TCS Daily

Deconstructing Demonstration Day

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 7, 2005 12:00 AM

The other shoe dropped in Lebanon, Sunday. (Or was it one of those curly toed slippers?)

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the bespectacled, boyish-looking leader of Hezbollah, decided there had been enough "liberation" euphoria in Lebanon the past few weeks, so he said, "Enough!"

Nasrallah, speaking from his fortified "stronghold" in southern Beirut, condemned, without the slightest sense of irony, "foreign interference" in Lebanese affairs while in the same breath calling for a massive demonstration backing Syria.

He wants the people of Lebanon to take to the streets Tuesday to "express their gratitude" to Damascus and their condemnation of UN Resolution 1559, which calls for Syrian withdrawal from the country.

The demonstration, now a few hours away, promises to be a showcase of raw power on the part of Hezbollah and possibly Syrian intelligence operatives, who will be herding people in front of the television cameras.

Hezbollah, remember, is the 800-pound terrorist gorilla in the Lebanese living room. Heavily financed by Iran at its birth in the early 1980s, this guerrilla group is now thinly disguised as a political party and even has 13 members in the Lebanese Parliament.

But if you want to get some perspective on Hezbollah as a political party (or "Lebanese faction" as the New York Times called it), think Nazi party in the German Reichstag in the early 1930s.

Hezbollah is the only Lebanese political party that has 25,000 men under arms. This is a disciplined militia, heavily armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, some artillery and a little armor.

All the other "factions" in Lebanon, Christian, Druze or Muslim, were formally disarmed when Syria moved into Lebanon at the end of the bloody civil war.

But Hezbollah, under Syria's control, has been allowed to swagger around Lebanon, stage theatric marches of ski-masked fighters for bored TV newsmen, and continue its war of hatred against Israel with few restraints.

This war has been carried on under the flimsy camouflage of a "resistance movement" defending Lebanon from Israel. Nasrallah is assiduously peddling that resistance movement stuff these days because he thinks it gives him some kind of legal cover against the UN resolution, which also calls for disarming Hezbollah.

As it is, Hezbollah can stage a significant "spontaneous" demonstration with its troops alone, and their "families and friends." But it has other extras in the wings. It has also created a large constituency of supplicants in the poorer sections of southern Beirut, where it is headquartered, through the provision of food, medical care and other services (remember the Black Panther breakfast programs?)

In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Lebanon who apparently support Hezbollah in its continued "defense" of the country. Some of them share business interests with members of the Syrian government who have profited handsomely from "investments" in Lebanon -- a bright relief from the dysfunctional socialist Syrian economy.

Thus, it should not to be hard for Hezbollah to flex its muscles and turn out a big crowd in the streets of Beirut. For the media covering it, the challenge will be to spot the signs of coercion and "party discipline," and gauge how genuinely representative the sentiments will be.

Will there be counterdemonstrations? Or will fear -- fear of the terror Syria's armed client, Hezbollah can unleash -- win out?

Tuesday will be demonstration day, indeed. And a telling test of the determination and bravery of those involved in Lebanon's nascent and still somewhat ad hoc democracy and liberation movement.


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