Thursday, July 18, 2013

My trip to Lebanon

I just spent the past week in Lebanon interviewing journalists covering Syria and Lebanon. I'll be writing something more formal about my findings shortly. But in the meantime, here are a few quick general observations about my trip, which was book cased by two bombings against Hezbollah targets.
  1. There is widespread anxiety and even a sense of inevitability that the Syrian war will spill into Lebanon. There is always sufficient tinder in Lebanon, and sparks are flying all over the place from both local and international actors. Not only has the war in Syria escalated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, but Syrian rebels have a clear interest in provoking a fight in Lebanon to force Hezbollah fighters in Syria to return home to defend against local enemies. I don't want to exaggerate this anxiety. Lebanon has balanced precariously for years now, and they've somehow managed so far. But the anxiety is more pronounced now because the risk is more difficult to manage.
  2. As tensions rise, journalists are at a significant risk of beatings and illegal detentions by non-state actors, especially Hezbollah. This has always been a problem in Lebanon, especially as journalists associated with one political camp try to report on events in territories controlled by another camp. But enhanced political tensions and the fear of violence will make it that much worse, especially as security forces grow more paranoid about infiltrators and saboteurs. International journalists will also be at risk of being accused as spies or worse. More on this later.
  3. It will also become increasingly dangerous for those who seek independence from Lebanon's rigid political camps. The Lebanese government is both unwilling and unable to protect its citizens. Protection comes through membership in a political camp. But the Lebanese who seek to bridge divides, who seek to upend the sectarian system, who criticize all sides, will do so at their own risk. 
  4. Despite the fear of violence, Christian areas of Lebanon remain party happy as ever. It reminds me a lot of 2006, where night clubs remained open as Israeli bombs fell on Hezbollah territory. It'd be a mistake, however, to think Christians can emerge unscathed if tensions between Sunni and Shia escalate to violence. If the Syrian war does spill over, the violence will not be so isolated as 2006 and it will be hard for Christians to stay above the fray. So perhaps they have Isaiah 22:13 in mind.
  5. Electricity outages are far more frequent than I remember from my last trip four years ago. My electricity was cut off a dozen times a day, even though I was staying in affluent areas. My friend told me he had power in his apartment for 12 hours a day. This is but one example of how the government is failing to govern. 
  6. Finally, one non sequitur from the airport. As a customs official was checking my passport, a man and his wife came behind me in line.The official looked up and started to repeatedly yell at the man, "What do you have?! Drugs?!" He then let loose a smirk and explained to me, "They're Iraqi." After passing through the metal detector, I lingered behind to make sure the couple was okay. After 10 minutes of what seemed like heated discussion and gesticulating, the man reached out and kissed the official on the cheek. The couple then passed through the metal detectors without harassment. 
UPDATE: I forgot to add one more anecdote. I stayed at a largely vacant Ramada in downtown for...$65 a night. Not a good sign for tourism and business. Admittedly, my flight to Beirut was relatively full, but it seemed to be almost entirely Lebanese returning home or visiting family. Sadly, I don't think this Ministry of Tourism video will help improve things.