On January 23, 2007, the Lebanese opposition shut down the entire country, pummeling heavy black smoke over its skies and sending the entire country into an economic standstill. It was and is a top-down “democratic” movement, nonviolent in its intent, but with empty demands; this primarily because of a fundamental flaw in the system that requires any opposition to build coalitions of national unity, thus forced to share power with former and current thieves and murderers, and making higher demands a form of political suicide. The day’s event leaves one with a feeling of the surreal and a sense of absurdity. And how does one begin to recount the surreal, the absurd?
After walking around Beirut for an hour, my friends and I turn off Mar Elias street towards Basta. We arrive to yet another roadblock with burning tires and garbage. What stands out here, from the smoke filling the air, is that the few people responsible for starting the fire and setting up the roadblock have also set up a table, made some Arabic coffee and are playing cards. They are teenagers, in their early twenties at most, though in other areas they are kids as young as 10. They ask us if we know how to play 400 and to sit with them when we say we do. I ask rhetorically, “You are playing cards in the middle of all this?”
“Yes, why not? What else is there to do?” There is a sense of boredom, silences, jokes, random conversations, like ones my friends were having about the beautiful architecture around town, and simply a lot of waiting that the media never captures because it is not newsworthy. Most of the time there aren’t people screaming, tossing fists (or rocks) into the air, or trying to instigate fights; most of the time young teenagers are enjoying the nonviolent anarchy and are not really projecting the implication of their actions into the future. There is a sense of tense euphoria, perhaps more accurately called romanticism, of being free in the street with hope for change. But faced on the street with a counter-movement by March 14 supporters, the enjoyment turns to tension and anger; conflict thrives here, and people die: this is what happened in some parts of the country and what the news captures best.
We walked out of Basta towards Sodeco Square, where I was taken back to past memories of war. At the intersection that took you up to Bishara el-Khoury Avenue, the place looked like a war zone though there was no violence of any kind. There were huge mounds of sand blocking the road on three sides and a yellow and black Caterpillar bulldozer adding more sand; behind the mounds lay a car turned upside down, burning into the blue sky; all around, a few dozen men were holding crude weapons (sticks, metal bars, num chucks, etc.) watching the flames and keeping guard to ensure the roadblock stayed fortified with sand and fire; people were crossing cautiously on foot to get to their destination; solemn faces. The whole scene reminded me of the old civil war greenline between East and West Beirut. There was a lonely car parked in the middle, blasting news from its radio. I had flashbacks of crossing the greenline with my parents as a kid, but more so of pictures I have seen from the ’80s, and for a second I felt that I was standing in the frozen moment of a half-burnt photograph from the past.
It is a bad comparison to make; the divisions today are different, there is no war, and aside from scattered violence I do not project that there will be. But it is difficult to see this when one stands in January of 2007 at a roadblock that once again demarcates the old East/West Beirut division. This scenario is even more disturbing amidst the backdrop of the facade of a now famous old building, in Achrafieh, with beautiful arabesque architecture that is peppered with ageless bullet holes and terrible scars of the civil war. It is protruding into the open space we stand in and towering in the distance over us, a lonely reminder of the old wars we never learn from.
We walked on. In some neighborhoods, like Ras el-Nabe’, only two minutes from Sodeco, the atmosphere felt like a Sunday afternoon. People were standing lazily outside, talking amongst themselves, and waiting, slowly, patiently. This wasn’t the scene in other parts of the country, of course. What you don’t hear, though, is that in places like Corniche el-Mazraa or Rouche, where there were outbreaks of violence, it was primarily between people from Harriri’s Mustaqbal party and Biri’s Amal party. I was told this by the army, and in Rouche, I personally saw one man in a position of authority within Hizballah scold people for behaving emotionally and trying to instigate the other side; the Lebanese media insists on painting the violence as one that is Hizballah-led.
In the Arab world, it is very difficult for governments to come out against anyone who claims to be fighting Israel. So what our governments have done historically in order to demonize these people or groups, with coordination or at least a friendly push from the US, is to invest, primarily through media control, in showing the masses how the resistance is actually not against Israel or the US, but against them and their own country; we see this in Lebanon today, but also in Palestine and Iraq. Yesterday, Hizballah gave the government a few good ways to do this. Later at night, I watched as Hariri’s Future TV interviewed people practically cursing Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. It is for this reason that a month ago Nasrallah announced that Hizballah will not appoint Ministers or enter into any future government. He is likely learning from the lessons of history which tell us that resistance movements begin to collapse as soon as they enter into government. In a broader context, if we are thinking about the best interest of Palestine then perhaps we should no longer advocate for the entrance of Islamic resistance movements, like Hamas, into government; this would signal a defeat for these movements in the absence of any other form of resistance, as we see unfolding before our eyes.
There is something satirical about the opposition’s call for civil disobedience. In Rouche, on the seaside, one sees this in the contradiction of a few people going on their daily jog across from protesters on the verge of defending themselves against members of Hariri’s Mustaqbal party. The latter have taken to the street, hoping to instigate the protesters away from what is intended to be peaceful civil disobedience towards its more violent twin: a riot. The army recognizes the satire in all this, or it is perhaps because of them that the satire is complete.
Finding myself standing near two soldiers after a long day, I look over and say: “Ya’teekon el afieh ya watan.” (Thank you for your efforts oh nation; not literally). And I tell them, “The army seems to be the calmest in all this and you retain your sense of humor.”
“How else are we going to pass time? We’ve been here since last night,” says one soldier in his 40s.
“Eh, shu mninteher?” (We would commit suicide otherwise, no?) says another.
I am taken in by this humor amid chaos; I witnessed it during the war this summer — a humor that emerges from an encounter with the absurd, one that expresses a form of resistance while simultaneously recognizing ones powerlessness and submission. It is an experience of deep contradiction in the face of a reality that is itself paradoxical and absurd.
And then we arrive to the day after. A normal day, just as any other. People on their way to work, of course having to encounter inconveniences of roads still not cleared of mounds of sand and burning cars, but otherwise back to normal. The opposition has called this a warning for bigger actions to come. Pro-government supporters have threatened they will take matters into their own hands and accusations have been raised against the army being too lenient against protesters and collaborating with the opposition. Is this an implication that the “democratic” March 14 movement would rather see the army oppress those forces that do not agree with its position? Pro-government members, like Samir Gaegae, have called the opposition’s methods acts of terrorism, this from our biggest past terrorists. But there is more to this — calling it terrorism puts these acts within the context and discourse of the “war on terror,” which then means Lebanon should get international support for this war on its terrorists. This support can come in the context of UN intervention or more aid from the Paris III conference. Surely you must see the humor in all these positions and the way we deal with the switch in and out of chaos within 24 hours.
Between the nightmare of yesterday, the normalcy of today, the opaqueness of the opposition’s next moves, and the position of the army in the streets, the satire can only get more absurd. We are now beginning to hear rumors that Michel Suleiman, the General of the army, is being groomed for presidency; I am hearing more people around me welcome the idea of a transitional military government. These same people consider themselves to be well informed by the history of military states, and many of them consider themselves to be against the military as an institution. But we, myself included, are learning that this eventuality might be the least violent one.
What an alternative!
At this point the nonviolent options are steadily diminishing since neither side is willing to compromise — nor is the opposition ready to go home. In the current reality, the options for nonviolence are either that Siniora retires or the military storms the parliament and removes Siniora. Any other way to remove him will result, I can only speculate, in mass violence. This is a scenario I believe the opposition does not want, simply by looking at their original insistence on sharing power, a demand in itself too low and illogical for people who claim they want change. But here I am, anticipating violence and thus speculating about its possibility. When we do this on a national level the outcome can only be mass hysteria.
And so, within this seeming hysteria contradictions emerge and a satirical performance is written. It begins with those against military regimes beginning to believe that perhaps the only way to establish control and create a new system is by putting the military in charge as a transitionary government. But how many times in history have people been made to believe the military could save them only to become oppressed by it? How many times has history shown us that the military cannot govern justly? Are we falling in the same old historical trap once again where we will compromise our freedoms for security? I am deluded by the sense of humor and personal interaction with soldiers in the midst of chaos.
Sami Hermez is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut teaching a course on the anthropology of violence and has been active in relief and redevelopment projects in the South of Lebanon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.