The shadows that lie behind Beirut’s glitzy façade

October 6, 2008

Jouneih beachIn downtown Beirut, resurrected from the rubble of the 1975-90 civil war, one is spoilt for choice of smart restaurants, trendy bars and lively clubs. Performances by sexy Lebanese divas and belly dancers contribute generously to Lebanon’s gross domestic product by attracting Gulf Arab tourists enchanted with Lebanese talent and beauty — not necessarily in that order.

There is isn’t a single international designer who has not found his or her way to Beirut’s elegant boutiques and jewellery shops. On the other hand, Lebanese designers such as Elie Saab are dressing Hollywood stars these days.

On the streets of Beirut one can see the latest Mercedes, Jaguars and BMWs jostling with Maseratis and Ferraris, even before they appear in Europe. Appearances aside, Lebanon has one of the best-educated peoples in the Middle East, with its young men and women having a global reach into the worlds of business, banking and academia.

It was comforting to see downtown Beirut teeming again with tourists enjoying the delights the city can offer. Beaches were packed with Beirutis in bikinis and hotels were overbooked with returning visitors who left during the crisis that erupted between the pro-Iranian opposition led by Lebanon’s influential Shi’ite Hezbollah and the U.S.-backed Sunni-led Lebanese government after the assassination in 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. This crisis has been put on hold following a Qatari-brokered agreement in May.

Yet underneath the glitzy facade is a country mirroring the real currents of militancy and Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism unleashed by the Iraq war.

The conflict in Iraq has brought back to the surface the historical Sunni-Shi’ite feud throughout the Middle East. It overthrew a Sunni dictator, brought Iraq’s Shi’ites to power and tipped the balance of power in favour of Shi’ite Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.Burn-out Beirut car

This, in turn, has incensed Sunni Arab countries and left a bitter legacy across the Arab world, Lebanon in particular which is traditionally a proxy battleground where regional forces settle their disputes.

In Lebanon, the Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry is in danger of taking a vicious turn. Fundamentalist Sunni Salafi groups have established a foothold in the northern city of Tripoli, which admittedly had been a hotbed for Sunni Islamist groups in the 1980s before they were crushed by Syria, then the dominant power in Lebanon.

Now these forces have found their way to the southern city of Sidon and to eastern Lebanon and some Palestinian refugee camps.

Added to the Iraq war factor is the humiliation inflicted on Sunni prestige in May by Hezbollah when it overran West Beirut, traditionally a Sunni bastion, after a row with the government. That proved without a doubt that they called the shots in the country.

As a result, Sunni groups are seething, with some tilting towards radical Islamism.

The growing influence of these groups is no longer just in the poor neighbourhoods of Tripoli but it has reached the more affluent parts of the southern port city of Sidon — through mosques and preachers setting out to indoctrinate young Sunnis.

A friend recently recounted how her nephew and some of his friends, all American-educated and from affluent Sunni conservative families, were victims of this indoctrination and turned into zealots after attending prayers at a mosque near Sidon.

“Now he spends his days in his room reading the Koran and listening to militant chants. In his eyes we are non-Muslims and following the infidel way of life. Nobody is able to communicate with him or get through to him,” the friend told me.

Lebanon, it seems, is being used once again by its politicians and their regional patrons as a laboratory.Fateh al-Islam news conference

Anti-Syrian Sunni Lebanese politicians, backed by Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia, have not only ignored the growing influence of Salafi groups but have courted them in some instances in their attempt to roll back the rising tide of Shi’ite influence embodied by Hezbollah.

Syria, which after the 2003 U.S.-led war encouraged and facilitated the flow of jihadists to Iraq and into Lebanon, has warned of growing Islamist militancy in north Lebanon and said a vehicle used in a suicide attack in Damascus last week had crossed into Syria from a neighbouring country, implying it could have been Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq.

With these local and regional actors playing with fire, how long before their policies backfire

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