbullah threatens Lebanese security—something that even fundamentalist Fathi Yakan understood when he lashed out at his allies’ calls to storm the Serail.

Finally, the real onus is not only on the Lebanese cabinet and army, but also on the Lebanese marching in support of Hizbullah and Aoun (at least those not getting paid in "clean and honorable Iranian money"). Will they wake up to see where their idols are taking them?

In the meantime, chapter 7 never looked so good.

Kerry: Syria has “needs”

By Abu Kais

John Kerry thinks the Bush administration, the UN Security Council, France, most of Europe, Lebanon, and many "moderate" Arab countries fed up with the Assad regime, are blind to the importance of dialogue. He thinks they don’t know what Syria’s "needs" are.

The Massachusetts Democrat said his visit to Syria was "a fact-finding mission" to explore "what might or might not affect behavior with respect to Hezbollah, Lebanon, Israel and Iraq, where in each of those cases Syria is playing a role."

"Dialogue is an important thing. It’s very hard to move the ball if you don’t know firsthand what people’s needs are, what their own perceptions are," Kerry said in an interview with The Associated Press and several other journalists in Cairo.

Kerry said he was "willing" to go to Iran for talks but had no current plans to do so.

Kerry also claimed he had "no illusions".

Kerry called the refusal to talk to Syria and Iran "a mistake. I think it’s the kind of policy that’s got us into trouble in the reason and it needs to change."

The former Democratic presidential candidate underlined that he was not engaging in negotiations with Damascus. "Talking to somebody is not rewarding their behavior. I have no illusions about our differences with these countries … and nothing in the discussion is based on trust," said. "But you cannot get to (action and verifiability) without setting up the modalities. So you have to engage in some dialogue."

"Now that the Democrats are in control of Congress, we have an even larger responsibility to set a direction … as a counterbalance to policies that have gotten us into trouble," he said.

So, the refusal to talk to Syria and Iran was a mistake that "got us into trouble."? Well, Kerry, how about you go back in time and vote against the war, if you’re so concerned about policies that "get us into trouble". And while you’re in the past, pray tell Syria not to treat Lebanese like slaves won in some kind of barter deal.

The problem with beltway politics is that politicians always assume that their opponents must not be doing the right thing, even if they can’t figure out what exactly they’re doing wrong. Democrats like Kerry, who can’t figure out where to stand on the Iraq debate, end up pandering to anti-Bush sentiments because that’s all they can do. Not that Bush didn’t screw up– but how do you fix someone’s mistakes by making more mistakes? How do you replace a grandiose idea with an illusion about a cooperative Assad regime?

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