After two months of Arabs spontaneously taking to the streets to protest against their regimes, there's another kind of uprising going on here in Lebanon. The setting isn’t even an Arab street, but rather Beirut's Rafiq Hariri International Airport; and the occasion isn’t a protest, but rather a “flash mob” executing a traditional Lebanese song and dance routine, “Dabke.”
Most of the dancers are professionals, hired by M&C Saatchi MENA, to promote their client, Beirut Duty Free, while others swept up by the emotion just joined in. The aim of the spot, some Saatchi employees explain, was to leave passengers with a memory of Lebanon they could take with them on their journey. Hence, Saatchi says there’s nothing political about an ad that’s become something of an international YouTube sensation.
That's true, but given the nature of the airport there are bound to be political resonances. Or, compare the “Dabke” video to footage of this recent Hezbollah show of force at the same airport, where numerous Hezbollah security vehicles are rushing the entrance to meet one of their allies, Jamil al-Sayyid. This was one of the four Lebanese generals once detained for his suspected involvement in the February 2005 assassination of the man the airport is named after.
The Beirut airport is effectively controlled by Hezbollah: this is where Iran delivers arms to its local ally, and where the Shia organization keeps close tabs on its domestic rivals leaving and reentering the country. It was partly the Lebanese government’s attempt to eliminate or at least control Hezbollah’s security presence at the airport that led to the terrorist organization’s siege of Beirut in May 2008, when it made war on its Lebanese neighbors in the capital and the Chouf mountains. Shortly after the fighting, an agreement between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah was brokered in Doha by the emir of Qatar, which gave Hezbollah the ability to block any of the cabinet’s decisions. It was that “blocking” third of the cabinet that allowed Hezbollah to bring down the pro-democracy government of Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad in January. And so, what Hezbollah could not win through political means it won through violence, a coup d’état more than two years in the making.
Seen in this light, Saatchi’s “Dabke” flash mob might be seen as an effort to reclaim, or liberate, a public space named after the man whose murder gave rise to the first Arab uprising, the Independence Intifada, or Cedar Revolution. As Lebanon waits for indictments in the Hariri murder to be handed down in the coming weeks—Hezbollah members, as well as Syrian security officials, are expected to be named—the country is aware that more violence may be in the works. The stakes are high because the contrast between the two visions for the future of the country could not be any more stark: on the one hand, there’s a resistance-dominated Lebanon ever-poised for armed conflict with its neighbors as well as those Lebanese it identifies as traitors—that is to say, a Lebanon that in the words of Hassan Nasrallah loves death—on the other, there’s this Lebanon, which celebrates life.