They say it’s an ill wind that blows no good. But this worried lebanese finds many reasons to be worried. Yesterday was undoubtedly action-packed, rife with unbridled emotions and wide-ranging misconducts. It’s actually extremely hard to sum up in a couple of words because of the multitude of arenas in which these actions unfolded and the mass of images they conjured up. Even the media was having trouble dealing with this profusion. The Lebanese TV channels that I followed in between calls had suspended their programs for the day and were struggling to cover and broadcast the day’s events. You can’t expect them to be ubiquitous; drama was unfolding in most parts of the country: roads being blocked, neighbourhoods being claimed, rival party headquarters being attacked and even gunfire being exchanged. And there’s a limit to how much a television station can multiplex. At a certain point, the LBC screen looked like a CCTV surveillance monitor.
Three squares for one funeral: Between geography and iconography
As early as saturday, three important squares in Beirut were called to become the centre of the opposition’s protestations: The site of the explosion, the victim’s final resting place and the foot of the Prime Minister’s office & residence. As the funeral was increasingly presented as a political rally, the greatest challenge for its organisers was to smoothly link the three squares withstanding their conflicting meanings and the differing emotional impacts Friday’s car bomb had.
1. Sassine Square: A couple of steps north of the explosion’s epicentre. It’s the proscenium of Friday’s drama where you get a full view of the (physical) destruction. Sassine square is the heart of former “East Beirut”, the political centre of what became during the Civil war the capital’s Christian quarter (and Christian only neighbourhood). In this square sits a large portrait of President-elect Bachir Gemayel (prominent Christian warlord, founder of the Lebanese Forces and arguably the most popular of all politicians among Lebanese Christians, past and present), assassinated in 1982 two blocks south from where Wissam al Hassan was killed.
2. Martyr’s Square/Liberty Square: It stands right across Wissam al Hassan and his driver Ahmad Sahyuni’s final resting place. They were buried in the same precinct as Rafic Hariri, former Prime-Minister and founder of the Future Movement, killed by a massive explosion in February 2005, next to Beirut’s largest (Sunni) Mosque. The political significance of this square was resurrected in 2005 when the Lebanese opposition to Syrian occupation camped on this site and organised massive rallies in it. It is the symbolic centre and the main iconography of the March 14 coalition, its most physical incarnation.
3. Ryad al-Solh Square: This is where the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces (amongst others) called for a sit-in to pressure Prime-Minister Nagib Miqati into resigning. This square sits east of the Grand Serail, the Premiership’s offices. It became politically significant in 2005 where pro-Syrian parties rallied to counter the anti-Syrian protests. And it was given in 2006 another meaning when the most prominent shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal left the government and occupied the square with their allies in order to pressure Prime-Minister Fuad Siniora into resigning.
Rerun, Sequel or Cover ?
Nobody quite knew what to expect from Wissam al-Hassan’s funeral. The Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces had made it quite clear that they intended to turn this funeral into a massive political rally. The preparations had actually begun on saturday afternoon in Martyr’s Square. Instead of a “consensual” funeral similar to the ones that were given to two other members of the security apparatus killed in the line of duty (François Al-Hajj in 2007 and Wissam Eid in 2008), Wissam al-Hassan’s funeral would be similar to that of a March 14 politician. Indeed, the funeral bore a lot of resemblance to Walid Eido’s. However, many different elements signalled that this political rally would be more than a rerun of a March 14 funeral (March 14 had been the victim of 7 targeted assassinations and 3 failed attempts between 2004 and 2007). The political speeches that were heard on saturday and sunday were similar to those made in january 2011, surrounding the Sunni “day of anger”. But the most political and distinguishing feature of this funeral was the sit-in that was scheduled to follow it. On that issue, the Future Movement’s speeches were closer to the ones heard at the March 8th anti-governement sit-in back in 2006 than to those made on the day Omar Karame resigned in 2005.
A day of unbridled anger
During that long day, I personally didn’t venture out of Beirut’s central district. So most of the news I got about events happening outside this area was through biased television coverage. As expected, the Media played its usual political role, that of a resonance chamber. Reporters ditched reporting, and instead actively participated in the events through reframing and communicating faulty information. Switching from Al-Jadeed to LBC and back, you could count the contradictions in the their reporting by the minute. On the streets, emotions were obviously running high, and the most salient one was undoubtedly anger. The media concentrated its efforts on what was happening in Beirut’s central district, failing to analyse and comprehend that the most important dynamic was unravelling elsewhere, in Tripoli and on the major communication routes linking the three largest predominantly shiite areas in Lebanon.
Politicians obviously were not able to manage the anger they had provoked or nurtured. They proved yet another time how irresponsible they are, by either adding fuel to fire or by failing to respond adequately to the situation. This is equally true for those politicians belonging to the “governing” parties than for those belonging to the “opposition” parties (both terms do not always reflect the reality of their involvement in politics). Sectarian politics being what they are in our republic of many farms, Sunni politicians and political groups were expected to manage the “sunni wrath”. But they proved to be completely incapable of doing it. Fuad Siniora missed the irony of his position, Saad Hariri failed to show up, Nagib Miqati decided to go on a pilgrimage… and Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani spoke knowing no one was listening… and when Nadim Qtaich, a journalist belonging to the Future Movement, called mourners to storm the Grand Serail, he became the official scapegoat of yesterday’s most photogenic event…
And while the political class failed to contain the Syrian crisis, and respond adequately to the many challenges our country faces, a new generation of street thugs, abadayeet, entered the political arena by forcibly claiming “their” territory. Their identity remains unknown, but they are filling up the political void left by the country’s ailing leadership.