From Hopeful To Helpless At a Protest In Lebanon

Activists from the nonsectarian Khalass! or
Activists from the nonsectarian Khalass! or "Enough" campaign stand in front of the Lebanese parliament protesting the country's worst crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Their signs read: "Enough! Together for Lebanon." (By Hassan Abdo -- Special To The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 23, 2007

BEIRUT -- Squalls of rain lashed the offices of Carmen Geha and other young activists. Thunder rolling off the Mediterranean provided a cadence to their work. The weather was a little like politics this week in Lebanon -- turbulent and baleful. And Geha, optimistic against the odds, was determined to provide a glimmer of hope.

Lebanon finds itself in a familiar place these days, facing the unknown. Its worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war builds to a climax at midnight Friday, when the term of President Emile Lahoud ends. Despite weeks of French-led mediation, Lebanon's factions appeared unlikely to reach a consensus on Lahoud's replacement by the deadline, plunging the country into a constitutional limbo that sets up scenarios as diverse as the country's problems: rival governments, military rule or a vacuum, along with the civil strife each option could bring.

Geha and her colleagues readily admit the confrontation is bigger than they are. But on Wednesday, they organized a protest outside the parliament, planning to deliver a blunt demand, in the hopes that others would join them. Enough of a crisis, they said, that has brought a country still scarred by one war to the brink of another.

"The worst thing is that the rest of the world thinks we're condemned to this," said Geha, 22, shaking her head. "I'm sick of being a cliche."

Their campaign is called Khalass! -- Arabic for enough. It is a word heard often: in Beirut cafes, where talk of politics is sometimes banned, and in taxis, whose drivers lament traffic snarled by a 13-month opposition sit-in downtown. To Geha and her colleagues, the appeal is simple. But their protest, caught in a nexus between hope and futility, possesses many of the contradictions that drive the crisis forward: a democratic system not always that democratic, in which disillusionment rivals a sense of inevitability.

"We have to scream out that the situation is unbearable, that the deadlock will lead to war, that the politicians aren't doing their job in Lebanon," Geha said.

Her words were driven by anger that defied helplessness. As she spoke, the protest only two hours away, activists hurried in and out of the campaign's 10th-floor office, its desks littered with manifestos, Oreo wrappers and overflowing ashtrays.

"Why do you see 30 activists here and not 30,000?" Geha asked. It was a question posed often this day. "Why aren't there thousands of people doing this?"

This round of Lebanon's crisis is ostensibly over parliament's choice of a successor to Lahoud. But its roots go far deeper. On one side is a coalition around the American-backed government that claims legitimacy from a series of demonstrations that culminated March 14, 2005, and led to the end of Syria's 29-year military presence in the country. On the other is an alliance between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group supported by Iran and Syria, and Christian followers of Michel Aoun, a former general.

Unlike Lebanon's civil war, often characterized as a Christian-Muslim conflict, this crisis has mobilized the country's Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities against each other, with Christians divided between the two camps. At stake are questions fundamental to Lebanon's identity: its stance toward Israel, the influence of foreign patrons here, and the balance of power among the country's communities. To many, the choice of president will reflect the relative strength of one side or the other.

"This is the real Lebanon, you are seeing it now," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for al-Nahar newspaper. "When we say the Lebanese state, we are lying. We don't have a state. There is no Lebanese people. There are Lebanese peoples."

"Who talks in the name of Lebanon?" he asked.

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