By Alia Allana
Jan 17 2011
The Beirut of our dreams, of boulevards and boutiques, of culture and couture, modern and morphing, threatens to fall again into an abyss. Tracking the little country’s progress was something of a fetish in my high school. Named after a Beirut suburb, Choueifat, the school relocated to Dubai during the civil war. Almost all the Lebanese I studied with wanted to return — once there was calm.
The war ended but the calm didn’t settle in. Sectarian tensions clawed back progress until Rafiq Hariri happened. A self-made billionaire, cosy with the Saudis and the Americans, it was he who resurrected Lebanon. Many returned during his premiership. They mourned his Valentine’s Day assassination in 2005. Now as the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon readies its verdict, all sit with their heads in their hands, as the government, led by Saad Hariri, collapses, and wonder: is civil war in sight again?
Saad Hariri’s coalition was never comfortable. Lebanon’s sectarian politics mandated a government with the right mix of Sunni, Shi’a, Druze and Christians, and thus a unity government was formed. In a compromise agreement, born out of five months of politicking, the opposition, Hezbollah, was afforded the right to veto and 10 seats. Hariri’s party (the March 14 Alliance) retained 15, and the rest went to independents, comprised of both Hezbollah and March 14 sympathisers. On Thursday, the unity government collapsed as 11 members (a third of the total) resigned, even as Saad was meeting Barack Obama in DC. He walked into the Oval Office a prime minister and walked out deposed.
There is one obvious explanation for the collapse: the possible indictment of senior Hezbollah leaders in the Hariri assassination by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. In 2005, all fingers pointed towards Syrians. That they politically controlled Lebanon and Rafiq wanted their influence reduced was no secret. In a conversation between Lebanon President Bashar al-Assad and Hariri the summer before his death, the older statesman protested, “I have been a friend of Syria for 20 years,” to which Assad replied, bluntly, “I’ve have known you for four years.” Assad then issued what Hariri considered a threat, “I will break Lebanon over your head.”
Fast forward to 2009, and leaks on the court ruling in Der Spiegel and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation drop a crucial clue in the Hariri murder mystery, linking Hezbollah, the “Party of God”, to the murder. But Hezbollah have taken great pains to distance themselves from the “terrorist” brand, and such an allegation would mean political suicide for a party that claims to speak “for all Lebanese”. As anger swelled following the allegations, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah warned that “anyone who tries to harm the armed resistance will see his hand cut off”.
Negotiations between Hezbollah and Saad have been on for a month. Hezbollah demands Saad abandon financial aid to the Special Tribunal and withdraw the four Lebanese judges. Nasrallah gave Saad a deadline, last Wednesday, to act. He didn’t. Saad, the slain leader’s son, presented his own proposals instead: individuals named in the indictment would be innocent until proven guilty. If they were convicted they would be viewed as “rogue individuals”, not representing the groups they belong to.
Hezbollah might actually favour the current government-less situation. Warrants from the Special Tribunal need a prime minister to enforce them, and government formation in Lebanon is a long and tedious procedure. Now President Michel Suleiman is in the process of convening an emergency coalition government with Saad as caretaker, but a compromise will take time. That long time means that Beirut lies captive to street demonstrations and car bombs, assassinations and clashes. The chaotic Lebanon of yesteryear might well rise again.
What these latest developments have done is potentially alter the balance of power in the Middle East. With Saad’s exit, Saudi and American influence is set to decrease, and Iranian power increase through its satraps Hezbollah and Syria. This too when Lebanon was on the mend, its record levels of growth reminiscent of the glory years when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East.
But Lebanon is almost always on the brink. On my last visit to Beirut in 2008, change was evident. Streets in the suburbs were being remodelled; the notorious downtrodden neighbourhoods in the city’s south, long Hezbollah strongholds, were being paved. Power cuts were fewer. But security in Lebanon is never guaranteed. Merely a month after I’d left the gridlocked government headed towards political paralysis, with shocking images of street battles, smog on the cornices, shops with their shutters down — all reminiscent of the civil war.
Hezbollah fighters targeted Sunni neighbourhoods until Qatari mediators intervened. The current impasse, too, threatens to head down this sadly familiar road. But the great tragedy is that it should happen just as Lebanon was slowly retouching its sepia-toned past loveliness, the women parading their beauty on the Croisette, the Camel-smoking men more macho than ever. Who would have thought that the wounds of the 2005 assassination would be so slow to heal?
Source: Indian Express