Beirut surprise

With little warning, Beirut suddenly erupted today in what has become a routine exercise of coordinated tire burning and road blockading on the part of the opposition. The result was a paralysis of the capital, including the shutting down of the airport and most major intersections. As usual, and despite claims that the ‘demonstrations’ would be peaceful, riot-like activities ensued and armed clashes took place between pro-government, pro-USA Sunni Muslim groups and pro-opposition, pro-Iran/Syria Shiite groups. Parts of the city became war zones complete with heavy machine gun fire and grenade throwing.

The photo above (courtesy LBC) shows the highway leading to the airport, which, as of tonight is still blocked with no word on when the increasingly powerful opposition will re-open it. On the up side, Samsung’s hopelessly optimistic “Celebrating a clearer start for 2008” ad campaign (displayed across bridge) gained some much deserved publicity.

It was also a fun day for all the kids who helped keep the fires going.

At one point, a spontaneous game of soccer even broke out although the ball is barely visible.

Here are more of the day’s other highlights from Lebanese television.

The chaos came as a surprise because up until last night organizers had pitched the event as a simple labor strike to pressure the government into raising the minimum wage. But by early Wednesday, a completely different plan seemed to be in place. In a clear show of force, the Hezbollah-led opposition had actually hired dump trucks and bulldozers to enforce what was thought to be a voluntary act of staying home from work. The move caught most Lebanese off guard, eroding the notion that this was a spontaneous ‘public’ outcry against the government’s labor policies.

Here’s one of many walkie-talkie touting men that were briefly caught on camera while coordinating the day’s festivities:

Dozens of cars were also torched sending plumes of black smoke over the city.

But one group’s ability to take over the capital– and manipulate children and teenagers into doing so–highlights the weakness of the Lebanese state. Here, a group of unarmed youngsters are seen taking over a military position:

The goverment–or the US-backed entity that passes for one–seemed to be most concerned with the Central Bank and its environs, which remained quiet all day and received the most police protection and resources.

As the poor get poorer, Lebanon’s banks are performing wonderfully well, boasting over $60 billion in deposits and growing. The country has a highly regressive tax system and an abysmal level of economic output with far more debt than GDP. The largely impoverished Lebanese population deserves better than the current minimum wage, which stands at only $330 per month. (It was raised this week for the first time since 1996 from a meager $200 per month.)

Today’s strike was initially organized by the General Labor Federation which demanded the minimum wage be raised to $600. But in a press conference earlier today GLC president Ghassan Ghosn denied that his supporters were involved in any of the tire burning activities that appeared to be ubiquitous and highly coordinated. And his decision to end the strike by mid morning will leave many Lebanese wondering why the airport remains closed tonight, and whether this latest turn of events, is simply another “surprise” in one group’s subtle strategy to maintain power.

  1. I guess it will be some more time before you guys have a president. They ought to settle this mess with a Pro-Government v. Pro-Opposition soccer match. I’m curious, does the GLC have any affiliation with either the Pro-Government or Opposition groups?

  2. Hi Bernie, actually soccer is very political in Lebanon. The various teams represent political parties and as a result of the tensions over the last few years, audiences have actually been banned from all matches.So in a way, we already play soccer and that doesn’t really work ­čÖé The problem Lebanon is facing is with its weak structure which allows the country to be a battlefield between US, Iran and company. As for the GLC, they are opposition-leaning but the cause of labor issues has clearly been used as a pretext to flex muscles in a broader political struggle.

  3. Habib,

    Is it coincidence that this is all happening during the summer tourism season? Also, what is the status of the government? I thought that no new legislations are being passed because the country doesn’t have a president.

    Stay safe buddy.


  4. Well, tourism is important for the economy but there are much more pressing issues especially since the government has been paralyzed for over a year. Thanks for stopping in.

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