Attitude Check in Beirut

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut, where peaceful protests against the western-backed government are on everyone's mind.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, lessons in dying well. Part two of the hospice chronicles.

First to Beirut, Lebanon, where thousands of protestors are camping out in an ongoing demonstration.

These are followers of the radical Islamic group Hezbollah. They're protesting against Lebanon's Western-backed government.

Hezbollah leaders want a bigger voice in how the government is run. And the protestors insist they will not go home until the government resigns.

Despite angry speeches, though, the demonstrations remain peaceful. And as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, many there seem to be enjoying themselves.

DEBORAH AMOS: Security guards keep order. Garbage men sweep the street. The portable toilets are scrubbed out each day. After almost three weeks on Beirut's central square, Hezbollah has demonstrated determination and discipline. As nights get colder, teams are providing heat and light for more than 1,200 small tents.

(Soundbite of crowd)

AMOS: The mood here is friendly and confident, with a feel of a county fair. Families stroll with their children. Many are bused in from country villages. Some have never been to the capital before. They couldn't afford the high priced restaurants or the brand name shops here, now closed because of their overwhelming presence.

This tent city has different neighborhoods. Lebanese Christians allied with Hezbollah live in separate areas. Alexei Malashelv(ph) is braiding plastic greenery for Christmas decorations.

Nearby young men are assembling a 20 foot Christmas tree. Beirut pharmacist Malashelv is convinced if he stays here long enough, the government will fall.

Mr. ALEXEI MALASHELV (Pharmacist): We are preparing for Christmas and for the new ear and for the Christmas of two hundred and eight and nine and ten. Let them leave. We don't want them anymore. No deal, no deal, no deal.

AMOS: There is enough coffee for the duration, sold in make shift booths along with cotton candy and boiled corn.

Young women in tight jeans and Islamic head scarves pass the time by smoking scented tobacco in water pipes while young men show off their skills at a folk dance called the Debca(ph). It is a particularly Lebanese scene, and so is this demonstration, the only place in the Arab world where so many could gather for so long. The political divide that makes some pro and some anti-government is complex.

For example, meet business men Muhammad Yunis Massouri(ph). He's a Sunni Muslim, a member of a Christian political party aligned with Shiite Hezbollah.

Mr. MUHAMMAD YUNIS MASSOURI (Hezbollah Supporter): President Bush should understand that what we are showing is real democracy.

AMOS: If this is the democracy, it is a Lebanese version, and the stakes are high. At issue are competing visions for the country, polices and alliances that will shape Lebanon's future.

Is Lebanon with the democratic West or on the side of the anti-Israeli coalition led by Iran and Syria?

Fratma Isa(ph) is sure what sign she's on. Her husband, a Hezbollah fighter, died in this summer's war with Israel.

Ms. FRATMA ISA (Teacher): I'm a teacher. I still teach. I have my own responsibilities. But at the same time, I share. I want to be a part of this history.

AMOS: So how long are you prepared to stay out here?

Ms. ISA: As much as it take.

AMOS: It is already too long for businesses on these downtown blocks, shut down for three weeks.

Nina Haloui(ph) says she couldn't afford to close her new café, opened just a few days before the protest began. But for her, the hardest part is living on this block.

Ms. NINA HALOUI (Cafe Owner): I am really stressed because of this, between 6:00 and 10:00, 11:00 there is always ceremonies and fighting and everything. So very stressful.

AMOS: Her cafe is full of customers at lunch. The other Lebanon is learning to live with the demonstrators. In the past few days, Hezbollah has reached out to the business community, opening traffic lanes to the bars and the shops, one uneasy truce along the political divide. But not enough for Nina Haloui.

Ms. HALOUI: No, why should I be happy? No, I don't like it because it's the center of Beirut. I don't like - it's not a good image for Beirut. It's against - this is against us.

(Soundbite of Lebanese national anthem)

AMOS: A few blocks away the demonstrators are warming up for another long night on the square, the national anthem blast from giant speakers. Green and red balloons, the color of Lebanon's flag, drift up in the bright sun in a chill winter day.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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