Saturday, February 3, 2007
So it was back to terror, terror, terror this week. The "terrorist"
Hizbollah was trying to destroy the "democratically elected
government" of Fouad Siniora in Lebanon. The "terrorist"
Hamas government cannot rule Palestine. Iranian "terrorists"
in Iraq are going to be gunned down by US troops.
My favourite line of the week came from the "security source"
- just how one becomes a "security source" remains a
mystery to me -- who announced: "Terrorists are always looking
for new ways to strike terror... There is no end of the possibilities
where terrorists can try to cause terror to the public."
Well, you could have fooled me.
Lebanon is as good a place as any to find out what a load of
old tosh the "terror" merchants talk. For here it is
that the hydra-headed monster of Iran is supposedly stalking the
streets of Beirut, staging a coup against Mr Siniora and his ministers.
Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, is the man Israel
spent all last summer trying - vainly, of course - to kill, his
black-bearded, turbaned appearance on Hizbollah's own TV station
a source of fury to both Ehud Olmert and - nowadays - to Siniora's
men in government.
Now it's true that Nasrallah - an intelligent, former military
commander of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon - is developing a rather
odd cult of personality. His massive features tower over the Beirut
airport highway, a giant hand waving at motorists in both directions.
And these days, you can buy Hizbollah T-shirts and Nasrallah key
chains. But somehow "terror" is not quite the word that
comes to mind.
This is partly because the tens of thousands of Shia Muslims
whom Hizbollah represents are staging a social revolution rather
than a coup, a mass uprising of the poor who have traditionally
been ignored by the great and the good of Lebanese society.
The men in their tent city downtown are a powerful symbol in
Lebanon. They are smoking their hooker pipes and playing cards
and sleeping rough next to the shining new city which Rafiq Hariri
rebuilt from the ruins of Beirut - a city to impress foreigners
but one in which the south Lebanese poor could not afford to buy
a cup of coffee.
Hariri's theory - or at least this is how he explained it to
me before his murder - was that if the centre of Beirut was reconstructed,
the money which it generated would trickle down to the rest of
But it didn't trickle. The bright lights of downtown Beirut were
enjoyed by the rich and purchased by the Saudis and admired by
the likes of Jacques Chirac but they were not for the Shia. For
them, Hizbollah provided the social services and the economic
foundation of its part of Lebanon as well as the military spearhead
to strike at Israel and demand the return of Shebaa Farms.
The Lebanese government may have its troops mixed in with the
new UN force in the south but no one doubts that Hizbollah remain
in their villages, as powerful and as influential as ever. Harirism,
it seems, failed and now Hariri's old friend Siniora - who, by
the way, was never elected (he was appointed to the prime minister's
job although you'd never know if from watching Western television)
- has returned from Paris with millions of dollars to sit once
more in his little "green zone", surrounded by barbed
wire and soldiers and, outside the gates of his serail, by the
poor of southern Lebanon and the suburbs of Beirut.
Hizbollah's electoral partners are also interesting. General
Michel Aoun - whom the Americans have not yet got round to calling
a "terrorist" - is the Christian leader who allows Nasrallah
to claim that the opposition is non-sectarian. Aoun's supporters
were involved in pitched battles with Samir Geagea's Phalangists
last week and what was striking was how poor many of Aoun's Christian
supporters also appeared to be. Indeed, Aoun was himself born
in the same southern slums of Beirut which is Hizbollah's power
base and his constant refrain - that the government is corrupt
- is beginning to take hold among the disenfranchised Christian
communities in the east of Beirut.
The fact that Aoun is also a little cracked does not change this.
Even when this week he produced a doctored photograph supposedly
showing an armed Phalangist on the streets - the image was of
a Hizbollah gunman, originally taken during last summer's war
but stuck on to a photograph of crowds on a north Beirut roadway
- his loyal supporters did not desert him. Nestling beside their
tents in central Beirut are canvas homes containing Lebanese communists
- how friendly the old hammer and sickle seems these days - and
a host of lesser groups which may or may not come under Syria's
Of course, the crisis in Lebanon is also about Iran and Syria,
especially Iran's determination to damage or destroy any Middle
East government which has earned America's friendship. In the
growing, overheated drama being played out between Washington
and Tehran (and Israel, of course), Lebanon is another board game
for the two sides to use. America thus lined up to defend Lebanon's
democracy - though it didn't care a damn about it when Israel
bombarded the country last summer - while Iran continues to support
Hizbollah whose government ministers resigned last year, provoking
the current crisis.
Nasrallah is said to have been personally shocked by the extent
of the violence and hatred manifested in last week's miniature
civil war in which both Sunni and Shia Muslims used guns against
each other for the first time.
But they too emerged from the slums to do battle with their co-religionists
and I rather suspect that - when this latest conflict is over
- there will have to be a serious evaluation of the explosive
nature of Lebanon's poverty belts, a re-examination of a country
whose super-wealthy launder the money which never reaches the
poor, whose French restaurants and Italian designer shops are
for the princes of the Gulf, whose government - however democratically
elected (and Washington still doesn't seem to understand that
sectarian politics mean that Lebanon cannot have a normal democracy)
- seems so out of touch with its largest religious community.
But as the story of Lebanon continues, please spare me the word