Beirut had changed little since my last visit in September. It was warmer then, of course, and a bit busier too. But the grey smog that seems to envelop the city still hung in the air. The city’s streets remained awash with rubbish and clogged by geriatric cars. Saad Hariri was still the country’s prime minister, as he had been before.
What had taken place in between was a timely reminder of what can happen to this country in just the blink of an eye. In early November Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia and, in a televised statement that sent shockwaves across the Middle East, and indeed the world, resigned from his position as prime minister. It was an all-too-familiar sign of how exposed Lebanon is to turbulence and power-plays in other parts of this volatile region.
The Lebanese were uncertain at first. Who wouldn’t be? Their figurehead, in his second term as premier, and the son of Rafik Hariri, the late patron of post-war Lebanon, had been detained by the Saudi state. The Saudis took away his phone and reportedly forced him to pledge allegiance to his older brother Bahaa, who they see as a more favourable candidate to lead the fight against Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, the powerful Shia party-cum-militia that exerts considerable influence over the state.
Bordering Israel and on the fringes of a proxy war that continues to rage in Syria, Lebanon is in a tough neighbourhood. But what really leaves the country susceptible to incidents such as Hariri’s detention is its deeply sectarian nature. With its Shia, Sunni and Christian communities frequently at odds, and also vulnerable to the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Lebanon is inherently unstable, prone to sudden episodes of violence and political chaos.
Rafik is credited with rebuilding the city after the country’s brutal civil war. Yet vestiges of the conflict – walls pockmarked by bullet holes and mortar blasts – testify to what can go wrong if the fragile status quo shatters.
Not that you get any sense of those underlying tensions wandering around Beirut – a brash, energetic city, currently enjoying a construction boom. The bustle of everyday life is incessant, though the myriad alliances, feuds, and ultimately struggles for power bubble beneath the surface. It is often when the precarious balance is disrupted that events such as Hariri’s effective abduction occur.
Rafik met his end because he was seen to have become too powerful. He was assassinated in February 2005, his car blown apart by a tonne of TNT. Yet he was an immensely popular leader and his death led to outpourings of solidarity and devotion across Beirut – posters of him on street walls and statues popping up in city squares. Although much less popular, Saad’s homecoming in late November somewhat surprisingly caused scenes reminiscent of those that followed his father’s death.
Even those who once lambasted Saad on social media for his undistinguished stewardship of the country and allegedly corrupt dealings rallied behind him. “We are all Saad,” they said. Unexpectedly, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nassrallah, also expressed his support, criticising the Saudis for having insulted the Lebanese people.
Saad’s return, on the eve of Independence Day celebrations, was a galvanising moment for Lebanon. Yet feelings of uncertainty remain. The economy continues to teeter on the brink, renewed conflict with Israel looms, and the actions of Saudi Arabia and its arch enemy Iran are as unpredictable as ever. But the Lebanese carry on with their lives, filling Beirut’s bars with chatter and ambitious plans for the future. Youngsters career down side streets on mopeds and throng the city square for student protests.
A local once told me of a tacit agreement between the people and their government: you can have your money and your power and your endless corruption, but we will have our right to live freely. This understanding has led to a liberal, open-minded urban culture – though one that is overshadowed by all the problems of a developing country. Yet for all the poor governance that blights Beirut on daily basis, democracy somehow endures. Lebanese will be hoping that peace does too.