On 8 May 2008, hours after the beginning of Lebanon's latest civil war, a storm swept into the capital from the seas. At first it threatened Beirut's coastline with streaking bolts of lightning; then, as the fighting intensified in the city, went on to rampage through its streets with such merciless ferocity that fighters were forced to seek shelter and atheists feared the wrath of God.
Earlier that evening, shooting and bombings could be heard in the majority of Beirut's districts, including in prosperous Verdun. But who was being targeted: Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and one of the Islamist movement Hizbollah's strongest allies - or one of Saad Hariri's men? Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009.
Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:
"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)
"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)
"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)
"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)
"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)
"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)
"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005) "Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)
"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)
"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)
"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)
"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)
"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)
"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)
Some fighting occurred within the hallways of the famed and imposing Yacoubian building in the Caracas district. A shot was fired at a group of opposition supporters near Hamra Street, killing its intended target. The victim's comrades wasted no time grieving; within minutes they forced their enemies to abandon their positions. The sound of shots and bombs echoed against multi-storey buildings throughout the city, amid widespread confusion as to who was shooting and who was being targeted. Makeshift roadblocks sprung up everywhere.
Beirut's citizens were once again caught in the middle of a battle that they had very little to gain from. As the storm brought a moment's respite, many reflected that the hatred again tearing their city apart was as much the result of a contrived and outdated constitutional framework and of regional and international powers that was pushing the country to war. The consequences of what was about to happen also weighed heavily on their minds. The Lebanese have seen many conflicts over the past few decades - most destructively the civil war of 1975-90 - but what type would this one be? Would there be snipers on every rooftop? Would gangs control the streets, burst into buildings, murder and steal at random?
Lebanon's political spectrum has since 2005 been split sharply into two rival camps. The "March 14" camp - named after what is perhaps the largest demonstration in Lebanese history, held a month after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005 - is led by the Future Movement, an archetypal oligarchical party headed by Rafiq's son, Saad.
Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister since July 2005, is one of the Hariri family's closest confidants. He was minister of finance during a large part of the 1990s, a period when Lebanon's sovereign debt increased at a crippling pace (indeed, almost unprecedented in international finance, and matched perhaps only by the spectacular increase in Hariri's personal fortune).
The March 14 movement also includes former militias that are remembered mostly for their brutal behaviour during the country's fifteen-year civil war. Most of its components were at one point or another allies of Syria; but in late 2004, a converging of interests permitted them to cement an anti-Syrian coalition. March 14 obtained a majority of seats in the elections of May-June 2005, and dominated the new government.
The "March 8" alliance, named after a rival massive demonstration, is led by Hizbollah - a movement defined by its desire to see all Lebanese lands liberated from Israeli occupation and by its deep and apparently sincere Shi'a Muslim religiosity. Until 2005, Hizbollah had enjoyed a reputation in the wider Arab world as arguably the most efficient guerrilla army in the world. Its allies include the country's largest Christian party as well as former militias that are mostly associated with cheap thuggery.
Lebanese politics in the 2005-09 period been defined by the division between these two camps. There has been some discussion of policy issues, especially in relation to rampant corruption (blamed mostly on March 14); but the division is fuelled mostly by their respective choice of allies.
Syria's military withdrawal from the country in 2005, was followed by a monumental if near-inevitable mistake on the part of March 14, when the movement forged an alliance with the George W Bush administration. Most Arabs blame the United States for the destruction of Palestine and Iraq, so they could barely stomach the sight of Fouad Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice on both cheeks when she arrived in Beirut after Israel's devastating onslaught against Lebanon in July-August 2006.
Saad Hariri has regularly touted his relationship with Washington and even expressed admiration for the democratic process in Iraq. Moreover, after one of his many meetings with senior level officials in Washington, Walid Jumblatt, a leading figure in March 14, told journalists that he was seeking "military and political assistance against Syria's indirect occupation of Lebanon".
In the event, very little such assistance would be forthcoming; but the message to Hizbollah could not have been clearer. By so allying itself with Washington, March 14 succeeded in alienating a large segment of Lebanon without obtaining anything substantial in return. At the same time, the Bush administration and March 14 leaders were seemingly determined to snub some of the more obvious lessons of recent history: in particular, that comfortable and corrupt elites without any real motive other than greed can never defeat a young and armed movement that is motivated by revolutionary fervour.
For its part, March 14 pointed to Hizbollah's persistently cozy relationship with Syria, the hated former occupier which had stifled freedom of expression and assembly in Lebanon for years. Damascus had also played a central role in reinforcing Lebanon's corrupt form of government and appropriating the state's wealth. In addition, after the Syrians finally retreated from the country in 2005, and as the steady stream of assassinations of major figures within March 14 continued, Hizbollah was intermittently accused of participating directly or indirectly in the execution of these crimes.
It is also no secret that Hizbollah submits to the Iranian ideology of wilaya al-faqih, which provides religious jurisprudents with authority over many key affairs of the state. In a 1997 interview, Hizbollah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah explained that although the group's day-to-day matters were managed by the local leadership in Lebanon, "the decision of peace and war is in the hands of the jurisconsult - not the intellectuals, researchers, scientists, and regular politicians, depending on the circumstances". The idea that a religious scholar in Iran has the power to decide whether Lebanon should engage in a war with Israel is reason enough to make many Lebanese, including many Shi'a, turn blue in the face.
This divide between the two political blocs eventually led to a breakdown of state and of economy alike. This was assisted by Lebanon's outdated constitution. The text helped to crystallise the hierarchy between the country's various religious groups and to establish a modus vivendi between them. A further agreement in 1943 - the "national pact" - allocated the respective leading positions in government, and constitutional prerogatives, in rough proportion to each group's then demographic weight.
The entire arrangement was a source of great tension from the start. As the country's Shi'a population near-quadrupled in the thirty years following 1943, and no provision was made to redress the economic and political bias against them, the injustice inherent in the system became unmistakable. Large segments of society sought to redress the framework but were confronted by their rivals' determination to defend their entrenched rights.
A similar, equally violent struggle devastated South Africa; the eventual result after the overthrow of the apartheid system was the constitution of 1996, which established a more just and free society. The end of Lebanon's civil war saw no such transformation. Some adjustments were made to the constitutional arrangement in 1989; but the fundamentals, which reinforce divisions between society more than anything else, remain firmly in place to this day.
The divide between March 14 and March 8 did not originally stem from religious differences, but the country's underlying framework ensures that every political dispute is coloured with a sectarian brush.
openDemocracy writers analyse Lebanon's politics and conflicts:
Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2005) Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005) Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005) Paul Rogers, "Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006) Paul Rogers, "A pheonix from Lebanon's ruins" (17 August 2006)
Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006) Paul Rogers, "Lebanon on the edge" (31 August 2006)
Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)
Alex Klaushofer, "Lebanon's two futures" (11 December 2006) Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)
Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)
Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)
Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007) Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)
Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)
Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)
Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007) Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's '14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008) Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008) Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "The Israel-Hizbollah prisoner-deal" (14 July 2008)
It was the war with Israel in July 2006 that initiated the breakdown in the relationship between the two camps, which itself led to the breakdown of the state itself. Soon after the war ended, March 14 accused Hizbollah of having unnecessarily provided Israel with a pretext to launch its onslaught, and argued in favour of the group's disarmament. Hizbollah countered that Israel's disproportionate attack was pre-planned, and even accused some Lebanese politicians of treachery. In December 2006, it withdrew from government to bring an end to a regime that it said prioritised western interests over anything else.
Hizbollah argued that the constitution requires that the state must represent all sects, and noting that all Shi'a ministers had withdrawn from government, Hizbollah insisted on the government's constitutional illegitimacy and refused to recognise any of its decisions. The then president, Emile Lahoud - a staunch Hizbollah ally - agreed and refused to sign off on any orders or decrees. The parliament's speaker also declined to call the chamber into session for over two years. Hizbollah demanded that a new government of "national unity" be formed and that March 8 should be granted a third of the ministries in that government. In December 2006, it launched an open-ended sit-in which practically surrounded the governmental district. Neither side backed down, even when violent demonstrations pushed the country dangerously close to the precipice.
By summer 2007, the crisis in Nahr El-Bared brought another round of mutual accusations. March 14 claimed that Fatah el-Islam, the terrorist organisation behind the fighting, was a creature of Syria and that it had recently been unleashed on Lebanon to destabilise the government even further. March 8 touched upon a more sensitive concern. Since 2005, there had been talk (supported by an investigative report from Seymour Hersh),that the Future Movement was forming a Sunni militia, supposedly with the support of the Saudi Arabian and United States governments. It was said that office-space and hotels were being converted into arms-caches and observation-posts. In that context, many accused March 14 of having financed and armed Fatah el-Islam itself, with the intent of creating a Sunni bulwark against Hizbollah's Shi'a forces. That group was eventually decimated by the Lebanese army but rumours that young men were being armed in Beirut itself persisted.
Yet another constitutional crisis emerged when the tenure of Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, neared its end. In Lebanon, presidents are indirectly elected by parliament, usually by consensus. By 2007, all trust between the two major camps had evaporated, and there was no agreement as to who should replace Lahoud, or even what process should be followed to elect his successor. On 23 November 2007, when the deadline for deciding on a replacement came and passed, the president's powers were transferred to the government by virtue of the constitution and until the vacuum was filled. Various initiatives were launched in the ensuing months to find some common ground.
Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese armed forces, was the only candidate that both sides could agree upon. The general enjoyed a strong reputation for heading what was probably the country's only institution that remained detached from both sides. The crisis remained unresolved however as March 8 insisted that a government of national unity be formed immediately after the new president's election, whereas March 14 preferred to leave that matter until a later date.
Month after month, with each failure to resolve the crisis, the country inched closer to anarchy. Gangs from rival camps could be seen fighting increasingly often, at first with their bare fists, then with stones, then sticks, and eventually with guns. A video broadcast on al-Jazeera showed the shocking levels of brutality that each side was leveling at the other during the street-battles. The army intervened to separate the fighters, but it could not counter the deep sense of gloom and hatred that had settled in Beirut.
By March 2008, the country had no president; the parliament had not been in session for more than a year; the government was not recognised by around half the country; a sit-in blocked access to the governmental district; and daily street-fights were growing increasingly violent. Sunni homeowners were even refusing to sell their property to Shi'a buyers, and vice-versa. A major conflagration between March 14 and March 8 seemed inevitable.
The declaration of war
In May 2008, March 14 perpetrated yet another major - and this time fatal - blunder. Before 2005, Hizbollah had remained detached from Lebanon's political system and concentrated almost all of its efforts on defending and liberating the country's sovereign territory from Israeli occupation and aggression. However, as the Syrians ended their unpopular occupation at the start of 2005, the balance of power in the middle east shifted sharply.
The United States had just won the battles for Fallujah and Najaf in Iraq, and a growing number of voices were clamouring for regime change in Damascus itself. Hizbollah adapted its modus operandi accordingly. The party accepted having representatives in government for the first time as a means to counter the growing tide against it and its Syrian allies.
After its electoral success in 2005, March 14 could smell blood; it went on to seek to change in Syria with the help of Washington and some European allies. After the war in 2006, the rhetoric against Hizbollah's weapons became insistent, but March 14 failed to appreciate that by then the tide of forces had shifted away from them. After Iraq's collapse and Israel's failure against Hizbollah in 2006, American and Israeli power in the region appeared toothless. Washington's enemies were now in the ascendant and would not be shy in flexing their muscles.
On the morning of 6 May 2008, the tension between the two camps reached breaking-point. The Lebanese government issued two decisions, which together represented the first occasion since the end of the country's civil war that a Lebanese institution, party, or group had taken positive action to curb Hizbollah's military activities. By virtue of its first decree, the government announced that it would be shutting down Hizbollah's closed-circuit communication lines (which the group has consistently claimed is a vital part of its military infrastructure).The second decree provided that the government was relieving the chief of security at the airport; this came after it had been discovered that Hizbollah had installed surveillance cameras in the area, and was designed to cut one source of Hizbollah's weapons, some of which allegedly arrived through the airport.
The decrees - even though the government had no way of implementing them - represented a real departure from the previously accepted canon that the resistance was untouchable. Hizbollah's senior leadership decided right away that escalation was the only possible response. On the morning of 7 May, it launched a civil-disobedience campaign. The capital's major arteries were cut off with burning tires or mounds of dirt; offices and shops were closed; the airport was made inaccessible, forcing the cancellation of a number of flights. Most people stayed at home, expecting to get back to work the next day.
But at 20.00 that evening, the opposition's sit-in in the downtown area suddenly militarised and expanded. What in the morning had been apparently peaceful protesters were now armed militants. They moved, unopposed, into Laazarieh, a complex of buildings that included some government offices adjacent to the sit-in. They brought with them a large cache of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, ammunition, mattresses, televisions, and food, and blocked the entrances with their cars. They were now less than 200 metres away from the government district. The country was heading towards war.
On 8 May 2008, Lebanon awoke to learn that all major roads as well as the airport were still closed. How long would this continue; and for what purpose? The answer would come later that afternoon, when it was announced that Nasrallah would speak at 15.00 and that Hariri would respond at 19.00. Everyone tuned in, and the full gravity of the situation immediately weighed down on them. The Hizbollah leader was frank: the government's two decisions were "a declaration of war", and any party that sought to interfere with the armed resistance against Israel would "have its hand cut off". Nasrallah meant his words to be interpreted literally.
It was obvious that the only way in which a conflict could be avoided would be for Saad Hariri to announce that the government had reversed its two decrees. The country remained transfixed. Every television at hand was tuned in, the streets were empty and all listened intently. Hariri appeared; his tone too was defiant. An unequivocal reversal of the decisions would not be forthcoming. The army would be allowed to decide on the matter, he said. It would not be enough to stave off disaster.
As Hariri ended his broadcast, the transition from peace to war took place within minutes. Militants descended onto the streets and blocked roads with cars, rubbish-cans, whatever they could. Before anyone could come to terms with what was happening, the bombing started. Residents rushed down to the lower floors of their buildings for fear of being crushed by collapsing rooftops. Ordinary civilians expected the worst. Some barricaded themselves inside their homes, often relying on the protective measures that had been installed during the civil war that ended in 1990.
That evening, a violent thunderstorm unexpectedly engulfed Beirut. For the next few hours, tanks roared along the Corniche in a frantic attempt to keep fighters from engaging each other. The situation was surreal, and many perhaps hoped that the strong winds would remind the warring factions of their fallibility and send them back home. It was not to be.
The fighting that took place in the Hamra district in west Beirut was characteristic of most of what happened during those fateful days. As saad Hariri ended his television address, armed members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party - usually referred to in Lebanon as the Qawmiyeen ("nationalists"), and staunch Hizbollah allies, descended onto the streets of Hamra. This was the moment that they had been waiting for. The Qawmiyeen have a unique history in Lebanese history. Since the 1930s, they have advocated for a union between Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Cyprus and Iraq. Their stated modus operandi was armed revolt, exemplified in a large number of assassinations and security threats.
Although a relatively small party, they have strong local support in a number of areas, including in Hamra, where many of their militants continue to live. It was there that they carried out Beirut's first act of resistance against Israel's occupation in 1982. During the 1990s, they had taken sides in favor of the Syrian occupation; when the Syrians were finally forced to leave in 2005, many of Qawmiyeen's old strongholds in Hamra were taken over by the Hariri family.
From 2005-08, the Qawmiyeen watched as Hamra's main street was lined with posters and flags of the Future Movement. One day, they even woke up to discover that the plaque commemorating their act of resistance against the Israeli occupation had been splashed with blue paint, leaving no doubt as to who the culprits were (blue is the Future Movement's official colour). They watched as Saad Hariri acquired more and more property and installed sophisticated security networks in the neighbourhood. They studied how Hamra's many security guards were being replaced with young men from impoverished Sunni areas. In the event of a future conflict, the Qawmiyeen were in no doubt as to the exact individuals that would be their enemies.
On 8 May 2008, they re-emerged in Hamra with a vengeance. Hariri's men were woefully inexperienced and were never going to be able to resist longer than a few moments. On the morning of 9 May, there was a preliminary skirmish: after both sides took a few casualties, Hariri's men dropped their weapons and either surrendered or ran. The Qawmiyeen then broke into several groups and coordinated their movements in the manner of a seasoned platoon of fighters. They went from street to street, building to building, and apartment to apartment, picking up the people that they were looking for, one by one. Some resisted, only to be met with a torrent of gunfire; others surrendered immediately on the condition that they be unharmed, a promise that was (for the most part) kept.
As the Qawmiyeen moved through the streets, residents quickly mobilised and communicated by mobile-phone to alert each other as to what direction they were headed. They could see groups of armed men strolling calmly along what are normally congested streets. Some bystanders crossed paths with the Qawmiyeen and were quick to remark that they did not interfere in anyone's affairs. Many residents were also shocked to see some of their neighbours mobilising to provide the fighters with whatever support they could. Young men, including local shopkeepers, were seen speeding through Hamra on scooters. What were they doing? Delivering sandwiches and refreshments to the gunmen. The result of a genuine political affinity or an effort to gain favour with what was likely to be the districts' new masters?
During the afternoon of 10 May, the Qawmiyeen made their way to Jeanne d'Arc Street, in the centre of Hamra. Before Saad Hariri's takeover in 2005, the Qawmiyeen had for years occupied an abandoned office-building there, which was sometimes even referred to as the "Qawmiyeen's base". When the Syrian occupation ended in 2005, Hariri acquired the building and had the Qawmiyeen evicted by force. Although it was perfectly legal, the evictees were less than pleased. In May 2008, the building had just been renovated and was a slick piece of work. The Qawmiyeen were aware of all the details, even the name of the security guard that lived in the building.
On 10 May, a group of six fighters positioned themselves across the street. "Ya Helou!" they shouted. "Come down now if you know what's good for you!" They were in a bind, because the building now boasted a new steel gate that they wouldn't be able to break through. "We're telling you to come down now!" they shouted again. Someone yelled a few words from one of the top floors. No one on the ground could make out what he said, but it was clear that he wasn't ready to give himself up. The Qawmiyeen didn't hesitate: they pointed their rifles in the building's general direction and assailed it continuously. The few bystanders that were on the street ran for cover. The building's new glass façade was totally destroyed. "We'll be back, ya Helou!" they shouted, and moved on to their next target.
Soon after, a group of residents and shopkeepers gazed upon the scarred glass in disbelief, and wondered if the hapless security guard had survived the assault. A young man suddenly ran towards them, yelling frantically: "The Qawmiyeen have their jeeps on front of the Crown Plaza! They're loading all of them onto their trucks!" Some had been wondering what was to become of the prisoners that the fighters had assembled over the past few days. They rushed to Hamra Street and saw that it was now lined with jeeps with Qawmiyeen fighters at the helm and Hariri's men sitting sheepishly at the back before being driven away. Ominous scenes, but most assumed that at least the fighting was over.
They were mistaken. One enemy remained, and several groups of fighters could be seen converging to the east simultaneously. Civilians began calling each other frantically. "Stay away from Clemenceau! They're coming!" Walid Jumblatt, one of March 14's most important leaders, owns one of the most imposing properties in all of Beirut in Clemenceau, an area adjacent to Hamra. By virtue of his position, the Lebanese army afforded him its full protection, which meant that he was off-limits. The Qawmiyeen seemed to think otherwise. They surrounded his home, as well as the soldiers, and began firing into the air, almost certainly with the intention of intimidating their intended target. It seemed to work, as Jumblatt appeared on television a few minutes after the shooting started, frantically demanding to negotiate a settlement.
By late afternoon on 10 May, there was no one left to fight. Residents ventured out into the streets and were shocked by the extent to which Hamra had been transformed. Even the Future Movement's ribbons had been removed from street signs. In their place were the Qawmiyeen's flags and graffiti. At the epicentre was an abandoned petrol-station. During the country's civil war, it had been one of the Qawmiyeen's many bases and they were now back to reclaim their old territory. They stood there together, their weapons in plain view, just as they did in the 1980s. They were also present on Hamra's main crossing- points. They sat, their rifles spread across their laps, with full confidence that they were sovereign. They searched no one, and didn't ask any questions. On 11 May, when the Lebanese army declared that it would no longer tolerate the presence of armed civilians in the streets, the Qawmiyeen merely covered their weapons with a large blanket.
The fighting in other neighbourhoods was equally swift and decisive, but was led by different groups depending on the area. By the afternoon of 11 May, groups of Amal militia fighters (Nabih Berri's outfit) drove their scooters through the abandoned streets of the Verdun district, honking their horns in unison (something akin to the Lebanese equivalent of Germans marching under the Eiffel tower). In the elite Tallat el-Khayat, muscular militants tied the Future Movement's flag to their feet and walked together in the middle of wide avenues. During the evening, they sat in plain view on the main crossing-points, the roads littered with spent shells. Residents peered numbly upon the new reality from their windows.
During those fateful days, the Lebanese security forces had clearly defined rules of engagement, which were not to interfere in the fighting for fear that sectarian affiliation would get the better of their men and split the army apart. They had also committed to protecting all senior politicians from both sides and all major state institutions. The result was palpable. As the Qawmiyeen strolled through Hamra, they sometimes crossed paths with groups of soldiers. Often, they bought snacks from the same vendors. The rule that they should not interfere with each other was religiously observed.
The fighting in the capital was completely over by 11 May, though it moved on to other areas including the Chouf mountains in the next few days. The Chouf is a predominantly Druze area which overlooks many Shi'a towns in the south and east of the country - a fact that Hizbollah has long been wary of. Hizbollah and its allies took the fight to them on 11 May; the locals quickly lost control over a number of major arms caches, but their ability to mobilise and to defend themselves against the advancing forces has become a source of pride amongst pro-government forces. Walid Jumblatt however, still helplessly locked into his Beirut home, was reduced to requesting that his Druze rival and Hizbollah ally Talal Arslan negotiate a settlement with the Lebanese army. A brave decision that served to avoid a bloodbath, some said. A humiliation without precedent, others retorted.
As the fighting progressed, the Arab League quickly mobilised, calling on all sides to negotiate a settlement in Doha under the auspices of the Qatari government. The ensuing negotiations from 16-21 May resulted in a deal that saw March 14 concede in relation to almost all of the demands that the opposition had been making since 2006. The Lebanese government resigned, to be replaced by a government of national unity in which the opposition would be granted a blocking minority. The Free Patriotic Movement, the only major political party that has consistently been in opposition since the end of the civil war, would now be represented in government for the first time; and Michel Sleiman was to be elected president.
As soon as the deal was announced, it was obvious to all that the crisis was over. The tents in the central area of Beirut were lifted within hours and the Lamborghinis that had been in their place prior to 2006 were now back. Restaurants wasted no time in reopening their doors and the people rushed to breathe life back into the heart of the city. Elsewhere, teenagers who two weeks before had been begging their parents to save them from their fear were now driving oversized SUVs at high speeds and laughing at pedestrians with utter contempt and in complete disregard for traffic police, who have long accepted that they are powerless to impose order. It was time to return to the kingdom, and in Lebanon every man is sovereign.
For many, it seemed that everything had returned to the way it had been just a few weeks earlier; but to those who wanted to remember what the purpose of the fighting was, the writing was on the wall. During the weeks following May 2008, the streets of Hamra were lined with posters and banners, belonging either to the Qawmiyeen or to the Amal movement (also a Hizbollah ally but totally foreign to Hamra). The purpose was to remind residents who really exercised control.
Lebanon is now enjoying a moment of peace, which is exhibited both by a rebounding private sector and a much higher level of activity in the parliament and government. There is no question however that the next crisis is just around the corner. The Doha agreement served to defuse some of the tension but it did nothing to reconcile the two sides' respective political visions. The parliamentary elections on 7 June 2009 are being hotly contested, but are unlikely to produce any major changes as all of the parties that are currently in power will no doubt continue to dominate the political scene in the next parliament.
It can be assumed that no party will deliberately pursue the path of mutual destruction. But there is still urgent need for a reconciliation process which must involve an effort to clarify what truly separates political parties from one other, and what their political disputes are truly about. A certain number of constants will not vary in Lebanon, particularly in relation to foreign policy; but these issues tend to be the ones that poison the air throughout the country.They can be summarised as follows.
Whichever camp controls Beirut, Lebanon has no choice but to maintain good official relations with Syria, its only neighbour apart from Israel, and one of its only major economic arteries. There will be no de facto or de jure union with Syria regardless of anything. The prospects of Palestinian groups reopening a front against Israel from Lebanon are extremely remote. There is no possibility of a long-term peace agreement with Israel. Hizbollah will remain armed no matter who controls the government.
Although no serious observer or policy-maker in Lebanon will challenge these certainties in private, they are constantly debated in public to the exclusion of anything else. This too has long contributed to the tension between the country's principal rivals.
The air in Lebanon needs to be cleared to make way for a serious debate about real issues. After more than thirty years of war and occupation, that is what its impoverished population needs. Instead, the debate is and remains about who controls the state, the parliament, the presidency, the airwaves, even individual streets. Lebanon is stuck; it needs to find a way to move.
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