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."
For now, the army's siege has overshadowed the country's political crisis that since November has pitted the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against Hezbollah and its allies, a struggle between the country's Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities that has taken on ominous sectarian tones. Early on, Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, ruled out the army's entry into Nahr al-Bared, but since then, the movement has not opposed the army's actions, a stance that may be as political as it is principled. The army draws many of its rank-and-file members from the Sunni region of Akkar in the north and the Shiite region around Baalbek in the east.
Many expect that crisis to reignite soon over the choice of a president to succeed Emile Lahoud, and the Hezbollah-led sit-in in downtown Beirut is about to enter its seventh month unchanged, save for the exchange of blankets and heaters in scores of tents for fans to cope with Beirut's humid summer. Others are bracing for the repercussions of a U.N. decision to establish a court to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, a move adamantly opposed by Syria, suspected by many here of involvement in the killing. Some link the U.N. decision to the four recent bombings in the capital, including one Monday in a Christian neighborhood east of Beirut that wounded 10 people.
Naoum, the columnist, predicted that Syria was "willing to sacrifice all Lebanon, including their allies" to block the court.
"If Lebanon became a failed state and there is war, who will talk about the international tribunal?" he asked.
The specter of al-Qaeda-styled groups in Palestinian camps -- Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared and, to a lesser degree, Jund al-Sham in Ein al-Hilweh -- caught few by surprise here. But many have been struck by the fight put up by Fatah al-Islam, where perhaps 250 fighters from Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world have held out in a camp that covers less than one square mile.
On Monday, cars, some with headlights flashing, careened down a road past the Nahr al-Bared camp as bursts of gunfire echoed off the hills. A few buildings in the camp had collapsed; relentless artillery fire had honeycombed others. Relief officials managed to ferry in hundreds of pounds of bread and some medicine on Monday, the quietest day since a truce collapsed Friday.
Ein al-Hilweh, a dense, claustrophobic warren, was calm Monday after Jund al-Sham's fighters clashed with the army. Two soldiers and two militants were reported killed. To bring quiet, rounds of talks lasted hours Monday among the byzantine and overlapping authorities that hold sway in and around the camp: a faction loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Islamic groups, pro-Syrian elements, military officials, opposition and pro-government politicians in neighboring Sidon, and Sunni clerics.
"We will make sure that they don't do anything that threatens the security of the camp," said Col. Khaled Aref, the representative of Abbas's faction there. "We -- all the factions -- agreed to put them under control."
Control, though, may prove a relative word.
"Are there other armies hidden in other places?" asked Salem of the Carnegie Center.
Along the street outside Nahr al-Bared, Talal Ayyubi opened his pharmacy for the first time in days, trying to find the ordinary in a situation that wasn't. An Egyptian soap opera played on his television as the sounds of gunfire filtered through his door.
Ayyubi was oddly at ease.
"We've gone through a lot of war, and we've always managed to keep hope," he said. "We've learned from the past."
He paused, then added, "Maybe a little."
Special correspondents Alia Ibrahim in Sidon and Lynn Maalouf in Beirut contributed to this report.