Hizbullah rally 2 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
A dozen elderly men sit outside a cafe smoking their water pipes. The blue waters of Sidon, Lebanon's third largest city and the capital of the South, shimmer in the distance. As if to an unspoken rhythm, each man in turn blows smoke through his nostrils while dozing off to the midday heat.
Retired car salesman Ghoan Meyer is watching the shore, his eyes half-closed as he sips his steaming cup of Arabic coffee.
"Nobody talks about politics here," he smiles. "They talk about this water pipe, tea and coffee, what we can do tomorrow, how we are going to get the bread of the day, and food. They don't care about the demonstrations."
Which is surprising because Sidon is the stomping ground of the country's prime minister, Fuad Saniora, who is fighting for his political survival. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have been camping outside his downtown Beirut offices.
Sidon is only 50 km. away, and yet the atmosphere could not be more different.
Life here continues at its regular pace. Shopkeepers in the Old City, which dates back 6,000 years to Neolithic times, are reluctant to talk about politics; they're much more interested in discussing their wares.
Attitudes toward Saniora in his hometown are divided. Like the prime minister, most people here are Sunnis, although there is a sizable Christian community.
"I think it would be better if he left the government," says a young burka-clad woman. "He didn't do anything for this country."
But her friend, walking arm-in-arm alongside, disagrees. She's wearing jeans and a short-sleeve vest. "I think he should stay in the government because he's a good man. He works for Lebanon and he didn't cause a war like Hizbullah did. He's a good prime minister because he's a good Sunni and he's a good speaker for us."
But these views, by and large, stay within the city limits, because unlike their Hizbullah-supporter counterparts, residents of Sidon lack the political enthusiasm to take their views to Saniora's doorstep.
"It's a very explosive and emotional situation right now," says a local analyst. "Some people have compared it to being in a kitchen where the gas canister has a leak and you're just waiting for a spark. Any wrong moves and something very, very bad could happen."
That spark could be caused by the same flame that resulted in the death of one protester, a Shi'ite, on Sunday. Most of the anti-government demonstrators are Shi'ites who need to walk through predominantly Sunni neighborhoods to reach downtown. It's here that the army and police are worried problems could arise.
"There are several different possibilities how the scenario can play itself out," another analyst said.
"One option is a political compromise that could defuse the crisis very quickly. That's looking less likely, if only because there are so many forces outside Lebanon that are encouraging the parties to stick to their guns.
"The Iranians and Syrians for the most part support the opposition, while for Saniora, all of the old guard Sunni governments across the region are expressing their support. I'm not sure exactly how they're going to back that support up with deeds, which is a little bit worrisome, because if the government decides that it can hang on until somebody will come to its rescue, this could go on for a long time.
"On the other hand there are issues like the weather. There are upward of a hundred thousand people in the downtown area most days. If it starts to rain, that could be more difficult to maintain," the analyst said.
Another factor is economics. The protest is costing Lebanon $30 million a day. Wealthier citizens, who generally back Saniora, are more able to absorb those losses, while the majority of Hizbullah supporters are likely to find them almost impossible to overcome.
"It is quite possible Nasrallah overplayed his hand," says the analyst. "But whether the economic shock his supporters will face will cut into his long-term support remains to be seen. This party has done more for Shi'ite Lebanese than anyone else ever has."