Beirut in the Balance
April 2, 2007
A sidewalk saxophonist jams with the incessant honking of cars. The nearby cafe trottoir is flooded with fancy coffee drinkers ogling passersby. Dozens of languages and dialects can be overheard, and the ever-present Green Peace activist passionately explains the importance of taking action. To the casual observer, Beirut might seem the same as any cosmopolitan capitol, but behind the calm facade hides one of the most complex political struggles in the world.
Aug. 14, 2006, marked the end of a 34-day-old war between Israel and Lebanon. On an individual and personal level it was just war -- the who, why and how long did not matter for after winning the survival battle life goes on at full speed in the chaotic style of Beirut. Compiling a list of all that is wrong with this city shows a million reasons this place should be dead, yet it lives and progresses at a fast pace.
The aftermath of war weighs heavily on the local political scene today here in Beirut as well as across the southern border in Tel Aviv. The outcome of the summer conflict emboldened an opposition movement to move against the sitting government. Originally consisting of the mostly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, the opposition alliance more than doubled in terms of demographic representation with the addition of the Shia parties of Hezbollah and Amal.
Prior to the mass mobilization of people by the opposition forces, the string of unsolved political assassinations claimed another victim. Minister of industry and heir to the Gemmayel political dynasty, 34-year-old Pierre was gunned down in a mob-style hit in broad daylight. Tens of thousands poured into the streets for yet another politician's funeral.
A week later, on Dec. 1, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters flooded Central Beirut demanding the current government step down to make way for a more representative national unity government. This massive demonstration was followed nine days later with an even bigger show of popular force that, according to veteran journalist Robert Fisk, drew up to 2 million people, a surreal number considering that Lebanon's population is just over four million.
The opposition also set up a camp around the government house to host an open-ended sit-in. The camp mushroomed into hundreds of tents that were home to the protestors throughout the winter. The sit-in continues for a fourth consecutive month in an impressive tent city with a backdrop of the luxurious downtown Beirut, a juxtaposition that perfectly exemplifies the dichotomy of Lebanese society.
Despite the massive show of popular discontent, the government was able to stay put albeit in a vegetative state due to regional political developments and their broader international implications. A complex string of international policy issues, from Chinese and Russian reservations towards expanding American influence in the region to Iran's nuclear standoff, were leveled at the tent-dwelling protestors campaigning for democratic rights and proper representation.
Even more ironic is the complete detachment of the street from the political jargon exchanged in the decision-making capitals. The term "Arab moderates" has been bestowed upon the dictatorial regimes of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who are facing the "extremist" Syria and Iran. This rhetoric is completely foreign to the streets of Beirut. While the political divide is big, it is hardly about moderation and extremism.
With the sit-in failing to achieve its desired goals, the opposition called for a general strike on Jan. 23. After blocking all major roads with tire fires, the opposition move was seen as a provocation, which led to clashes between pro- and anti-government crowds that resulted in three deaths. Two days later, the highly tense atmosphere manifested itself in the form of bloody riots on the campus of the Beirut Arab University. Four college-age men lost their lives that day and campus life was forever changed. Classes were suspended for weeks at some universities, and Lebanese youth now face yet another burden in their already challenging lives.
Employment prospects for Lebanese college graduates have been bleak for many years due to the failures of successive governments in creating and sustaining a job market. Whether due to political ineptitude or as a result of a designed plan, the brain drain from Lebanon ranks among the highest rates in the world. Young adults have little choice but to migrate in search of careers and a prosperous future. The Persian Gulf's booming towns seem to attract the lion's share of Lebanese emigres, but local embassies representing all inhabited continents are flooded with visa applications each day. This phenomenon has been so engraved in the culture that a recent pop song by Charbel Rouhana equated the thrill of getting a visa with that of getting married.
With a new summer approaching, the trauma of last summer has yet to fade. Some people plan to make up for a lost summer; others fear a repeat of the same nightmare. Analysts say it's a 50-50 proposition. Living life on a coin flip is what makes life in this town a daily roller coaster ride. The excitement of a lifetime can be experienced in every 24-hour span, but it certainly is not for the faint of heart.
A number of Lebanese and International NGOs are helping with the rebuilding of the areas devastated by the war and the removal of thousands of unexploded cluster bombs and mines. For more on the continuing humanitarian effort in South Lebanon, visit the Lebanon Support Network at www.lebanon-support.org.
Jamal Ghosn, 27, is a freelance business consultant living in Beirut. He also produces occasional radio features and documentaries, and has been writing about Lebanese politics, culture and society in his blog since September 2005.