To most of us, the pro-Syrian demonstrations that have been taking place in Beirut will seem much less spontaneous and genuine than those lead by the opposition. I have heard from a first-hand source that a Philipino housekeeper was offered 100,000 lebanese pounds to join in the protest. That's not too far-fetched considering the rumours that Syrian workers were brought to Beirut by bus loads.
Some of us watching western television may also have noticed the discrepancies concerning the number of pro-Syrian demontrators. CNN talked about 'tens of thousands', while the French TV5, apparently quoting government figures, reported the number was around 1.5 million.
Well, a friend spent some time going through a little creative exercise to estimate that number.
Based on a satellite image of Riad El Solh Square, and taking into account the two buildings sitting there, the total area came out less then 88,000 m2 (according to Al Nahar the area is 78,000m2). Assuming that there were 4 people per square meter, then the number of protesters could have reached 352,000.On Monday, according to many journalists there were at least 250,000 people in freedom square. Allowing for statistical dicrepancies, this is still a far cry from the 1.5 million figure put forward by government sources.
That is not to say that it was all a stage show. Hizballah certainly had a message to deliver, and many were no doubt there to listen. Who we are -in terms of education, social status, etc.- determines how we think. Had my life been that of a Shia living in the South and having never left Lebanon, who knows what protest I would have chosen to go to? And it's even much more complicated than that. The demonstrations of the past few weeks and days make it seem to the outside world that it's a story of pro-Syrian Lebanese versus anti-Syrian (interference) Lebanese. But we Lebanese know it's much more complicated.
At the moment however, we are forced to voice our opinion in a "you are either with us or against us" way. This is sometimes the way to make a stronger statement. Keep it simple, keep it unified, keep it strong. Of course I am irritated by Bush when he speaks with verve and enthusiasm about "spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East", as if he could ever want that as much as we do. As if he had suffered what most Lebanese have suffered to want freedom and democracy and prosperity with such sincere longing. Of course I am saddened by the fact that such genuine desires are turned to the advantage of politicians for the sake of their geopolitical strategies. But one must know when to jump on the band wagon. The events of the past three weeks have provided an unmatched opportunity for change, and have released a great deal of energy. Not to seize this opportunity and voice sincere, uncensored demands for a better future would be unthinkable; even if this means risking getting branded as pro-western or anti-arab, or even unpatriotic. We owe it to Hariri, of course; but we also owe it to ourselves.