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.

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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.”

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“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:

Michael Totten

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten


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

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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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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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?

US Senators trying to “find facts” in Syria

By Abu Kais

Senator Bill Nelson (D), the first in a group of at least 4 senators who want to try dialogue with Syria, has been dragged through the mud by dictator Bashar Assad. Over the next few days, John Kerry, Arlen Specter and Christopher Dodd will join him, in an attempt to "convince the Assad regime to "cooperate" in Iraq. As soon as they finish reading the Baker-Hamilton report.

The report, as you know, recommended dialogue with Syria and Iran, because "it worked before" (can’t you see how it worked for the US? Iran and Syria are now trusted US allies). Although the panel, which spent nine months peppering the obvious with delusional half-baked solutions, said the US would not compromise over Lebanon to get Syria’s cooperation, it said it believes the Assad regime has an interest in a stable Iraq and Lebanon.

Right. So off goes Nelson, who gloated that Assad "clearly indicated a willingness to cooperate” in controlling its border with Iraq.

Nelson said he reported the information to embassy officials and will brief his congressional committees on the trip.

Sean McCormack wasn’t impressed:

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack questioned even the usefulness of Nelson’s visit, considering the lack of effect on Syria’s action by other visiting foreign dignitaries such as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier or Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain.

"We still haven’t seen any change in Syrian behavior, any noticeable change in Syrian behavior. … They haven’t changed their behavior at all despite those entreaties to change their behavior."

On Lebanon, Nelson really let Bashar have it, or was it the other way around?

"We support the (Lebanese) prime minister’s efforts to establish a tribunal for a horrific crime of assassination," Nelson told reporters. "It is very important that the Untied Nations follows through with this investigation.. and find the perpetrators and bring them to justice," Nelson said.

Assad "disagreed with the opinion that I expressed," Nelson said, adding the Syrian president "said that he did not support the Saniora government."

"On that we had a very sharp exchange of words and a sharp disagreement," Nelson added.

Hopefully (sarcasm), Kerry and the rest will convince Assad where Nelson failed, and Assad will continue to feel important, and frequented by US Senators programmed to blindly oppose their president, without offering a clear alternative.

The senators have described their mission as a "fact-finding" trip. Here’s a suggestion. Read those intelligence reports. Or have one of your interns translate a Lebanese newspaper. Maybe visit a Lebanese blog or two. Just don’t expect yourselves to achieve anything but wasting taxpayer money by visiting Assad.

What’s next? Tea and a holocaust story with Ahmadinejad?

Waiting for Assad

By Abu Kais

More details have emerged about the Sudanese envoy’s trip to Syria, during which he announced Damascus’s alleged support for the Arab initiative.

According to the National News Agency, and an interview Voice of Lebanon conducted with Marwan Hamadeh, the envoy had obtained a tentative agreement on a set of points from Siniora, Nasrallah and Berri. But Berri and Nasrallah asked him to visit Damascus to get the regime’s take on the proposed settlement–especially in what concerns the Hariri tribunal.

As was reported, Ismail went to Damascus and then came the announcement of Syrian support. Lo and behold, the Sudanese received a call after his visit from a Hizbullah official informing him that the opposition’s approval was only on the "principle" and that his proposal or "working paper" needs a "deep discussion".

This "deep discussion" is really about the Hariri tribunal. Insignificant and self-marginalizing I-want-early-parliamentary-elections-or-I-take-Siniora-hostage Aoun apart, there seems to be a glimmer of hope in reaching a settlement by linking the formation of a national unity government to holding early presidential elections (we can all opine on this once more details emerge). But the sticking point, and this is according to An-Nahar, is the tribunal, which still "needs negotiations between the opposition and Damascus, which has not given its final word on the issue."

So until the Assad regime releases the "opposition" and allows them to reach a settlement, expect the occupation of downtown Beirut to continue.

The jury is divided on whose side time is on right now. There should no doubt in anybody’s mind that it is not on the side of Lebanon and its economy. Some in my comments section have said it’s on Hizbullah’s side, and others said it was on March 14′s.

Here’s something to support the second camp’s argument:

The "opposition" is quickly losing the support of pro-Syrian Sunnis. Former Prime Minister Omar Karami had refused to address the Hizbullah hordes on Sunday, following Nasrallah’s anti-Sunni speech last Thursday. Fathi Yakan, also a pro-Syrian, has publicly disassociated himself from Aoun’s plan to storm the Serail and replace the Sunni PM with another one more to Hizbullah’s and Aoun’s liking.

And today, one of Aoun’s allies in Zahle, Elias Skaf, visited Bkirki and announced he was in full support of the Maronite Church and against street protests.

Finally, the sixth UNIIIC report was released on Tuesday, and it looks like Brammertz will keep playing Clue until the tribunal is formed. Speaking of which, the Lebanese cabinet has met and confirmed the tribunal’s plan after receiving it from Lahoud, who had sent it back "for a review by another, constitutional, cabinet". It is now on its way to parliament.

Theoretically, the ball is in Berri’s court.

But for Berri and Hizbullah, it’s in Bashar’s court, and has always been.

Deal or no deal?

By Abu Kais

It is perhaps too early to discuss the so-called Arab initiative, which has reportedly won Hizbullah’s and Assad’s support. That this "breakthrough" was announced in Damascus, and not in Beirut, speaks volumes about what these protests were really about.

"I have received confirmation from the brothers in Syria that they (support)…Lebanese consensus and support our efforts," Ismail, a Sudanese presidential adviser, said after talks with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Ismail was expected in Beirut later in the day for talks with Lebanese leaders. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa would join him in the Lebanese capital on Tuesday.

Syria’s backing is seen as essential in forging any compromise in Lebanon. Though its troops left the country more than 18 months ago, Damascus still wields influence on many groups, the most powerful of which is the pro-Syrian Hezbollah. (Reuters)

This last paragraph by Reuters is straight out of one of "brother" Bashar Assad’s dreams: "Syria", "Essential", "Lebanon". Assad must think himself important and "yielding influence" again. Only let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is no "deal" yet, and, unlike what some people are already predicting, nobody has been declared winner, especially not Hizbullah, Aoun and the Assad regime.

Let us start by dispelling the illusion propagated and will be propagated by some Aounists, who believe their street parades won them seats in a "national unity government"—seats that were offered to them without the need to go through Hizbullah and Damascus. If anything, and as many of us suspected, the protests proved that the "national unity government" demand was a façade for a power grab. The only people who still believe the pro-Syrian camp were really asking for a "national unity government" are the wire agencies, usually forced to attach formulaic background information to every action reported.

Last time I checked, Aoun didn’t even want to be associated with this government, expanded or not, so crying victory now or tomorrow is strange, insulting and idiotic. As for Hizbullah, and considering that Nasrallah has accused Siniora of treason, anything short of the prime minister’s assassination cannot constitute real victory for God’s alleged party. As for Berri, he must be enjoying his new completely discredited self. Even Siniora is now saying that the parliament has been "hijacked".

In fact, the few details that emerged about the negotiations indicate that they revolve around ideas proposed by PM Siniora before the protests, but were ignored: expansion of the cabinet to comprise 19 pro-March 14, 9 pro-opposition and 1 neutral. Siniora had proposed two neutral members with no voting powers, so not to block or paralyze the cabinet with every political dispute.

The negotiations will probably revolve around the identity and role of the neutral minister, and whether March 14 or Hizbullah/Aoun would name him. There are other details: the tribunal, early presidential elections, parliamentary elections, etc. This means that 11 days of protests did absolutely nothing of positive value for the country and we are essentially back where we left off.

What we do have some 11 days into the occupation of downtown Beirut, is an economy in shambles, businesses that lost millions of dollars, another ruined tourist season, and deepening of sectarian divisions.

But if the protests did nothing to advance the talks between Lebanese "parties", did they benefit the Assad regime? I don’t know if it was pragmatism that sent the Arab League to Damascus, and I am clearly not privy to what transpired there. The Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians have nearly divorced the Syrian regime. The flaky regime and its cohorts have certainly not succeeded in toppling the government. And what appears to be regained influence for Damascus could very well be Damascus being told to quit using the country as a chess board. The envoy made it clear that the basis for any settlement should be "no victor and no vanquished".

But it almost appears as if Hizbullah and Aoun wanted to bring Syria back into the equation. Siniora’s proposal had to go through Damascus first, and Damascus was given the opportunity to demonstrate its strength in the country. Sectarian divisions in the country almost always benefit the Assad regime, which has a record in manipulating them. No wonder that immediately after the announcement, Siniora asked Ismail to return to Beirut.

I will await the results of the Arab League sponsored negotiations to lay the final judgment. If Syria now sees itself party to the talks, expect murder and other forms of intimidation, although one could argue that the protests offered an ideal pressure tool. Murdering an entire country, after all, is better than murdering one official.

When will law rule in the land-of-do-as-you-please?

By Abu Kais

Action speaks louder than words. Action against outlaws Hizbullah and Aoun should be taken. The Lebanese government waited until they were comfortable enough to mobilize people and capitalize on the state’s weak/weakened resolve.

PM Siniora saw today’s mass protests (plural because March 14 staged another in Tripoli) as "freedom of expression", and proof that "freedom should be protected in Lebanon". On Friday, he accused Hizbullah of staging a coup d’etat. I am sorry, but if you’re going to accuse someone of staging a coup, you have to keep at it and not spin it into "freedom of expression". There are other things you need to do, like mobilize your army and security forces against the organizers of this coup. Let it be war between the legitimate authority and the illegal militia before it becomes a war between sects.

Siniora, trying to enter history as the statesman who never ruled, also endorsed a large number of checks and payments to Shias in the south who lost homes, as some of these people asked for his head on a stick and called him a traitor, among other things.

What else transpired at this alleged manifestation of freedom of expression?

Nasrallah’s deputy Naim Qassem laid out two demands:

1- Siniora has to order the Lebanese army to return confiscated weapons back to Hizbullah

2- Siniora has to resign

Michel Aoun threatened to take over the Serail by force.

“We look for peaceful methods, but other methods are also legitimate,” he said, referring to steps to force the cabinet to resign. He added that the barbwire around the Grand Serail will not protect the ministers from the “natural expansion” of the protestors next time they take to the streets in large numbers.

And then this Aounist conundrum: “In a few days, we will announce a transitional government… we will demand a transitional government… to hold early elections.”

While Aoun seemed impatient, Qassem said they were prepared to stay on the streets for 10 months if necessary until their demands are met. With Iran and the Lebanese government funding his people, the livelihood of other Lebanese doesn’t really matter. What matters is Hizbullah’s weapons, Aoun’s presidential aspirations and Syria’s obsession with the Hariri tribunal.

In other news, Hibzullah continues to build illegally in the Raml El Aleh area. And this isn’t their only illegal activity (apart from asking for their illegal weapons back). The militia is now in charge of issuing permits to journalists wishing to cover the protests in downtown Beirut. Naharnet also reported that they are importing army and police uniforms.

Meanwhile, the leading newspaper An Nahar reported that Hizbullah purchased thousands of army and police uniforms from a local company trading with such items in south Lebanon.

The respected newspaper did not elaborate on its short report, which sparked concern in security circles that Hizbullah’s trained and tested fighters might use the uniforms as disguise to attack the heavily-guarded government offices, which Saniora and his ministers have been using as residence, across the street from the angry protestors taking part in the city center sit-in.

A ranking security official told Naharnet, that a shipment of uniforms similar to what is used by the Lebanese army and police force has been "imported by a local merchant from India and was recently sold to a local faction."

The security official warned that if the army and police uniforms were used by "irregular factions, this would further escalate the ongoing confrontation and would lead us to facing a real threat of terrorism."

It also emerged today that Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir had asked Syrian-installed President Emile Lahoud to resign three weeks ago (too late buddy). I will not comment on March 14′s counter rally in Tripoli. It makes no sense to me when government spokespeople keep telling us what we already know, and never suggest ways to stop this invasion.

Oh why bother…

Assad regime to kill Berri if he convenes parliament

By Abu Kais

The Assad regime is in a hurry. Nasrallah hasn’t been able to deliver quickly enough. The Grand Serail is a fortress, and the Lebanese street is slowly turning against the protestors, who don’t even have safe passage back to their homes now. The orders from the Dark Lord’s council are to pack more people in downtown Beirut, and as soon as possible. The plan to occupy or lay siege to the Rafik Hariri International airport seems to be in full swing, although the Lebanese army will reportedly not allow it.

What’s the hurry for?

This sunday, the 15-day time limit for Lahoud to sign the Hariri tribunal plan expires. As of Monday, the cabinet can constitutionally send it to parliament for endorsement.

Nabih Berri is in a pickle. He was forced to declare the cabinet session that approved the tribunal unconstitutional after telling journalists days before, that it wasn’t. On Wednesday, when it appeared that there was a dim hope of reaching a settlement, the speaker of parliament received a death threat from Maher Assad, Bashar’s brother. According to al-Seyassah, Assad threatened to kill Berri if he calls parliament into session to approve the plan (Again, al-Seyassah is to be read with a grain of salt, although they’ve gotten it right in the past with regards to Lebanon. In any case, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this.)

That’s how Lahoud’s term was extended, by threatening even pro-Syrian ministers who hated Lahoud (including Suleiman Franjieh). And that’s how the Syrian security regime worked in Lebanon—a regime that Nasrallah found no shame praising during his infamous speech that followed the threat to Berri. In that speech, Nasrallah challenged his opponents to find him one incident where a protestor was killed on his way back from a protest during the Syrian reign. Aounists must have found this funny, or let it go over their heads like the many sick jokes and embarrassing insults their Napoleonic leader utters every day. They, of all people, should know how many of them were taken to Syrian jails, how many were tortured, killed, and threatened because they dared protest when protests weren’t even allowed. And why bring up the deep past when the recent past bears testimony to the murders committed by the Assad regime—a regime Nasrallah considers better than the Siniora government. So good that he thanked the Syrian army for its sacrifices in Lebanon less than a month after Hariri was killed.

Pretty soon, there will be no one left to remind Nasrallah’s worshippers of all these crimes. Not when Assad is allowed to complete the plan to assassinate anyone who speaks, let alone protests, against Hizbullah’s second favorite regime.


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