At Barricades in Downtown Beirut, Lebanon's Fault Lines Grow Deeper
Sunday, December 3, 2006
BEIRUT, Dec. 2 -- In a city of frontiers, Beirut built another border Saturday.
On one side of coiled barbed wire and metal barricades were armored personnel carriers manned by soldiers in red berets toting U.S.-made M-16 rifles and guarding the colonnaded, stone government headquarters where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. On the other were the fervent young men of Hezbollah and its allies, who have turned a downtown tailored for the rich into the site of an open-ended protest to force the government's fall.
"This is the point of confrontation between us and them," said Khodr Hassan, who walked 12 hours from his southern village to the protest with 30 other youths. He pointed at his friends at the barricade, some surging forward, others lolling about.
"This is the line of separation," said one of them, Ali Aitawi.
Long divided by the Christian east and largely Muslim west of its 15-year civil war, Beirut is a city snarled today by far more numerous boundaries of sect, perspective and ideology, intersecting and tangling across a capital and country wrestling with a question still unanswered since independence more than 60 years ago: What is Lebanon's identity?
In today's crisis, those fault lines tell the story of the struggle underway between the country's two camps, divided by past and present, with vastly different visions of Lebanon's future: on one side Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, and on the other the government, backed by the United States and France. The fault lines tell, too, of an impasse that perhaps can't be broken.
The borders are drawn by color, flag, portrait and symbol, a claustrophobic contest to lay claim to identity never solely Lebanese. They are defined by ideology: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah, for instance, or the Christian separatism of civil war-era militias with fascist roots. They follow the contours of leaders who command loyalty through personality over politics. And they offer protection in a country where survival can feel precarious.
In downtown Beirut, Hezbollah's protest, with its backers vowing to stay in the streets until the government is brought down, is subsumed in a broader story of the empowerment of Lebanon's Shiite community, the country's largest. Along an axis stretching from downtown, across tense borders between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, are the ingredients of another civil war whose prospect comes up almost casually in conversation. Segregated neighborhoods themselves exude an identity of politics, history and faith so suffocating that even someone living a few blocks away can feel a stranger within them.
"The fault lines are in the minds of the people. It's much more than just the geography of Beirut," said Robert Saliba, a 56-year-old architect and urban planner. "I think the mental geography is more important than what happens on the ground."
A Proliferation of Borders
Saliba grabbed a piece of bread filled with spice and made his way Saturday from a trendy cafe to nearby downtown, where thousands had pitched tents as part of the protest. Chants erupted every so often: "Siniora out!" At the barricade, boisterous men held up the front page of the daily as-Safir newspaper: "With its masses, the opposition besieges the government in crisis." Cheers erupted when recordings of speeches by Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, were played.
"People here are boiling," Saliba said, surveying the scene. He gestured back at the cafe. "And over there, they are drinking coffee?" The words were sharp, even surprised, a divergence from the sometimes abstract language of his academic training. A Greek Orthodox Christian, he was more observer than partisan. "Just across the road? It's awful."
He looked out at the barbed wire that coiled along the city's sleek, rebuilt downtown.