BEIRUT, Dec 5, 2006 (AFP) - No one knows for sure how many there are, but everyone knows they are everywhere.
The Shiite militant group Hezbollah's "discipline men" are manning every aspect of Lebanon's massive opposition rally and their mysterious presence has so far prevented even a shoving match from disturbing the peace.
They walk among demonstrators, perch on street curbs and guard black metal barricades with their keen eyes fixed on the crowds.
"There is no risk of any violence here, " says Hussein Fadlallah, Hezbollah's supervisor of the rapidly growing tent city which has taken root outside the government offices and by Monday contained at least 200 shelters.
"Each time they create a new camp, they create a new security branch for that camp, " Fadlallah says, adding that fighting or any form of aggression is strictly "forbidden."
On the outskirts of the demonstration, Jihad, 25, is on light security duty. He sits down on a short concrete column protruding from the sidewalk, and wears a laminated badge emblazoned with a Lebanese flag.
"If people are fighting we are told to stand between them, " he says. "We have instructions not to be violent with anyone."
When a reporter asks if the security detail is armed, Jihad jumps to his feet and lifts his bulky sweatshirt to reveal his twig-like waist.
"See? No guns!" he laughs.
But further inside the rally, the security men are more organized. They wear bulky black jackets, they smile less, and they certainly don't give the impression they'll show their bellies on cue.
Some wear plain gray baseball caps, others sport black ones.
Ask them who is in charge and they direct you to a specific man further down the line, then another, until the correct spokesman eventually emerges.
"We are going to stay until the government changes, " explains Majud Hamzi, 30, who is with a crowd of men on the front lines of the protest, nearest to the government offices, a location they chose "so the government can hear us."
Nearby, a line of Hezbollah security men in white caps have kept up a solid formation of their symbolic line between protesters and the leadership since the protest kicked off on Friday.
Across the rows of barbed wire just a few meters (yards) away, crews of Lebanese army soldiers sit on top of armored vehicles watching calmly, some shielding their eyes from the late afternoon sun.
"It doesn't matter how much anger or frustration we have. When (Hezbollah chief) Hassan Nasrallah talks to us, his voice calms us down, " Hamzi says.
On the eve of the protest, Nasrallah called for a mass turnout by "all Lebanese... in a peaceful and civilized demonstration" which he said aimed to "rid us of an incapable government that has failed in its mission."
Even the killing of a 20-year-old Shiite opposition protester late Sunday after a street fight with government supporters is greeted with measured calm by two men standing guard outside condolence services for the family in southern Beirut.
Jamal, 35, and Ali, 42, patrol the grounds like undercover police men, their hands in their pockets, looking over the mourners with casual but watchful eyes. However, they describe themselves only as "social activists."
"Members of Hezbollah and (Shiite ally) Amal are respecting instructions, " says Jamal. "They are going to act in a civil and peaceful manner."
"We are trying to do our best, " adds Ali. "But if there are several attacks, several provocations, then it will boil over."
AFP photos by Ramzi Haidar
Hezbollah 'discipline men' patrol
Beirut protest
by Kerry Sheridan
AFP sent me to Beirut to help cover the start of a large-scale opposition protest launched by Hezbollah and its Christian allies in November-December 2006.
In 2008, the protest finally disbanded after the opposition’s demands for veto power in the government were met.
Christians, Shiites ditch differences in Lebanon demo
by Kerry Sheridan
BEIRUT, Dec 2, 2006 (AFP) - Christian protesters are fewer in number than their Shiite Hezbollah counterparts in Lebanon's anti-government rally, but both sides are playing down their differences amid some unusual displays of religious unity.
As a throng of protesters in Beirut's Riad Solh Square chants and waves Lebanese flags to the beat of a Hezbollah war hymn, a Muslim woman veiled head-to-toe in black strides by toting a toddler whose head is wrapped in a vivid orange bandana.
Nearby, another woman has covered her hair in a black scarf and tied a thin orange scarf around her neck, the color of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun's movement.
"Everyone was proud of me for wearing the orange scarf, and I was happy to see people from Aoun's movement here, " says Mariam, 30, a Shiite from southern Lebanon. "This protest has united us."
Such symbol-swapping is less evident in the predominantly Christian part of the rally, located further away from the government offices on a patch of terrain where tangerine T-shirts, baseball caps and bold plastic earrings are the fashion of the day.
But Ralph, a 22-year-old Christian student and Aoun supporter, says he did sleep in a tent on Friday night with "five Christian guys and six or seven Hezbollah guys, and it was fine."
"To be honest we have our differences, mainly religious differences. But in this case we don't talk about religion at all. We only talk about the government change we want to make, " he says.
"If we can survive one day and one night together, I think we can manage."
However, the differences between the Aoun and Hezbollah camps can run deep.
Aoun was one-time staunchly anti-Syrian, while Hezbollah is fiercely pro-Damascus and wants to see the fall of the anti-Syrian majority parliament elected in 2005.
The uncomfortable new alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah may be denied by protesters, but was already delineated geographically as the rally entered its second night late Saturday.
The Christians were mainly gathered on Beirut's Martyrs Square, where Aoun protest organizer George Ishak estimated around 2,000 people would spend their second night protesting in a ramshackle camp comprised of a few dozen tents.
Even though most Shiite protesters were further away on Riad Solh Square with a clear view of the government offices, there were Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and others in the Christian camp, too, Ishak said.
"They are talking together, watching television, sleeping together. People are coming and going, " he says.
The sand-colored gravel is littered with crushed water bottles and plastic coffee cups, and the sweet smell of smoke from narguileh pipes occasionally mingles with the odor of sewage.
"We must not stay just one, two, three days. We must stay until the end, " says Christian Arlette, 19, playing cards inside a tent to pass the time.
Abdullah Harfoush stands in a circle with several pals. They sling large Lebanese flags over their shoulders as a man in a yellow Hezbollah baseball cap pounds stakes into the ground to secure another flimsy tent.
"We arrived today because a lot of press was saying that this is Hezbollah's movement, " says Harfoush, an 18-year-old Christian. "This is a national opposition, not a religious opposition."
But while Hezbollah's stated aim is to bring about the fall of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government, 19-year-old Christian student Joseph Khadij admits his goals aren't exactly the same.
"Our voices are not heard, especially the voices of Christians, " he says. "We don't want the government to fall. The main idea is to have participation."
The Hezbollah followers gathered near the government offices were thousands larger in number. They were mostly men, dressed in regular street clothes, and many carry stern, even grim expressions.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called on followers to bring only Lebanese flags to the rally, and the overwhelming majority obeyed "so that you can't tell who is Muslim or Christian, " says Majud Hamzi, 30, a flight instructor and Hezbollah supporter.
"The Christians are our partners in this country, " he says. "We are brothers in this war. We have to start living together."