Society / Liban
Rebellion within and against Beirut
Youssef Bazzi - 20/02/2007
For those who remained in and around Beirut, rage, fear and hatred became their daily bread. Once lords of the city, masters of life and death in the areas they ruled, they now found themselves rudely shunted down to the lowest rug on the social ladder: unemployed, homeless outcasts stripped of their weapons. Their guns had been their profession, their trade; the source of their strength and livelihood. Makeshift peace had come and turned them into useless bums. They longed for a return to war, pined for their paradise lost.
Early in the summer of 1983 the “general leadership” of Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine arrived in Beirut’s suburbs accompanied by experts from Syrian intelligence and “officers” from what remained of the Patriotic Movement’s militias. Work started on reassembling party cells and organizing youth groups whose members were then recruited in preparation for the battle to topple the regime.
The first step was to dole out lavish financial compensation to the unemployed; the second was to select secure locations to be used as caches for weapons that would later be smuggled into central Beirut; the third stage was to resume secret military training, distributing silenced handguns, hand-grenades and slabs of TNT and putting a number vehicles at the disposal of these secret youth organizations for smuggling weapons, stake-outs and tailing operations, and for carrying out kidnappings and assaults.
We were boiling with our resentment of the Lebanese Army and the general contentment of ordinary people. Creeping through the dark underbelly of the city we awaited zero hour. Our instructions were clear: incite immigrants from the south, and those who had been driven out of the apartments where they had been squatting to clash with the police and security services. I remember well the role played by the Boutros Group in encouraging the Alyanis School incident, when immigrants clashed with security forces charged with clearing school premises of illegal squatters.
Stones, rubbish bins, sticks and tires… and the instant the young operatives sensed that the immigrants were losing steam in the face of the security forces’ superior strength they opened fire on an army transport from within the school gates. One volley after another issued from the corner of a back street and chaos descended. This was just an isolated incident and we failed to fan the flames further.
Yet we did manage to provoke parties loyal to the regime into taking us on. This was the mistake we were waiting for. They started a campaign of kidnappings, intimidation, provocations, attempted assassinations and random grenade attacks. We responded in kind, spurred on by the central leadership in Bekaa. The goal was to create an atmosphere of instability and fear and our first task was to deny Beirut its sleep by filling its nights with uncertainty, fear and the sounds of explosions.
At this time, intelligence service activity was at its ruthless peak. The authorities chose one August morning in 1983 to make their move: a huge wave of raids and arrests. It forced us to offer our response, one we hoped would shake the army and police to its foundations and terrorize the multinational force. It was to be a dress rehearsal for the coming Intifada.
The authorities assumed that they had put an end to the uprising, and that our lack of weapons and supplies and our paltry numbers would prove too serious to overcome. Our feelings of defeat and loss were soon compensated for however, when, in early September, we were informed of a new strategy: unique steps would be taken to eject the multinational forces, weapons of a new type would be supplied in vast quantities and wages would be raised. As a sign of the seriousness of this pronouncement, the civilian leadership left Bekaa and came to join us in Beirut, even as battles broke out in Al-Jabal and Al-Dahiya were transformed into a permanent war-zone. The Karama highway was little more than a series of rubble-strewn tracks leading from Al-Jabal to the Al-Sulm neighborhood, which itself became known as Al-Karama. During the course of our daily runs between Al-Dahiya and Beirut smuggling carloads of weapons and supplies, we began to notice that Lebanese Army units were helping us cross the Shatila ring-road that divided our route. That’s when the system starts to crumble: when its guardians lose their loyalty. Like the rest of my friends and colleagues I hadn’t the faintest idea what it meant to be a citizen, nor understood concepts such as a citizen’s rights and duties, constitutional responsibilities or democratic systems. Our political culture was limited to “hostility towards Israel”, “hatred of the government” (or more likely, “any government”) and “rejecting Lebanon” (both as an identity and a state). It never occurred to us to ask ourselves whether we were carrying out the wishes of a majority, whether destroying our country was our duty and the best possible option for the Lebanese people, nor whether our victory would get us a better life. We never thought to ask. We were believers, no more, spurred on by a faith that pushed us to death, battle and murder.
And that was why, at 9:03pm on February 6 1984 we never hesitated for an instant, rising out of our hiding places and, loaded with weaponry, moving in a single body through the streets, squares and neighborhoods to take back the capital in the blink of an eye.
I’ll never forget the scene. People were going about their lives: working; shopping; going to school; going for a walk. Impressions: the clamor of pedestrians and crowded shops; a light rain falling; the sounds of music trilling from car, balconies; voices from street hawkers, families and café patrons; the rich imagery of film posters. Restaurants had started welcoming in their first customers, the workshops were busy and pretty girls sat beneath canopy awnings. University students were making their way from Hamra to Bliss Street or the Faculty of Law in Al-Sanai. I will never forget the terror that gripped the passers-by, the fear that spread like wildfire as we appeared, like genies from the depth of hell brandishing rifles and RPGs. One spellbinding entrance and we had the city in our grip, at our mercy.
Eight years on from the astonishing events of the February 6 Intifada: May 6 1992. I was now a civilian, strolling the same streets between Hamra and Ras Beirut. Groups of young men—their features gave them away as intelligence-funded militia—were handing out sticks and planks from the same type of vehicles we used to use. If any of the teenagers and boys on the streets displayed any lack of enthusiasm towards their appointed task of destruction and troublemaking, the militia would pile out in a mob, sprint towards the glass-fronted stores and exchange booths and start laying waste all around them. Screaming and shouting they urged the others to join them. Rage seized the hesitant kids and their reservations were forgotten…
First comes the shouting and screaming in a hysterical fashion, followed by the gnashing of teeth, and at last, the mob welcomes you. The plague spreads. With each shout, each shattered pane or fallen sign a frenzied ecstasy clouds their faces. And, as in 1984, so too in 1992. People ran for cover, the streets emptied and the “protestors” took over the capital. Smoke rose into the sky, roads were closed, fear spread and the government fell.
Fifteen years have passed since the May 6 Intifada. Now, in January 2007, Lebanon is witnessing ongoing preparations to bring down a government and a regime. The group behind all this is, with a few small changes, the same as before: the remnants of old armed groups plus the more experienced and disciplined cadres of a new generation of militias. Without a doubt, the experiences won by years of war and peace and the previous uprisings mentioned above, have helped create a new approach to fomenting civil strife. It has necessitated a gradual approach, or as those actually involved are calling it, “tentative steps”. In other words, a minutely researched and strictly controlled rehearsal must be held before the main event. This is accompanied by distortion and lies: the real reason for the mobilization is never announced. They have declared a non-violent, civil, general strike, yet the plan is for something else altogether: blocking off roads, setting fires, spreading fear and terror, forcing people to remain in their homes, shutting down transport and destabilizing the military-security complex. In other words, achieving the same goals as the February 6 1984 Intifada using the techniques of the May 6 1992 Intifada, without ever resorting to force of arms.
This is what we witnessed last Tuesday: a novel and quite astonishing strategy that speaks eloquently of the intelligence of those who planned and carried it out. What the rebels—or opposition—achieved demonstrates how effectively they have absorbed the lessons of the past. Or rather, all lessons save for one: that the tastes and preferences of the Lebanese have changed. It was a strategic error, if that’s the right expression. A failure to perceive the transformation that has affected the majority of Lebanese citizens since February 2005. They no longer opt to passively surrender. The silent majority have cast off their silence.
There can be no doubt that sectarianism is deeply rooted in all strands of Lebanese society, and was integral to the Intifada’s inability to achieve its goals. However, it may have a more dangerous role in laying the ground for more serious confrontations, even raising the old question marks over Lebanon’s viability as a state. Yet at the same time, we must admit that compared with its historical frailty in the face of civil disturbance, the regime is proving exceptionally tough. It may be deriving some strength from the positive steps taken by a large segment of the population to confront the threat and defend the state. Perhaps by neglecting this lesson, the opposition inadvertently helped us avoid the worst. Then again, perhaps our last hope lies in developing immunity for the state and its allies by achieving a clear moral victory over its enemies. Youssef Bazzi
(Translated from Arabic by Robin Moger)