By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
Fears that the recent spate of bombings will reopen carefully sutured wounds are overdrawn; the city cannot stomach another conflict.
WHEN a bomb goes off in Beirut, as it did in the Bir Hassan neighbourhood on November 19 killing 29 people and injuring 150, word spreads rapidly. Families hasten to let one another know that they were not among the dead or wounded, that they were at work or at home safe from the bombs. Beirut is a small city. Bir Hassan houses the Iranian embassy, which was the target of the bombers. The first bomb, the smaller, 5 kg one, drew people to their balconies, which was when the second bomb, a 50 kg one, went off and injured or killed them. The Iranian cultural attaché, Ibrahim Ansari, died immediately. Near Ansari lay the injured bodies of domestic workers who had come from the Philippines and Bangladesh. It is a sign that this is more an upscale neighbourhood than what the media immediately began to call it, namely a “Hizbollah stronghold”.
Beirut is a city that is strangled by clichés. During the Civil War (1975-90), the Bolivian journalist Juan-Carlos Gumucio drew up a list of news agency clichés, as recounted by the journalist Charles Glass in Tribes With Flags: “weapons were ‘Soviet-made’; militias were ‘Syrian-backed’ or ‘Israeli-controlled’; Shias were ‘poor’ or ‘homeless’; Palestinian refugee camps were ‘beleaguered’; artillery fire was ‘random’ or ‘savage’; civilians were ‘terror-stricken’; and the militiamen of Hizbollah were in truth ‘Iranian-trained’. Lebanon was ‘war-weary’.” To update this list, one should surely include “Hizbollah stronghold”.
Jad Aoun, a management consultant from Beirut, makes it his business to mail out “Looks Like Beirut” awards to people who make that lazy comparison. Here is a silly example from the United States: “Although insanely crowded, Target managed to keep things on an even keel. Shelves were stocked, aisles clear and traffic, though tight, continued to flow. Toys R Us was another story. It was a plaything apocalypse that looked and felt a little like bombed-out Beirut had Beirut been bombed out by the LEGO patrol.” Jad Aoun mails the writer a certificate thanking them for their intellectual laziness. He often gets chagrined responses. Last year, an episode of the Hollywood show Homeland was shot in Israel but set in Beirut’s lively Hamra Street. Armed militias roamed about the street, which the show’s characters touted as a “Hizbollah stronghold”. Nothing can be further from reality. No wonder Lebanon’s Tourism Minister Faddy Abboud said that the show “did not depict reality. It was not filmed in Beirut and does not portray the real image of Beirut.”
Bombs do go off in Beirut. The November attack comes in a chain of recent bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs—a large one in August in Ruwaiss that killed 20 people and another in July in Bir el-Abed that killed 21. These attacks come after last October’s massive bomb attack that killed the Lebanese security chief Wissam al-Hassan in Beirut’s Achrafieh district. These bombings echo the enormous bomb attack that killed Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The fact of these bombings is sufficient to evoke all fears about “war-torn Beirut”. When I asked a retired senior police officer about the Civil War, which formally ended with the Taif Accord of 1989, he smiled and said, “The Civil War is not over. It is only at half-time.” Fears that these bombings will reopen carefully sutured wounds are overdrawn. The city has little stomach for another conflict, which everyone knows cannot be won.
The southern suburbs (dahiya) of Beirut do house many of Hizbollah’s most important offices. People of the Shia faith—Hizbollah’s main constituency—mainly populate these neighbourhoods. However, just the fact that these are Shia areas does not make them “Hizbollah strongholds”. It is also the case that the most recent bombing targeted the Iranian embassy. It does not take much to figure out that these bombings are linked to the involvement of Hizbollah and the Iranian government on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Frustration that the Syrian war is not going against the government and signs that the government forces have retaken many of the crossing points between Lebanon and Syria have gnawed at the Syrian rebels’ supporters in this country. There seems to be an attempt to punish not only Hizbollah and Iran, but also Lebanon’s entire Shia population—a tendency familiar from Israel’s 2006 war when it bombed majority Shia residential areas as retribution against Hizbollah. To name a civilian area a “Hizbollah stronghold” becomes a licence to kill civilians.
Al Qaeda affiliate
The 2013 bombings in Lebanon have been claimed by groups affiliated with the Syrian rebellion—a brigade of the Free Syrian Army for the July bombing and the terrorist groups Aisha Umm-al Mouemeneen (Brigades of Aisha) and Abdullah Azzam Brigade for the August and November bombings. The latter two are referred to as “Al Qaeda affiliates”.
Another such affiliate has been in the midst of a major battle in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where Syria Street is the demarcation line that divides the supporters and opponents of the Assad regime. Groups such as Fatah al-Islam, founded in 2007, and the tentacular influence of Sheikh Omar Bakri Fustok on marginal outfits have given the Al Qaeda ideology a perch and allowed for deep linkages with the belt controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that runs from Baghdad (Iraq) through Raqqa (Syria) toward Tripoli (Lebanon). The two November bombers had trained in the southern city of Saida in the lair of the Salafi preacher Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir.
Salafism–the name that is given to Al Qaedaesque outfits —has had no purchase in Lebanon’s history. Its first appearance was in 2007, when a group of Salafi fighters fought the Lebanese army from the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared (near Tripoli). The camp was subsequently demolished and its residents were left homeless. The Salafis moved on to Tripoli and elsewhere, buoyed by the war in Syria. Sheikh al-Assir, whose Bilal Bin Rabah mosque in Saida is quite modest, was nonetheless propelled to national attention by the Syrian war. In March 2012, he gave a major address in Beirut, which was given the kind of media attention reserved for Lebanon’s major politicians. Al-Assir became the major voice for recruitment of young (mainly Sunni) men to go and fight for the rebellion in Syria. Confrontation with Hizbollah inside Lebanon and the Lebanese army led to a conflagration in June this year, when his forces killed 14 Lebanese army men. Sheikh al-Assir then vanished. The bombers of August and November came from the pathways of Lebanese Salafism.
Beirut is no fertile ground for the Salafis. They have rooted themselves in neglected neighbourhoods in Tripoli and Saida. Sofia Saadeh, a historian and daughter of Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syria Social Nationalist Party, tells me that Tripoli was a thriving Ottoman port city. “It was the main port for Aleppo [which is now in Syria] and for the area beyond from where agricultural goods and industrial products would come to the Tripoli port and then be shipped elsewhere,” she informs. When the French Mandate authorities began to privilege Beirut port over that of other ports along the Levant coastline, and when Lebanon emerged as a region separate from Syria, Tripoli began its descent.
The Member of Parliament from Zahrani, Ali Osseiran, tells me a similar story about Saida, where he lives. The city once thrived as a consequence of being the port for the rich agricultural seam that ran to Marjayoun (Lebanon), to Dara’a (Syria) and into the Jordan valley. Saida was the natural port of the region, and its population did well as a consequence. Echoing Sofia Saadeh, Ali Osseiran tells me that it was the French partiality to Beirut (and the tension around the foundation of Israel) that set Saida into decline. Storied, prosperous cities declined precipitously.
Control over Saida and Tripoli remains in the hands of the old Sunni merchant families whose wealth has been easily translated into political power. Names like Hariki, Mikati and Siniora crowd the bank ledgers and the legislature. The gap between their fortunes and the zone of despondency in their forgotten cities is considerable —with radicalism finding fertile soil in the most depressed areas, including in the Palestinian camps.
Al Qaeda had no presence in Lebanon, and most likely will find it hard to root itself in its diverse soil. Nonetheless, men have travelled from Tripoli and Saida to the battlefield in Syria. The expectation is that when the war ends, these men will return both battle-hardened and embittered. What they will bring back to Lebanon is hard to fathom.
Jean Said Makdisi wrote one of the best memoirs on the Lebanese Civil War, Beirut Fragments (1999), in which she noted that the main theme of everyday life was to “carry on”. I asked her what she thought of the current crisis, with Israel’s depredations remaining unrelenting and the conflict in Syria tearing into Lebanon’s fragile soil. About the Civil War, she said: “I felt we were paying a price for the injustices, corruption and social imbalances of the past, for the failures of society and of our political relationships.”
The situation now “seems utterly hopeless, so the fear of the violence is raw and unredeemed”.
Feeble noises from the politicians about holding the peace are hardly reassuring. The bombings seem calculated to egg Hizbollah into some kind of response. But so far it has remained quiet. Quiet for now is not the basis for hope. But Jean Said Makdisi continues with the spirit of “carrying on”. “It is incumbent on us to really feel the hope,” she said. “If we lose all hope, we will merely continue to feel only the threats to our raw physical survival, like rats.”