Cleaning up after Hezbollah

A new and powerful force invaded downtown Beirut yesterday – they were the ubiquitous green men of Sukleen, Lebanon's cleaning and waste management company.
© Simba Russeau

BEIRUT, May 21, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Even as Hezbollah was still busy dismantling the tent city with which it has beleaguered the government for the past eighteen months, Sukleen's mainly Syrian and South Asian workers arrived in their hundreds yesterday to clean up after them and restore downtown Beirut to its former glory.

"Yallah Nasrallah!" (Go, Nasrallah, Go!) a Hezbollah supporter shouted as he threw another tent into a container. Part of the Doha peace agreement – and arguably the only thing the pro-government forces gained in Qatar – was the removal of the opposition tents that have strangled downtown Beirut's economy. In return, the government gave the opposition what it had been refusing to give up all this time: a veto power in a national unity government, which will effectively bar any discussion about Hezbollah's weapons in the foreseeable future.

But in downtown Beirut yesterday, there was enough in the Doha agreement for everyone to indulge in some prudent rejoicing.

Mohammed from Bint Jbeil, a town on the Israeli border that was destroyed during the 2006 war with Israel, felt confident that the opposition's camp-out in downtown contributed to the peace agreement signed in Qatar this morning.

"Of course it did. We hit them where it hurts them the most – in the heart of their economy", Mohammed said. "All of this was stolen from the people by Rafic Hariri at the end of the civil war. It was poor people living in downtown before and they got cheated out of their possessions by the Hariri family."

Mohammed has been here since the very first day of the downtown protest, December 1, 2008, when more than a million people – most of them Shia from South Beirut and South Lebanon and supporters of Hezbollah's Christian ally Michel Aoun – descended on downtown Beirut to demand the resignation of the pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora.

While most of them went back home the same evening, an average of 2,000 people have manned the makeshift tent city ever since, according to Mohammed.

"I had never dreamed I would be able to afford living in downtown Beirut one day," he joked.

But his motivation for staying all this time is no joke. One of Mohammed's brothers died in the 2006 fighting and he personally blames Saad Hariri for his death.

"Saad Hariri could have stopped the war on the third day and my brother wouldn't have died. But he didn't because he was with the U.S. government. That's why I hate him especially. And that's why I'm here."

So is this peace at last? "As long as they stick to what they agreed to on paper, why not?" Mohammed said.

Two blocks away, Pierre Dagher, the owner of DUO restaurant on Al-Maarad street, demonstrated the same mix of happiness and skepticism.

"Already twenty people have called to book a table for this evening," Dagher said.

But Dagher had to disappoint them: the restaurant will not be offering dinner service just yet.

"We haven't opened in the evenings since December 2006. As a result we have had to lay off a lot of staff. In order to reopen in the evenings we will have to start a rehiring process first."

To be fair, Hezbollah supporters never actually closed off the downtown restaurant area, which was beautifully restored – too beautifully for some – by Rafic Hariri in the nineties. But the 2006 war with Israel scared away the rich tourists from the Gulf countries, and Hezbollah's tent city scared off the remaining Lebanese clientele.

Well, not so much scared them off as forced them to walk.

"With all the closed roads in the neighborhood, people had to walk five minutes or more to get to the restaurant from their cars," Dagher explained, "and as everybody knows: the Lebanese don't walk."

As a result, at least sixty restaurants in the area have closed, and a hundred businesses moved to other areas of the city.

So is this peace at last? "There is no doubt that this is a very important development," said Dagher. "We have been through some very rough times."

But some skepticism remained. "After all, this is Beirut."

As Hezbollah supporters packed up their tents and restaurant owners made plans for a better future, some Lebanese were already worrying about what will come next.

"Soon the rich tourists from the Gulf countries will return to reclaim Lebanon as their playground, and downtown will be lost to us again," said Lina Sahab, a 25-year-old secretary.


'The camp has served its purpose'
Posted on 05/22/2008 - 10:54
MENASSAT's Layal Abu Rahhal walked among the opposition demonstrators while they were breaking up their protest camp in downtown Beirut. Beirut end of the sitting May 21 2008. © George Eid /