Sunday, January 28, 2007

Civil War on its Way

The conversation that convinced me...

A civil war is coming. I’m convinced of it and I have been for some time.

This week’s events were just another predictable bump on the path of the incremental dissolution of civil life into civil strife. The path may still be long and it will be winding but it has only one terminus: a new national nightmare. Someday the army will lose neutrality and dissolve and we’ll once again be witness to a Somalia on the Mediterranean.
But enough gloomy predictions, how was I convinced?
It wasn’t a result of an article or watching some TV. It was due to a conversation I had…

(The rest may will be a little vague, with names and locations kept to a minimum to protect the participants.)

A couple of mornings after I arrived in Beirut I went to a friend’s place of business to chit-chat and have some coffee. I arrived at my friend’s and was welcomed warmly as we have known each other since I was born. In the middle of some serious catching up we were interrupted. A mustached man got out of his chauffeured car and entered. He was dressed in the Hezbollah-casual uniform: black leather jacket, button-up shirt, dark jeans and patent-leather loafers. We were introduced and I was told he was a high ranking Lebanese army officer (I’ll leave the rank vague too, but it was quite high). I sat and quietly and tried to discern what kind of relationship existed between the two as my friend doesn’t usually have any contact with the military. I soon discovered this was a marriage of convenience as the two began to barter favors in true Lebanese fashion. I also discovered my clothing-based Hezbollah diagnosis was bang-on when a deal was struck and the conversation turned to politics and friction from a rather innocuous question.
“So how’s business?” The army officer asked.
“What do you think? When are you going to send your people downtown home? Then I could make some money,” my friend replied.
The officer’s demeanor quickly went from buoyant to stern. “My people? Who taught them these things anyway? Who? Remember who introduced these habits.”
An uncomfortable silence fell over the room.
The officer went on; “This is a country ruled by consensus and you should not have gone to the street when you had a disagreement.”
I sat quietly and tried to understand how opposition to the Syrian occupation after the assassination of Rafiq Harari could be described as a simple disagreement.
My friend stepped in.
“I just want what’s best for the country.”
The officer shot back; “What’s best for the country? Who are you with? The Americans? The Israelis?”
“No, I’m not with the Israelis.”
“Are you not with the Americans? How can you deny that?” The officer insisted, he was not going to take no for an answer.
My firend relented; “OK, I’m with the Americans.”
“With Israel then.” The officer leaned back, confident in his position and continued, “We take orders from the Americans now. Rice says jump and we do. Like this thing with the airplane from Ben-Gurion…”

He was referring to a report being disseminated on al-Manar about a plane landing in Beirut on the day of Pierre Gemayel’s assassination. The report highlighted that this plane, carrying Portuguese diplomats, had previously been in Israel. The facts and the report ended there… al-Manar let its viewers fill in the rest. It didn’t matter that the plane was probably never in Israel or the fact that the Portuguese would hardly be likely candidates to transport an Israeli hit squad; people believed what was convenient and the proof was sitting across the table from me, sipping coffee and spewing diatribes. He mentioned how he thought the Israelis had a hand in all the assassinations.

I piped up. I mentioned the army raid against SSNP raid a few days previous, which netted many weapons, explosives and detonators. I was hinting that they were probably the real killers of Gemayel (I out right accused them here ).

The officer clearly understood what I was doing, “We all have our suspicions but we cannot act without evidence,” he said.
“Evidence? What the pile of dead Greek Orthodox bodies in the Metn? What about the weapons cache?” I immediately realized that my mouth might get me into trouble here.
“Every party has weapons. You want weapons? I can go into any house around here and find you weapons.” He was probably right.
“But what about the explosives?” I asked.
“Which party doesn’t have explosives? What’s the big deal? That’s the problem with you people… you look at the country through only one eye.”
I could have answered. I knew what the “big deal” was; that these explosives were meant for other Lebanese. I could’ve said that most of his positions were dependent on large flights of fancy (or flights from Tel-Aviv). But I didn’t. I bit my tongue.
“Well I guess we aren’t going to convince each other.” I said.
We agreed on that at least.
He went on to mention that my time in Lebanon should be pleasant. The opposition was going to wait until the end of the holidays before the next step. Only in Lebanon, I thought, is civil turmoil planned so civilly.
The conversation drifted off into the apolitical after that. Soon the officer’s driver returned and the army man clambered back into his car and disappeared.

His demeanor convinced me that civil war was a distinct possibility. He, and others like him, viewed this not as struggle against other Lebanese but against the Israelis. Easy explanations were dismissed in favor of far-fetched conspiracies. All opponents are tarred as friends of Israel which also allows any criticism from them to be ignored.

It became clear. When you're protecting the Arab and Muslim nation all is allowed. Hezbollah, its foreign backers and its political allies are playing for keeps. They are not going to relent until they get what they want. After the “divine victory” this summer they are confident in their abilities and capabilities. They view their goal, to become the dominant political force in Lebanon, as possible in the short-term and they plan to push hard in pursuit of that goal.
And that’s the problem. They are too confident. Too confident that they can intimidate their adversaries, too confident that they can control a volatile situation, too confident the population would accept their victory. They seem to be blind to the fact the government supporters are willing to fight for what they believe in.
Like this summer, I’m afraid that Hezbollah will realize only too late that volatile situations that were “under control” can quickly flare up into full-scale war (just like that cafeteria a few days ago).
This is not to say that the current deadlock is all Hezbollah’s fault. The government must offer some concessions so all can save face and Lebanon can exit this abyss but Hezbollah and company must be receptive to them. So far they have made ever-larger demands and refused anything less than full acquiescence, confident in their eventual victory and oblivious to reality.

Like a game of chicken played at night between two opponents wearing sunglasses, this looks headed for a bad outcome.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Missing the Point

I saw this ad has running fairly often on LBC during my stay in Lebanon. While the sentiment behind it is commendable it misses the point.
After talking to many Lebanese across the confessional spectrum they all claim to being first Lebanese and a member of their community second. On the other hand when it comes to talking about other groups that's when the non-Lebanese labels come out. I heard it all.
The protesters claim to to represent all the Lebanese people and that the March 14th movement is anti-Lebanese and pro-Israel.
The government responds that they are the true Lebanese and won't let the opposition stage a coup. The protesters downtown are backed by Iran who don't care about their country.

And those are just the official statements, in private I heard crazy things being said (although in fits of anger). Two quotes that will stick with me:
"The army should go down to Martyrs' Square and kill all of them."
"They should have killed all the Maronites politicians who are with Israel."

All of those statements are soaked in self-delusion and can only lead to trouble .
So while everyone agrees that they, themselves are Lebanese, no one is willing to concede that the political groups they don't agree with are just as Lebanese as they are.
Nasrallah and that bleach-blond bikini clad silicone-stuffed women at the Coral Beach are equally Lebanese. Claiming otherwise is stupid and dangerous, no matter who is doing it - Hezbollah or Saad Hariri.
Both sides view the other as illegitimate, unworthy and treasonous.
Until that changes reconciliation and stability will remain a long way off.

By the way thanks for commenting on my last post. Much appreciated.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Lebanon: Dysfunctional Relationship

I spent the bulk of my last night out in Beirut at a bar in Gemayzeh; that long skinny street were Ferraris and nightspots intermingle with Ottoman architecture and Maronite grandmothers. The bar in question, Torino Express, is a tiny, crowded, smoky closet of a place with a feel that's simultaneously welcoming and aloof. Owned by a middle-aged lefty and manned by a friendly trio (two tend bar one spins tunes), it was the kind of place I lose track of time in. And I did, somewhere between that first Almaza and the over-cooked hot-dogs with mayonnaise that the bartenders and I ate it got late. Closing time. I swigged back my last Dewars on the rocks low-ball, butted out yet another Marlboro Red, tipped the bartenders, said goodbye to a few, got a kiss on the neck and I was off.

As we flew over the Ring overpass blaring the Decemberists, I took one last look at the khiam (what many call the tent city up by opposition protesters) that I had waded into out of curiosity a week earlier.
It was then then that I realized something fundamental about myself: I love Lebanon unconditionally. I thought my feelings were waning as I aged but my trip revealed to me that the opposite is true. This mad, tiny, beautiful slice of land on the Mediterranean that passes itself off as a country will keep me coming back no matter how many times it disappointments, angers or perplexes me.
Lebanon has broken my heart many times over my relatively short life but despite it all I love it more now than I ever have. I lived most of my life outside Lebanon but whenever I step off the plane in Beirut I feel like I'm home.
Why is this? I don't know. I can't explain it. In fact, I'd rather I wasn't so attached. But I can't help it.
I tried to find a parallel to my relationship with the place.
Is Lebanon that beautiful, cool, crazy girl that's great in bed but is prone to disastrous tantrums that you always forgive?
Or is Lebanon that gifted funny child with so much promise that keeps infuriating his parents with his/her self-sabotaging behavior?

I soon gave up. Beirut nor I had time for existential dilemmas and metaphoric flourishes - it was late and I had to pack in the morning.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Arz after a Big Snowfall

Just got back from Lebanon. I got a bunch of ideas bouncing around inside my head which I'll regurgitate when I'm not terribly jet-lagged. In the meantime here's some pictures.