By Tom Felle
Tom Felle is a lecturer in journalism and new media at the University of Limerick, Ireland. He was previously Bureau Chief of the Leb News Agency, based in Beirut.
An old film reel shot in Beirut in the 1960s resurfaced on the popular social networking site Facebook recently. The reel contained rare footage shot by the British film maker Harold Baim and had been reported by the BBC in 2006.1
Those with an interest in the region soon reposted it to their pages, and the three minute reel of clips from the Corniche of bronzed young men and women water skiing and swimming in the Mediterranean reminded watchers of what the country used to be like.
Lebanon’s capital was once the Paris of the Middle East, and in recent years the former warzone has been making significant strives to regain that once coveted title. On Beirut’s sunny streets things have never been so good. The handsome young waiters and waitresses working in the many restaurants in the capital’s ‘Downtown’ area are run off their feet every night. Popular Rue Gouraud’s many bars and clubs in Gemmayzeh is packed nightly with revellers, so much so that the government has cracked down on opening hours following noise complaints from locals. The country is in the middle of a tourism bonanza and the slowdown in the global economy has had little impact on Beirut’s fast growing financial services sector. Highly educated tri-lingual young Lebanese are increasingly finding work opportunities at home and GDP growth is forecast at a healthy seven per cent in 2010.2
For a country with so much potential, Lebanon’s future should be bright, yet the threat posed by Hezbollah both to the Lebanese state itself and to its southern neighbour Israel, combined with bubbling Islamic fundamentalism within Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, is a constant reminder of the fragile state of the country’s peace. If any other country was being discussed, talk of past wars would be a distant memory, yet so much of Lebanon’s current woes are tied to its history and its traditions. The 15-year civil war between 1975 to 1990, the Valentine’s day assassination of its former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, almost constant tension internally between rival political factions in the years that followed, the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the external influence, previously of Syria and now Iran, on the country’s political affairs have all conspired so that long term peace remains elusive.
While Lebanon is one of the region’s most liberal democracies, the Lebanese are fiercely tribal, and its politics is divided along religious and ethnic lines. Under the country’s complex electoral system the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the role of speaker of parliament is reserved for a Shi’ite. The current president, former army general Michel Suleiman is widely regarded on all sides of the political divide, and has managed to remain neutral and quasi above politics within his role as head of state. Within the parliament however constant squabbling and arguments remain, and little progress has been made on solving many of the country’s problems, including insufficient access to affordable health and social care, poorly operating telecom and broadband infrastructure, and massive national debt. The country elects 128 national politicians, and seats are proportioned equally between Christians and Muslims. The divide, a modified version of a 1943 pact, was designed to give a voice to all ethnic divisions but it serves instead to hamstring any contentious decisions. The country has a population of some 4.2 million although this is just a best guess because the country has not taken a census since 1932 for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of power between Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites. (Anecdotally, observers say the Shi’ite community has been grown steadily in Lebanon, while the number of Christians has been falling consistently.)
Debates in parliament seem to drag on indefinitely and decisions within the perhaps paradoxically named ‘unity government’ lead by Rafik Hariri’s son Saad, are often fractious. A long standing stand-off between government and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, spilled over into violence in 2008 with bloody battles on the streets of Beirut and other cities. Shi’ites had complained that their seat share did not represent their numbers. It ended with a revised agreement on ministerial portfolios largely favouring the opposition. The parliament has operated somewhat more cordially since then, and within the government there are signs of improvement. It agreed a budget this year for the first time since 2005.3
While Hezbollah has moved from a radical militant Islamic grouping into the more mainstream of Lebanese politics and its MPs take seats within the parliament, it has not given up its semi-autonomous political and military structures, and it remains the most potent threat to the country’s future. Once described as the “A-Team of terror” by the US State Department under President George W Bush,4 the group remains outside the official control of the Lebanese state. It runs hospitals and schools, it has its own architects and engineers, its own telecommunications network, and a military wing. For many poor Shi’ites, it is the ‘real’ government providing a social welfare net, employment and education, and paying to rebuild homes destroyed by the 2006 war – all with Iranian money. It is reported “soldiers” continue to attend training with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard,5 and the group continues to build its arsenal of weapons.6 Despite UN Resolution 1701 (which ended the 2006 war) calling on all non-government armed groups to disarm, nobody seriously expects Hezbollah to do so. Rhetoric from its leader Hassan Nasrallah continues to deride Israel. Earlier this month the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon warned of the threat the group, and its arsenal of weapons, posed to continued peace.7
Despite this, in the short term at least, Hezbollah has given no indication – despite the rhetoric – that it wants another war, and certainly there is little appetite among the majority of its million plus supporters in the Shi’ite community for more bloodshed. Rather Hezbollah appears, for now, to be happy consolidating its base in Lebanon. The recent death of the Lebanese Shi’ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah leaves a vacuum at the top of the Shi’ite religious community, and his replacement could have a major bearing on the religious leaning of Shi’ites, and the subsequent support for Hezbollah. Fadlallah reportedly blessed the bombers of the 1983 US Embassy in Beirut, and his dying wish was purported to be the destruction of Israel,8 but he was viewed as more of a moderate than a radical within the Shia, and more aligned to Iraq’s Shi’ite traditions than Iran’s. He previously condemned al-Qaeda and took a strong line against honour killings of women. His death could see the Lebanese Shi’ite community’s ideology move in a more radical direction toward Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, and this could have troubling consequences.
The most obvious place for renewed hostilities with Israel is along the ‘Blue Line’ border but since the end of the 2006 war southern Lebanon has remained relatively trouble free. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) retains some 11,871 troops south of the Litani river as well as more than 1,000 civilian staff and is supported by a further 50 UNTSO military observers, enforcing a buffer between the two countries9 at a cost of some US$589 million10 in the year to June 2010. The ‘Blue Line’ drawn in 2000 after Israel withdrew from south Lebanon divides Lebanon and Israel from the Golan Heights to the Mediterranean, and there have been few reports of attacks on Israel from north of the border. However peace in the area remains fragile. The massive military presence has been generally effective in stopping Hezbollah from re-organising its military structures close to the Israeli border, however Hezbollah is widely believed to have restocked its arsenal and has built new bases in southern positions outside the UN patrolled zone, north of the Litani. The group has been accused by Israel of upgrading its trademark katusha rockets with longer range rockets and anti-aircraft missiles, and the US and Israel have accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to the group.11
While Israel no longer occupies southern Lebanon, allegations that it is operating a spy network persist. Lebanon launched a major investigation into spying in April 2009, and so far more than 50 arrests have been made. The country’s military and security leaders have long believed that Lebanese inside the country helped target sites during Israel’s 2006 bombing campaign against Hezbollah.12 In a 2009 report on the operation of the United Nation’s peacekeeping force, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the truce between Lebanon and Israel remained “fragile” and voiced concern at claims by Lebanon that Israel was continuing to operate spy cells within Lebanon. In a region where both sides are constantly in a high-octane state, a miscalculation by either could reignite tensions with devastating consequences.
Like so much of the Middle East, Lebanon’s future peace is dependent as much on its neighbours as itself. The issue of Palestine is as important for Lebanon as it is for Israel. In the short term there are no signs of hope that any meaningful talks are going to emerge that will lead to a solution of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. There are some 400,000 Palestinians living in 12 refugee camps inside the country. The biggest, Ein Hewlett in Sidon, is a tinderbox of Islamic militant fundamentalism. Palestinians have restricted work rights, live in relative poverty and cannot travel overseas without special permission. With little hope for the future many young men have been persuaded by extremists to join militant groups. A small number of rocket attacks against Israel from within Lebanon, including a January 2009 attack on the northern Israeli town of Quirt Shaman, have been blamed on radical Palestinian groups.13 Attacks by Islamic militant group Fatah al Islam on the Lebanese army in May 2007 led to a more than 40-day siege at the Nahr al Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon, leaving some 16,000 civilians homeless and more than 400 Lebanese soldiers,14 civilians and Islamic militants dead. The group, formerly lead by Palestinian extremist Shaker Abssi before he was killed in 2008, claims to draw its inspiration from al-Qaeda, though links between the two groups have not been established. It has reportedly grown in number since then, attracting militants from other groups.15 The threat posed to Lebanon is significant from groups like this. While they are smaller in number and significantly less well armed than Hezbollah, they have the potential to drag the Lebanese unwittingly into further hostilities, though these groups’ capacity to launch offensives against Israel is for now confined to occasional mortar attacks across the border.
There are positive signs for Lebanon’s future. The country is still struggling, but increasingly growing, its economy is showing signs it may be a new tiger in the Middle East. This may well be a determining factor in the country’s future stability. For the first time in more than 30 years young Lebanese – highly educated, bright and articulate and often fluent in three or more languages including English, French and Arabic, have job opportunities. Lebanon has one of the youngest populations in the European Neighbourhood Partnership (ENP) region, some 25.8 per cent of its population is under 14 and just 7.2 per cent are older than 65. More than 60 per cent of GDP is now from the services sector, including financial services, health care and tourism. Beirut was the hub of banking for the Middle East in the 1950s and 60s, and it has regained much of that lost business.16 It is not all good news of course. The country’s debt to GDP ratio is at 150 per cent, one of the highest in the world. The figure was even higher – 180 per cent – in 2006. The International Monetary Fund has praised the government for its efforts to reduce debts and its prudent financial management, but it has warned that systemic issues remain, especially with the country’s infrastructure and dependence on importing electricity.17
While banking is certainly the most important sector in terms of hard dollars, the most visible manifestation that the country is on the rise is in its booming tourism sector. Indeed, one of the main shining lights in Lebanon’s immediate future is its potential as a tourist destination of choice for many Western visitors. Beirut has always been an attractive option for wealthy Arab visitors during the hot summer months, and it has a healthy bounce from expatriate tourism during the summer. But Europeans are visiting in increasing numbers. A combination of the slightly exotic former warzone, the Mediterranean climate with warm dry sunny days for up to nine months a year, its many beaches and resorts, winter skiing, and its many attractions from the Bekka Valley to Roman ruins and Crusader castles, is proving increasingly popular. The New York Times named Beirut as top of a list of the best 44 destinations in the world to visit in 2009.18 According to the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, 2009 was a bumper year with some 1.85 million visitors, up almost 39 per cent on the previous year. In January of this year, the latest month for which figures are available, some 49,307 Arab tourists visited the country, but French, Britons, Germans and Americans made up a sizeable minority of the total 77,308 tourists. In 2009 more than 453,000 European tourists visited the country. In 2004 and 2005, before the war, 1.28 million and 1.14 million tourists visited respectively.19 The veteran journalist Robert Fisk, in his seminal work Pity the Nation, described Beirut as the city the Arabs came to thinking they were in Europe, while Europeans came thinking they were in the Middle East.20
Predicting the future is always a risky business. In Lebanon’s case there are many reasons to be hopeful that in 2020 the country will be at peace, but significant pressures remain on the country internally every much as externally.
1. Newsnight, BBC Two Television, August 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cu6o6T3wdL4&feature=player_embedded
2. “Barclays revises upward Lebanon’s GDP growth,” Daily Star (Beirut), June 28, 2010, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=3&article_id=116446#axzz0vI3V1Jtr
3. “Hassan: 2011 budget raft approval ‘imminent,’” Daily Star (Beirut), May 15, 2010, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=3&article_id=114879
4. Faye Bowers, “Why Hizbullah may be the next terror target for US,” Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2003, http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0425/p02s01-usgn.html
5. Patrick Devenny, “Hezbollah’s strategic threat to Israel,” Middle East Quarterly, (2006), 13(2): 31-38.
6. “UN warns of renewed violence between Hezbollah and Israel,” Now Lebanon, July 2, 2010, http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=182666
8. David Schenker, “Passing of Shiite cleric Fadlallah spells trouble for Lebanon,” Christian Science Monitor,” July 9, 2010, http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2010/0709/Passing-of-Shiite-cleric-Fadlallah-spells-trouble-for-Lebanon
9. United Security Council Resolution 1701, August 11, 2006, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2006/sc8808.doc.htm; UN Resolution 1884, 27 August 2009, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2009/sc9737.doc.htm
10. United Nations General Assembly Approved Resources for Peacekeeping Operations A/C.5/64/15, January 22, 2010, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/C.5/64/15
11. Natalia Antelava, “Hezbollah entrenched in Lebanon years after Israel left,” BBC News, May 25, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10152082
12. Nicholas Blanford, “Lebanon exposes deadly spy ring,” The Times (London) June 15, 2006, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article675279.ece; “Lebanon arrests Israeli spy from mobile phone company,” BBC News, June 29, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10444459
13. ‘UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits Middle East as rockets from Lebanon hit Israel,” Daily Telegraph, January 14, 2009, www.telegraph.co.uk/…/middleeast/…/UN-chief-Ban-Ki-moon-visits-Middle-East-as-rockets-from-Lebanon-hit-Israel.html
14. “Nahr al-Bared a test case for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,” Electronic Lebanon, August 27, 2009, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10741.shtml
15. Eben Kaplan, “The Al-Qaeda-Hezbollah Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 14, 2006, http://www.cfr.org/publication/11275/alqaedahezbollah_relationship.html
16. “The Economy,” Embassy of Lebanon in Washington DC, http://www.lebanonembassyus.org/country_lebanon/economy.html
17. Rana Moussaoui, “Lebanon banking on strong growth to reduce debt,” Middle East Online, June 13, 2010, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=39520
18. Seth Sherwood and Gisela Williams, “The 44 places to go in 2009,” The New York Times, January 11, 2009, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0DE7D7173AF932A25752C0A96F9C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
19. “NONAV – Lebanon – Travel Leisure & Hospitality Report,” Business Intelligence Middle East, December 2, 2004, http://www.bi-me.com/main.php?id=79&t=1
20. Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation, 4th edition (New York: Nation Books, 2002).