Beirut on the Brink

Many Lebanese hoped that the demonstrations that followed the assassination of Rafiq Hariri would lead to a Ukraine-style revolution. But other than the departure of Syrian troops, those hopes have been dashed. What now for Lebanon?

Trevor Mostyn

Trevor Mostyn is a writer on the middle east. His last book was “Censorship in Islamic Societies” (Saqi, 2002)


The armoured cars of Lebanon’s fragile army stood at the corners of Beirut’s now super-chic downtown area on 28th October, as the city braced itself for explosions and worse. The Lebanese stayed at home to await the details of UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis’s report on the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the controversial architect of this new, Disneyland city centre, and to some the hero of Lebanon’s rebirth. The three pro-Syrian former commanders of Lebanon’s feared security agencies are now in jail in connection with the killing. “You see how empty the area is. No one is going out. Everyone expects more horrors,? said a lady architect who had worked with Hariri’s property company, Solidère. We were drinking café lattes in fashionable Lina’s, the centre of the complex of swanky cafes in rebuilt belle époque buildings where the cigar-smoking, mega-rich Lebanese and Gulf Arabs gossip and do business. Nearby are the shop windows of Gucci and similar boutiques, Bang and Olufsen and Beirut’s version of Paris’s legendary Buddha Bar. At night all are lit up like a fairyland.
But that week no one was taking any chances, for while the country’s sectarian fragmentation is not immediately apparent in peacetime, Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war is on everybody’s minds again. Some believe that with Iraq still in bloody conflict and the West Bank as desperate as ever, the Americans will do anything to preserve Lebanon as a shop window of democracy, stability and glamour, just as France, Britain and Russia defended successive versions of Lebanon through respective client sects during the preceding century. But others are very doubtful. The fear is that America is interested only in countries with a more direct bearing on its supply of oil from the region, and, worse, that a collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime in neighbouring Syria would pull the lynchpin from Lebanon’s fragile confessional structure, leading to a return to civil war. Syrian politics rules Lebanon’s consciousness just as the recently departed Syrian army used to rule Lebanon’s streets. Today, even as Lebanon tries to find a new sense of freedom in the absence of Syrian troops, the possibility of radical change in Damascus seems more than anything to frighten the Lebanese.
Lebanon is a complicated place, a patchwork of religion, ideology and fantasy. The pretence that Christians make up 50 per cent of Lebanon’s population—manifested by, among other things, the stipulation that the president must be a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim—continues to underpin the country’s constitution. 300,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon’s miserable camps are allowed no civil status, lest as Muslims they upset this “balance? and the arrangement that reflects it. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are accused of receiving arms from the Damascus-based Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command. The Shia Hizbullah (Party of God), supported by Iran and lionised for its role in Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, controls the southern suburbs of Beirut, which remain effectively out of bounds to the Lebanese army. In the mountains, the Druze brood over fiefs that even the Syrians did not try to control. Each of these groups—the Christians, the Shias, the Sunnis, the Druze, the Palestinian refugees—has guns, and all are willing to use them. As with the relationship with Syria, Lebanon’s sectarian status quo is no good, but change could make things worse. Today, at its most promising moment of change, Lebanon is a country too terrified to move.
Until recently, for 20 years, since the start of the civil war, Beirut’s downtown area had been blackened ruins filled with refugees. I remember driving through the area in 1976 shortly after a ceasefire that the Lebanese thought had ended a war that was in fact just starting. Chunks of blackened masonry dangled above us and rats scuttled through the black and empty streets. The first sign of life, where the electricity began on the edge of the neighbourhood, were the prostitutes revealing their bodies in the dim lights. Until a decade ago some of these streets still had mines and were no-go areas. Now this film-set group of streets is pedestrianised, floodlit at night and heavily guarded by police who allow no vendors or vagrants.
If Hariri was barely popular when alive—his construction company Solidère is accused of milking the country, destroying far more of classical Beirut than it rebuilt, leaving most property owners bereft, fobbing them off with meagre shares if they were lucky—few criticise him today. For most he is now a symbol of a superficially vibrant, new-born nation and a martyr whose death saw the ousting of the Syrian army. To many Beirutis the flagrant wealth of their capital is a sham. Others say the country will be rescued by the investments of millions of émigrés in the US and South America. There are said to be 7m in Brazil alone. The result of the prevailing fear is that everyone lives frenetically for the present. Heavy metal, rap and hip hop roar from clubs like Nova. The legendary BO18 club, designed by the avant-garde architect Bernard Khoury, is built on the site of the 1976 massacre by Christians of the Palestinians in the Karantina refugee camp. Tables are shaped like tombs. The music is hard techno and tribal house and the girls wear little more than heels and miniskirts. The mirrored roof opens up to reveal a star-spangled sky.
In February, Hariri was blown up with 20 others in a massive bomb explosion beside the elegant sea-front St George Hotel and opposite Beirut’s favourite hotel, the Phoenicia Intercontinental. The building he was passing is still a tangled ruin, reminding one of a few of the civil war buildings such as the shell-riddled Holiday Inn on the old green line nearby, a reminder of what happened and what many fear may happen again. Postwar Lebanon now enjoys skyrocketing inequality, a weak central government which includes former warlords, and the continued existence of many of the forces that led to the country’s self-destruction. Syria’s withdrawal has left a fragile Lebanese army in control of a country discreetly balkanised by sect. Hariri’s master-plan left Lebanon with a national debt of $40bn. The new buildings are mostly window-dressing. Shops offer huge discounts, and trade is very weak. Hariri’s death provoked massive, multi-ethnic street demonstrations and seas of Cedar of Lebanon flags in the downtown open space that was once the Place des Martyrs, with its bustling souks. Many hoped that the demonstrations would lead to a velvet revolution à la Ukraine, bringing reform, and solutions to severe social problems. They did, indeed, see the final pullout of the now hated Syrian army after a 20-year occupation, but otherwise these hopes have now been dashed.

Three months after Hariri’s death, a prominent anti-Syrian journalist called Samir Kassir was assassinated when his car blew up in the Christian neighbourhood of Ashrafieh. In his last editorial, Kassir wrote, “The Ba’athist regime in Syria is behaving the way it behaved in Lebanon, making blunder after blunder … under the Syrian leadership with Bashar al-Assad at their head.” On 12th September the deputy prime minister and defence minister Elias Murr was wounded in Naccache. Later in the month, May Chidiac, a prominent Lebanese journalist who hosted a political talk show on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, lost an arm and a leg when her Range Rover exploded near the Christian port city of Jounieh. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said that the bomb, like other recent explosions, was related to the investigation into Hariri’s death. Earlier in the day, Chidiac had hosted a morning political show in which she questioned her guest on the possible involvement of Syria in Hariri’s assassination and discussed moves to isolate Syria and a possible regime change in Damascus.

There have been many other bombings in Beirut, all of which the Lebanese blame on Syria. The tomb of Hariri, a shrine inside a tent near Beirut’s Virgin Megastore, is surrounded by huge photographs of him alone, with his family and with his aged father in a red fez, big marble Korans and panoramic photographs of the February demonstrations that filled the Place des Martyrs area. A rawi chants suras from the Koran as the crowds come and go in silence.
When I lived in the hills above Beirut in 1968, the city was the Paris of the middle east, although its bistros and discotheques were out of reach of my student budget. When I returned as a publisher in 1976, its heart had been destroyed but the place was quiet. The Lebanese were touched that I had bothered to come—no other European publisher had, as far as I knew—and showered me with hospitality. Three years later I stayed with friends near the Damascus Road green line when our building was shaken by a bomb that killed Arafat’s favourite, Abu Hasan, who was married to Georgina Rizq, Lebanon’s Miss World. A fierce battle raged around us all night. To reach Ashrafiyeh’s still-elegant restaurants the next day, we had to drive over the famous “Death-Ring” flyover, accelerating as we came out of the tunnel to avoid snipers’ bullets. On my return in the 1990s, the war was over, and so were Lebanon’s problems, it seemed. Today, nobody would consider the horrors of another civil war, but suddenly everybody is very nervous again. An amnesty has meant that the most violent civil war killers have been given anonymity and the freedom to walk the streets. The Phalange leader Samir Geagea, freed after 11 years in jail for the assassination in Tripoli of Rashid Karami, the Sunni leader, moved to Paris, but has now returned to Lebanon and has his eye on the presidency. Even those who hate him see no point in prosecuting him again. “If you charge Geagea, you have to charge everyone in government?, I was told again and again.
The day before the Mehlis report was published, I dined in a bohemian apartment in Hamra owned by a young woman who commutes between Kensington and Beirut, designing luxurious interiors. “Don’t walk in the streets at night. It’s dangerous. You could be kidnapped,? said my hostess. “Foreigners have not been kidnapped since the 1980s,? I replied. I had been walking everywhere by day and by night for days, from the miserable Palestinian Chatila refugee camp to the Ghobeiry suburbs controlled by Hizbullah. “No,? she said, “but that may soon change?.
Beirut is a curiously small city, and almost every street reflects a different faction. From the five-star Gefinor Rotana Hotel in Hamra in central Beirut, you only have to walk down to the Corniche to see posters and fluttering green banners of a smiling Shia imam, al-Sadr, who was killed in Libya in 1978, probably by Gaddafi. In Hamra Street you can buy Hizbullah mobile telephone cords from haberdasheries. In the Shia suburbs of Ghobeiry, which the army enters with great caution, there are monster cardboard cutouts of Khomeini.
On the other side of the city, a 20-minute walk across the downtown area brings you past the Keta’ib (Phalangist) headquarters, through the popular bohemian area of Gemayze and up the beautiful Mar St Nicholas steps into Ashrafieh, the heartland of the Phalangists. Pictures of President Bashir Gemayel, who was assassinated and whose Phalange militia were later responsible under Israeli supervision for the Sabra and Chatila massacres in 1982, are everywhere. I remembered too that in 1978 Gemayel’s men had ritually slaughtered fellow-Maronite Catholic Tony Franjieh with extraordinary cruelty, killing first his baby before his and his wife’s eyes, then killing his wife before his eyes, and then killing him. Tony’s crime? His father Suleiman had refused to accept the growing Phalangist co-operation with Israel.
The wretched Palestinian refugee camp of Chatila, just half an hour’s walk from Beirut’s smartest buildings, seemed to have changed little over the last ten years. I toured the camp with a Lebanese woman who works with the Palestinian NGO al-Najda and an Iranian woman journalist attending a conference on music censorship in Beirut. The streets were filthy. “When it rains, this becomes an open sewer,? I was told. Even the children in the kindergarten were unable to smile. Posters of a beautiful young female suicide bomber with a bandana across her forehead plastered the walls of the street. There were also pictures in the camp of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad; such pictures were ubiquitous in Lebanon until the Syrian army withdrew, but are now nowhere else to be seen—the only portrait you see now in most of Beirut is that of Hariri. In Chatila, tangled electricity wires hang overhead, pirated because the government provides the camp with no facilities, treating the inmates as a sort of untouchable caste. Myriad water pipes crawled down the buildings, also pirated, giving each family limited access to water on certain days of the week. This is where hundreds were raped and slaughtered by Maronite Catholic Phalange militiamen with Israeli back-up in 1982.
“Nothing has changed,? said my Lebanese guide. “These Palestinian refugees have no hope and they are terrified that [a massacre] will happen again.? They carry refugee documents. Most jobs are forbidden to them in Lebanon. There is no legal telephone in the camp. They still call Palestine “home”—mostly Galilee in northern Israel from where their families fled during the 1948 war. But they know that they will never be able to return. “Where are you from?” I asked a child. “Acre,? she replied. Others said Haifa or Nazareth. One wall had the words, written in a babyish scrawl, “I want to be a detective in Palestine when I grown up.” Later in the day I was told that a notorious Christian militia called the Guardians of the Cedar had distributed a leaflet calling on Christians to kill Palestinians.
Some hours later I was back in East Beirut’s Christian quarter of Ashrafieh in a huge Florentine palazzo. The elegant Lebanese Orthodox lady who owned it showed me Renaissance paintings and guided me through drawing rooms divided by a series of 15-foot high arches. The floors and staircase were made of white Carrara marble. “You see, the Palestinians don’t belong here?, my host said. “They are different. They are not Lebanese. They should go away?. “But where can they go?? I asked. “They are peasants from towns in Israel. They shouldn’t be here. They are the source of all our troubles; they are entirely responsible for our civil war. I don’t know where they should go, but they should go?.
Her voice reflected the view of many in Lebanon. Despite the appalling sectarian violence of the civil war, she would not criticise Hizbullah or any other faction or sect because they are Lebanese and nobody wants to shake the fragile balance that prevails. But everyone is deeply suspicious. “The war was better was for us,? said one academic, “because you knew who your enemy was while he was shooting at you. Today you have no idea who hates you.?
If there is one thing the Lebanese agree on, it is that breakdown in Syria will devastate their country. The Lebanese do not want to antagonise their neighbour, with whom they share many things, including family ties. “It is dangerous to provoke a wounded tiger,? said my architect friend. “The Syrians never forget a humiliation?. Most surprising of all is the absence of comment on the war in Iraq. As an Englishman, I had expected to be chastised. A liberal Shia filmmaker told me, “Don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone hates the Americans for trying to impose democracy and good governance on this region. The Americans may be selfish and clumsy but what we really detest is our own corrupt and cruel regimes. We want to move forward.?
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