Post card from Lebanon
This is one of a series of post cards by Reuters reporters looking at how the financial crisis is playing out for ordinary people across Europe, Middle East and Africa.
On an Easter break in south Lebanon with visitors from Britain, we see scores of election posters lining the highway ahead of the June 7 parliamentary poll — the first big test of stability here since a Qatari-brokered deal last year calmed an internal crisis that had dragged Lebanon towards renewed civil war. Vague slogans on the slickly produced adverts promise change, democracy, resistance (to Israel) and much else beside. But the election will change little. Power might shift a bit
between Lebanon’s dominant alliances — one backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, the other by Syria and Iran. But voters have scant choice as the sectarian power-sharing system allows party leaders to do deals that stitch up most seats in advance.
Election tension might spark low-level clashes, but external factors — a Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, Obama’s overtures to Damascus and Tehran — have helped cool the atmosphere. And the Lebanese, who have so far survived the global downturn thanks to the liquidity and conservative policies of their banks, know any major violence could wreck the lucrative summer tourist season.
On the Beirut-Tyre highway, billboards for beach resorts alternate with Hezbollah banners. The Iranian-backed Shi’ite group does not seem keen to provoke a repeat of its 2006 war
with Israel, but no one doubts its military capacity, however well concealed. South of the Litani river, we see only UNIFIL peacekeepers and Lebanese army checkpoints. The calm we enjoyed on our break would of course unravel swiftly if Israel’s confrontation with Iran were to ignite in outright conflict.
Not that all is quiet in Lebanon — four soldiers were ambushed and killed in the Bekaa Valley this week by brothers of a drug baron slain earlier at an army checkpoint, illustrating the fragility of the rule of law, especially in neglected rural hinterlands. We decide to skip the Roman ruins of Baalbek.
Back in Beirut, cranes swing over building sites where Syrian workers toil away as if Lebanon were immune from the world’s economic woes. In fact property prices have lost some froth, but the crisis has been strangely slow to bite. Money sent home by Lebanese working in the Gulf and elsewhere makes up more than a quarter of GDP, but the finance minister says his compatriots are not the first to be fired.
Perhaps the impact will be felt later, but for now Lebanese can still afford to employ many foreigners themselves. Not just Syrian labourers. Our visitors were also struck by the Ethiopian maids twittering from balconies, not to mention the Bangladeshis in green overalls dusting the traffic lights downtown.
(Tourists walk in the forest of cedars, located north of Mount Lebanon July 24, 2008. Sturdy cedars perched high in the mountains stand for many Lebanese as symbols of their fractured lands survival. But some environmentalists worry that the trees face a new threat from global warming. Picture taken July 24, 2008. To match feature LEBANON-CEDARS/ REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi (LEBANON))