As Crises Build, Lebanese Fearful of a Failed State

Fires burn in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli after recent artillery barrages by the Lebanese army against al-Qaeda-inspired fighters holed up in the camp.
Fires burn in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli after recent artillery barrages by the Lebanese army against al-Qaeda-inspired fighters holed up in the camp. (By Ben Curtis -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, June 4 -- A few miles from Mona Abboud's bookstore in Tripoli, passengers in cars ducked below the dashboard as volleys of gunfire resounded like a jackhammer Monday. Earlier in the day, more clashes erupted at a Palestinian refugee camp three hours from here. By nightfall, a bomb had gone off in a Christian suburb of the capital, Beirut, the fourth in less than a month.

A grim Abboud, her hands thrusting ahead for emphasis, compared her country's plight to a debke, a folkloric dance.

"It's quiet for two months, then the debke begins again for six months," she said. Her words were tinged with a little weariness and a lot of sarcasm. "What do I want to tell you? It's just beautiful. Every day you wake up to something new."

Crisis usually defines Lebanon, but these days, the country is navigating threats that many describe in existential terms: a battle, entering its third week, between the Lebanese army and al-Qaeda-inspired fighters in a Palestinian refugee camp; a seemingly intractable and altogether separate confrontation between the government and opposition that has paralyzed the state and closed part of downtown Beirut for more than six months; and, as important, deadlock over the choice of the next president by November. Since last year's war in Lebanon between the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah and Israel, the United Nations has stepped in twice to assume responsibilities usually left to a sovereign state, forming a court to try the suspected killers of a former prime minister and dispatching an international force to keep peace in the country's south.

While some analysts see the military's battle against the militants as a way to forge a stronger state, others worry about the prospect of its failure. The threat of civil war still looms large over this always fractious country, but the violence and paralysis may suggest a broader breakdown: not civil war, but entropy, where the country becomes hopelessly mired in instability.

"I can't say we're now in a failed state, but we could become a failed state if assassinations resume, we see more car bombs and if you see no political solution and no president elected in due time," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for al-Nahar newspaper. "If all this happens between now and November, it means we're in a big mess. And after that, you can say it's a failed state."

Lebanon's historically weak state -- in contrast to authoritarian neighbors such as Egypt and Syria -- helped to foster the country's redeeming qualities: a freewheeling press, relative freedom of expression and a measure of tolerance. The downsides were the descent into a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Syrian dominance that continued until 2005 and the situation today, where Hezbollah maintains its own militia and the country's Palestinian refugee camps are suffused with arms.

Some analysts see today's battle between the ill-equipped army and radical fighters in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli and, on Sunday, in Ein al-Hilweh, the country's largest Palestinian camp near Sidon, as a rare, admittedly difficult move by the military to exert control. In last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel, the army stayed on the sidelines.

"This is the first time in people's memory when the army is performing something clear and forceful and over something that there is no major disagreement about," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "It has strengthened the army and has hence strengthened the state. It has strengthened people's connection to the army and hence the state."

Added Ziad Baroud, a lawyer and analyst: "It's our last chance. If the army fails, then it will be a total loss."

The fighting erupted May 20 in Nahr al-Bared, one of 12 camps in the country established when Palestinians were forced to flee their homes by the creation of Israel in 1948. Thousands have become refugees again, many fleeing to a nearby camp. Relief officials say those remaining in Nahr al-Bared -- between 3,000 to 8,000 -- are running desperately low on water, food and medicine.

But in Lebanon, the humanitarian crisis has been subsumed in an eruption of nationalist fervor over the fighting, which has killed 45 soldiers, at least 20 civilians and perhaps 60 militant fighters. Banners line roads and traffic circles in Tripoli, the second-largest city. "For Lebanese and the nation, there is one address -- the Lebanese army," one reads. On television, a commercial shows pictures of the slain soldiers. "With their blood, they drew the red line," it says. It then adds: "Enemies of God, enemies of the state."

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