Hezbollah’s supporters flock to central Beirut: Striking for shabbiness not politics | Youssef Bazzi
Hezbollah’s supporters flock to central Beirut: Striking for shabbiness not politics Print
Youssef Bazzi   
 
Hezbollah’s supporters flock to central Beirut: Striking for shabbiness not politics | Youssef Bazzi
The masses don't think: they reject or accept ideas wholesale without ever submitting them to debate. Their leaders' pronouncements blitz their brains, transformed in a flash from words to deeds. Inspired by a rhetoric it has elevated to the status of high ideal the people make the entirely voluntary decision to sacrifice themselves for its sake.

In terms of their emotions, they are most comfortable with extreme violence. Sympathy swiftly segues into worship and rejection to hatred. In the midst of this populist fervor the ability to think wanes, individuality is swallowed up by the mob and all the various behaviors and prejudices of the unconscious mind come boiling to the surface. Even when the masses in question are secular, their reactions are religious: worshipping their leader; fear for his fate; blindly traipsing in his wake. The leader's words become an unassailable dogma, a dogma his followers want to spread as wide as possible. As for those who don't share the public's admiration for the leader, they become enemies.

This is how Gustave Le Bon, the founder of crowd psychology, defines the aggregation of different groups into a single block spurred on by religious or political incitements (Crowd Psychology, Al-Saqi, 1991). In this volume, Le Bon makes use of Yousef Al-Hakim's memoirs, and their account of Prince Faisal Bin Al-Hussein and the 1916-1920 Arab revolt. Al-Hakim quotes Faisal as saying, following his departure from Damascus and the defeat of the Arab army by General Gouraud, "I don't blame the masses for their recklessness. It's only natural that--so long as they are latecomers to civilization, culture and politics--they submit so readily to their leaders. No, I blame those leaders and the heads of nationalist groups and political parties who made their plans so carelessly and strayed from the straight and narrow [...]. Unhappily, these very men clung to their narrow beliefs, even when it had become clear that our army was financially, militarily and numerically weak and that we would be unable to stand up to any foe whose wealth and weaponry were far from depleted. They gambled with the fate of their people and the future of their country..."
Similarly, during the 2006 July War--currently suspended with no ceasefire agreement yet signed--one of my relatives who had fled the hell of Bint Jubeil surprised me by saying, "Israel's got it wrong. It should measure its solutions to fit. Over there, a disgruntled public means political change and they think that's what will happen in South Lebanon with Hezbollah. That's wrong; there's no such thing as public opinion in the South, because there's no such thing as the individual. We are nothing without our group. Take me: I'm a 'son of Bint Jubeil' and I can never abandon that identity, nor can I imagine doing so. So you want me, for instance, to air all my criticisms of Hezbollah in public? Where would I go? Hang out with Geagea in the cedars? Hop off to Al-Mukhtara to visit Jumblatt? If you're from Bint Jubeil your whole social life revolves around events: weddings and funerals. Your working life is spent with people in the market. If any one of us tried to break the mould, do you know what would happen to his social life, to his job prospects? He'd be better off dead. You were born and raised in Beirut. In other words you're a stranger to Bint Jubeil and you've never lived in Al-Dahiya [home of the largest concentration of Shiites near Beirut]. You're a stranger to Hezbollah, you're outside the group, and so you have the chance to be different."

This relative--a pious pilgrim, follower of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and staunch supporter of Hezbollah due to their successes in liberating the Lebanese borders from military occupation and the tyranny of informers--says that in the latest war, Hezbollah's actions in the South during Operation Truthful Promise resembled the approach taken by the Palestinian organizations active in Lebanon prior to 1982: "They considered everything except the security of the people and the land [...], the only difference being that this time they were Lebanese themselves." He continued, "We worked to expel those armed Palestinians ourselves in 1980 and 1981, but we could never chuck Hezbollah out. If the strength of public opinion in the South helped shield Hezbollah from making mistakes, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in."
These words would carry no weight with the Hezbollah supporters in Beirut. This teeming crowd, demonstrating and erecting tents in the street, are the very masses that Le Bon, Faisal and my relative from Bint Jubeil would describe as "thoughtless", "reckless" or "without a real public opinion". The vast majority of them were content to let the leader tell them that the destruction, the dead and the homeless, were not the result of hasty adventurism, a disrespect for international borders, miscalculation and a catastrophic recklessness in choosing war over peace. It wasn't even the Israeli aggression that was at fault. No, it was all down to the Lebanese government, which failed to back Hezbollah’s decision.

No sooner did the organization's leader announce that Fouad Siniora's government had been appointed by Ehud Olmert and the American ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, than the crowds gathered demanding revenge for the calamities that had befallen them.
Hezbollah's public wants to topple the government purely because they've been told it will bring an end to the wretchedness of their lives or solve the problem of the national debt. Toppling Siniora is the magic wand they need to end unemployment. So long as this approach serves Hezbollah's ends it is likely to continue. Perhaps the public imagine that by taking over the capital and the government, they are on their way to eradicating all poverty and want. Take the taxi driver who poked his head out of the window of his car in broad daylight, slap bang in the middle of bourgeois Bliss Street, and shouted in a thick village accent at a friend across the road: "We've taken Beirut... We've taken Beirut!" His voice held a passion, an excitement, that took me back the days of the civil war and the victorious cries that followed any battle: "We've taken the hotels!" or "We've taken the port!" "Take" seems to be the verb of choice to describe the consequences of a massacre or particularly violent act of destruction and plunder.

During the civil war, West Beirut was controlled by militiamen who brought chaos, looting, random killings and gangland shootouts to the streets. Amidst the rampant fear and disorder a morality of thieves and murderers held sway, a state of affairs matched only by Somalia in the mid to late 1990s, Gaza and parts of Iraq. At this time the number of Shia emigrating from the dirt poor villages of South continued to mount until, finally, they "took" the city. They took it in the way the taxi driver's words implied: occupying buildings and apartments; seizing private and public property; laying their hands on everything they could. The majority of them were relatives and supporters of the militiamen, indeed, their most important source of recruits. They were relatives of martyrs, families of heroes and leaders, and it gave them rights over and above those of regular citizens. To use a phrase employed by Nasrallah, they were "the most honorable" of people. They were the true nationalists, seeking revenge for their displacement, the blood of their relatives. Or was it because of their ingrained poverty, their lack of education and culture that they sought to take possession of everything they saw, the property of citizens and the state alike?
They were the deprived, embodied by the "star" of the UNESCO mass killing, Ahmed Mansour, the humble office boy done good, who executed a group of government employees after he found he was unable to pay his debts. He was, otherwise, an upstanding member of society: he donated money to the poor and ran the local football team. This man, who drove a Mercedes and took frequent holidays abroad, still saw himself as a deprived Shiite, a fighter for Amal and the resistance. He explained his crime as a defense of the Shia sect's honor.
These same deprived Shia, these most honorable of people, are the same group that benefited from the clearance of Abu Jamil Valley. They call it the Valley of Gold. The families of displaced Shia settled this historical Jewish quarter in central Beirut and forced the Solidere company to pay them tens of millions of dollars before they agreed to leave. Each family was compensated enough for five families.

This, then, is Hezbollah’s public: a community that has exploited Syria's 15-year hegemony and the ideology of deprivation to take over local administrations, universities and public works projects. They are the only Lebanese community that quite openly receives financial aid from abroad: millions of dollars from the Iranian state. They alone have their own armed militias (and more than twenty thousand "strategic" missiles at their disposal). They have monopolized the decision to go to war. Their descent into the streets of Beirut to call for the toppling of Siniora's government, following the orders of their leader and backed up by religious justifications generated by Hezbollah itself, is nothing to do with the slogan "To form a National Consensus Government". They have made no effort to grasp the reality of the political situation: the details aren't of the slightest interest to them. They are ignorant of everything except the most primal and extreme emotions, without the slightest doubt marring their certainty. A few years ago, this same group came out against development projects to the south of Beirut, because the party has always been careful to maintain its isolation and protect its strongholds. It has fought against moves to integrate these areas with the city and free them from their "suburbanity" lest they lose control of their kingdom. So it set its supporters against the state and its employees and when they were victorious--albeit at the expense of their own interests--they sunk back into despondency, nurturing their resentments and feelings of injustice and rejection.
Hezbollah’s supporters flock to central Beirut: Striking for shabbiness not politics | Youssef Bazzi
The masses did exactly the same thing during the 1975-1990 civil war. They took a stand against the state and brought down its institutions and infrastructure. The city they created creaked at the seams, exhausted by the onslaught of country folk and factions, brought low by the rise of neighborhood thugs and paralyzed by the militias. A savage chaos that did away with all taboos and left the laws of the land in tatters transformed daily life into an unrelieved nightmare. Then this same public began to wail and complain about the "absent state", just as Hezbollah's public--that rejects state sovereignty and gives total allegiance to the party--moans ceaselessly about the government's shortcomings.
Last Saturday, before the heaving demonstrations of the following Monday, me and my friend, Ahmed Abi Samra wandered amongst the forest of tents erected by Hezbollah's strikers. The first thing one noticed was the extraordinary ability of these people to transform the appearance of a place. It reminds you of the Shia emigrants who, no sooner do they occupy a large luxurious building than it is transformed into a tattered, tawdry ruin. It's a mysterious skill, this power to turn gardens into dustbowls and parking lots into wasteland: creating empty spaces filled with rubbish, a refuge for the unemployed. Pavements take on the appearance of small and crowded cafes: the crowds have brought their mats, charcoal containers, water pipes and the few implements they need to make coffee and store food. They pay no heed to public property, or care that they're turning the ground into a swamp. They don't seem to notice that the bottled water has stagnated. They feel no compunction in daubing and scratching slogans onto walls and windowpanes. Despite the best efforts of the So Clean company (itself the butt of much of their political satire) hygiene and cleanliness are fighting a losing battle.

It is this very heedlessness that takes me back to the rural assault on Beirut during the war. Once all traces of civilized urban existence had been obliterated any revolver-toting youth could walk into someone's home and take what he wanted or force shopkeepers to pay protection money. During that time, militias and factional gangs drew up the rules for daily life and shaped the appearance of the street. Wherever they appeared shabbiness set in: utilities and facilities fell apart and the infrastructure crumbled. As for their delightful new urban existence, they loved and loathed it in equal measure. They congregated on the Corniche that runs between Al-Ramla Al-Baida and Ain Al-Marisa transforming it into a jungle of markets like those in Sabra today: a sterile, litter-strewn stretch of tawdry commercialism that formed the backdrop to quarrels and displays of militia macho; a home for the homeless; a hangout for thugs and staggeringly dishonest salesmen. The Corniche became a symbol of the shallowness, the emptiness and the inanity of the “proletariat of shabbiness.”

Like the Corniche before it, Beirut's commercial center has been overrun by Hezbollah's supporters, who find themselves bewitched by its beauty and elegance and yet bitterly resentful at the same time. Vegetable sellers pulling their carts, beggars, cake and coffee vendors and all manner of small-time commercial entrepreneurs have descended on the city center. Families are encamped on every corner, but the majority of them seem to be young men and women and teenagers. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that over 60% of the demonstrators are teenagers from the working class district, who know as much about politics as I do about the Chinese language.

One journalist held nothing back in expressing her admiration of these demonstrators, even praising the way they had transformed the city in their image. For this journalist, following her active imagination and clearly populist preferences, only now could the city center be considered the center of the city. To her mind, the distortion and destruction that surrounded her was evidence of an accommodation between the place and the people, the despoiling of tourist-friendly elegance a victory for the masses. The approach taken by this journalist and other fans of Hezbollah's takeover of Beirut springs from the same impulse that led Stalin and his followers to incite the people against intellectuals, property owners, the bourgeoisie, tradesmen and the elite. He drove them from humiliation to degradation and death. It is the impulse that pushed Vietnam's rulers and ruled to condemn their best and brightest to hard labor in prison, while plundering and destroying their assets. It drove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to pursue their own paradise of equality by clearing and razing cities and towns and killing all intellectuals, those who spoke a foreign language fluently or indeed anyone who displayed signs of embracing modernity or a contemporary thought. For many long years, Cambodia was transformed into killing fields.

This vision of a populist utopia is alive and well in amongst the Hezbollah demonstrators. After all, they are the most honorable of people, the vanguard of the struggle against treachery and arrogance. They have come to set up a "clean government" and with a mission like that, anything goes. They are clearly spurred on by feelings of revenge towards the city and its inhabitants. The shopkeepers, the residents, businessmen, tourists and salesmen are running scared, afraid to return to work or pass through the streets.

It's not enough that they've taken over the center of town but they must also simultaneously covet and loathe everything they see. It makes them feel profoundly inadequate. Their strikes and demonstrations are an attempt to usurp the achievements February 14, a theft of its symbols and images. They have copied the idea of erecting tents, of having a podium to deliver televised speeches, of flags, banners and sashes. But in stealing these ideas they have reshaped them to reflect their own ideological tastes, their preference for fascistic party organization. In place of the few modest tents set up by the February demonstrators they have erected hundreds of vast marquees, making it look like a Bedouin encampment. Instead of one small podium there are two huge platforms. And finally, they have answered the relatively small scale, symbolic actions of 2005 by recruiting a vast army of supporters, party members and their relatives to occupy the city. The acid bite of their keenly felt inadequacy towards the February 14 demonstrations meant they couldn't be happy with Riyadh Al-Sulh Square, so they began slipping into Martyr's Square in an effort to steal its symbolism.

They are really enjoying their stay, bringing life to a grinding halt, relishing their ability to instill gloom and apathy, bitterly envious of those that live their lives in the city. To those Lebanese that complained they were ruining tourism and hurting business they replied: "What's this tourism? Just a few plates of hummus and some whores..."

The taxi driver who "took" Beirut and the teenagers from the villages and suburbs who have set up their water pipes in central Beirut may very well succeed. And when they do, we won't be so understanding of their complaint that the state has disappeared, because it is they who will have destroyed it.

Youssef Bazzi
(08/01/2007)
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