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Lebanon Regime Change

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Cedar Revolution Goes South                         
Lebanon Diary        
By Trish Schuh             January 23,  2007    Counterpunch                                 

January 16 -- Beirut   Two years after the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, America's Cedar Revolution in Lebanon has gone "Citrus". The chic Lebanese divas with maids in tow wagging protest signs on their employer's behalf are absent. Riad El Sohl Square in downtown Beirut is now occupied by a working class tent city with "Citrus" supporters from the Opposition: Religious Shias-Hezbollah (yellow), secular Shias- Amal (green), and Christians of the Free Patriotic Movement (orange). But all are united under one banner "Clean Up the Government!"

In this exclusive part of the city, you'd scarcely notice Israel's recent bombing. The luxury boutiques and designer gourmet shops are open for
consumption, and the pastel reproductions of delicate French Mandate buildings have retained their Disneyland feel. But much of the
neighborhood's elite clientel has fled for Europe or points south like Dubai, Doha or Riyadh.

What's left are the lesser-haves, united against feared austerity measures. The protest encampment, surrounded by churches and mosques, defy traditional alliances. "This is not a religious jihad" or a sectarian squabble one 28 year old Christian man told me, "It's getting Lebanon
back from corruption."

According to one taxi driver, costs of basic items like water, electricity and food have recently doubled, allegedly due to government mismanagement and sell-outs to international corporations. On Monday, the General Labor Confederation and the Opposition sponsored a sit-in against the Lebanese government's new economic reform plan. Among other requirements demanded by the World Bank is the privatization of the national telecommunications industry.

The head of the Telecommunications Ministry, Marwan Hamade, stands to personally benefit from the billion dollar deals. At a Hezbollah rally
outside Lebanon's Parliament, a Lebanese celebrity Adel Mawla, 24, said this is typical of how the country's interests are being siphoned to
benefit greedy officials and foreign interests. "This government is fiscally corrupt" and even while these same foreign interests bombed
Lebanon last summer, the Lebanese government welcomed the invaders "with coffee and tea."

As for the natives? Razor wire, armored personnel carriers and checkpoints have been erected to protect the government from them.

January 17

Beirut is a city on edge tonight, in a region tensely waiting. To the north of Lebanon, the US is sending F-16 fighter jets and early
warning systems to Incirlik, Turkey for possible attack on Iran. To the east, American warships are taking up positions in the Persian
Gulf, and Iran has recently shot down a US spy drone in its airspace.

At Lebanon's airport south of Beirut, American C-17 cargo planes have begun delivering a billion dollar shipment of military aid "to assist
the Lebanese police and army" concerning "Al Qaeda"- aka Hezbollah/civil war. In west Beirut, tanks are stationed on quiet,
tree-lined street corners. Increasing numbers of army and police are on sidewalk patrol, with AK 47s at the ready. Helicopters fly over the
city and port- in case.

In Beirut's city center, I spoke to Christians from the Free Patriotic Movement about the situation. Insurance sales manager Henry Hamra 39,
reflected on the brutal rule of the Syrians in his country, and America's granting of democracy to Lebanon. "The US gave Lebanon to
Syria as a gift twenty-nine years ago. The first thing the Syrian dictators did was to appoint their own puppet government officials and
administrators to further their interests. Now the Americans are doing the same thing in Lebanon." He said he felt America looked at Lebanon
as a disposable asset to leverage their agenda in the Middle East. "We don't care any more what all of you do outside this country. Just get
the hell out of here and leave us alone. We want to live a normal life."

Christian Lena Ghrayeb is a banker of 38 who disputed that the current government standoff is a sectarian struggle. "Only the Christians of Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces are with Bush. Even the Pope said Lebanon has a mission to live together with Muslims or it won't be Lebanon. At Christmas we get gifts from the Muslims here and at Adha we give to them."

But Ghrayeb has no love for the Syrians either. In the early 90's she was thrown into prison and tortured by Syria's Lebanese agents for
distributing anti-Syria pamphlets in Beirut. Then how can she and Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement support US-designated
terrorist group Hezbollah, who are sponsored by Syria? Isn't their terrorism the problem here?

Ghrayeb claims Hezbollah only fought Israelis during the war- not Muslims or Christians. I asked Ghrayeb about the "full alert" recently declared by Hezbollah. "All political doors are completely closed, and there is no prospect for a settlement" said Hezbollah's Al Manar TV. "A major escalation is very possible."

"Look- the 2005 elections showed 70 per cent of the Christians are with Aoun", Ghrayeb said. "I have to tell you something. You are making the Christians here into a terrorist threat against you [America]. In a matter of time, we will strike back too."

Later, at a near-empty cafe in the nightclub district, scared patrons ran from their tables at the sound of bombs exploding outside. It turned out to be fireworks set off by Hezbollah to celebrate Israeli General Dan Halutz's resignation over the failure of the IDF's summer invasion.

At the bull's eye of this region on fire, Lebanon is in suspended turmoil. For now.

 January 18  Dahiyeh--I
came to this Hezbollah neighborhood of south Beirut to see my tax dollars at work. In an already crowded, destitute area, the results of American largesse were devastating. Smears of graffiti said "Made in America."

Bomb craters now replaced entire city blocks and crunched glass glittered on dirt roads. Singed office blocks, toppled like dominoes, still
smelled of smoke from Israel's summer attack. One apartment building near the Bir Al Abed Mosque had a massive wall nearly torn off, hanging like a concrete chad. One more vote for Arab democracy.

In the Hezbollah Information Office, I spoke with Sheikh Khoory Noor Ed Dine of the Hezbollah Political Council. He referred to his comments
from a year back, in which he described Israel's 1982 invasion. It sounded eerily like the bombing of 2006: "When the Israelis occupied
our land and marched to Beirut, the UN and the whole world watched our cities burn, our farms and villages being destroyed, our children, old
and young men killed. No one told Israel to leave or stop. We waited nearly one year. Then we saw they weren't going to leave."

Sheikh Ed Dine said Hezbollah had evolved out of necessity- not to challenge the government. "As Muslims, we believe life without dignity, life
without freedom and independence doesn't mean anything to us. So we struggled to live as we like and push the occupiers off our land. Our
resistance started as military, and became political. Our people needed social and educational assistance. The Lebanese government was so weak and no one from outside came to help us. So we built social centers in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere. So now we have social,
educational and medical services- not just military."

But when the Israeli Army had first invaded Lebanon in 1982, the forerunners of present-day Hezbollah had greeted them as liberators
from the PLO. "They were a relief from the prior occupiers, until they became occupiers themselves," Sheikh Ed Dine said.

Later, on the street outside, I spoke to a German-Lebanese father of three from Frankfurt whose home in the hanging chad building was blown up in the war. The Lebanese government reimbursed him for only a fraction of its value, so he turned to Hezbollah for help. "This home was to be for my sons someday. Now it is gone and we have nothing."

I wondered if any of the billion-dollar US aid package for Lebanon would finance reparations. According to press reports, that money is "to
fight the war on terror": One third to train the Lebanese Army, one third for ammunition, and the other third for military spare parts,
with little to spare for civilians.
American  tax dollars at work, winning Arab hearts and minds.

January 21

Christians and Shias recently partied together at the Opposition tent city near Rafiq Hariri's mosque, waiting for Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah's interview on Al Manar TV. Nasrallah discussed the US plan for the Greater Middle East and the need to protect Lebanon from it. An escalation to overthrow the US-backed Lebanese government was planned for Tuesday. It would be 'a big event' but peaceful. "The resistance will go on!" he declared. Even the product ads that bracketed Nasrallah's speech were edited to underscore a resistance theme.
Animated soap, yogurt and other household items danced to a martial-sounding score. Rendering hand lotion militant is an Al Manar
specialty.

I asked one Christian Aoun supporter if the Opposition was so sure of support and committed to democracy, why didn't they just wait until the
next elections and vote the March 14th movement out of office then?

Mary, who didn't want to give her last name, claimed that government corruption was so bad the nation couldn't survive three more years of it. "I hated Hariri. Many people here hated Hariri. Hariri brought us to this crisis. When he came to power in the early 1990's Lebanon's national
debt was 1 billion USD. Now it will soon be $45 billion. When they tell you he was an enemy of Syria- don't believe them. He worked with
corrupt Syrians to exploit Lebanon. In 2001, he even gave the Golden Key of the city of Beirut to Syria's agent in Lebanon, Ghazi Kenaan.
They worked together. Now we have Saad Al Hariri..."

I also talked with a restaurant manager on posh Marad Street at the heart of Hariri country, Solidere. He said his shop was deserted because of the political situation in Beirut. I asked if what the IDF did not destroy militarily, Hezbollah/Aoun protests would end up destroying
economically?

"No," said Tawfiq, who claimed government Ministers' infighting was the main problem. Each faction fought for their own benefit at the expense of the country. "We have a big, big problem with the government here," he said. "But we know who is behind all this... We are 18 different
religious groups and we have to get together or we are going down... "

Tawfiq, who recently had hair to his waist but cut it after a drunk driving accident on his motorcycle, invited me for cocktails and bragged about
frequenting the wildest nightclubs in town. He disputed that Hezbollah would, or even could, turn Lebanon into an Islamic Republic like Iran.
"I like my scotch & Pepsi too much, followed with rose' wine."

Tawfiq is a Shia himself, and was one of the first to welcome tourists into Khiam prison after Hezbollah freed Lebanese prisoners there and drove the IDF out. He said it was Hezbollah that had saved Lebanon from becoming part of an Israeli Republic. "We want to live. But we want our own country  first... we have to live in peace." Just keep it nicely chilled.

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Live from the Middle East:
The Beirut of the Problem 
By Trish Schuh         August 1, 2007           http://www.esquire.com/the-side/blog/mideastblog080207

Esquire's embedded Middle Eastern reporter, Trish Schuh, kicks off her exclusive blog with a report from the streets of Lebanon.

BEIRUT -- Early one peaceful Sunday morning, a Lebanese colleague from the Christian side of the Green Line offered to skip church and give me an Assassins' Tour of Beirut. "Would you like to trace steps from the Civil War?," she asked. "That would be great," I said. "Why not?" I love a dose of napalm in the morning, as
they say...     

We start with drive-by sightings of car bomb locales from the last few weeks and work back through the years. It takes several hours. By noon we'd only just begun to scratch the 1980's, when the car's AC broke. The heat was crippling, so we decided to stop for a drink. Where?  

The Beirut Commodore Hotel, a haven for Western journalists covering Lebanon's civil war, as it appeared on February 24, 1996. Today, the remodeled hotel houses executives. 

Famous during the civil war for its resident parrot that mimicked the sound of incoming bombardments, the Commodore Hotel has since been taken over by corporate suits as an inn in 'rehab'; from a cozy, seedy, worn-out dive to a
place whose decor looks like cross between a hospital ward and the African wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I vote we skip that." 

The Mayflower, on the other hand, still packs some nostalgic oomph. Its Duke of Wellington bar remains quaint, but is quieter now. During the war it was a hangout of foreign correspondents and reputed to be the place where "many a hostage had his last drink." Rumor also had it that some of the pub's own bartenders were moonlighting on the side as the
kidnappers. I order a martini which arrived very watered down and not at all the chloroform cocktail I'd hoped for, based on The Mayflower's past reputation.  

If
past is present, The Tour also provided a glimpse of the future, and what could ignite the next civil war in Beirut: the ongoing assassination of the economy. The entire city seems to be throwing a fire sale. The main shopping district in West Beirut, Hamra, is full of block after block of stores with lifesize "50%-70%-80% off" signs to seduce customers. Yet the streets and souks are empty.

None of the summer European tourists or rich Gulf princesses in full abayas have returned due to the political/security situation.  Dozens of other establishments have already expired. At the popular Berkeley Hotel I try to snag a rare room reservation, but there are none available next week. "Full till when?" I ask. "No, empty," the desk clerk informs me. "Tomorrow we shut down for good. We're moving all operations to the Gulf." 

Solidere, the luxury downtown area rebuilt by assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, is now almost completely boarded up. The protest encampment filling adjacent Martyr's Square is being blamed for the all trouble. Demonstrators from the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah are reviving an economic no man's land at ground zero on the Civil
War's Green Line. The tent city, and the Hezbollah MP's withdrawal from Parliament have paralyzed national institutions.

This disaster, combined with frequent car bombings and explosions, has created a comprehensive effect approximating economic sanctions against Lebanon.  But the Lebanese never give up. "You can not keep the Lebanese down," a Lebanese woman brags. "We made it through 30 years of war. We are survivors."  
                                     
And hardcore partiers. Nothing can intimidate the Lebanese out of a good time. During last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah, many bars and beaches stayed open. A few even extended hours. One disco club in Gemmayzeh simply ramped up the bass if the bombing got too loud. If a shell lands beside you? Drink your shots from shrapnel! 

On the other side of Hezbollah's tent city, I search for Club 1975, a "must" on the party scene. Named for the year the civil war began, this pub's waiters wore combat helmuts and fake sandbags were strewn about as cushions. Mortar shells alternated with booze bottles at the bar, and old grenade launchers fastened to Day-Glo piping could be rented to
smoke nargila. The owner of the Crocodile Club tells me it was a casualty of the war. "But we're bringing it back again soon and even better. Maybe next month." 

Lately the crowds favor rooftop venues out of reach of frequent street-level bombings. Places like Sky Bar, Bubbles and White overlook the Mediterranean and Martyrs Square, drawing hundreds who dance, drink and rave. At midnight, lights flash and thumping music booms, defying the tent city below. It doesn't end till dawn when the muezzin chants the
morning call to prayer.

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Live from the Middle East:
I Spy an American
Paranoia runs rampant in the Middle East, but no one is more distrusted than the honest, truth-seeking American journalist.

By Trish Schuh            August 7, 2007           http://www.esquire.com/the-side/blog/americanspy080907?click=main_sr
 
HARET HREIK, Lebanon   When he heard my American accent, the Hezbollah cabbie hissed "You are an American spy."  He swings off the main road and onto a deserted lot.  The interrogation begins.  "What are you doing here?  Why are you in Dahiyeh?"     

Very late on a stormy January night I attended Ashura celebrations in Hezbollah's shelled-out neighborhood in south Beirut.  It was the annual Shia commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was the speaker.  I hadn't wanted to miss it.      

"Why do you wear hijab if you are not a Muslim?" the cabbie rages at me.  I try to explain that it is the dress code for the event- not a disguise or to pretend I am other than I am.  I wore it to respect protocol.  And I would never get past the religious bouncers without it.    

Since I have my creds in order I answer him just as loud.  Take me to Hezbollah security. Right away!"  No guy wants an hysterical woman on his hands, so he skirts back to the main road, where I jump out.  I vow not to wear Islamic dress again.     

In the Middle East, US journalists are considered "American spies."  Whether you are 18 or 80, the 'War on Terror' has cemented suspicions.  The alleged "American spy" has become an icon.  Trying to deny it will only 'prove' you guilty.

Now its August and I'm back in Beirut.  I have the bad luck to arrive on the heels of some foreign journalists who infiltrated Hezbollah's fiefdom south of the Litani River using fake passports and identities- and bragged about it in the media.  So the Lebanese government is in an uproar.  The Ministry of Information, the military and Hezbollah are all clamping down on reporters.      

On Hezbollah members too.  At Hezbollah's Press Office, oversized headshots of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamanei glower in the waiting room like patron saints of gloom.  A polite Hezbollah student also applying for a press pass asks what country I come from.  I brace for backlash, and she says "Oh how terrible. You must be so afraid. There is very much killing and shooting in America.  Even the small children are murdering everyone. How do you live there?"      

"Well I just barely got out alive. I had to come to Lebanon to relax..."  

"Welcome, welcome" she smiles.    

In the office of Hezbollah's weekly newspaper, Al Intiqad, which the US State Department designated a terrorist organization, I see editor-in-chief Ibrahim Mousawi.  I have interviewed him several times before.  "Not wearing hijab?  Why no veil?"  He shakes his head and sighs.  "Well now I know- maybe you are an American spy."  I decide to send him an FBI T-shirt I bought at the airport gift shop with a note: "If you wear this Al Qaeda won't dare mess with you." 

In Beirut, most women dress western, but militant chic has long been de rigeur.  With its hard-core history of being fashionable under siege, Lebanon is the only country whose national bank offered federal loans for plastic surgery after the war to bolster civilians' shell-shocked morale- before funding reconstruction.

Recently, contestants in Lebanese beauty pageants wore combat fatigues along with the swimsuit competition.  Even grocery stores stock guerilla accessories: cigarette lighters shaped like mortar rounds and hand grenades are stashed on shelves next to mens' faux rhinestone raybans.  During the civil war, one group of image-conscious revolutionaries fought in hot pink military uniforms.

Despite my naked head, I try to get a comment from Ibrahim Mousawi.  There are news reports that the State Department paid 22 million dollars for land adjoining Hezbollah headquarters in a district called Baabda.  America wants to build a new embassy on the site.  I ask Mousawi about Hezbollah's suicide attack on the US Embassy in the 1980's. He denies it as always.  "Hezbollah was only in the south then, resisting Israeli occupation," he says.

The US government has never been able to prove they did it, though a group calling itself 'Hezbollah' claimed responsibility at the time, and no other group before that was launching suicide car bombings but Hezbollah.

A Lebanese friend and I decide to visit the original US Embassy site which faced the Mediterranean.  There is no plaque or momento marking the scene.  The closest thing to an American tribute of sorts, is a nearby McDonalds.  I wait for the vindictive justification for the bombing I've heard many times from other Lebanese that runs something like this: "It was the Mother of all American spy dens anyway."      

Without a trace of sarcasm or malice, my friend suggests we go in and eat a meal in remembrance, and squeezes my arm to comfort me.  "Just think- the burgers will taste so much more American."

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Live from the Middle East:
The Victors and Their Spoils

The Lebanese Army triumphs over terrorism with a decisive victory, while the Arab Riviera continues to party like there's no tomorrow.

By Trish Schuh          September 6, 2007         http://www.esquire.com/the-side/blog/mideastblog090607

TRIPOLI/JOUNIEH/BEIRUT, Lebanon -- At dawn, sporadic gunfire still ricocheted around Beirut. But it was the sound of the city celebrating. After a three-month surge, the Lebanese Army has just declared victory over the Al Qaeda Fatah Al Islam terrorists in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared outside Tripoli.  

As I headed up the coastal highway to Tripoli, a very conservative Muslim town in northern Lebanon, people along the route hung out of terraces and windows cheering as the Lebanese army rode by. A motorcyclist in the center lane was wrapped in the Lebanese flag, popping wheelies on his Harley-Davidson at 70 miles an hour. Crowds on an overpass next to a "Go Topless This Summer" ad waved their own handwritten sign: "Lebanon Forever!"     

A little after noon, black smoke appeared on the horizon, filled with helicopters flying low through the haze. The smell of burnt gunpowder hung in the air, and the military was everywhere. Despite its destruction, Nahr al-Bared was reigniting. Saudi Al Qaeda militants had hijacked a taxi on this same stretch of road hours earlier, killing passengers inside. Some of them were still at large.     

No wonder it was so tough to find a cab. To make things harder, I had worn an Iraqi abaya, a batwing-shaped jalabiya made of very slick, windbreaker material. It was wet with sweat, and super-slippery. I'd had a few falls already, especially trying to stand up from a seated position or getting out of a car. Wearing it in 110-degree heat? Like living on a water slide or being a prisoner in your own banana peel. Chronic Ouch!     

It also marked me as a foreigner. The style was distinctly Shia, and Tripoli is a vehemently Sunni town. When I stopped to buy water, one very hostile shopkeeper eyed me angrily. He slapped my change on the countertop with one hand, holding a pistol in the other. For once, I wasn't grilled about what country I was from. Maybe he thinks I'm a wife of Al Qaeda, I worry. (Better to be thought Russian or even a Shatanea.)     

I remove the abaya and head back to civilization -- to an area known in Roman times as the Valley of Thieves, bisected by the River of Death. Now it is predominantly Christian and peppered by hotspots like The Flamingo, the California Super Show, and Playboy Bunny Amusements. The most interesting one has a Roman flair -- the Caligula Club. 
The sign of the Casino du Liban, nestled on a hill on the tip of the Bay of Jounieh, in the Christian section north of Beirut. Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images.    

I'm meeting some Lebanese for drinks and gambling in the Casino du Liban. "You must see it," they urge. "It's a landmark." Built in 1959, Casino du Liban was the first casino in an Arab country, and it competed with Monte Carlo. Frank Sinatra hung out here with the Rat Pack, and the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren. Politicos too, like Lyndon Johnson, the Shah of Iran, and later, Prince Albert of Monaco, showed up. Dancers swung from the chandeliers, prostitution was legal, and naked women swam in a tank with dolphins. These were the Glory Days before the civil war when Beirut was nicknamed the "Paris of the Middle East."     

Through the worst of the fighting, the gambling and parties rolled on. Unfortunately, what the war couldn't extinguish, the renovators did. The interior has since been face-lifted into a generic, antiseptic franchise style. But the view over Jounieh Bay at sunset is spectacular, and the bar makes the meanest martinis on the Mediterranean (especially compared to the Monte Carlo Casino, where our martinis came in a wineglass). Four bucks and change gets you top-shelf cocktails with Lebanese mezzes on the side.     

"Really big money comes here now," a waiter told me. "Betting millions... kings and emirs from the Gulf come for Ramadan to gamble -- and drink. But I'm not saying anything," he winks.     

Tourism has definitely evolved since Roman times, when a traveler was shackled on arrival to insure he paid his bill before leaving. A more modern tourism scuffle ensued when Hezbollah tried to exploit land near the airport as a graveyard "Shrine of the Martyrs" for disembarking sightseers. 

But the younger party surge frequents its own fashionable version of retro-macabre. At BO18, named after a bunker where the club's owner holed up during the civil war, the look is chic-stark. The chairs fold like coffins, and dead musicians' faces adorn tabletops like a grim, ill-fated Hollywood walk of fame.     

And at the end of the day, I'm back again with the Palestinians: BO18 sits atop the ruins of the notorious Qarantina refugee camp massacre. One Lebanese partier, Saiid, plans his own ode to the martyrs. He wants to publish comic books that deal with "the horror of what went on, with a dash of black comedy."     

I guess that's therapeutic, I tell him. He says, "I wouldn't know. A Spanish writer's going to do it for really cheap, and I outsourced the illustrations to a Brazilian."     

Before sunrise, somebody in the crowd yells out, "Go topless!" and BO18's retractable rooftop pulls back on the night's last fading stars.