Riots burn Lebanon’s reputation as most tolerant Arab nation

BEIRUT — Every week, Lebanese tune into the TV programme “A Nation’s Smiles” for a dose of satire on their leaders. But when an actor in clerical robes and fake beard spoofed the leader of Hizbollah this week, mocking the group’s fight against Israel, it took only minutes for thousands of Shiite viewers to turn into rioters.

For the next five hours, Shiite Muslims thronged the streets of south Beirut and other towns in Lebanon, waving yellow Hizbollah flags, blocking traffic — including cars trying to get to Beirut airport — and burning tyres.

They also burned Lebanon’s reputation as the most politically tolerant nation in the Arab world.

Rebuking the rioters, Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad pointed out that the TV programme was known for poking fun at politicians of all colours. “If everyone were to respond this way, then we would all be in the street.” Mouawad, who herself was spoofed in previous episodes of the programme, told reporters “such criticism should be accepted by everyone.” The target of Thursday night’s spoof, Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, appeared to agree. Early Friday morning, he appealed on the party’s TV channel for his supporters “to end the gatherings and go home.” The producer of the TV satire, Charbel Khalil, apologised.

He said he deeply respected Nasrallah and the show was “was not meant to offend him.” For some, this was not enough. Abdul-Hadi Mahfouz, the chairman of the National Media Council, Lebanon’s press watchdog, convened an emergency meeting Friday and demanded an apology from the private channel that broadcast the show, Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.. If LBC did not apologise, he added, it could face legal action.

Satellite service providers in south Beirut, where Hizbollah enjoys strong support, announced Friday they would boycott LBC until the channel apologised.

The chief of LBC, Pierre Daher, issued a statement arguing that the programme dealt with Nasrallah as a political leader “not as a religious personality or a leader of the resistance” — the accepted term for Hizbollah figthers.

Daher added that freedom of opinion was enshrined in Lebanon’s constitution.

The interior ministry issued a summons for the producer to be questioned by a magistrate.

But Information Minister Ghazi Aridi appealed for “calm, wisdom and reason,” adding the issue would be dealt with according to the law.

Aridi told reporters the interior ministry should not have issued the summons because the matter was under his ministry’s jurisdiction.

The fuss reflected the political tension in Lebanon between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps. Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has been accused by the anti-Syrian majority in parliament of serving Syria’s interests. The pro-Syrians accuse the majority of working for the United States.

A possible element in the unrest is that LBC is a Christian-owned channel that is close to the Lebanese forces, a former Christian militia during the 1975-90 civil war which is now a member of the anti-Syrian bloc in parliament.

The programme “Bassmet Watan” — which means “A Nation’s Smiles” or, in a pun in Lebanese slang, “A Nation That Died” — showed an actor in the role of Nasrallah talking about his alliance with Christian politician Michel Aoun.

The actor wore Nasrallah’s trademark black turban and sported a similar beard and spectacles.

In the scene that provoked the riot, a woman — played by a man in drag — asks Nasrallah whether Hizbollah would lay down its arms after Israel’s withdraws from Shebaa Farms — a disputed piece of land on south Lebanon’s border where Hizbollah fighters frequently fight Israeli troops.

Nasrallah replies that Hizbollah’s weapons will still be needed for “liberating the house of Abu Hassan in Detroit from his Jewish neighbour.” Abu Hassan is a common Shiite name, and many Shiites of Lebanese origin live in Detroit. So the remark was a dig at the lengths to which Hizbollah goes to justify keeping its weapons — despite a UN  Security Council resolution calling for Hizbollah to be disarmed.

Police hardly intervened during the unrest. But 10 rioters were detained, and soldiers deployed along the border between Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods of south Beirut to prevent sectarian friction.

However, some rioters did enter Ain Rummaneh, a Christian area, where a Christian was attacked with a stick.

A Muslim was hit by a speeding car. Both men were both admitted to hospital, said security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the press. 

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