What was announced for today as a general strike and a mass demonstration to protest low wages and the rising cost of living, has been hijacked by the opposition before it even happened, with Aoun yesterday calling to topple the government with this protest. The unions actually called off the demonstrations for today, but Hizbullah is very pissed at the government right now (for reasons I set out below), and as Aoun’s followers seem to abstain from participating today, it has become essentially a Hizbullah action. This morning, I was driving around town, and the airport road was already blocked, like all strategic arteries leading in and out of the city – either by groups of youths burning tyres and building barricades (very efficiently on the airport road, with dumpster trucks delivering sand and earth, old cars and concrete blocks, and JBC’s heaping it all up), or by the police/armed forces, who are massively present all over the city. Since then, there have been several shooting incidents, at Tayyoune roundabout, in Corniche al-Mazraa and Ras al-Nabaa. Two Amal snipers were pulled off a rooftop by the army and a Mustaqbal (Hariri) office in Mseitbeh has been shot at and bombarded with handgrenades Nweiri has been destroyed by RPG’s (rocket-propelled grenades). Meanwhile, the actual strike is also on, kind of in the background, with all flights cancelled due to the strike. There are rumours that Hizbullah is intendig to keep the airport road closed ‘until the political situation is resolved’, i.e. indefinitely. Ratcheting up the economic pressure on the government, in other words.
Strikes and demonstrations are taking place also in the south and in the Beqaa valley – the parts of the country controlled by the opposition. Mount Lebanon, the Chouf, Tripoli, Batroun and Ashrafiyyeh in Beirut are not taking part. In the Beqaa, the area around Zahle is not involved either. You can follow the news blow-by-blow at naharnet
The actual demand of the unions is for the legal minimum wage to be tripled – from $200 to $600 – not an unreasonable demand if you compare the speedily rising cost of living and the inflation rate (worsened by the fact that the Lebanese Lira is pegged to the falling US dollar, while the bulk of imports into this industrially and agriculturally rather unproductive country comes from the Eurozone) to the wages here, which have been frozen for as long as anybody cares to remember. The government yesterday announced a meager 50% wage raise, in a last-minute attempt to deflect the strike – which is of course a clear case of ‘too little, too late’. They added insult to injury by announcing in the same breath an investigation into Hizbullah’s own telecommunications network and the removal of the head of airport security from his post. The man, said to be closely linked to Hizbullah, is held responsible for allowing Hizbullah to set up a camera to monitor a certain runway at the airport which is used mainly by ‘officials’ flying in and out of the country. The whole camera story was brought out by Walid Jumblatt – which kind of takes away a lot of its credibility really, especially as the PSP-leader also called for a ban on flights from and to Iran. In any case, the tensions between the government and the opposition run very high these days, and criticizing the control of Hizbullah over its ‘security squares’ and its armament and training practices are the flavor of the day since a week or two. The movement is rumored – by Junblatt, Geagea and the likes – to be sending 300 men to Iran for intensive training with live ammunition on a monthly basis, and people are – understandably – beginning to get very pissed off at the movement’s tendency to arrest and interrogate any foreigner – or any Lebanese for that matter – which they suspect of being an ‘Israeli agent’. Carrying a camera and taking the odd picture in a Hizbullah-controlled area tends to be sufficient to raise that suspicion.
Latest developments: Hizbullah supporters are setting up tents on the airport road, confirming rumours that the blockade of that road would be permanent. Bulldozers and trucks from Jihad al-Bina’ (Hizbbullah’s construction company) are still working putting up more barricades. HA have now posed a concrete condition for lifting the airport blockade: the reinstatement of their man as head of the airport security. This is not the only road leading to the airport from the city, but it’s a major artery and blocking it will be a major pain in the already overcrowded Beirut traffic. Among those currently stranded at the airport (flights have resumed but arriving passengers can’t leave the airport because of the blockade) is… poor old Fairouz. Meanwhile, Mustaqbal (Future) supporters are reportedly gathering in the Beqaa and the north and planning to come to town to avenge their destroyed Nweiri office… In all, 8 people have been wounded in the riots up to now, including 2 police, 2 reporters and 3 Mustaqbal supporters who were in or around the office when it was bombarded with RPG’s.