Thursday, September 18, 2008

No dialogue in Lebanon’s mean streets

The national dialogue is on track again, albeit with its next session delayed until November 5, no doubt so that everyone can first absorb the results of the United States presidential election. But on the ground, far from the eyes of the politicians but not their reach, the situation is more troubling. As President Michel Sleiman prepares for the next round of talks, his priority must be to address what is happening in the streets, otherwise this could jeopardize the dialogue itself.

Take this incident last week on Mar Elias Street. A friend had gone there with someone to have an after-movie dessert. As the pair was ordering, a young man came up and demanded that they show him their identification cards. My friend refused, and the young man called out to several comrades. Within minutes my friend was surrounded, his friend was being hit, and the two were being shouted at. Only when the stranger realized that my friend knew people from the Sharafeddine family, which he said he belonged to, did he calm down and try to make amends for his belligerent behavior. He said he belonged to the Amal movement and that "conditions" made it necessary for him and his men to be vigilant.

One could dismiss this as an isolated event, were it not for the fact that there is an increasing number of stories circulating in western Beirut describing similar such behavior. In Ras al-Nabeh, there are problems almost every day of that nature. In the strip of mixed Sunni-Shiite quarters between Mar Elias and the Bishara al-Khoury boulevard, groups of young men, clearly those who fought in the street battles last May, spend their evenings on the sidewalks checking out whoever walks by. A surprising number of journalists or writers who sympathize with the March 14 coalition, most of them Muslims, have moved to eastern Beirut because they feel unsafe in the other half of the capital. And some March 14 activists cannot even live in their own homes because people regularly drive by, inquire about their whereabouts, and insult them.

Since May, the streets of western Beirut have been effectively controlled by those parties that won the round of fighting at the time. That doesn’t mean that a night out on the town is fraught with danger. By and large everything appears normal on the surface, particularly in the quarters around Ras Beirut. But when a journalist from a pro-Hariri newspaper tells you that two unidentified men boldly sat in on a recent interview with him conducted at a cafe in the early evening on Hamra Street, his point is more subtle: Those who want to engage in intimidation can do so with no fear that the security forces or the army will intervene.

The leaders of the political parties controlling western Beirut may or may not be actively encouraging their partisans to apply coercive behavior, but it is plain that they are doing nothing to prevent it. The reason appears to be that in the run-up to parliamentary elections, the March 8 parties, particularly Hizbullah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Marada, want to be sure they can shape electoral outcomes in their favor. This may come by exerting pressure on voters, or by creating tension to prevent voting. The reality is that even outside western Beirut, in districts that will decide the balance in Parliament, including Sidon, Koura, the Western Bekaa, Zahleh and Baabda, the opposition has great leeway to manipulate developments on the ground to get the results it seeks.

The politicians may spend months discussing a "defense strategy," but conditions in Lebanon will be determined to a large extent by those strains little seen or heard. For example, the reason that Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and Hizbullah met under the auspices of Talal Arslan earlier this week was to normalize a worrisome relationship between the two Shiite villages in the Aley district, Qomatiyeh and Kayfoun, and the Druze communities around them, particularly in Baysour where Saleh al-Aridi was assassinated last week. The Druze will not forget that last May Hizbullah temporarily took over Hill 888 overlooking Aley because its combatants were infiltrated through Kayfoun.

The brief breakout of fighting this week in Taalbaya, on the road between Shtaura and Zahleh, showed how another tinderbox has been left to fester. The army is present in Taalbaya, but the disposition of the communities makes enforcing security difficult. Shiites and Sunnis live among each other in much of the town, with Shiites controlling the high ground and able to reinforce themselves militarily from the village of Hazzerta, located above Zahleh. There is no easy way to prevent youths from insulting each other in Taalbaya’s streets, when those streets happen to be right outside their homes. That is why small incidents can transform themselves into major confrontations at the drop of a hat.

The only way to neutralize these and other similar flashpoints is to go to the source of the problem, at least where this is feasible. Resolving the problem in Taalbaya will not force thugs off the streets of western Beirut. However, if the March 8 parties, who are the ones flaunting their militias, agree to a national plan to bring calm to the country, then places like Taalbaya and Kayfoun will fall in line. But all the signs are that the parties’ aim is precisely the opposite. After all, it is useful to deploy men with guns close by when discussing such issues as the "defense strategy," Palestinian weapons outside the camps, relations with Syria, Lebanese financing for the Hariri tribunal, parliamentary elections, and a host of other contentious issues sure to divide politicians in the months ahead.

That’s why if Sleiman wants to sponsor a truly successful national dialogue, he will have to, first, prove that the state controls the streets, all the streets. But if the state cannot do so, if it cannot even impose its writ in areas of Beirut, then what credibility will it have when presenting its army as a legitimate alternative to Hizbullah’s independent army? Of course that’s precisely the question Hizbullah wants us to ask.

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