Last weekend, tens of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets of their capital in what seemed familiar to the revolts happening across the Arab world.
The highway leading to Beirut was backed up for miles as people converged on the city center:
As I maneuvered through the traffic jam, there was a familiar sense of peaceable chaos– people having a great time claiming the streets of their country:
Some even set lawn chairs out on the highway:
But this was no spontaneous outpouring. Although those speaking at the rally made comparisons to Tunis and Tahrir, Sunday’s events bore little resemblance to the fight against tyranny happening throughout the Arab world. In fact, they may prove that Lebanon’s revolution could be the most remote of all.
First, I noticed that many of the protestors arrived by bus:
Yet these weren’t ordinary buses–they were branded ones, hired presumably by the man who branded them, billionaire businessman and former prime minister, Saad Hariri.
And his late father, Rafik, also a former prime minister:
I asked a police officer directing traffic how long it would take to get through. He wasn’t sure but couldn’t help volunteering his opinion: “It’s money brother, money!”
Indeed, the Hariri dynasty and its associates helped orchestrate the rally weeks in advance by funding an elaborate advertising campaign urging its supporters to participate. Here are two of the hundreds of billboards that adorned the country’s highways leading up to the rally.
The same slogans then found their way to the “protestors” during the demonstration, in the form of branded baseball caps and posters:
Responding to the police officers suggestion that these individuals were also paid cash to participate, I half-jokingly suggested that Hariri and his allies had likened the gathering to the events in Cairo’s Tahrir square. He laughed out loud adding, “the Lebanese? They need 20 million years to reach Tahrir!”
Exaggeration of course, but when I finally reached Beirut’s main square, I could barely believe what I saw:
That’s right, while entrenched monarchies were being dethroned and fought against throughout the Arab world, the Lebanese “revolters” celebrated the King of Saudi Arabia, by erecting his poster in the main square:
The Saudi royal family has been a major benefactor of the Hariri’s, however Saad and his pro-Western coalition have fallen from power. They’ve been unseated by the Hezbollah-led coalition, which has thrown its weight behind yet another billionaire businessman, who is also familiar face in Lebanese politics, also with far reaching local business interests.
And while Hariri’s opponents may mock his ‘revolution for hire’, they too line their supporters pockets with patronage in the form of jobs, free health care, education and even reported cash hand outs. And while many in the Hezbollah coalition have criticized dictators like Gaddafi and Mubarak, they have also remained in power for decades and accept support from other unelected and dictatorial regimes.
Later that evening, I walked near the Lebanese Parliment building and noticed that it was under construction.
A police officer on duty told me that the renovation was being done to replace “aging furniture”.
“Poor Lebanese politicians,” I told him. “They need new chairs.” He shook his head, saying the renovation had cost $18 million so far, and that was only the first phase.
“Each new seat will cost $2,000,” he exclaimed.
“Poor Lebanese,” he added. “They will dance for anyone that claps for them.”
But many reform-minded Lebanese would beg to differ. A number of small protest tents have been set up around Beirut in recent weeks demanding an end to the current sectarian Lebanese regime and all its familiar faces. Their numbers have been increasing gradually from a few hundred in February to nearly 5,000 that gathered two weeks ago.
I took these photos from that rally:
Another rally is planned for this Sunday, and the hope is that more people will come, with gradual increases recorded every week. A long road ahead indeed, but there is a determination out there, especially among the young people:
Will they continue to put up- as their parents have- with the same faces, the same politicians and family dynasties that have ruled this country for decades, while failing to provide basic services? Time will tell…