The Christmas season was drab and lifeless this year in Beirut. Bombings continue to plague the city, fifteen in the last fifteen months, with the December 12th assassination of the anti-Syrian journalist and politician Gebran Tueni the most recent. The violence has spooked the population into caution and political pessimism. Downtown Beirut, beautifully reconstructed and lit like a romantic movie set, was largely abandoned. The few people milling about looked as if they were extras or well-dressed stagehands. Nearby Martyrs’ Square—former site of massive political action—was vacant. And the commercial district of Hamra saw disappointingly slow sales. Retailers jawed to the local press about the lack of business, and post-season specials, usually reserved for February, popped up in December. It was, in the words of one local friend, as if Christmas had been cancelled.
Ten months earlier the scene was completely different. Days after the February 14th assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, hundreds of youth pitched a rushed camp in Martyrs’ Square to force the Syrian’s out of their country. It was an inspiring demonstration of spontaneous political mobilization, sending the country into optimistic upheaval. On March 8, Hizbullah, recasting itself as a fully Lebanese political party, organized a massive demonstration to “thank” Syria, its patron (with Iran), for the sacrifices it made to Lebanon. On March 14th, the opposition responded with an even larger show of force. Well over a million people flooded downtown, waving Lebanese flags in uncommon unity. Since that day, the opposition movement has redubbed itself “the March 14th Forces.”
The last time I was here was days after the second demonstration. I found my way immediately into the tent city and stayed for about two weeks with an independent group. Although the initial members of my camp were Druze youth, they refused any sectarian cast and allowed others to join them freely. The mood was of one of liberating nationalism, free from Syrian control but more importantly from confessional division. As time progressed, however, the camp’s mission was increasingly appropriated by the traditional political parties and old divides began bubbling to the surface. By the end of April, days after the last Syrian troops left the country, the opposition movement formally dismantled the camp with a ceremony. The youth were handed medals, thanked for their service, and sent home. They had been demobilized.
Of the handful of young people whom I had most closely befriended, much has happened over the last nine months, little of it good. Once united over a common Lebanese future, they have now been scattered. Two have moved away. Waheed joined family in Liberia, and Wassim, facing military service and little economic opportunity in Lebanon, left for a job in Venezuela. Another is now aimlessly wandering the streets, while a fourth has entered a drug rehabilitation program for heroin addiction. Only Hisham, a former American University student, is still around.
His future in the country is also uncertain. Since the spring, Hisham has started three small businesses with his father’s money (an art gallery, a graphic design studio, and a computer business). All have flopped, and his father, who lives in Dubai and with whom Hisham has a stormy relationship, is again putting pressure on his son to move to the Gulf.
With time on his hands, Hisham met me on my first day back in Beirut, and he made the current tensions of in the air immediately clear. “This country is headed straight to civil war!” he roared as I stepped into his rental car. The conflicts, he said, are now not just between pro- and anti-Syrian forces but are more fundamentally between the various sectarian groups. After the exhilaration of the spring, old-style Lebanese politics have reemerged.
As we drove up the mountain to pick up his cousin, Hisham proceeded to blame the violence and division on Syria, on Israel, and on Sa’ad Hariri, the slain Hariri’s son and current leader of the Future Movement party. He laid the lion’s share of responsibility, however, on the Lebanese media. Each channel represents a different party’s point of view and the various channels, he said, were fomenting confessional division. He motioned to the back seat. “I keep a copy of Ta’if with me now,” he said, referring to the 1989 agreement that brokered the end of the civil war in Lebanon.
Ta’if legalized Syrian troops in Lebanon for two years and recognized that “distinctive relations” connect Syria and Lebanon. It also divided the parliament equally between Muslims and Christians, decreased the power of the presidency (while at the same time as in the French system, elevating the role of the prime minister), and formally enshrined what had been a gentlemen’s agreement before, namely that the presidency goes to a Maronite, the prime ministership to a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the house to a Shi’a.
Hisham too now seemed more Druze than Lebanese, as he began describing various Druze codes of honor to me. We drove by Walid Jumblatt’s compound before picking up his younger cousin and then went to hang out at the ABC mall in the largely Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh. As the security guards checked our car before we could enter the garage, Hisham joked with them. “Don’t worry,” he said. “The bomb is set for midnight.” “Then park on the roof,” one guard deadpanned. “There’s less damage that way.” Gallows humor, Lebanese style.
How did Lebanon get here after all the hope of the spring? Since the Hariri assassination, momentous changes have transpired, but instead of leading to a confident, free, and united Lebanon, they have led to fragmentation, bickering, and political gridlock.
Still the changes are significant. After 29 years and under extraordinary international pressure, Syrian forces finally departed the country. In May, former army general Michel Aoun, forced into exile by Syria fifteen years ago, returned to Lebanon from France and resumed stewardship of his Free Patriotic Movement. (He’s now jockeying for the next presidency of the country.) In July, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea was released from jail after eleven years in prison, and he too retook his leadership post. Geagea and Aoun, both Maronite Christians, fought against in each other the final battle of the civil war. Now they were back leading constituencies as politicians.
Elections were also held in May and June where strange alliance developed. (Aoun, for example, had allied himself with politicians loyal to pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.) A 2000 election law that gerrymandered the geography of the country to favor pro-Syrian candidates was left in place. But in the end, the anti-Syrian parties, led by Hariri’s bloc, won a slight majority of seats. Occasional Shiite rivals Hizbullah and Amal joined forces and enlarged their gains. Hizbullah now has fourteen seats in the parliament, and the Shi’ite parties together have five deputies in the twenty-four-member cabinet. A “quadruple alliance” has also since emerged, made up of Hizbullah, Amal, the Future Movement (Hariri’s Sunni Muslim party), and Jumblatt’s Progressive Social Party (which caters to the Druzes). The quartet has since been faltering, and Christian politicians complain that they are being marginalized.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council authorized German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis to lead an international investigation into the Hariri assassination. After Mehlis accused the Syrians of not fully cooperating, the UN passed a further resolution in October that threatened unspecified consequences with more Syrian intransigence. President Bashar al-Assad has voiced his assent and cooperation to the investigation but has also complained that “whatever we do and to whatever extent we cooperate, a month from now they will say that Syria did not cooperate.” Mehlis, whose life has since been threatened, produced two draft reports implicating Syria without conclusive evidence and promptly resigned his post. The investigation is ongoing.
Then, on December 30th, a bombshell dropped from Paris. Former Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam, in an interview with the Arab satellite channel al-Arabiyya, confirmed Mehlis’s finding that Bashar al-Assad had directly threatened Hariri months before the Valentine’s Day assassination, and he implied the regime’s complicity in the murder. “Although we must await the results of the ongoing UN investigations, there is no way the Syrian security apparatus would take such a decision (to kill Hariri) on its own, and without Assad’s knowledge. It’s impossible.” Khaddam said. A day later, the Syrian Parliament voted unanimously to charge Khaddam with treason and accused the former architect of Syria’s Lebanon policy with corruption. The UN probe immediately responded by again requesting interviews with Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa, and Lebanon is abuzz with speculation over the fallout from the Khaddam revelations.
It’s not the televised political drama but the continued violence that keeps the politics high pitched. Since the Hariri assassination, the highly respected journalist Samir Kassir and Communist party leader George Hawi, both critical of Syrian involvement in Lebanon, were murdered. Television broadcaster May Chidiac was severely wounded when a bomb exploded in her car, and Gebran Tueni was killed with a 130-pound charge that detonated within twelve hours of his return to the country from France. With every bombing, the mood among the population darkens.
Besides being managing editor of an-Nahar, Gebran Tueni was also a member of parliament, and so his assassination demanded a government response. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora pushed through, by majority vote, a resolution that asked for expanding the Hariri investigation to include all attacks since October 1, 2004 and to create an international tribunal to try the perpetrators. The Shiite parties objected. They claimed that cabinet decisions must be affirmed by consensus and not by majority, and they promptly walked out. They have yet to return, and now the government goes nowhere.
Behind all of this lies UN Security Council Resolution 1559, the spark that ignited the flame. UNSCR 1559 stipulates that all militias in Lebanon, a veiled reference mostly to Hizbullah, be disarmed. Naturally, Hizbullah objects to the resolution and is flexing its political muscle to manage the crisis away. In order to return to the cabinet, Hizbullah is now asking the government to issue a letter to the international community stating that 1559 has been fully implemented since there are no longer any militias on Lebanese soil, only resistance movements. It also wants the previous cabinet resolution expanding and internationalizing the Hariri investigation rescinded.
Hizbullah may be protecting its arms and its links to Syria with its walkout, but it is also critically aware of the stakes of the current crisis. Sheikh Nasrallah told as-Safir newspaper in July that “this is the most important and most dangerous parliament since 1992, because it is obliged to decide the basic political and strategic choices for Lebanon in the decades to come.”
What all of this has produced is not only political stalemate but also a climate full of depression and strain. I felt it when I sat for an afternoon in Starbucks, drinking lattes with Rana, a 29-year-old graduate student writing a penetrating thesis on Edward Said. She complained about how the politicians’ “own individual interests rest on their sectarian identities. How’s that going to change?!” she asked me rhetorically. Rana is affiliated with the Democratic Left movement, which uses Starbucks as an unofficial meeting ground (the irony is lost on no one), but the party has since been sidelined with the resurgence in sectarianism. “The Democratic Left was a meeting ground between the different factions, bringing them all together,” she said cheerlessly. She labeled the current situation a “cold civil war,” adding that “there’s an awareness that we don’t want to go back to the past, but there’s no translation of that on the ground.”
While a full-fledged civil war is far off, what’s more remarkable to me is how many people refuse to rule it out categorically. Traumatic memories of the past war (what Lebanese commonly refer to simply as al-ahdas or “the events”) are still very much alive, but so are many of the major players. Instead of leading militias, they now rule the political parties, and they have walked them right into an impasse. What is likely is that politics here will continue to be stalemated until Syria’s fate becomes clearer. That could take months or it could take years. Meanwhile Syria still exerts its influence through certain quarters and the United States uses the situation in Lebanon to leverage its pressure on Syria for greater American designs on the region. Lebanon’s future is once again mortgaged to outsiders.
This is a far cry from the future envisioned by the youth who camped out in downtown to forge a new destiny for their nation. They demanded that Lebanese think of themselves first as Lebanese and not as primarily Muslims or Christians, Sunnis or Shi’as. They wanted to move forward and not stall in the present. In demanding that Syria terminate its military presence in their country, they also wanted an end to the corruption and graft that plagues the nation. But what they wanted most of all was economic opportunity for themselves. Lebanon is historically the gateway for the Arab region to the West, and it is full of potential and talent. But life is expensive here and unemployment (officially) stands at around 13%. (Unofficial numbers go as high as 40%.) The average monthly wage is about $500 for a family of four while a new SIM card for a mobile phone costs seventy dollars. Lebanon’s youth want more for themselves.
On Christmas Day, I went back to Martyrs’ square where a new tent had just been hoisted but this time by the March 14th Forces and not by the youth. Two days earlier Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamade, who had narrowly escaped the first of assassination attempt in October 2004, had come to address a small assembly. The tent is open to the public, but on Christmas, the Virgin Megastore had more foot traffic. Down the street is the headquarters of Gebran Tueni’s newspaper, an-Nahar. A massive, wall-sized poster of Tueni drapes the front of the large, white building. As I milled about the tent’s environs, a soldier invited me in.
Inside were various banners demanding Lebanese independence. (“Until when?” read one.) A black cage stood in the corner, wrapped with pleas for the release of Lebanese who have gone missing and are believed to be in Syrian jails. (There are an estimated 600 Lebanese still in Syrian custody). Beside the staged prison cell was a Christmas tree twinkling with yuletide balls, each with a face of an assassinated figure on it. Hariri’s was closest to the top. The soldier pointed this out to me, and we began talking.
His name is Salam. He’s twenty-five years old, clean-cut, and a meaningful counterpoint to the youth I met nine months ago on exactly the same grounds. Having completed his conscripted military service, Salam studied and became a hairdresser in his village in the mountains. For two years he practiced his craft, but after suffering a minor accident and not having any health insurance, he gave up the scissors for the rifle.
The decision was easy, he said, and it points to the disaffection of many of Lebanon’s young people. A soldier, he told me, makes about $400 a month with insurance. As a hairdresser, he made about $350 a month and was uninsured. He used to work six and sometimes seven days a week cutting hair, he says. Now, it’s two days on and two days off. “Not bad,” he nodded.
We exited the tent and talked about Lebanon’s sectarian tensions, which occasionally flare in the military. Salam said he’s lucky. His best friend in the service is Sunni and life is copasetic with his fellow soldiers. He started telling me how he loves basketball and is the best player in the Chouf. The problem is that he can’t find a team. Joining Beirut’s leading team is out. It’s Christian and he’s not. The players on the second best team are all Sunni Muslims. Salam is Druze. “Jumblatt,” he said with a shrug, “doesn’t like basketball.”
Eventually, I posed the question. “Will there be war?” He looked away, beyond the Virgin Megastore to an-Nahar’s offices. On the huge poster hanging there, Tueni is smiling hopefully, arm extended in a wave and a Lebanese flag slung around his neck. “Maybe,” Salam said, stepping on his cigarette with his boot. Maybe.
Moustafa Bayoumi teaches at BrooklynCollege and is writing a book about Arab Americans.