When not at war, Beirut feels like Santa Monica

What is remarkable about Beirut is that when it’s not exploding into political violence it feels like Santa Monica: a prosperous, sunny, seaside town of sidewalk cafes, clothing boutiques, and organic markets.  There’s a Four Seasons hotel and a boat marina and, not far from that, the gnarled, shattered facade of the building (above, in 2009) where the former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005.  It is hard to imagine, sometimes, how a city with such good shopping can take up arms on a regular basis: not because materialism suppresses the political appetite but because it is generally an indication of a society that has developed less extreme mechanisms for conflict resolution than civil war.

As any Beiruti will tell you, Lebanese society is much more supple and sophisticated than its political system.  In the days and weeks ahead, we are going to see the brittle apparatus of Lebanese politics struggle to absorb today’s announcement of the (long-delayed) results of the UN Special Tribunal’s investigation into the Hariri assassination, which implicate several members of Hezbollah including Moustapha Badreddine who is a brother-in-law of the late Hezbollah commander Imad Moughnieh.  In the immediate aftermath of the killing most people blamed Syria, which was then occupying Lebanon, and a popular revolt forced the Syrians to withdraw.  This was a triumph that was followed by the sort of cynical political maneuvering at which the Lebanese excel and, eventually, a kind of paralysis: I was in Lebanon for three weeks in 2009 and it did not have a sitting government for the duration of my stay and, indeed, hadn’t for months before my arrival.

The UN took up the Hariri investigation to meet the demand for justice but at some point it began to act more like a Lebanese politician than an international commission: it leaked hints about the results of its Hariri investigation without actually issuing a report, so everyone knew Hezbollah was going to be named but no one could see the evidence.  This turned the whole thing into a spectacle: Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah dared the UN to release the report, threatening all sorts of mayhem if it did, and so began a showdown between an armed militia and the international community that, really, one can say Hezbollah has won.  True, the report was issued today, years after its findings, though the circumstantial evidence implicating Hezbollah comes as a disappointment to those who had hoped for more clarity.  True, too, Hezbollah’s involvement would not necessarily clear Syria of responsibility since the two are allies who often work in concert, though at the time of the assassination most people saw a Syrian thumb more directly on the trigger.  But the UN does not seem inclined to actually prosecute the Hezbollah leaders it accuses and, besides, during the time the report was held Hezbollah essentially took over the government.  That’s why it seems unlikely Nasrallah will unleash the mayhem he threatened: he is already the dominant player in Lebanese politics, so what more could he gain?


Click here to see my photographs of Lebanon.  Or here to see one of my favorite comic books, the Beirut-based Samandal.



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