On August 15, Beirut awoke to the news that more than 20 alleged members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had been captured by a group calling itself “the military wing of the al-Miqdad family.” The group had sent footage to the al-Mayadin television network, which was quickly picked up by other local and international channels. In the clip, men dressed in camouflage and black ski masks, and gripping Kalashnikovs, surrounded two prisoners seated in a dark room. A man with his back to the camera posed questions to the prisoners, who replied that they worked for the FSA, on orders from Khalid al-Dahir, a Lebanese parliamentarian affiliated with the Future Movement, the Sunni-majority political party led by Saad al-Hariri.
As a recent arrival in Beirut, I quickly learned the Lebanese map, geographic and political, when the bomb hit Ashrafiyya on October 19, killing eight and injuring more than 100. A friend in the US e-mailed to ask if the bomb was close, but since I didn’t hear it explode or smell the smoke, gauging distance and direction by senses, it couldn’t have been. Even before it became known that Wisam al-Hasan, a Lebanese intelligence chief, was the apparent target, a friend here parsed the “political grammar”: neighborhood, bomb location in relation to the headquarters of various political parties with various stances toward Syria.
Tripoli is the epicenter of a high-stakes conflict unfolding in Lebanon. In 2012 alone, armed clashes have erupted six times, in mid-February, thrice in May, again in early June and most recently in late July, between Sunnis and ‘Alawis there. The firefights in Lebanon’s second city, a port town of some 500,000 on a head of land jutting from the northern coast, have added to fears stoked by the proximity of the increasingly lethal civil war in Syria. The three days of battles in May left 11 dead; the July skirmishes took two more lives, and have put the population on edge.
The Syrian presence in Lebanon was visible and audible to all, from the large numbers of Syrian construction workers to the peddlers selling the latest music CDs on the sidewalks to the military checkpoints in the mountains. In shared taxis there was often talk about which Lebanese politician had just returned from Syria, along with parodies of Syrian Arabic dialect and jokes about Lebanese men going to Syria for what they called a bicycle ride — a visit to a prostitute. A parallel social hierarchy separated those who could use the military lane to cross the border into Syria and those who had to wait sometimes long hours in regular lanes.
Thanassis Cambanis, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel (Free Press, 2010).
The year 2011 has brought Lebanon’s political tug of war into the streets again, with thousands of protesters burning tires and blocking roads over the apparent failure of their candidate to secure the office of prime minister. But months of hype to the contrary, this time the raucous demonstrations were not staged by Hizballah and its allies in the March 8 coalition so named after a day of protests in 2005 designed to “thank” Syria before its withdrawal of forces from Lebanon. Instead, the protests were mounted by the rival March 14 alliance, so named for the day of “Syria out!” rallies that followed less than a week later.
Nir Rosen, Aftermath (Nation Books, 2010).
In addition to numberless tales of human misery, the post-September 11 US wars in the greater Middle East have produced a veritable library of war reporter’s books. Most of them are formulaic and eminently forgettable, but a few are valuable chronicles that considerably improve the state of knowledge about the traumatic ruptures that war has wrought in the societies caught in the crossfire. Nir Rosen’s Aftermath falls in the latter category.
After five long years, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to hand down its indictments at long last. By the end of 2010, or perhaps the beginning of 2011, the Tribunal will accuse a number of individuals of direct involvement in the murders of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and several other prominent Lebanese political figures between 2005 and 2008. Officially, the investigators keep mum about the identity of their targets. Unofficially, a steady stream of “insider information” has converged into a kind of received wisdom: High-ranking members of the Shi‘i Islamist party Hizballah will be indicted for association with the engineering of the assassinations. The various actors in Lebanon now treat the “leaks” that formed this received wisdom as a set of established facts.
The term dahiya (suburb) is a staple of Lebanese political discourse, practically shorthand for Hizballah, the Shi‘i Islamist party seated in its infamous headquarters just south of Beirut. Before the civil war, the suburb, or more precisely suburbs, consisted of several small towns surrounded by orchards that began where the capital ended. Today, it is a heavily congested urban sprawl replete with higher-income neighborhoods, such as Jinah, where international chains such as Burger King, BHV, Monoprix, Spinneys and the Marriott have opened since the end of the civil war in 1990. Administratively, the dahiya lies in a half-dozen municipalities, and only one of these, Harat Hurayk, home to Hizballah’s party offices, is usually the “dahiya” that politicians and pundits have in mind.
Zeina Maasri, Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009).
One would imagine that, of all the countries in the Middle East, Lebanon would be among the hardest hit by the global financial crisis. Famous for its weak central state and ferociously capitalist private sector, Lebanon has the closest thing to a free market in the region. It has a dollar-based economy that is highly integrated into global markets and is heavily dependent on the remittances of expatriates in the rich countries where the crisis came first. And the origins of the downturn in high finance would seem to augur especially poorly for Lebanon: The banking and financial sectors are the cornerstone of the country’s economy, and the banking sector relies on foreign and non-resident depositors.
Just as reports from Lebanon were indicating that a cabinet would be finalized within days, the notoriously fickle Druze leader Walid Jumblatt announced, on August 2, that his Progressive Socialist Party would withdraw from the governing coalition. Jumblatt criticized his coalition partners in the March 14 alliance, which had claimed victory in the June 7 parliamentary elections, for a campaign “driven by the rejection of the opposition on sectarian, tribal and political levels rather than being based on a political platform.” This view could apply to the campaigns of both major alliances that ran in the elections.
On June 8, when all votes are cast and counted between the glitzy urban quarters of Beirut and the dusty hamlets of the Bekaa valley, the Lebanese elections will have produced one certain winner: the local advertising industry. Despite a newly imposed cap on campaign spending, candidates have been falling over each other to plaster the billboards along the roads and highways of this miniscule country with their oversized likenesses and airy slogans.
In May 2007, the First National Bank of Lebanon embarked on a unique media campaign. Some 900 billboards in Arabic and English sprouted up offering loans, not to buy a home or to pay tuition, but to “get the makeover of your dreams.” The corresponding magazine advertisement featured a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman beckoning readers to “have the life you’ve always wanted.” Why would the bank think it would find takers? Answers marketing director George Nasr, “Plastic surgery is a cultural issue. We have been raised on always looking our best.”
After 18 months of political paralysis punctuated by episodes of civil strife, Lebanon finally has a “national unity” cabinet—but the achievement has come at a steep price. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and new President Michel Suleiman announced the slate for the 30-member cabinet on July 11, six weeks, and much agonizing and public criticism, after Lebanon’s major political factions agreed on Suleiman’s presidential candidacy and principles of power sharing at a summit in the Qatari capital of Doha. As with much else in Lebanon, however, the words “national unity” are sorely at odds with reality. If anything, the politicking behind the composition of this cabinet has deepened the polarization of the country.
When Israel commenced its bombardment of Lebanon on July 12, 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his general staff declared that the air raids were provoked by Hizballah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that day. As the destruction piled up over the ensuing 33 days, then, Lebanese did not ask themselves, “Why is Israel bombing us?” Rather, the question in many Lebanese minds, those of ordinary citizens and analysts alike, was “Why did Hizballah provoke this?
Beirut is known internationally for a youthful jet set that likes to be identified with the world clubbing circuit, including such stops as B018, an underground nocturnal haunt reminiscent of a coffin built by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury upon the remains of a war crime.
Bernard Rougier, Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam Among Palestinians in Lebanon (translated by Pascale Ghazaleh) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
As with every crisis that befalls the Palestinians in Lebanon, the Lebanese army’s siege of the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp impelled hundreds of people to pitch in with the relief effort. After fighting broke out in late May, and over 30,000 Nahr al-Barid residents fled to the nearby Baddawi camp, volunteers ferried food, blankets and medicine to the displaced. Such “humanitarian assistance,” along with petitions and open letters calling for protecting civilians, was all that pro-Palestinian Lebanese and international activists could think of to do as the army lobbed shells into the camp outside Tripoli. The needs of the displaced are indeed great, but many Palestinians wish their supporters would focus their energies elsewhere.
How long will the state erect military checkpoints in residential areas, treating them as though they were camps sheltering wanted people and gunmen, while all the Palestinian camps, which shelter criminals and wanted people, enjoy freedom of movement, politically, militarily and in terms of security, as though they were security islands independent of Lebanon politically, militarily and in terms of security?