It’s late March, and I’m in downtown Beirut, escaping the sun to browse the books on politics in the Virgin Megastore. A stack of Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country is in front of me. Across the street is the tent city that protesters against the Syrian presence in Lebanon pitched soon after the Valentine’s Day assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. A few steps away, the enormous Muhammad al-Amin mosque soars up. Hariri is buried there, and since it’s less than forty days since his death, Koranic reciters still sit outside underneath a canopy while men and women of every confession continue to pour in to pay their respects. Many take photographs; some men in sharp suits clutch beads in their hands as tears roll down their cheeks. Nothing has united the country more in recent years than his death.
Hariri was not without his critics, however. Often blamed for plunging the country into massive foreign debt, he was also said to have ignored the plight of the poor when he rebuilt Beirut after the civil war. For most of his political career Hariri backed the Syrians but last year began moving slowly and cautiously towards the opposition. It is said that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, told him last August that ‘if you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.’ The opposition, which is made up of Christian, Druze and Sunni parties, has been organising in earnest since last September, when under Syrian pressure parliament extended the term of Emile Lahoud’s presidency by three years. But although many Lebanese I talked to believe the Syrians were involved in Hariri’s death, others suspect the involvement of Israel or the United States, in an attempt to pressure Syria into withdrawal.
Hundreds of young people, the vast majority under 25, are camping out in the tent city. They won’t leave, they say, until Syria does. Some of Beirut’s important families provide them with food – cheese and cucumber sandwiches and cans of Mountain Dew. Portaloos have been set up (scrawled on the door of one are the words ‘Syrian Ambasy’), but the toilets are rather disgusting and many prefer to use the facilities at Virgin. A set of rules has been drawn up by the opposition leadership and is posted throughout the camp. No playing music for the first forty days (out of respect for the dead). No military fatigues. No flags other than the Lebanese flag. Unity is paramount.
The tents are pitched on the gravel of Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut, where early in the 20th century Lebanese patriots rose up against the Ottoman Empire and were slaughtered. The statue in the square commemorating their deaths is pockmarked with bullet holes from the civil war. There is a carnival atmosphere of the kind that often accompanies collective political action. Cardboard signs with an intertwined crescent and cross are everywhere; Arabic, French and English graffiti cover the cement walls surrounding the statue. ‘Lahoud pull out,’ someone has written in English. ‘My ass hurts.’
Waheed and Hisham have pitched their own tent in the square; they see themselves as independents rather than part of the ‘official’ opposition. Although both are Druze, a minority Muslim sect, they don’t support Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. Instead, they’re interested in finding their own way, but are unsure how to do this without direction (or, as they fear, manipulation) from older leaders. Waheed is frustrated by his lack of historical knowledge. He wants at the very least to have a copy of the Lebanese constitution, and this is what has brought him and Hisham to the Virgin Megastore.
After a short conversation about modern Arab history, they invite me to the camp. Hisham studies at the American University but has hardly gone to class since coming to the camp (his father lives in the United Arab Emirates and, worried by the situation, wants him to leave Lebanon); Waheed is 26 and has a West African mother who now lives in Florida and a Lebanese father. He dropped out of school when his father could no longer afford the fees and now works at a bakery – or at least he did before he pitched his tent at the camp. I also meet their friends Wassim, a Lebanese born in Venezuela, who has just deferred his military service to join the protest, and Bassam, who has a shaved head and an elaborate tattoo on his right shoulder.
Waheed walks around the camp trying to get into conversation with people in other tents, or inviting their representatives to visit his. It’s easy to do this because the camp has an established geography – most of Lebanon’s major political parties have representatives here. (The pro-Syrian factions, of course, are not around.) Hariri’s Future Movement has a large tent, the only one I saw with a TV. The Free Patriotic Movement, the party of General Michel Aoun, is well represented, as is the Lebanese Forces Party, a civil war offshoot of the right-wing Phalange Party. Neither Amal nor Hizbullah, the Shia parties, has an official presence here, but a young Shia sheikh has recently arrived with his entourage. While many of the campers have body piercings and dyed hair, the sheikh has a tightly trimmed beard and walks slowly around the camp in his brown religious garb.
On the day I arrive, Waheed invites Kamal, a representative of the Lebanese Forces Party, to tell us about the party’s platform. Salaams are exchanged, and we sit on white plastic chairs around an unlit campfire full of cigarette butts. Waheed starts by asking Kamal a deceptively simple question: ‘What’s the Lebanese Forces’ plan for the future?’