(photo credit: AP)
Ahmed sits on a plastic chair on the side of a quiet street. A large empty bypass stretches overhead in the direction of the wealthy Hamra district. In the darkness above, a tank can be seen sitting stationary on the road. One soldier is manning the gun turret, another stands guard beside the vehicle. Their weapons are pointed in Ahmed's direction, or more accurately, over his head.
Ahmed is also on guard, but he is only equipped with a walkie-talkie. At 19, he is an idealistic member of Hizbullah and at midnight he can be found sitting at the entrance to the protest camp which lies beneath Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's palace in the city center. Along with the other dwellers in the hundreds of tents pitched there, he is waiting for Saniora's downfall.
He says that he is protesting because of his love for Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah. He trusts him to install a more suitable leader in the beautiful palace behind him.
Like many of his peers, Ahmed shows great dedication to following his leader. He says that he hardly ever listens to music because Nasrallah has said that it is much better for him to read the Koran. However there are two exceptions: classical music and music that incites him to fight against Israel.
While Ahmed stands guard, the silence on the street above is suddenly broken. A convoy of mopeds and cars rushes down, blaring their horns. Enthusiastic passengers stretch out of the windows, blowing on whistles and waving yellow flags.
The soldiers by the tank barely take notice. Ahmed smiles. They are fellow Hizbullah supporters celebrating a speech that Nasrallah had given earlier in the day: This performance is customary, they celebrate their leader in this way almost every time he makes a speech.
EVER SINCE Hizbullah pulled out of the government in November and set up its protest camp, a new civil war has seemed increasingly imminent. The tanks that stand guard throughout central Beirut are just one indication of this.
In January, Hizbullah encouraged mass protests and cut off the main roads into the capital. The government declared it was an attempted coup. The violence that erupted left 23 people dead.
More recently there has been a series of explosions that have left many people too scared to go out at night. The first one went off on May 23 in the parking lot of the ABC, a large shopping center in the Christian district of East Beirut.
The week after the explosion, Mary Mokbel came back to the rubble of her third-floor apartment only meters from the explosion site. She recalls how she was awakened by her brother and his wife screaming from across the hall. She rushed through to find them, fortunately, with only minor injuries. If they had also been in bed, she has no doubt they would have died. Her cousin, who lived a floor below, was not so fortunate. She was in her kitchen when the explosion collapsed a wall on top of her, killing her.
Now Mary sits in what was her living room, watching volunteers sweep up the remains of her possessions into rubbish bins. She says she has no faith in the government to put a stop to the bombings or help her get her life back together. Because she had no insurance, she has no means of doing this herself.
There is no suggestion that Hizbullah is behind the recent bombings. It still claims it has never raised arms against other Lebanese, an assertion few of the country's other political parties can make. However the intelligence services suspect Syrian involvement. The suspicion is that Syria has taken advantage of the chaos, which its ally Hizbullah's protests have caused, to pursue its own interests in the country.
Concurrent with the bombings has been the war at Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. Fatah al-Islam, the insurgency that has been fighting the army from inside, is an offshoot of Fatah al-Intifada, a group with Syrian connections.
Nasrallah controversially stated early in the war that the army should not enter the camp. His speech was widely interpreted as a move to undermine the authority of the army and the government.
HOW TO DEAL with the Hizbullah is a matter debated no less vigorously in Lebanon than in Israel and the West. The arguments follow two familiar lines.
The first says that Hizbullah represents the justifiable grievance of a disinherited Shi'ite population against a government which bends to the will of the US. Furthermore it says it fights against the Jewish occupiers of Arab land where the country's army is too weak to.
The second argument says that it has only one intention for Lebanon - to turn it into an Islamic republic, and that it uses the pretext of resistance against Israel to bear arms, in contravention of a UN resolution, to threaten its way into having more control of the country.
The Sunnis are firmly on the side of the second argument; however the Christians, who comprise approximately 40% of Lebanon's population, are split in their allegiances. Once the most powerful sect in Lebanese politics, the Christian Maronites have been forced by their failures in the civil war of 1975-90 and their relative demographic decline to become junior partners in alliances with their Muslim brethren.
The Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, were once a civil war militia, but they have now reformed as a political party and play a small part in the ruling Sunni-dominated March 14 coalition.
The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by ex-civil war general Michel Aoun, had the most support among Christians at the last general elections in 2005. It was the lone opposition until November, but has now become allies with Hizbullah. In the protest camp, its tents are easily identifiable by the orange flags that fly above them.
This alliance has met with more than a little skepticism in the streets of Ashrafieh, the wealthy Christian district. People are saying Aoun has sold out his principles for a shot at the presidency in September, for which Nasrallah has agreed to back him.
The criticism must sting for Aoun, who has always professed that his actions are aimed at creating a sovereign and free Lebanon. This was the man who refused to sign the Taif Accords (which brought an end to the civil war in 1989) because they didn't set out a timetable for Syrian disengagement, then spent 15 years in exile in France for refusing to cooperate with the Syrians.
However, his supporters in the protest camp warn that any criticism that the odd individual is voicing masks widespread Christian support for what Aoun is doing and disgruntlement at the actions of the government. At the party's headquarters in the camp, near a large poster of Nasrallah, party activist Waheed Hassan explains why he has spent the past six months protesting.
"The reasons are twofold," he says. "First, the current electoral system is tilted in favor of the ruling Sunni-dominated coalition. In total, the opposition received two-thirds of the votes [in 2005]. This translated into 58 seats in parliament, 21 for us and 37 for Hizbullah and Amal. The Future Party and its allies received one-third of the votes and came out with 72 seats."
So the opposition platform features a pledge to create a more representative voting system - one that would do away with the allotment of power given to religious sects.
"Secondly," Hassan says, "Saniora and Saad Hariri have shown a complete disregard for the constitution by refusing to give the opposition 1/3 plus one of the government seats. If they fail to do this it means that the government is invalid."
For this reason President Emile Lahoud no longer recognizes the government's legitimacy, and House Speaker Nabih Berri of Amal has refused to convene parliament for eight months.
"We have a government whom 1,600,000 of the country's population came out to protest against," he says. "That's over half the population. In what other democracy on earth would the prime minister still have his job under such circumstances?"
But Hassan admits to being troubled by his party's alliance with Hizbullah.
"I don't like them," he declares. "I don't agree with their religious ideology. But they will not start a civil war, nor will they try to set up an Islamic republic here. Their religion forbids them from suicide bombing another Muslim, and they have sworn not to bear arms against other Lebanese citizens."
Attacking Israelis, though, is an altogether different matter. Politicians on either side of the political divide consider Israel's presence in the Shebaa Farms an occupation of Lebanese land. (The UN ratified Ehud Barak's removal of the IDF from southern Lebanon in 2001 as completely complying with resolution 425. They left it to Lebanon and Syria to decide to whom that remaining parcel belongs.)
Then there is the headache of having 400,000 Palestinian refugees in 12 camps across the country. Few people want them to be naturalized into Lebanese society and the war in Nahr al-Bared is a painful reminder of the alternative. Most Lebanese support the Palestinians "right of return" to Israel. Consequently many people here are happy to call Hizbullah a genuine resistance movement. Even the March 14 government considered them such during the 2005 elections when they entered an electoral pact with them.
Now that Hizbullah has left the government, Aoun has made his own agreement with it in which he too respects its "right" to bear arms. According to Fadi Hanna, the head of the FPM Youth Council, "Hizbullah has the support of the majority of the country's Shi'ite population. We can't just shut our eyes and pretend they don't exist. The war Israel fought last summer showed that you won't succeed if you try and disarm them by force. Therefore our only option is to negotiate with them."
The FPM claims to have made substantial headway in these negotiations. Most significantly, it claims that Hizbullah promised to hand over its arms to Aoun if he becomes president. Furthermore it claims to have assurances from Nasrallah that he has stepped back from his insistence that he wants to liberate Jerusalem.
However, the Lebanese Forces are skeptical that Hizbullah's alliance with the FPM is anything more than a matter of political convenience.
TONY DARWISH is the head of the Lebanese Forces Youth Council. His soft considered tone of voice belies his pugnacious features. "Hizbullah has an aim for Lebanon: to turn it into an Islamic republic," he says. "It wears the veil of resistance against Israel to win popular support, but its project for bearing weapons is an internal one. They hope to emulate Iran's Islamic Guards."
He says that on January 23 Hizbullah attempted a coup by trying to cut Beirut off from the rest of the country. "It blockaded the main roads leading into Beirut by burning tires and flooding the streets with supporters. The same day, it ordered a general strike. If they saw someone trying to go to work, they beat him or shouted at him."
"We respect their right to exist as a political party," he explains. "The great challenge facing our nation is how to find a way for us to live side by side with them. As Christians, we have a religion which doesn't seek to control every aspect of our lives; we are very different from them. We represent the liberal open culture you see around you in Beirut.
"Hizbullah rules the south through fear. Most Shi'ites there are not even adherents to Khomeinism [the theology of the former supreme ruler of Iran], but are afraid to speak out against the party."
True or not, this is only part of the picture. Hizbullah provides social welfare support to poor Shi'ite neighborhoods where the government fails to do so. It is funding the rebuilding of the southern districts of Beirut, large parts of which were destroyed by Israel last summer. In nearly a year, the government has failed to do anything about this itself. Its longer-term social support includes running four hospitals and 12 schools.
"We respect their right to live in the way they wish, but they must do likewise for us. They must also respect the democratic institutions of the country," Darwish concludes. "But this is what makes Lebanon so unique. It's like a lab experiment for a new kind of society. The 'clash of civilizations' can be seen right here in this small country. If we can make it work, then we will set an example for the rest of the world."
LIFE IN the protest camp is quiet at the moment. Most of the tents lie empty. A lack of funds and the need to return to work has sapped the protest of its sting. National attention has been diverted since May as Lebanese of all backgrounds have come together to support the war against Fatah al-Islam.
However, things are only likely to get tenser come the autumn. If Berri still refuses to convene parliament by September, when parliamentarians must choose the new president by a two-thirds majority, the situation is likely to reach breaking point. Some analysts are suggesting that the result could be two parliaments in opposition to one another. The result of the last time this happened in 1989 is all too familiar to Aoun. The bullet holes that bear testament to the demise of his government that year still scar the streets.