Lebanon: Bus bombings heighten tensions before pro-government rally

Working people demand: “Let us live!”

On 13 February, two bus bombings near Bikfaya, a mainly Christian town in the hills north of Beirut, killed three people and injured scores more. The bombings came as political tensions worsened in Lebanon, ahead of the second anniversary of the killing of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Current Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, and the ‘14th March Forces’ that formed after the assassination of ex-prime minister Hariri, cling to power with Western backing, while Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement supporters remain on the streets of central Beirut, demanding the Siniora government’s removal. On 14 February, thousands of pro-government supporters assembled in Martyr’s Square, central Beirut, just some few hundred yards from Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement supporters. The opposing crowds were separated by razor wire and hundreds of Lebanese troops.

Niall Mulholland spoke to CWI member, Aysha Zaki, in Beirut, about the latest developments:

Bus bombings heighten tensions before pro-government rally

“The two bus bombings took place in a largely Christian area, just before the 14 February second anniversary of the assassination of Hariri. The following day saw tens of thousands rallying in support of the government and in memory of Hariri’s assassination. All socialists must condemn the bombings, which killed and injured innocent working people on buses. Whoever was behind the attacks certainly do not care for the interests of working class people.

“Rumours are rife about who could be behind the bus attacks. Many people think it could be elements supporting ‘either or neither side’ – the pro-Western Siniora-led government or anti-government forces, which are led by the Shia Hezbollah and the Christian-led Free Patriotic Movement – or that even reactionary al-Qaeda type groups are responsible, trying to stir up sectarian violence, chaos and civil war.

Government exploits bus deaths

“The pro-Western government and mass media spent weeks calling for this year’s 14 February to be a ‘Memorial Day’ and a ‘day for freedom’. They called on ‘all Lebanese’ to go to Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on 14 February. Soon after the terrible bus bombings, which targeted Christian workers, the government used this horrific attack to get people to rally on 14 February. They accused elements of the opposition of being behind the bus attacks, and by doing so the government probably hoped to win over Christian support amongst the opposition. This same government condemned last month’s planned general strike action against hiked taxes, attacks on workers’ rights, and cuts in the state sector. Government spokespeople claimed the Lebanese economy ‘can’t take a day of work stoppage’, Yet Prime Minister Siniora has no problem asking people to leave work and to rally, on 14 February, to bolster for his pro-Western agenda.

“The opposition leaders did not call off their two and a half month old sit-in protest, on 14 February, which is held in the same central Beirut square, Martyr’s Square, where the pro-government supporters gathered. The opposition leaders assured the media their ongoing protest would be ‘peaceful’, and would not be ‘provoked by violence’. Around 1,000 opposition activists have been camping in the square for weeks. The protests numbers went up to hundreds of thousands on the ‘day of mass mobilisation’, last December. Yesterday’s pro-government rally was estimated at tens of thousands strong. This number may have been boosted by people’s determination to oppose and to defy the bus attacks and in response to the government’s call for a mass turn-out.

“News of the bus bombings left many people very scared, shocked and angry. People are not used to indiscriminate bus attacks, over the last 15 years, since the end of the civil war. Over the last few years, people got used to a wave of individual assassinations of media and political figures, and also bomb attacks on commercial targets. But this is the first time, in recent years, that we’ve seen bomb attacks specifically against innocent civilians. People are very confused about what is going on and where Lebanon is heading. Fears of more bombings and killings are widespread, and of a descent into wider conflict and eventually civil war. Mostly, people fear chaos, and ‘another Iraq’ developing in Lebanon.

International Court Investigation

“The main issue being pushed now by the Western-backed 14th March forces-dominated government, and which was the main theme during speeches at the pro-government rally on 14 February, is the ‘International Court Investigation’ into the assassination of former prime minister, Hariri, which took place two years ago. The 14th March leaders constantly repeat a list of additional names of assassinated leaders and figures, to emphasis the need to ‘prove’ that Syria is behind all such crimes in Lebanon. But many other assassinated leaders, killed over the last couple of decades, are not mentioned, as they were pro-Syrian leaders.

“The opposition leaders demanded a committee, representing all sides, to agree on the remit of an international court but this was rejected by the governing parties. This triggered and lead to the current crisis.

The opposition masses question the legitimacy of a UN Security Council contrived and controlled court. Many people fear the ‘findings’ of a UN court will result in parties being put on a ‘terrorist list’, and not allowed to take power. They believe a pro-Western puppet regime would be put in place in Lebanon. Many opposition supporters refer to ‘colonisation’ taking place, particularly in regard to the international UN forces in south Lebanon, installed after the end last year’s Israeli war against Hezbollah. Moreover, people supporting the opposition, who seem to make up a majority in Lebanon, and even many of those who took to the streets on 14th March 2005, demanding Syria pulled out of Lebanon, are now sickened by the way the recent killings are used to by the government to try to bolster its support. Many working people feel this is diverting attention from the real and desperate economic and social issues on the ground.

60% in poverty

“60% of people in Lebanon live below the poverty line. The minimum monthly wage is still only $200 and has been since 1996, while prices and living costs have gone up at a fast rate. Workers’ pay and conditions are further attacked by the ‘Paris Three’ paper, which will also raise VAT in 2008 to 18%, making it impossible for people to get by. Energy sources are in short supply. In working class areas, power is cut for up to 20 hours a day. But central Beirut and the upper class areas don’t know experience this. On top of electricity bills of around $50 a month for an average size family, private power generating bills are now up to $40 a month. That means nearly half the minimum wage is spent on energy, to keep the light on and the fridge going. Life is getting unbearable. Yet while we are being told Lebanon is over $40 billion in debt, it is common knowledge that ex-prime minister Hariri – just one government figure – made tens of billions of dollars over the last 15 years.

“While being told to support the current Western-backed government, workers pay the price for corruption. Media coverage of government figures welcoming US Secretary of State, Rice, while Lebanon was bombed to the ground by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), last year, are still fresh in people’s minds. Only last week, the IDF crossed Lebanese borders and clashed with the Lebanese Army, while the UN forces (UNILFIL) stood by.

For workers’ unity against sectarianism and neo-liberalism!

“Although many people wait for a call by the opposition for an ‘escalation’ to ‘sort things out’, the vast majority of working people are against sectarian and confessional conflict. They demand, ‘Let us live!’ on both sides of the political divide. This demand could be the basis for an independent, united, working class alternative. A working class opposition would highlight what ‘Let us live!’ means on the ground – for a better life, free from poverty and war. Working people need an independent, democratically-organised workers’ movement. This could unite workers from all backgrounds and break the cycle of sectarianism and confessional strife. This means a mass workers’ party, with a socialist programme to transform living standards. A socialist economy – where all working people democratically run and plan the economy – is the only way to end poverty, high prices, and exploitation.

“As it is, things are very tense. Soon after the bus attacks on the 13 February, the news media reported a Sunni religious leader was physically attacked in the Martyr’s Square. This news led immediately to heightened fear and tension. The news later said the reports were ‘false’.

“The sectarian and confessional moods are influencing some sections of youth. During last month’s opposition work stoppage, fighting erupted in the Beirut Arabic University between students from different political societies. The situation was so tense, the government closed down all colleges and schools for the rest of the week. They only opened with police road checkpoints near many colleges. In many public places, people are ‘banned’ from discussing politics, as the authorities claim it could provoke clashes.

“Unfortunately, there is no powerful, independent working class alternative to decisively cut across the growing sectarian moods. The trade union leaders say nothing, after they failed to lead last month’s planned strikes and handed the initiative to the opposition leaders [see previous article on socialistworld.net, ‘Lebanon: Sectarian clashes arise from political divisions’, 31 January, 2006].

“The majority of Lebanese are still completely opposed to the neo-liberal agenda agreed by the ‘Paris Three’ meeting, in January. This meeting saw major Western imperialist powers and the Siniora government agree a savage cuts and privatisation package. This was in return for loans from big nations to ‘aid’ Lebanon following last year’s military attacks by Israel. This is to benefit capitalist interests in and outside Lebanon, while workers have to fund the national debt repayment.

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