Wednesday, March 09, 2005

On the manipulator and the manipulated

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.


Doha said...


I'm so glad you finally wrote. I totally agree with you. Thanks for providing us with a rigorous estimation of the number of demonstrators attending Tuesday's gathering.

Anonymous said...

I made a similar calculation. In fact many people in my country brag about millioniya demonstrations, especially during religious events.

There is a difference between spontaneous demonstrations and those in which people are herded to like sheep. I find it ironic when someone demonstrates against foreign intervention and yet at the same carries posters of another country's leaders.

Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your insight on the attendance of the rallies.

I think that your cynicism about Bush is completely off and unhelpful however. Bush has been criticizing Syrian occupation of Lebanon for years. Its not just American or Isreali interest to do so..its also the right thing. In 2003 Bush admitted a huge mia culpa for the US to the world that dictatorships have been supported in the past for stability and US interests rather than supporting genuine democratic struggles. Since then Bush has been consistant in his leadership for freedom throughout the Mideast and the world. Now that the supporters of democracy in the Mideast have the US support that they always wished for they continue to criticize. I wish us Lebanese....the World - would finally get the point that this US President says what he means and means what he says. He should be our hero. That he is probably the biggest champion of worldwide freedom since Roosevelt and the US is going to drag the Mideastern people, despite themselves, into the 21st century and toward democracy for their own good. The world can't wait anymore for us to get our act together.

Its not like there have been to many Thomas Jeffersons or Emmanuel Kants in Lebanon over the last 60 years that we should feel so condenscending.

Raja said...

Anonymous (2),

You will have to excuse all of us Middle Easterners for questioning the sincerity of this new drive for democracy. It has only been a few years since the US suddenly switched gears and began supporting democratic reform in our region. Compare that with around 50 years of support for dictators.... It takes some time for people to change their opinions - the condition of course is consistency.

ThinkingMan said...

Well said Reem. I agree overall that this is an opportunity to take our own destiny and build the Lebanon we want, finally. But don't confuse style over substance regarding Bush- his style sucks, but he means what he says and we will need them eventually to build forward. We're not going to buy things or get advice only from the French or Germans, OK?

Michel said...

Reem, i think it is dangerous to write off Hizballah as not representing the legitimate interests of Lebanese.

Lest we forget most of "Lebanon" has been Beirut northwards. The shia, until Hizballah's ascendance (and to a lesser extent Amal) were neglected.

they account now for nearly half the population. they reflect the future of where Lebanon is heading. Better to hear what they say, compromise, and head off more radical alternatives from arising.


Jen said...

The U.S. has long allowed and supported brutal dictatorships in the Middle East because we thought a) It served some greater geopolitical purpose (containing Communism, maintaining "stability", etc.) and b) much of the west thought Arabs either "weren't ready" for democracy or didn't really want it.

Bush's statements are significant because he is saying to the rest of the west that both of those reasons are wrong, and frankly, it's about damn time. He is not telling you to want it (of course, you are totally right that such a thing would be condescending and stupid), he is telling all the naysayers in the west, and they are LEGION, that you want it. Your words, your voice, are just beginning to get out to us now, because for decades all we have seen or heard were the staged rallies in support of your dictators and in hatred of America. And fools in the west who have no experience of a fear society believed this was how you really felt and that we should honor it. These are the people Bush is addressing.

Thank God we finally get to hear from people like you!