The one-day general strike enforced today by Lebanon’s Hizballah-led opposition turned out to be much more aggressive and effective than expected. Not that the majority of Lebanese necessarily wanted to stay away from work. They just didn’t have a choice. Opposition activists cut the country’s major highways and the main roads into Beirut with an array of rubble ramparts and burning barricades that covered the paralyzed capital in a blanket of black smoke.
Starting last night, Lebanese security forces fanned out to major intersections with the stated aim of keeping the country open for business and protecting would-be strike breakers. But by dawn today, gangs took over the the streets with little resistance from the army and police. In central Beirut, soldiers stood idly by as black-clad Hizballah supporters torched tires and at least one car.
Without the mass participation of average Lebanese, today’s demonstrations were no longer the family-friendly events that they’ve been in the past. Angry young men of no clear party affiliation tried to storm a government finance building, only to be stopped by Hizballah regulars. Lebanese television showed pictures of an angry confrontation between a Christian opposition party that had shut the north-bound road from Beirut, and a rival Christian loyalist group that wanted the road open.
But the most troubling aspect of the day’s events was the sectarian amimostity — ever a concern in Lebanon since the country waged a bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990 — coursing through Beirut’s neighborhoods. In one area in the city’s southern district, crowds of Shi’ite and Sunni young men fought a two-hour skirmish, throwing stones and building tiles at each other across a street that separated their two neighborhoods. Fighting only ended when the Lebanese army drove armored personnel carriers between them.
Each side blamed the other for starting the melee, but what became startlingly clear was the extent to which Beirut’s Sunni Muslims have been seething over the almost two-month long campaign by Hizballah — the pro-Syrian Shi’te political party led by Hassan Nasrallah — and its allies to bring down the pro-American government of Fouad Siniora, a Sunni. “We look at Iraq and see how they are slaughtering Sunni, and we know that Hassan Nasrallah is the same as Muqtada Al-Sadr,” said Mahmoud Hashem, 32, a Sunni security guard who had been in the scrum. “Narsallah is on America’s big terrorist list. Why don’t they do something about him?”
The Sunni residents of Tariq Al Jedidah said that the fighting started when Shi’te protesters came into their neighborhood and tried to set up blockades and threatened to burn down stores that stayed open in defiance of the general strike. Malek Mahdi, a 29 year-old laser and sound engineer said he came out to fight after a gang beat up his younger brother to prevent him from going to school. “They are a militia and we have nothing but rocks,” he said. When soldiers shot tear gas grenades into the Sunni crowd, housewives and children in the upper floors of nearby apartment buildings began throwing onions — a home-remedy for tear gas fumes — to the young men stricken below.
Elsewhere, there seemed to be a concerted effort between the army and the opposition to avoid confrontation. At one point, Hizballah activists bulldozed their own barricades to allow an army troop convey to pass through towards the airport. A few Hizballah members applauded the army, then quickly replaced the barriers.
The opposition had meant for today’s strike to highlight its populist economic resentment towards what they see as a corrupt government that has sunk the country deep in debt. One of the most common signs read: “Strike for one day so the country won’t be out of work forever.”
But the strategy could be backfiring. The country is feeling a deep economic burn not only from the past summer’s war with Israel, but also from the ongoing political crisis that has played havoc with the the country’s tourism economy. After seeing pictures of mobs cutting of the airport road, tourists aren’t likely to return any time soon. And today’s display of coercive force by the opposition is likely to have scared many Lebanese as well.