Who Are Those Guys, Anyway?

Here’s the dominant storyline regarding Lebanon: after last month’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese organized unprecedented protests calling for Syria’s withdrawal from their country. From a geopolitical perspective, it looked like the beginning of a victory for President Bush, who has pushed for the spread of democracy in the Middle East and seen advances elsewhere in the region. Soon after, however, Hezbollah organized a larger counter-rally, with more than 500,000 demonstrators protesting Western interference and denouncing calls for a Syrian withdrawal. It was, on the face of it, a significant reversal. Here’s how Reuters described the scene: “Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese flooded central Beirut on Tuesday for a pro-Syrian rally called by the Hizbollah militant group that dwarfed previous protests demanding that Syrian troops quit Lebanon.”

But there are a few problems with that simplified storyline, one of which is the fact that in Lebanon, a country of 3-4 million people, there live between 500,000 and 1 million Syrian guest workers, who send back to Syria millions of dollars each year. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, their presence is a significant factor in Syria’s reluctance to withdraw. Those Syrian guest workers, it follows, are pretty likely to show up at a rally in support of Syria, particularly because the withdrawal of Syrian troops might seriously complicate their lives in Lebanon — a story we’d like to hear more about. Reuters was one of many media outlets to suggest that the counter protesters were Lebanese, just like the original protesters, without discussing guest workers at all.

The situation in Lebanon is enormously complicated — we haven’t even gotten into the religious makeup of the country, which involves three major religions subdivided into 18 sects, each of which has seats in Parliament and a political agenda. Certainly, some of those who attended the rally were working-class Lebanese Shias sympathetic to Hezbollah, not guest workers (or bused-in outsiders, which some have alleged.) But any story about a pro-Syria rally in Lebanon should, at the very least, make mention of the presence of the significant number of Syrians who live and work there. Thus far, that presence has been all but ignored by a large portion of the press.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.