Living in Lebanon is like watching a dramatic thriller unfold. At times it’s exciting, at other times heart-wrenching or just petrifying. The Lebanese people endured 15 years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 that cost around 150,000 lives and left the capital, Beirut, in ruins; but in the 1990s they seemed to be moving into a new era of peace and stability. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by a car bomb in February 2005, however, Lebanon’s stage has been set to a ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery.
The assassination was widely blamed on neighbouring Syria (which had dominated Lebanon politically since the civil war). Hundreds of thousands of angry Lebanese took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. In response to this ‘Cedar Revolution’, Shi’a Muslims, most of whom support either Hizbullah or the Amal Movement, held a counter-demonstration of support for Syria. The tit-for-tat demonstrations went on for a while until Syria – under immense national and international pressure – withdrew its forces.
For a while, it looked as if peace had prevailed. But the euphoria was short-lived. There was a rash of late-night bomb explosions in Christian neighbourhoods. A series of assassinations began, most of the victims being anti-Syrian journalists.
And then, in July 2006, Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers at the border. In retaliation, Israel launched a war by air and sea. The entire country was targeted but the south bore the brunt. Over 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed – a third of them children under the age of 13. The attacks lasted for 34 days and ended as suddenly as they had begun. A UN peacekeeping force was deployed along the border.
Once again, a certain sense of peace began to prevail. But not for long. In November, pro-Syrian cabinet ministers, including all the Shi’a, walked out of the Coalition Government, claiming that they were being marginalized. A few days later, leading Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was shot dead.
Photo: ALFREDO CALIZ / PANOS
In December, thousands of opposition demonstrators in Beirut demanded the resignation of the Government and set up tents in the city’s busy downtown area – effectively shutting it down. The ‘tent city’ remains to this day. Nerves were tested again when, in May 2007, an al-Qaeda-inspired group fought a three-month battle with the Lebanese army in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon. More than 400 people were killed and 40,000 refugees were displaced before the army finally gained control.
Meanwhile, the assassinations continued. Two pro-government MPs were killed by car bombs in June and September 2007. The numbers of pro-government MPs were dwindling. With MPs required to vote in a new president soon, many of the anti-Syrian legislators moved into a heavily guarded five-star hotel in central Beirut, hoping to stay alive long enough to elect a candidate of their choice.
Lebanese people watched this drama unfold in fascination. Who would be next? It was all anyone could talk or think about. At the beginning, people would stay home for a few days after every explosion. But by the fifth or sixth assassination, they waited a few hours for the roads to be cleared, then went about their usual business.
With the MPs in hiding, the targets changed. In December, a senior army general was assassinated. In January, a US diplomatic vehicle was targeted, killing three passers-by. The latest assassination was that of a Lebanese counter-terrorism officer who had reportedly been working with a UN team to uncover the killers of Rafik Hariri.
Ironically, Lebanese _joie de vivre_ continues. Nightclubs and cafés remain full. After all, where else can one discuss and analyze the latest events in the Lebanese murder mystery?
|Leader||Presidency currently vacant, pending election by Parliament. Presidential powers assumed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $5,490 (Syria $1,570, France $36,550).|
|Monetary unit||Lebanese pound.|
|Main exports||Cement, chemicals, clothing, electrical equipment, jewellery, metals, textiles, tobacco. Lebanon has a free-market economy with minimal government regulations. Banking secrecy is one of the country’s important features. Agricultural output under 20% of pre-war levels, and less than a third of the country’s food is home-grown.|
|People||4.1 million. Annual population growth rate 1.9%. People per square kilometre 390 (UK 246).|
|Health||Infant mortality 26 per 1,000 live births (Syria 12, France 4). HIV prevalence rate 0.1%.|
|Environment||The 15-year civil war took a toll as woodland was torched or chopped down and illegal quarries defaced many mountains. Deforestation, soil erosion and desertification remain problems. There are, however, environmental NGOs and environmental education in schools is improving.|
|Culture||Predominantly Arabic, but with strong Western influences. The Levant has been populated and influenced by numerous cultures over the millennia: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, French.|
|Religion||There has been no census since 1932, when there were similar numbers of Muslims and Christians. A new census has been avoided so as not to upset sectarian sensibilities but it is widely accepted that the Muslim population is now larger than the Christian. Among Muslims there are Shi’a, Sunni, Ismaili, Alawite; and among Christians Maronite, Melkite, Syrians, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Chaldean, Assyrian, Copt. There is also a Druze minority.|
|Language||Arabic, officially, but French and English are widely spoken. The Lebanese are renowned for their ability to switch between languages. *Human Development Index*: 1990 0.692; 2005 0.772 (Syria 0.724, France 0.952).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||The average salary of a Lebanese employee barely covers the basic necessities. There is a significant wealthy élite and little serious government effort at redistribution. 1988 ★★|
|Literacy||Education standards are quite high in both state-run and private schools; most children are expected to speak three languages fluently by the time they graduate. 1988 ★★★|
|Life expectancy||72 years (Syria 74, France 80). Hospitals have doctors schooled in Europe and the US and have modern equipment. But the many Lebanese without insurance end up without medical care or turn to poorly run clinics. 1988 ★★★|
|Freedom||There are no political prisoners and freedom of expression provokes debate. But many Lebanese have disappeared in the past for criticizing Syria and are thought to be in Syrian prisons. 1988 ★★|
|Position of women||Women represent 28% of the workforce – the highest in the Arab world. There are female doctors, lawyers, engineers and managers in businesses. But very few women enter the political arena or the judiciary. 1988 ★★★|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is illegal and imprisonable for a year but is quietly tolerated. Four years ago, an advocacy group was established to promote LGBT rights – the first of its kind in the Arab world.|
|New Internationalist assessment||In the absence of a president (the election by Parliament has been postponed countless times) and with the country politically split down the middle, there is little chance of normality being restored any time soon. Lebanon suffers from being a battleground in a broader regional struggle pitting the US and its allies against Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and other groups. It lacks the capacity to break free of external influences and resolve its problems independently. This is a vicious circle that is likely to worsen in the coming months.|