Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Another month, another year, another crisis: eleven years in Beirut

The White Review

Rumours of war and impending conflict have an incredibly destabilising effect, and can wreak a particular type of havoc. This is not as physically manifest as the brutality of war, but less tangible, less spectacular. There are no destroyed buildings, injured or the dead bodies; rather the spectre of war casts its shadow over economic statistics and mental health reports.

People often think journalists are endowed with a special prescience. ‘When do you think the war will happen?’ I am regularly asked in Beirut. Last September the question hung upon whether the US would bomb Syria, whilst lately the concern has been to do with the prospect of civil war as the Syrian conflict impacts Lebanon. In the years following the 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel, I would be asked: ‘Do you think Israel will invade this summer?’ And a long-term staple asked frequently throughout the years: ‘What do you think of the situation?’ When I moved to Beirut in 2002, such instability was less apparent. The Israelis had recently left with their tails between their legs after eighteen years of occupation in Southern Lebanon. Damascus was in control and keeping the squabbling Lebanese factions from each other’s throats. Beirut was in the midst of a construction frenzy; tearing down bullet-riddled and shelled out buildings to rebuild after the sixteen-year civil war. Those Lebanese who had moved abroad during the war years were increasingly returning, and there was a degree of stability. The Syrian occupation itself was not particularly discernible, especially in Beirut. It was within national politics that Syrian control was manifest and in certain corrupt practices – for example, the skimming of profits generated by state institutions like Casino du Liban. The stifling of free speech was another aspect of this control, as no criticism of Damascus was allowed in the media. In 2002, when I was cutting my teeth as a journalist at Lebanon’s only English language newspaper, The Daily Star, an editor warned me what was taboo: ‘No Syria, no human rights, no homosexuality’.

If you kept your head down, the problems of daily life were less to do with politics and more to do with power cuts, particularly if you lived outside of central Beirut. At that time, I was living in the capital’s southern suburbs, the Dahiyeh, a densely populated area of some 700,000 people that was predominantly Shia and, as the media like to call it, ‘a Hizbullah stronghold’. Hizbullah certainly knew I was there – I was indirectly informed of the fact – but gave me no problems. Discussions at that time were not about any imminent conflict, but rather about the legacy of the civil war, the brutality of the Israeli occupation, and the role of the Islamic resistance now that the Israelis were out. Soon war loomed on the horizon, however – albeit thousands of miles away – with the US-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. The war in Iraq was closely watched in Beirut, and little did we realise that the beginnings of an immense change were underway in what the George W. Bush administration had coined the ‘Greater Middle East’. Syria was concerned it might be next on the hit list, as was Iran, and Hizbullah was hunkering down in anticipation of how the Israelis might take advantage of the tension in the region.

The ‘Pax Syriana’ was soon to end, and quite suddenly. Lebanon entered a new and less stable phase. I had since moved to central Beirut, and a Valentine’s Day breakfast with a girlfriend was abruptly aborted by the sound of a massive explosion a mile or so away, blowing open the windows but not shattering them, unlike in areas closer to the bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and twenty-two others in 2005. A month later, following a massive demonstration in Martyrs’ Square, Syria withdrew. There was a momentary possibility for change. However, although Damascus was no longer hand-picking politicians, grass-roots movements were quickly nipped in the bud. Key political players from the past were reintroduced into the political fray and the old status quo was revived. Indeed, most of the civil war players were back, at least those that had survived. With no apparent winners or losers or even political reconciliation, and without the iron grip of Syrian control to maintain a semblance of order, rumours of war started to spread; rumours that the state would disintegrate and another civil war was looming, with the parliament split between the opposition 8 March movement (ostensibly pro-Syria, led by Hizbullah and Amal) and the 14 March movement (ostensibly pro-West and pro-Gulf).

The transition to ‘independence’ was not to be an easy one. There were some fourteen bombings and targeted killings that followed over the year. The targets were primarily anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. In early 2006, while the Israeli threat still lingered in the back of people’s minds – the sonic booms of Israeli jet fighters’ overflights of Lebanon a frequent reminder – it was the domestic situation and relations with Damascus that dominated politics and discussions. The economy was on the up and a busy summer tourism season was underway. Few predicted that another war was around the corner.

When the war between Hizbullah and Israel started on 12 July, it caught everybody off-guard. Driving through Beirut was surreal, like venturing out in the middle of the night, as there were no cars on the roads and few people around; it was like being one of the few survivors in a post-apocalyptic movie. The Lebanese were holed up in their apartments if they had not already fled to the mountains, or to Syria, or been evacuated. The war ended on 14 August, and its impact was devastating. The Israelis had come close to their word when they said they would set Lebanon back twenty years. Economic losses were estimated at some $7 billion, 15,000 homes were destroyed, some eighty bridges were wrecked, and infrastructure damage estimated at $3.9 billion. Touring the Dahiyeh and South Lebanon in the days immediately after the war was a sobering experience; I saw ten-storey buildings in neighbourhoods I had known well levelled to the ground.

Although the war was over, Lebanon was to embark upon a schizophrenic period. The government collapsed in the autumn and no parliament was to convene for eighteen months, yet at the same time the economy began to boom. As the rest of the world’s economy was rocked by the subprime financial crisis, Lebanon saw massive inflows of cash into its banks, mainly from the Gulf. Real estate was on the up and tourists returned in droves. Rumours of another round of war with Israel nonetheless abounded, and there were other security incidents: a two-month-long fight-out between Islamists and the army in Nahr Al Bared, north of Tripoli in 2007; on-off fighting in Tripoli; clashes inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain-el-Helweh; and street battles in Beirut in May 2008. Crisis had become commonplace. The Lebanese are used to operating under trying conditions. However, having to operate under such conditions creates a culture of short-termism – requiring a quick return on investment before the next crisis – and defeatism. And many went, adding to Lebanon’s diaspora. Emigration was estimated at anywhere between 8 to 12 million. The ‘brain-drain’ is yet another factor contributing to Lebanon’s problems.

Lebanon’s history has made nearly every Lebanese a political analyst. I have found myself discussing politics, unprompted and often unwillingly, with bank-tellers, butchers, carpenters, mechanics, shopkeepers, secretaries, CEOs, bar tenders, taxi drivers, and so on. Few conversations are about the weather. It is politics, politics and to a lesser extent, economics, but always in relation to the ‘situation’. The Levant is a political aficionado’s wet dream. But it is easy to debate the situation endlessly, to get caught up in it and become addicted to politics and the instability that comes with unpredictability.

Since the so-called Arab Spring spread to Syria in March 2011, Lebanon has become even more unstable, not because there is any real possibility of an uprising here – there is enough infighting between the mafia-style political class/kleptocracy – but due to Lebanon being a microcosm of the Middle East as a result of its sectarian make-up and geography. In general, the Shia side with Iran and Syria, the Sunnis with the Gulf States, and the politically divided Christians have various alliances, but the reality is far more complex, of course, in the snake pit that is Middle Eastern poli-tricks. Lebanon, in other words, is not isolated from regional turmoil and feels all the reverberations, being so dependent on the region economically and politically to keep the debt-burdened state afloat (public debt is around $61 billion or 136 percent of GDP). As the economy gets increasingly worse, the conditions for social unrest are ripe. Economic growth was estimated at just 0.7 percent in 2013 (compared to 8.5 percent in 2009) and the indirect economic losses to Lebanon from the Syrian conflict are estimated at $7.5 billion.

Adding to this tension, the government fell again, in March 2013, and it took ten months for a parliament to form. Such sporadic governance means few laws are passed and no action is being taken to address major issues that in most other countries would have people out on the streets. Instead there is public policy paralysis. Indicative of how instability causes paralysis, an advisor to the prime minister told me in October that an e-commerce bill that had been on the shelf for years had not been passed because it was not a priority, despite the potential economic benefits. ‘Due to the situation, it is always security and politics first. It’s like a house burning down – do you put the fire out, or save the furniture first?’ Businessmen are already referring to the 2008-10 period as a ‘golden age’, when the economy was thriving despite a barely operational government and stories about political parties setting up and expanding military wings, and sporadic tensions along the southern border. Right now, it is arguably worse than it has ever been since the end of the civil war, and it is civil war that people fear. What is particularly concerning is that despite there having been some thirty bombings and assassinations in Beirut between 2004 and 2014, it has only been in the past year that attacks have had no specific target that people can rationalise. For those of us that can leave, there are fewer reasons to stay.

I won’t give the answer to the incredulous question I get from people: ‘You’ve been here eleven years? You must like it?’ Of course I like it, I am not sadomasochistic. When I am away, I crave the place, the lack of predictability, the fabled ‘organised anarchy’. I stay in part because of that addiction, as well as all the other reasons people live in a place they have become familiar with. Yet such instability ensures that the familiar is often challenged; unpredictability is also stimulating. The first half of this year has been a veritable rollercoaster of crisis after crisis: a government formed, then no agreement on who will become the next president. The terrorist attacks in January and February become distant, not forgotten but not discussed as another crisis develops. How will the situation in Syria impact Lebanon further? The situation in Iraq? How will the Israelis deal with the crisis in Syria? What will happen next month? Another day, another month, yet another crisis.

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