Lebanon's Shiites Grapple With New Feeling of Power

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 10, 2006

BEIRUT, Dec. 9 -- As morning clouds hovered overhead Saturday, Fadil Ayyash wiped eyes that were bleary from just two hours of sleep over two days in the city-within-a-city that Hezbollah's protests in downtown Beirut have become.

The mood in his tent, set alongside a site for luxury apartments, was playful. The first order of business was stoking a water pipe. Under two yellow Hezbollah flags, with a hint of mischief, he and his friends unveiled their makeshift fireplace, charred cinderblocks stacked on a sidewalk still warm from a campfire the night before. But they spoke bluntly -- of frustration and protest, of politics and power -- the vocabulary of a moment the young Shiite Muslim men feel they are defining.

"How is this democracy?" Ayyash asked, pointing to the colonnaded government headquarters known as the Serail, standing like a citadel atop a hill. "The majority is here," he said, waving his hand across rows of protesters' tents.

His friends nodded, sprawled in brown plastic chairs.

"These days," he said, "we have to seize our opportunity."

Once the country's most downtrodden, entrenched in feudal misery, Lebanon's Shiites stand today on the verge of their greatest political power in the history of a diverse country defined by its fractious religious communities: Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Druze and Christians. But their ascent is a story of contradictions: Now at the peak of that power, confident of victory, the community is still shaped by its own sense of vulnerability and weakness.

Its leaders rely on age-old notions of backroom, under-the-table Lebanese politics replete with patronage, a cult of leadership and the influence money buys. But they may be reshaped by leaving a legacy of turning to the street with populist demands. And in pursuit of power, through the protests that began Dec. 1, the Shiites, the country's single-largest community, may end up breaking a system that appears to be buckling under the stress of Lebanon's most acute crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

The drama unfolding here draws on a long history of persecution, both real and perceived, but is propelled by the most recent events in Lebanon, as Shiites try to shape the country following the Syrian withdrawal last year and, as important, the war with Israel this summer.

"The battle has already begun," said Mona Fayad, a Shiite professor of psychology whose criticism of Hezbollah in an article published this summer in the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar made her a cause celebre here. "They've opened the gates of hell. This is how I've felt the past few days."

"It's like a snowball, and it's now so hard to stop," she said. Her voice was slow and weary. "Even if they stop it now before anything else happens, we're still going to have a lot of trouble. And if they don't?"

She left the question unanswered.

Forging an Identity

In the southern village of Khiam, along hills green from winter rains, Zeinab al-Sheikh Ali sat in a house within sight of the Israeli border. Two pictures of Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, were posted at the entrance. "Victory from God," one read in Arabic, Hezbollah's slogan for this summer's 33-day war with Israel. "Divine Victory," another said in French. But, shaking her head, Ali, the 70-year-old matriarch, remembered a more distant time.

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