Tension in Lebanon

H.C.R. Donati 22 November 2007

Lebanon is a country on tenterhooks. Entering Beirut for the first time, you can feel the unease in the air. Since the Civil war finished in 1990, downtown Beirut has been lavishly restored with elegant mandate-style buildings and a Rolex clock tower in the Place de l’etoile, but the effect is somewhat ruined by the constant checkpoints and military camps that have emerged in the centre of town. These tell a far different story. Once called the Paris of the East, the fashion item of choice in Beirut at the moment is razor wire, it adorns roadsides and military outposts everywhere. Blasted out buildings from the civil war stand next to gleaming new HSBC banks, a Four Seasons Hotel in the middle of being built, but construction seems to have halted as the threat of another conflict lurks.

Leaving aside the problems with Hezbollah in the South, the reason why Lebanon waits with baited breath is the forthcoming Presidential election, which was postponed for the second time just a few weeks ago. The MPs, who decide the presidency, have found themselves torn between pro- and anti-Syrian candidates. Consensus is hard to come by in a country where constitutionally, the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime minister a Sunni, the deputy an Orthodox Christian and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi’a.

In a country where many of the rich elite either made profits during the civil war, or returned from abroad when peace came in order to take political power, distrust of politicians is rife, and rightly so. Lebanese politicians are in large part crooks and cowboys, mob bosses who have swapped their AK 47s for swish designer suits. And they don’t fit well.

Head inland from Beirut, and you come to the Qadisha valley, homeland of the maronite Christian elite. As the men gather outside St. Saba Church in Bcharre, in their dark glasses and Italian suits, the outlines of hand guns visible inside their jackets, it looks more like the gathering of Maffiah bosses that it is than a Church congregation. It’s a far cry from the Bekaa valley, only a few hours away, which is the Hezbolah heartlands. Buoyed by their perceived victory in last year’s war, pictures of the party’s leader Nasrallah are everywhere. I walk past a stall trying to raise money for Hezbolah that is plastered with photos of local martyrs. Why, I ask its owner, is there such support for Nasrallah? “Apart from anything else,” the reply comes, “he is the only politician who is not corrupt.” He makes a fair point. Beyond the internal tensions in Lebanon, in Hezbollah’s great fight for Palestine, it is of course a sad fact of life that it is the actual Palestinian people who get forgotten. Leaving aside Nahr al Bared, the Palestinian in Lebanese refugee camps are in far worse conditions than in any of the camps in Palestine itself. As so often in politics, the end justifies the means, and the actual victims get forgotten.

During Ramadan, Lebanese women who have been working in the Gulf flock back to Beirut to find themselves a husband. They tumble out of trendy bars in their short skirts and heavy make up while on the outskirts of Beirut, the Shi’ia manual labourers fast from sunrise to sunset. To these Muslims, this Christian downtown and its politicians are truly another world.

With so many factions and such infighting, the prospect of another civil war looms closer. Though the last one proved one of the most futile conflicts of modern times, the deep seated divisions that initially fuelled it still remain. Beirut, like Lebanon, is a city in pause, in waiting with all hopes of rebuilding and reconciliation on hold once again. In fact much of the capital feels remarkably western with its pristine streets and fashionable shops, but the tanks remind us that this is not Switzerland. Whether these tanks will have to stay after the election as well, no-one can yet tell.

H.C.R. Donati