Lebanon protesters dig in for winter

BEIRUT — Lebanese opposition protesters led by Shiite group Hizbollah are digging in for the winter and vowing not to quit their central Beirut encampment until the Western-backed government falls.

A massive winter tent that can hold several dozen people was set up this week on Riad Solh Square, just outside the government’s offices, where protesters have been holding a sit-in for more than two weeks.

The rest of the encampment was also a work site on Saturday, with workers busily pounding stakes and installing fixtures to provide heat and light for some 1,200 smaller tents.

Some of the camps have sprouted up along the edge of Mohammad Al Amine Mosque, right near the tomb of former premier Rafiq Hariri whose assassination in 2005 sparked massive protests against longtime powerbroker Syria.

“We are installing large tents for winter which have heating systems inside,” said Jamal, 34, operating a jackhammer.

Hussein Mokahhal, 18, is in his last year of high school and among the 5,000 or people so who have been camping there every night since the start of the rally on December 1.

“If those who are in power are counting on the movement losing the will, they are mistaken,” said Mokahhal, who goes to classes during the day and sleeps in a tent at night.

“We are determined to stay until [Prime Minister Fuad] Siniora goes. The Lebanese people withstood 33 days of Israeli bombs,” he said, referring to the summer war with Hizbollah that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese and some 160 Israelis.

A short distance away, a group of protesters took advantage of a clear patch of ground to kick around a football. “We are poor and we don’t have the money to go into the posh places in downtown,” one of them said.

Many of the Shiite supporters of Hizbollah have a limited income, and they are camping in an area that is being heavily renovated and aims to emerge as the heart of Beirut’s shopping and tourism district.

The camps are adjacent to a major construction site marked with a sign: “Landmark project, five-star hotel”, where a shopping, residence and hotel complex is planned, financed mainly by Arab and Gulf investors.

During the day, the atmosphere in the tent city is like a massive picnic, where people sit in folding chairs or on curbs, chomping on snacks and smoking scented tobacco from water pipes to pass the time.

Portable toilets line the pathways between tents, and Hizbollah personnel pass through to disinfect them and clean up the trash.

Nearby on Martyrs’ Square, Christian followers of former general Michel Aoun have established their own encampment, part of their opposition alliance with Hizbollah.

“We are going to put up a Christmas tree and spend Christmas Eve here,” said Sayyed Heluweh, a Christian man in his 40s. “We will even hand out Christmas presents.” Separated from the sit-in by rows of barbed wire, a few determined business owners have tried to remain open for customers.

“The security forces must ensure access to public places in the centre of town. We are counting on the holiday season to make up for the losses we incurred during the war with Hizbollah this summer,” said one restaurant owner.

“But look for yourself,” he said, gesturing towards his empty tables. “What tourist wants to take two steps into a sit-in?”

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