Lebanon at the mercy of regional fires

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut was founded in late 2012. Inspired by bracelets from Brazil, a group of young creatives aim to highlight the positive in Lebanon. Instagram and Facebook feeds show a colourful country filled with smiles and sunshine, sullied only by some ugly development along Beirut’s waterfront.

I imagine Beirut to mix Western and Oriental influences with an edge of uncertainty. From my childhood, I remember news reports of bombings and kidnappings. Those memories have given way to a fascination with Lebanon; to a desire to explore this troubled land. It comes, perhaps, from the same place as my desire to be a foreign correspondent.

Live Love Beirut has its work cut out. Almost a quarter-century has passed since the end of the country’s civil war. But, the sound of gunfire again prompts nothing more than a shrug of shoulders. Fanned by war in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon is at risk of another sectarian implosion.

Two rockets hit a Beirut suburb, populated by Shias, on May 26th. More than 30 people have been killed in sectarian clashes in the northern, mostly Sunni, city of Tripoli in recent weeks. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s dominant political and military force, has finally declared its long-suspected involvement in Syria, in support of President Assad.

Sectarian tensions and the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees helped to birth civil war in 1975. Religious attachment has often meant life or death in Lebanon. The arrival of thousands of mainly Sunni refugees fleeing Syria has upended the delicate sectarian headcount.

Power vacuums do not help. The country has been without a government since March. Hezbollah attempted to assert its authority over internal security and election laws. A Shiite group backed by Iran and Syria, it did not want the country’s police chief, a Sunni, reappointed. The Prime Minister, Najib Makiti, also a Sunni, promptly resigned. Elections are due next month. A postponement seems inevitable.

Lebanon is a patchwork of religions. Stitched together by the whims of post-World War I geopolitics, its existence has been questioned since independence in 1943. The centre is weak, and tribal affiliations are more influential than national identity. The constitution is based on confessional compromise. Presidents are Christian; Prime Ministers are Sunni and Speakers of Parliament are Shia.

There was a time when Beirut was known as the Paris of the East; Lebanon was the Switzerland of the Orient. The hedonistic and open-minded outlook of its residents helped the country become a tourist mecca. Beirut was a cosmopolitan city, Brigitte Bardot a regular visitor. That ended in 1975.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ Beirut Correspondent between 1982 and 1987, wrote an evocative memoir of his time there. In it, he laments the death of the city. But, in his own words, “Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea.” The idea was that of co-existence, tolerance and the mingling of religions and communities.

The possibility of the Levantine sprit was reborn after 1990. Tourists returned. GDP grew from $14.7bn in 2000 to $49.5bn in 2012. Possibility, nevertheless, is different from reality. A fractured society and a lack of authority were always risks to this nascent rebirth.

Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has been less than benign. Iran used Syria as a conduit for aid to Hezbollah. With no state institutions able to check its growth, the militia group became akin to a shadow government in parts of Lebanon. It is now more powerful than the Lebanese army.

On May 25th, Hassan Nasrallah, the militant leader of Hezbollah, put another nail in the coffin of Lebanon’s spirit. “This battle is ours, and I promise you victory,” he declared. Nasrallah committed Hezbollah to fighting fellow Muslims in Syria. In doing so, it risks Lebanon’s future in defence of its key ally; Israel has threatened air strikes.

The recent discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean may further raise tensions with Israel. Lebanon has warned that part of the gas field lies in its territorial waters. The precise maritime border between the two countries has never been agreed.

On his resignation Najib Mikati declared, “The region is heading toward the unknown and the regional fires are hitting us with their heat.” The longer those regional fires burn, the more Lebanon is at risk of being engulfed. No wonder Mr Mikati seeks salvation.

And yet, I imagine Beirut to know, despite all of its difficulties, what it is; I imagine a city that collects its identities into one, uniquely Beiruti character. The city’s residents are a famously resilient lot.

Writing of earlier times, Philip Mansel concluded, “In Beirut…the city was the prey of Beirutis themselves.” Some dismiss the prospect of sustained conflict in Lebanon now. Yet, perhaps my wish to visit Beirut will be fulfilled, just not as a tourist. Despite the efforts of Lebanon’s young people, perhaps my visit will be as a foreign correspondent.

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Filed under International Relations, Middle East

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