Lebanon, a 'no-dreams' land
Divisions and entrenched identities continued to plague Lebanon in 2008, writes Hanady Salman
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Lebanese protesters burn a car during a demonstration over power cuts in the mainly Shia southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut on 27 January
It was a "no dreams year" in what seems to have become a "no dreams land".
In retrospect, 2008 seems to have been a very long year in Lebanon. But that's just an impression, for life here moves only on a day-to-day basis. No one wants to remember yesterday, no one dares think about tomorrow.
The "bright" side of 2008: Lebanon finally has a president, a so-called government of national unity, its remaining hostages in Israel are freed, it has officially established diplomatic ties with Syria, and its security forces say they have dismantled the Fatah Al-Islam gang and managed to arrest members of a spying network that had worked for decades with the Israeli Mossad.
The "other", bitter side of 2008 is more over- shadowing: the assassination of one of the top leaders of the resistance, Imad Mughniyah, a "mini" civil war in Beirut and its surroundings, a number of armed assaults and assassinations, a number of confessional clashes in the capital and some regions, a series of sharp socio-economic crises that led to a series of demonstrations with unmet demands, another "mini" civil war in Tripoli, a paralysed government of national unity, a president with not much leverage, a national debt estimated at $46.6 billion for a GDP of $28 billion, an inflation rate of 11 per cent, a budget deficit of $2.3 billion, and a migration rate that grew by six per cent. All that in a country where 48 per cent of families are considered on or below the poverty line.
The events of 2008 are numerous and mostly unforgettable. However, the consequences of the events -- what they did to people's mind and hearts -- would not vanish by midnight 31 December.
The gap between Sunnis and Shias is most likely to keep deepening. The gap between the pro-Aoun Christians and pro-Gargea ones won't shrink either. Divisions, on the popular level, are growing in number and in size. They're being fed to the maximum on the eve of an election year: next May, the people of Lebanon will choose their new members of parliament. The next morning, where will the divisions go?
On the political level, we will still have two major camps: the "anti-Syrian" camp that includes those who want revenge for Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination, no matter what the cost would be. For these, an international tribunal on his assassination will presumably start convening as of next March.
In that same camp, there are those who became anti- Syrian/pro-Western, based on their views of the balance of power in the region. They believe the "rejectionists" time is over, and they should thus rush to be on the "winning" side in time.
Finally, there are those who have always been pro- Israeli. Their alliance with the groups mentioned above is to be revised after the elections.
On the other camp stand the anti-Israelis. Among them, there are those who are so concerned with resistance that they are neglecting the complications of the local scene; in addition, there are those who do the exact opposite -- mainly dealing with small political details.
In this category, there would be also a number of small parties, each insignificant by itself, but as a group they can affect the balance of power.
A balance of power based on confessional divisions, where the two sides are almost equal in size and in influence; a balance of power that can thus almost never be altered, unless the region witnesses a drastic change in 2009. The future role of Iran is major in this sense.
Not even current grim economic forecasts can change the way people view and place themselves in this country. A Druze is primarily Druze; a Shia, a Shia etc. Poor or rich will come later, if ever.
Prices in Lebanon have risen by 15 per cent during 2008. Wages have not. Between 40-50,000 Lebanese are bound to lose their jobs in several Gulf countries early next year due to the international financial crisis. Some 20,000 are about to leave Dubai alone.
The official unemployment rate in Lebanon is 16 per cent. This does not include covert unemployment mostly outside Beirut.
The "State" seems to be vanishing, quitting its job: no real concern about tomorrow, politically, economically or socially.
Replacing the state are the following: antagonist views about national interests, divergent definitions of who the enemy is, alternative "individual" economic solutions (including soaring numbers of immigration applications), and substitute social institutions: almost each significant political party has now its own health centres, hospitals, schools, religious centres and even entertainment networks.
Hence, and since each "clan" is also geographically separated from the rest of the country (except in Beirut), this leaves each group with a considerable level of self-sufficiency, making any interaction between the "peoples" of Lebanon barely necessary.
How would the southerners see how similar they are to the people of Akkar in the north? How would the unemployed of Dekwaneh in East Beirut ever know that their fate is a replica of that of the unemployed of Barbour in West Beirut?
What will happen tomorrow?
The question that no one dares think about. And this is not about national political stances and strategies or major economic plans.
What will happen tomorrow if a member of the family falls sick? Or if the schools' tuition fees rise even more? What water are we drinking? Who is checking the air we breathe? Who tests the food we're eating? What goods could one still to buy in a country that imports almost everything, and in euros? What if there is a new war with Israel? What if there is a war in the region? What if the Canadians reject the immigration request?
What tomorrow will the people of Lebanon have? No one should ask that question. Everybody should just wait and see.