By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
BEIRUT -- A racket filled the air outside Mohammed Jassar's shop in a swath of Beirut devastated in this summer's war with Israel. Hammers delivered a cadence to the clamor of bulldozers, saws and drills trying to rebuild. The noise was almost as loud as the invective these days in Lebanese politics, paralyzing a country that has never quite known peace. Jassar has had enough. Three weeks, he blurted. After that, he'd decide whether to leave Lebanon.
"This is a country scared of its future," he said.
Lebanon has emerged from the 33-day war with Israel only to find itself lately in one of the most pronounced political crises it has experienced in a generation. At first glance, the issues dividing it are somewhat arcane: the legitimacy of an international tribunal to try those suspected of killing former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, and the representation in the cabinet for the opposition, which comprises Hezbollah, another Shiite Muslim faction and a Christian ally. But the stakes are far higher, in effect the future of the country: What groups and their patrons -- the United States, France, Syria or Iran -- will guide Lebanese politics?
There is a cinematic quality to the events, a commotion that resembles a film's opening credits: snippets of hurried conversation, incendiary news broadcasts, glimpses of politically loaded posters draped over streets, and a pessimism, deep and intransigent, that has become a national pastime.
"This is what is so tragic about it," said Fawwaz Traboulsi, a historian and professor at Lebanese American University. "We've been reduced to people who are frightened by the worst and hoping for something that might be less bad."
Lebanon is blessed and cursed by its diversity. The logic of coexistence among 18 religious sects, often with their own readings of history, dictates a tolerance and occasional cosmopolitanism that stands out in an Arab world becoming ever more atavistic and resentful. On display these days in Beirut, though, is that diversity's more menacing side.
On television, a Christian-owned station has introduced broadcasts with the ominous phrase: "Is it the silence before the storm?" Another station, loyal to Hariri's son Saad, a key figure in the governing coalition, has shed any pretense of objectivity, airing footage of this summer's war. A voiceover asks: "Who was responsible?" What does it matter? We won, answers Hezbollah's station, al-Manar.
Hezbollah's iconography still adorns the city, depicting "The Divine Victory" and "Victory from God." One poster portrays Israeli soldiers crying. "The invincible army," it mocks. Along the city's fault lines, the Hezbollah icons mix with posters hung by Hariri's followers. "We will not forget," they read over portraits of Lebanese killed since 2005 in a string of assassinations that many here blame on Syria, an ally of Hezbollah.
"Everyone is hanging up a picture," one resident quipped as he saw a poster unfurled.
Vitriol has reigned on talk shows since Hezbollah first threatened mass demonstrations last month to topple the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and everyday conversations are punctuated with talk of emigration. A new word has entered political discussions: Does Lebanon stand on the brink of "Iraqization"?
Some shop owners say customers have stocked up on milk, rice and other staples. And, if it could get any grimmer, a statement attributed to al-Qaeda announced the network's arrival in Lebanon "to work on destroying this corrupt government which takes orders from the American administration."
"Pity Lebanon," said Ali Zein, a store owner in the city's southern suburbs, whose 5-year-old son, Mohammed, plied the sidewalk in his toy car. "People are living like there's always a crisis. If it's not war, it's protests. If it's not protests, it's war."
He shook his head when asked the last time the country felt settled.
"We're always between stability and chaos," he said.
This month's crisis erupted after two ministers from Hezbollah, three other Shiites and an allied politician resigned from Siniora's cabinet on Nov. 11. The resignations followed the breakdown of talks on granting Hezbollah and its allies greater representation, a move that would effectively give Hezbollah a veto over government decisions.
On Sunday, Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, said the government now faced a choice: either resign in favor of what he called a national unity government or hold early parliamentary elections. If neither demand is met, he said, his followers have planned days, even weeks, of protests to topple a government he said was beholden to the United States. Hezbollah's critics, such as Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, have described the campaign as a backdoor coup d'etat.
But memories of the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 remain vivid, and even the politicians responsible for fueling the current crisis have warned against events spiraling out of control. Nasrallah called civil strife a red line and repeatedly insisted protests would be peaceful. Jumblatt ruled out counter-protests that might ignite clashes in the streets. "Let them assume responsibility for this," he said.
"The street in Lebanon is not a normal street, where the people go down to voice their objections or demands," Talal Salman, the editor of the Beirut daily as-Safir, who has long advocated Hezbollah's cause, wrote Monday. "Rather, it is a space for confrontation."
Still reeling from this summer's war and mired in economic troubles, Beirut shows little sign of enthusiasm for the kind of demonstrations Salman fears. But Lebanese politics are defined by a certain inertia, with perhaps six sectarian leaders, nearly all dating from the civil war, often counting on their most devoted constituents to conflate their own survival with their leaders' ambitions. An editorial cartoon in the London Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat on Monday showed two men fighting on a paved road sweeping them toward a waterfall.
"It's not in my hands. Really, I don't know what's happening in this country," said Sami Khreis, 22, who owns a store in Beirut's Shiite Muslim southern suburbs. "Everyone has their grievance, everyone has their gang. What do I tell you?"
The sounds of reconstruction echoed off the street; it was the only work in town, he said. Hezbollah had given him two crisp $100 bills to repair his window shattered by an Israeli bombing. But he was still grim.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen. But everyone knows it will be something new. Maybe peace, but I don't think so. I think we're at the doorstep of something else." He arched his thick eyebrows. "I think so, but God willing, no."
Across town in Aisha Bakkar, a traditional Sunni neighborhood, a cheerful and charming Mohammed Saidoun held court in his Future Cafe, adorned with pictures of Hariri, his son Saad and black-and-white shots of the Beirut of 65-year-old Saidoun's childhood. He spoke low, in almost conspiratorial tones, a holdover from his days as a Tammany Hall-style enforcer for Sunni leaders in the neighborhood.
"The politicians talk, and the people get more tired," he said. "The war started 31 years ago, and it's still going on."
Saidoun retains strong ties to Saad Hariri, the most influential Sunni leader, and patron after patron entered the cafe to ask for favors. At one point, a group of young boys passed through, asking for copies of the posters that read: "We will not forget." "Give them three or four," he ordered an assistant. He lamented how so many young men were stopping by, asking whether he could help them purchase weapons.
"There's not a youth in Beirut who doesn't want a gun," he said, shaking his head. "They're scared."
He worried about protests, sure that no one would emerge victorious from a confrontation. But if Hariri's son -- "Sheik Saad" to Saidoun -- ordered his followers into the streets, the choice for him was an easy one.
"Bottom line, if Sheik Saad tells me to demonstrate, I will, along with my family, friends and everybody I know."
"Sheik Saad," he said, "is my soul."