Lebanon: General strike in Lebanon exploited by government and opposition forces

Sectarian street clashes and militias road blocks

On Tuesday 6 May, after an 11 hours meeting of the government cabinet, the cabinet decided to raise the minimum wage from 200$ to 330$ in response to a strike called by the General Trade Union of Lebanon, one month ago. The General Trade Union did not accept this rise because it is much less than what they were calling for (660$), and did not include workers in the private sector. Therefore, the General Trade Union called for the strike to proceed as planned, along with a demonstration on 7 May, in Beirut.

One of the decisions that the government took in their 11-hour session was to consider that the opposition Hezbollah’s communication network is illegal, and accused Hezbollah of being a ’state in the state’. In addition, they accused Hezbollah of having placed cameras around the only airport in Lebanon that is near Beirut, that Hezbollah is monitoring the Airport runway. The government forced the removal of the head of security at the airport, who is considered pro-Hezbollah. Removing him from his post is considered a blow to Hezbollah.

On the morning of 7 May, and as early as 5 am, many Hezbollah and the Shiite Haraket Amal movement supporters were mobilised for the strike. They started blocking roads with burning car wheels and piles of sand and stones. They also closed all roads to the airport, to the port, and the main roads in Beirut. The demonstration called by the General Trade Union was meant to start at 11 am on 7 May, but street clashes started taking place between the opposition and the government forces in many areas across the city. These clashes developed into armed clashes, with many people on both sides wounded. The security situation led to the General Trade Union cancelling the demonstration. The armed clashes continued all day. Fierce street battles took place in Beirut, which included the use of many different kinds of weaponry. Armed clashes went on, intermittently, late onto the night.

Today (8 May), news agencies report that the government forces blocked the main road in east Lebanon (Bakaa Valley) that connects Lebanon to Syria. Either the opposition (Shiite militias) or the government (Sunni and Druze militias) closed many main roads in Lebanon. The road from Lebanon to Syria, in the east of Lebanon, continues to be blocked by militias. Fights are taking place intermittently in the east of Lebanon, and there are reports of street clashes in Tripoli (a Sunni city in the north of Lebanon). In Beirut, the situation is calmer and all the main roads are closed.

Nasrallah’s speech

The opposition forces are talking about transforming the general strike into a campaign of civil disobedience, until the government revokes all its decisions concerning Hezbollah taken during the marathon 11-hours cabinet session. There are also reports that the opposition is creating tent camps to maintain the airport roads blockade.

All of Lebanon is waiting to hear Hassan Nasrallah’s (Hezbollah General Secretary) speech, at 4 pm, today. , at which he will announce the approach of the opposition movement.

Again, another workers’ mass movement in Lebanon seems to have succumbed to the complexities of the political and sectarian/confessional situation in Lebanon. Instead of daily class demands acting as a uniting factor for the Lebanese working class, these demands are hijacked and exploited by confessional-based forces. In some cases, workers genuine economic and social demands are adopted by opposing sectarian forces and becoming dividing issues. The pro-opposition media focuses on working class demands, while the government also tries to show that it is in support of the poor masses. Pro-government working class supporters will not support the call for an increase in the minimum wage because they regard it as a demand of the Hezbollah opposition!

In the absence of strong, independent trade union movement that acts in the interests of all workers and resists confessional pressures and of a mass working class party that can unite workers from all backgrounds, Lebanon faces the real threat of more sectarian clashes and divisions, and a further slide towards eventual civil war. The need a working class party with mass support that protects the rights of workers and stops them from being exploited by right wing and confessional based parties, in government or in opposition, is growing ever more urgent, day by day.

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May 2008