Lebanon in Crisis: A Report From the Streets in Beirut

Lebanese politics are confusing, so what follows is a brief summary of where political affiliations currently stand.

Since former president Emile Lahoud stepped down over five months ago, Lebanon has been without a president and the political parties representing diverse social and religious sects are currently divided into two camps. The US-backed March 14th Coalition, led by Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, currently holds the majority in Parliament. The March 14th Coalition is dominated by Mustaqbal, Hariri’s party, the (mostly Druze) Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt, and two Maronite Christian parties, the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, and the Kataeb Party, led by former president Amine Gemayle.

The Opposition, also known as the March 8th Coalition, is led by Hizbullah, allegedly backed by Iran and Syria, which is tenuously allied with Nabih Berri’s Shiite Amal Movement and Christian general Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Though both coalitions have agreed on General Michel Sleiman as Lebanon’s next president, political deadlock has prevented his election. The division of Lebanon’s political parties is often described as falling along religion lines, particularly Sunni-Shiite antagonisms. In reality, both the Christians and the Druze have political parties in both camps, and most Sunni and Shiite people we know do not perceive the March 14th-March 8th split as a simply religion division.

The morning of May 6th the March 14th-led Council of Ministers made two controversial decisions: they declared Hizbullah’s telecommunications system, a fiber optic network instrumental to ending the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon in 2000, "illegal and unconstitutional" and called for the dismissal of General Waqif Shouqair, head of security at Beirut’s International Airport and one of the few remaining Shiite officials in the current government. The Council of Ministers accused Shouqair of allowing Hizbullah-controlled cameras at the airport. Both Shouqair and Hizbullah deny these charges; Hizbullah maintains that Shouqair is simply Shiite, and not a member of Hizbullah.

Wednesday, March 7th, totally unrelated to the previous day’s decisions, the General Labor Confederation organized a strike demanding an increase in Lebanon’s pitiful minimum monthly wage of $200 US dollars. While the Opposition supported the labor strikers, many March 14th supporters’ shops remained open. Our neighborhood was quiet, and we spent our day off of school doing homework in a café, fully expecting a return to normalcy the next morning.

By early afternoon, the Opposition and strikers had blocked the airport highway south of the city, erecting blockades of burning tires and piles of dirt. Soon after, armed fighting broke out between March 14th and Opposition militias in Beirut and continued into the following morning. The blockades shut down the airport, paralyzing all air traffic in and out of Lebanon. A friend’s aunt arrived on one of the last planes to land, and, unable to find transportation home, walked through the smoldering barricades and caught a taxi back into Beirut. People began to leave the city for homes in the mountains or flee the country through the Syrian border. We heard from our neighbors that a pregnant woman had been shot on the road to Damascus; by nightfall, the road was closed.

On Thursday May 8th, tensions ran high following a night of continued militia clashes and rumors the Opposition planned to set up encampments along airport road; similar to the tent city that has paralyzed Beirut’s commercial downtown district for the last two years. In Hamra, West Beirut, many shops remained open and the streets were quiet. Our local grocery store was crowded with neighborhood residents anxious to stock up; by early afternoon there was no bread to be found in Hamra and the supermarkets shelves were nearly empty.

That afternoon Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave a rare press conference. Nasrallah’s demands of the March 14th government were clear: Hizbullah’s communications network is an indispensable "weapon of the resistance" and the government’s decision to threaten this weapon was tantamount to a declaration of war. "We believe that a war has started, and it is our duty to defend our arms, resistance and the legitimacy of this resistance", Nasrallah explained, "we do not want to attack or launch an aggression on anyone, but we do not allow anyone to launch an aggression on us." In West Beirut, we heard gunfire as his speech ended.

The fighting was so loud by Thursday evening that even from our apartment on the isolated and protected American University of Beirut campus we could hear machine gun fire, the single blasts of snipers’ rifles, and the boom of rocket-propelled grenades. There was constant gunfire all night. It sounded impossibly close to us but it was hard to tell with the water below bouncing back strange echoes. There were a few really loud blasts that rattled our door open (leaning out my window I watched a group of people below me scream and run for cover). Standing on our balcony talking on the phone I watched three rocket propelled grenades trailing red shoot over campus. RPG searchlights swept back and forth across the front of our building, and we saw a carload of armed men driving along the sea road and smelled the smoke of burning tire piles at blockades a few blocks away.

We finally fell asleep despite the booms of the fighting and woke up a few hours later to the roll of thunder. The thunder sounded like bombs; my roommate screamed and I lay shaking and confused in my bed but a few seconds later a torrential rain came. The storm stopped the fighting, and we heard only the occasional pop of snipers’ rifles as we fell back asleep.

By the morning of Friday, May 9th, several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, called for their citizens to evacuate. Our Lebanese flat mate Sally has family in Kuwait and the embassy agreed to help her leave. They refused to venture into West Beirut to pick her up, so we walked with her through the deserted streets to the edge of downtown. Aside from the occasional blast of machine gun fire, our neighborhood was eerily quiet, and we saw no one except an Ethiopian maid with a well-groomed dog. "See, there are people out!" I said hopefully. Later, a friend explained that during the July War migrant laborers collected the trash during the bombings, concluding: "there’s a reason they sent the maid."

We passed through three Lebanese Army blockades on our way to the Kuwaiti evacuation meeting point. The soldiers gaped at us in utter disbelief, lowering their guns and pushing their helmets back to stare. I can’t imagine what they thought of us: lone young women with linked arms, Sally carrying her leopard skin purse. A soldier leaned out a tank and told us to watch out for snipers on the rooftops. We held hands, Sally recited Koran, and we tried to stay close to the base of buildings. The meeting point was a deserted office with a shattered glass door; a man took us down to a basement garage where Sally was whisked into a waiting sedan and driven away.

On our way back to the university we saw Lebanese Army tanks rolling down Bliss Street, the main road running along the top of the campus. Usually bustling with AUB students crowding cafés and street food stands selling hot crepes, coffee, and manaeesh (flatbread with cheese), the street was totally empty. Less than an hour later what sounded like sniper fire directly above our heads on Bliss Street send us ducking and running to our apartment. We heard from our flat mate that that the Opposition had taken over West Beirut, including our neighborhood of Hamra. "Don’t worry," she said, "they are not bad people. I’m Sunni from Saida (Hariri’s hometown) and I am not worried. But you probably shouldn’t try and go talk to them right now."

The Opposition’s occupation of West Beirut was completely unexpected and immediately followed by sensational headlines and accusations from an embarrassed March 14th coalition that Hizbullah was staging a coup and starting a civil war. By the afternoon Opposition forces broke into Hariri’s Future TV station, taking it off the air and drawing sharp criticism from international media institutions. We spent the day on campus, reading the news online or leaning off our balcony to try and see Opposition militia outside the university. Friday evening was quiet, and when we awoke Saturday morning, the Opposition was withdrawing and handing West Beirut over to the Lebanese Army.

When we went for a walk through Hamra early Saturday, a few stores were re-opening and there was light traffic. Aside from shattered glass on the street, the flags of parties aligned with the Opposition hanging from shopping centers or graffitied below street signs, and piles on uncollected trash, the neighborhood seemed almost normal. Our friends quickly began arranging to leave and join their families outside of Beirut; one young woman managed to get out of Beirut to Tripoli only to find a fierce gunfight on the street in front of her family home. Though Hizbullah peacefully withdrew from Beirut, fighting between militias spread to the northern city of Tripoli and inland to the mountains in the east.

The calm in Beirut was broken later that day in the Sunni neighborhood of Tariq Jedideh when a Shiite shopkeeper opened fire on a Sunni funeral procession, killing two people and wounding six. A few hours later, in the village of Aley, which lies east of Beirut, Jumblatt’s Druze militias (allied with March 14th Coalition) allegedly knifed two Hizbullah soldiers to death.

That afternoon, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora gave a speech that was widely received as conciliatory: he agreed to pass the decisions regarding Hezbollah’s communications network and the dismissal of General Shouqair onto the Lebanese Army. Despite government concession and an uneasy ceasefire fighting between government militias and Opposition militias continued Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. The Arab League sent a delegation to broker a deal and the United States sent the Navy destroyer the USS Cole towards the Mediterranean from the Persian Gulf. We anxiously waited to hear the results of the negotiations led by the Arab League mediators.

It is now past twelve on the night of Wednesday, May 13th. We can hear gunfire again, but this time it’s celebratory. Following negotiation with the Arab League team, the government just rescinded their decisions to dismantle Hizbullah’s telecommunications system and fire the airport head of security, General Shouqair. This is a huge victory for the Opposition, who have flexed their muscles and demonstrated the inability of the Lebanese Army or March 14th militias to prevent the Occupation of West Beirut. This represents a crucial shift in the delicate balance of power; it remains to be seen if the government will remain backed down.

President Bush’s consistent conflation of Hizbullah with Al-Qaeda is alarming, and doesn’t bode well for a resolution to the stalemate between the US-backed March 14th Coalition and the Opposition. The complex issues of representation underlying the past week’s conflict are far from resolved, and talks will continue in the coming days.


Photo from Flickr, Creative Commons