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A state of uncertainty

Posted on 12th March 2007. No Comment

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James Farha visits a deserted Beirut and wonders where a fractious Lebanon goes from here…

truce | emptiness | normal chaps | proxy war

Lebanon has been synonymous in the west with conflict for over two decades now. Its bloody civil war, as brutal in its length as in its ferocity, buoyed it through the headlines throughout the eighties, Christians fighting Muslims, families divided and the infamous green line which cleaved between the two forces like a canyon between two cliffs; inhospitable, immobile and deadly.

After the Israeli massacre at Qana – in which over a hundred civilians were killed by shelling whilst taking refuge in a UNIFIL compound – and the whispering silence of a truce in the much disputed Israeli security zone, Lebanon fought once more to put itself on the map as the cultural and social capital of the Middle East. After forty billion dollars of expenditure over eleven years, multiple assassinations of a new generation of politicians opposed to the influence of Lebanon’s Islamic neighbours and an untimely and venomous war with Israel, Lebanon again faces its nemesis and the omnipresent catalyst through its troubled history: political inequality. Two weekends ago, under the watchful eye of my (Lebanese) cousin, Marwan, I went downtown to see how brightly the lights were burning under the acrid fog of political protest.

Driving into the centre of town was like entering a war zone. On every corner, patrolling every pavement and rolling the streets in laden, khaki transports were the red berets of Lebanon’s armed forces. For the first time I felt a twinge of nerves, not for any tangible reason other than the ‘precautionary’ weight of men carrying guns and smoking cigarettes. In the two months I had been absent from Lebanon, the Opposition, camped just off Martyr’s Square, have redoubled their efforts and now number around fifteen hundred. As everyone said, “there are two teams in this situation” and Marwan added, “as we say in Lebanon, they want to break each others bones.” This desire to break each other is not physical, but the opposition awaits its fate and the once thriving downtown area awaits its sentence. Its customers have all moved on to the districts of Gemayzeh and Monot, where it is now nearly impossible to get a table in one of the crammed bars on a Saturday night.

Lawrence, the manager of Cafe Supreme, in Solidaire, just off the central Place De L’Etoile, was working late because his one hundred and fifty seat restaurant was busy. There were seven customers – including Marwan and I. All the restaurants around us were empty, excluding one where there was a table of twelve. Ali, the manager of this second restaurant, once had a staff of twenty four but tonight he only had three working with him. A few days ago he had been alone and he was not rushed off his feet. Lawrence was smoking heavily throughout. He thanked us after we sat down and another table arrived just after us, perhaps we had, as Lawrence suggested, drawn them in. It seemed more likely that there were few other options. Down the road, Akiki Cigars, a memory of happier times for all, was one of the only shops still open at eight thirty on a Saturday night. The manager told us he was open for the sake of being so. By turning on the lights and coming into work he was validating the existence of his shop. But custom was down. Custom is down for everyone in Lebanon and the emptiness of Beirut’s once pounding heart is testament to the state of uncertainty under which most Beiruti’s conduct their daily business.

There were plenty of questions to ask but the answers were causing Lawrence to smoke, Ali to book a ticket for Australia – for the time being one way only – and Marwan’s friends to joke that English students from Damascus enjoy going to Beirut while the Lebanese just want to leave. It seems that spending money is nigh on a national past time in Lebanon and the enormous national debt is both testament and tomb stone to that effect. Ali summed it up thus: “We are all Lebanese, we are all the same. Give me one hundred dollars and I will go to a nightclub. Now, there isn’t a hundred dollars to give. Anyone who does not want peace is not Lebanese, of that I am sure.” The population of resident Lebanese is now approximately four million, placing national debt per capita at ten million dollars. My cousin observed, “you could build three Lebanon’s for that”. For this is the second problem faced by the Government. Since it was forged in the lukewarm fires of Versailles its poor have been underrepresented, its rich over-compensated and its politicians businessmen with a keen eye for an opportunity.

Normal Chaps
A few yards up from the tumble-weed silence of Central Downtown, in Gemayzeh, the red berets were bobbing their way through the crowds, road-blocks were being set up and people were pouring out onto the streets as on any other Saturday night. The Opposition encampment, a stone’s throw from the packed Monot and Gemayzeh districts and the desolate Solidaire was patrolled, or should I say policed, by Hezbollah members. The army had advised Marwan and I to head over to the Christian section of the demonstration as my nationality might cause problems on the Hezbollah side. General Aoun’s Christian movement was also guarded by Hezbollah security and so it was to them that we found ourselves talking. They looked like normal chaps, no headbands, or flags, or paraphernalia. Most wore jeans and comfortable jumpers while one had his hair waxed up and a black, fur-hooded jacket that made him look ready to join the dancing hoards up the road. They wanted representation, and they were prepared to stay as they were until that happened. Once the Government had granted the opposition its appropriate share of seats in parliament they wanted an election. They said they represented over half of the population, and it seemed, even if that was not true, that an election was an inevitable compromise for both sides to settle their positions and ratify or nullify their demands.

The young men I spoke to were keen to emphasise that Hezbollah, although a militia, had never borne arms against the people of Lebanon. The implication was obviously that they did not intend to, but I do not remember them saying it explicitly and the overcoated, frowning senior guard who arrived with a radio in hand, seemed to suggest something else. If it was his duty to look surly then certainly he was aiming for a healthy tip, and deserving of one too. I asked Marwan if he thought it wise to question their peaceful intentions but by then it was time to leave. Certainly the party line that we were being fed, was one of peace, of representation, of truth, but always in Lebanon there is a sub-text. It would be a dangerous precedent for rightful representation in parliament to be seized by a militia in a leading Middle Eastern democracy, no matter how great the popular support for such a move.

Proxy war
The involvement of America, who it is said visited the Prime Minister, Fouad Seniora, shortly after he conceded to the opposition demands and in so doing caused him to change his mind, and that of Iran, who fund the military activity of the Shia Muslim (like Iran) "260" height="174" class="alignright">Hezbollah, has lead to accusations of a proxy war being fought on Lebanese soil. Either way, in a country so weary of war, so ready for peace and yet in such a state of uncertainty turbulence is never far away. The army and police presence, the bomb detectors in car parks and the bag searches at the gates of downtown all connive to insecurity. Lawrence shrugs his shoulders when I ask if he feels any danger. “Look at the police, its the opposite, there is so much security. But all the solutions are political and the problems are economic.” There was no point in asking him what will happen if things don’t improve. He had already listed ten restaurants that had closed entirely or were only working afternoons before I had to stop him. If there is no settlement, there will be no work, and no money and many will follow Ali to an easier life in another part of the world. Since most of the citizens of Lebanon live outside of its borders, there are plenty of options, and with more leaving all the time the opposition and the Government are draining the country of its most valuable asset, its people. Into the black whole of Solidaire they disappear one by one and if an election is too long coming there will be few left to vote.

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  • Rosa said:

    This is a superlative article: reasonable, professional and informed.

  • Rosa said:

    This is a superlative article: reasonable, professional and informed.

  • Rosa said:

    This is a superlative article: reasonable, professional and informed.