Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mud Sligging and Political Tensions Escalate

It has been raining and hailing in Beirut for the past two days. The temperature is cold and this storm appears to be one of the coldest felt in the past couple of years. Ironically, the timing of the chill illustrates the starkness of the political situation. The country is at a standstill, and the impact of the coalition and opposition's face off is taking a fatal turn in the streets.

If last Sunday's protest was not a pretty serious expression of the political stalemates and bickering, than today's news, in the French language paper, L'Orient, describing 13 to 15 year old youths attempts to close off one of the main arteries between East and West Beirut last night with burning tires, is a rather depressing escalation. Why are teenagers allowed out of their houses at night during this current situation? Why is there no curfew being set in order to keep civilians away from escalation and danger?

Last Sunday's death toll, 9. The numbers for the wounded hover in the 30s. Finger pointing and accusations are rife. News reports: "Why are people dancing along the edge of the precipous?". It is a good question indeed. If the calls for retaliation which have been going out since Sunday evening are heeded, than regardless of the groups involved or responsible for igniting the deadly clashes, the whole of Lebanon will be implicated.

As the country functions in a system of political alliances, factions composing the various teams will be called on to support whichever side comes under attack first. It feels like a waiting game, with the patrons getting ready for a showdown.

As Samer rolls up his pant legs to show off his shrapnel wounds he explains: "There were about 15 guys who came down the street. Some were huntched behind a dumpster which they rolled down the street as protection. When they got close enough, they lobbed their bomb at us. Out the seven of us sitting on the street corner, 5 of us ended up in the hospital".

Atif, Samer's father sitting on one of the couches of his living room hisses between his teeth. He interjects raising his voice saying he had told his son to stay inside. There is only so much Atif can do though: Samer is probably in his mid-thirties.

It was around midnight that the explosion occured. Atif in a panick ran downstairs to retrieve his son. By the time he had found Samer, Samer was running as best he could down the street. The back of his left ankle and right knee were injured by shrapnel.

At the hospital, Le Mont Liban, by the time Samer was being treated, the youngest of the Gemayel sons appeared on the scene to speak with the injured. The Gemayel family founded the Lebanese Forces, known locally as Kata'ib. An ultra nationalist Christian group, who lost one of its youngest leaders and MPs, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated in December of 2006 at the age of 34.

If anything Pierre Gemayel's brother's visit to the hospital late on Sunday night was a courtesy call, but the symbolic way of paying respects is also a symbolic reaffirmation of patronage and protection.

The Lebanese client/patron relationship lives on, and is clearly taking the upper-hand during a time when the Lebanese government is at its weakest since the Civil War of 1975.

By Monday morning, tension was obvious on the street. Although the Lebanese shop keepers had speedily replaced broken windows, and cleaned up the debris caused by rocks which had been lobbed between opposing factions, the road surface was scared by the heat of the burning tires. Military armed presence was heavy, as was a strong Syrian presence leaning and crouching along the walls along the opposite side of the street. They are day workers supposedly, hanging about for some boss to pick them up. But these seem to also dabble in protesting explains Atif.

By Wednesday, the national papers are filled with defensive statements by various groups involved in the violence which broke out during the protests. The only group which seems for a first time to have been executing the dirty work of the coalition is keeping its mouth shut. It has no other option at this point, if the only multi-confessional institution wants to keep itself from splitting apart.