My wife and I celebrated our anniversary in downtown Beirut last night, accompanied by Kais, who at 2 months is still oblivious to his surroundings. Downtown Beirut on our last Saturday night in Lebanon could have been confused with Rome—tens of young Italian men were roaming the streets, looking at souvenirs, checking out women and discovering the city.
Downtown Beirut last night could also have been confused with Kabul.
As it turned out, my son was not the only one oblivious to the increased security and the Italian soldiers on leave. Terrorists
in a "speeding" car drove past the Lebanese army personnel carrier protecting the UN building, past tens of security around the buildings and the roads leading to parliament and the Serail, and fired three, not one, three RPG rockets at the Buddha Bar/Credit Libanais building which is a stone throw from the UN building. And then they got past the crazy traffic and … escaped. That building was probably the easier target, since cars can't drive down the streets leading to parliament and Nejmeh square. (Update: According the LBC, the grenades were fired from the Fouad Chehab bridge overlooking downtown Beirut. One bomb was planted on the road near the building. Interestingly, the army usually maintained a presence not far from that point on the bridge. The UN building could have been easily hit from that location but wasn't.)
This happened hours after I struggled to cross that same street with my wife and our baby stroller without getting hit by a reckless driver.
Terrorism. If it is easy for assailants to hit and run, it is because Lebanon is still the country of drive as you please. Terrorists enjoy freedom of movement here because nobody enforces traffic laws, or forces people to stop at traffic lights—let alone stop them from firing rockets at police stations and night clubs.
Six were injured last night, in the first attack to target the heavily guarded city center. There was a sense of foreboding throughout the night. At around 6, someone decided to launch loud fireworks into the sky, causing massive explosions that made me think fighting broke out. You think all sorts of things when you are pushing a stroller on unfriendly pavements and among bored soldiers who block every ramp possible. The Italian presence made some uncomfortable, although not some taxi drivers who seem to have overcome the language barrier and are now selling their services in Italian.
The city centre has suffered immensely since Hizbullah's war. Some restaurants had to close down, and others always look empty. With Hizbullah and Aoun promising surprise after surprise, Arab tourists are probably wary of coming back, especially after their hasty evacuation in July. Berri's optimism and promises of a present at the end of Ramadan will have no effect on them because nobody knows or understands the basis for his optimism or his claims that relations between Hizbullah (Shia) and the Future Movement (Sunnis) are going from "good to better".
Aoun may have unexplainably dropped his demand to overthrow the government, but Aoun is Aoun and (Update: Aoun has just renewed his call for a national unity government to be followed by parliamentary elections and then the election of a president.) Hizbullah's media is still firing salvos at everyone. Reports of an imminent cabinet change are everywhere. Other reports suggest Berri told Hizbullah and Aoun that there can be no new government without an agreement on the new president.
Meanwhile, what about security? While the attacks on the police stations could have been put in the context of the recent clashes with the ISF in Raml El Aali, during which 2 boys were shot dead, this one strips the attacks of any local motivation.
Was security blinded and deafened by the storm that caused Aoun to cancel his rally today?
Anyone in Lebanon would testify that the so called police is as corrupt and incompetent as the pre-war militias. All you need to do is drive next to an ISF and watch them run you off the road. The state and its security forces are made up of the same people who commit violations on a daily basis. Lebanon’s police officers, many unreformed ex militia members, set a bad example every day. Those in the population who would otherwise be law abiding citizens find themselves forced to copy their behavior to survive. And when security forces clash with violators, it looks like a clash within a gang of violators, and not between the law and criminals.
What happened in Raml El Aali is a case in point. More than 250 illegal structures were built in that area during the last war, under Israeli bombardment, bringing the total to a whopping one thousand. To the casual observer, the clashes could be justified given some of the violators' intransigence. But two boys were shot dead—boys who should not have been thrust into this abhorrent violation of people’s properties, and who should have been spared the chaos surrounding every involvement of Lebanese security forces. An investigation is supposedly taking place, with some reports suggesting the bullets came from a third party. This may well be true. However, on Friday, the ministry named new heads of security to take charge of the southern suburb, including that area. We don’t know the reason for the change, was it an admission of guilt? Are the reports true about the previous officials receiving bribes earlier in the year to allow such violations to happen? And what about other violations in other areas of the suburbs, where illegal buildings are being restored with Hizbullah money?
Regardless, the security situation in the country is still in shambles. According to the March 14 media, there is only one division within the Interior Ministry that actually works for the interests of the country and its citizens (as opposed to the interests of neighboring regimes.) And this is the newly established Intelligence Branch, whose head was almost assassinated recently. This division comes under fire by pro-Syrian papers almost every day.
With UNIFIL increasingly becoming the backbone of security in the south, eyes now should be on who will protect Lebanese outside that zone. Can the Intelligence Branch handle this? Are they?
The Lebanese are in the dark and they have to read between the lines to understand what is happening. Of course, protection also means the protection of their livelihood. This government will now pay over $50,000 to every family that lost a home in the southern suburb. There is no word on who will compensate people outside the war zone, who have lost jobs and are now looking to immigrate.
Yesterday's attack can probably be blamed on the same forces that have been spreading terror since the Hariri murder. But perhaps the time has come for leaders and the people who support them to understand that antidote to terrorism starts with the rule of law, which is not just something decreed by the UN or regional circumstances. It's what makes or breaks a state.