BEIRUT -- On Sunday afternoon a sudden chorus of voices wakes the drowsy neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, Beirut’s Christian district. Residents emerge onto the balconies of dilapidated Art Deco buildings. Some young men aim their mobile phones down at the scene to film it.
There are about 150, maybe 200 people gathered in the street – students, “creatives,” young intellectuals. They’re gathered in front of the yellow fence of the electric power company.
The demonstration is just one of a spreading number that have had Lebanese authorities fighting the threat of rebellion for a year. Ali Dirani is one of the demonstrators. He is convinced political change is necessary in Lebanon too, “as urgently as it was in Egypt and Tunisia, and is in Syria.” He says “the Arab Spring gave us hope,” but admits it’s difficult to mobilize the Lebanese in a common cause. Dirani is one of the activists trying to get a real protest movement going in his country.
Lebanon’s civil war may have ended more than 20 years ago, but the country was never able to heal the profound differences that split it apart. Activists like Ali Dirani are trying to bridge the political and religious divides by not staging demonstrations against the system itself but against specific consequences of poor administration. The daily power outages, for example.
Close ties with Damascus
Not far from the demonstrators, where Beirut’s elegant boulevards stretch towards the sea, women with expensively streaked hair wearing $300 sunglasses sit on the terraces of the cafés. Yet everybody in Lebanon knows just how fragile the apparently unruffled façade of this Mediterranean metropolis is.
Even though Syria had to withdraw its occupying troops in 2005, the Assad regime still exerts enormous influence through its allies in Lebanon. The present government in Beirut is a pro-Syrian coalition dominated by Hezbollah. The concern that the war in Syria could rip open old wounds is deep-seated.
“Civil war in Syria means civil war in Lebanon,” says Ali Hamdan, who heads the foreign policy bureau of the Amal Movement, a pro-Syria Shi’ite party. “There isn’t a single person in Lebanon who isn’t scared of what’s going on in Syria right now.” Hamdan is a thin, restless man. Suddenly he jumps up and cries out: “When Syria burns, what am I supposed to do here in Lebanon?”
He answers the question himself. Stay down and keep his distance. “The politics of dissociation,” as it’s known in official government parlance. What that means concretely is that Lebanon wants to stay out of it as much as possible, for example by not taking part in the sanctions against Syria.
The Amal party has traditionally maintained close ties with Damascus. But even Ali Hamdan makes sure not to come out too strongly in favor of the regime. He stresses that Syria needs democratic reforms – “more of them than President Assad has initiated so far.”
Fear trumps hatred
Change of scene: It’s late, and in a gallery of modern Arabic art a small group has gathered in a back room for Champagne and finger food. Conversation stops when a blonde woman enters. Slowly, leaning on a crutch, she crosses the room.
“The regime in Syria views Lebanon as an historical accident. It believes our country should be a part of Syria,” says May Chidiac, a former star moderator on Lebanese TV. Chidiac paid a high price for having criticized the regime. She lost an arm and part of a leg in a bomb attack in the fall of 2005. But that hasn’t stopped the journalist from fighting for her country’s independence.
But she’s doing it in some isolation: Chidiac is a member of the Christian Maronite community that traditionally has been one of Syria’s bitterest enemies. And now the Christians are holding back. The minority’s fear of chaos and violence is stronger than decades-worth of hatred. Chidiac can’t understand it. “I am a Maronite, and maybe we need to be careful,” she says, her voice growing louder as she throws up her hands. “But surely that can’t mean that suddenly we’re supposed to support the Assad regime!”
What would happen in Lebanon if the Syrian regime really were to fall? “It might be a catastrophe for us, but it could also be a blessing,” she says.
The only sure thing is that the country won’t be able to seal itself off from the conflict. In Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, in the northern part of the country, shooting recently broke out between supporters and opponents of Assad.
The porous border between Lebanon and Syria encourages tensions. Aid supplies filter through to Syria; so do arms. Activists and rebels move back and forth along the smuggling routes. Some 12,000 Syrian refugees have also made it across into Lebanon even though they are far from safe here. The long arm of the Syrian secret services reaches deep into this neighboring country.
“It doesn’t really matter much if I’m in Syria or in Lebanon,” Shahin says. “I have to hide here too.” The 30-year-old activist huddles on a stool in the packed bar. He had to flee Syria when the revolt first started because the secret service got on his trail. “Sure it’s difficult not to be in Syria just now,” he says. “On the other hand, I can do a lot of things here I wouldn’t be able to do there.”
Activists abroad function as an interface between the dissident strongholds and the outer world. Shahin spends hours a day looking at videos coming out of Syria, combines the material and sends it on to the media and human rights groups.
Syrians Omar and Ahmed didn’t flee their native country. They came to Beirut to attend the renowned American University. They push their way through the crowded “Dictateur” bar, one of the city’s hottest, and find a place in a back corner. They come from the Sunni upper class, Omar from Damascus, Ahmed from Homs. Observers believe that the economic elite is supporting the regime so as not to lose its privileges.
Omar and Ahmed shake their heads. “We’re just waiting for the regime to – finally – fall,” says Ahmed. But they can’t openly join the protests, Omar says soberly: “Our families have known members of the regime for decades. We know exactly what kind of people they are, and what they’re capable of.”
They finish their cocktails and take their leave. It’s late. The bars and restaurants are starting to turn off their lights; groups of young people emerge out onto the streets and walk past a wall on which someone has sprayed “Revolution Now.” No one seems to notice.
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Photo - FreedomHouse