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From Hopeful To Helpless At a Protest In Lebanon

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.

Geha and her colleagues think they do.

"Tuck in your shirt," she told one of the activists as they gathered in the office to run through the final preparations for the protest.

Gilbert Doumit stood at the front. An organizer, he was one of a handful of people who, over coffee and cigarettes, came up with the idea for the Khalass! campaign in July, bringing together several activist groups. "What we were afraid of is now here," he recalled thinking. "We're at the door of another civil war." Before the group on this day, he spoke with an urgency tinged with an intoxicating playfulness.

"We need cigarettes," one activist shouted.

Everyone donned their T-shirts. "Enough!" they read in Arabic. "Who wants to be the spokesman?" asked the tall, bearded Doumit. "Who speaks Arabic, English and French?" Other questions followed: Who would make the statement at 2 p.m.? Where would the activists hide before gathering at parliament? Who would send out the 3,000 e-mails and 2,000 text messages by cellphone urging others to join the protest?

"Join Khalass! activists NOW on the stairs of the parliament!" the e-mail read.

The last instruction followed: Everyone needed an excuse to give to police officers manning barricades for why they wanted to enter Place de l'Etoile, the home of parliament.

"Not all of us can be going to get coffee," Geha said.

Geha was working on a master's degree at the American University of Beirut when clashes erupted at another university in Beirut in January. She decided then to leave school and work full time as an activist. As she drove to Wednesday's protest, she confessed to sharing a trait that sometimes defines Lebanon: She thrived on the country's chaos. Lebanon's lack of order meant there was always an opportunity to bring about change. But these days felt menacing and ominous. She shared with many others a resignation that the crisis would persist. But she had to do something. Otherwise, she said, regret would haunt her.

The car passed through streets soaked with rain. The gray sky accentuated an urban landscape that can sometimes seem funereal: poster after poster pays respect to the dead, victims of assassination or war. "So that Lebanon lives," one reads over the face of a murdered politician.

"I feel like I'm living in a city whose glory is based on dead people," Geha said.

The 30 or so activists waited in nearby restaurants and cafes. At 1:52 p.m., the signal arrived; Doumit headed for parliament. Geha followed, along with other groups of three and four people each. Under umbrellas, on the steps of parliament, they unfurled two banners.

"Enough!" the banners read, the black and white offering a resolute contrast to the cream-colored stone of the parliament building. "Together for Lebanon."

Police and soldiers responded. The building's black iron doors were shut. Metal barricades followed. Commanders spoke in a formal Arabic that conveyed sarcasm. "My brothers," one said. "If you please." Another grew angry, arguing with Geha and others.

"We're not allowed? This is our parliament!" Doumit insisted.

Ten minutes later, Doumit and Youmna Fawaz, 25, stood on the square's black brick to read a statement. Fawaz managed only a few words, a call for "an open-ended national dialogue," before police stopped her and escorted the few reporters from the square. It was a symbol, in a way, of the status quo, still dominated by many of the warlords who waged the civil war, where the unquestioned loyalty of religious communities is taken as a given. In the sometimes cynical backroom negotiations that define politics here, that fealty means that nobody has to listen. No one else's voice has to be heard.

"Unfortunately, we live in a country you call democratic, but as you can see, it's a country where citizens can't make an impact," Doumit said, his long hair wet as a rain began driving again. "The whole world is involved except us. The Saudis are involved, the Syrians, the Americans, the Iranians, the French, the Arab League, but not us."

By 2:30 p.m., the e-mails had gone out. So had the text messages. Geha made calls. She asked Lebanese reporters to come. Their reply: Which side are you on? She called a lawyer to help them negotiate with police. And she called friends, urging them to join.

"They should be on their way," she said.

A little while later, Doumit called out, laughing, "Support has arrived!"

It was his 26-year-old sister, Jinane, with two friends. No one else came.

The afternoon wore on, police no longer hassling the small crowd. Every so often, the protesters broke out in the national anthem. "All for the country," it went. But the mood was somber. Sara Mourad, a 20-year-old student, stood under her umbrella.

"When I see this, I lose hope, in a way," she said.

She planned to leave the country after she graduated.

"Anywhere is safer -- or more predictable," she added.

Geha took a break from the rain, sipping coffee in a restaurant that takes its name from the square, where former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri dined before he was assassinated in February 2005, an event that, over time, helped give rise to today's crisis.

"Every hour that passes is a wasted hour," she said. "They have to answer us."

Will they? "They should. They should," Geha answered.

It was a plea rather than a demand, her words more helpless than angry.

"There's only so much we can do," she said.

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