x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Lebanon - a nation perilously close to breaking point

Social unrest and sectarian tensions increase in Lebanon with the state either unwilling or unable to deal with it.

Since the Israeli bombardment of the city Beirut has been building itself back up.
Since the Israeli bombardment of the city Beirut has been building itself back up.

I called a friend the other day, only to catch him mid-rant about the state of the country. "They are putting up yet another residential tower and it's going to block out my view of the mountains," he yelled. "The Lebanese can't build a country, but they can build another building."

He has a point.

Every day, while Lebanon's construction boom does indeed continue unabated, a great deal of it fuelled by apparently not entirely clean money from Africa, social unrest and sectarian tensions increase with the state either unwilling or unable to deal with it.

Sunday's attack on two Sunni clerics, apparently by members of the Amal movement, could have tipped Lebanon over the edge. Next time it may well do so and the normally bullish bourgeoisie is getting nervous.

The most recent party line has always been that once the Syrian crisis ends, Lebanon will once again experience prosperity.

But the more the crisis drags on the more hollow this sounds. And it is significant that more and more otherwise optimistic people, myself included, are now talking about buying property and transferring funds overseas.

The party line is right on one thing - everything does hinge on Syria. And as long as the fighting continues, Lebanon not only remains in limbo, it erodes.

According to the United Nations, there are at least 300,000 Syrian refugees in the country, but in reality the figure is probably nearer to 1 million.

Lebanon and its creaking infrastructure can hardly cope with its own people and the Syrian conflict is taking its toll on all levels.

In the Bekaa Valley, the centre of Lebanon's agriculture industry, the crisis is palpable.

In the town of Chtaura, from where the Masnaa border crossing to Damascus is less than 10 kilometres away, a Syrian man stopped me at the entrance of the Massabki Hotel.

"Any jobs in there?" he asked. He looked like he hadn't eaten properly in days, his clothes hanging off him like a scarecrow.

His friend who had walked ahead told him to stop wasting his time. And on they trudged. It was surely only a matter of time before petty crime beckoned, if it hadn't already done so.

"Yes, for the time being security is our main concern," said one municipal leader from the neighbouring village of Qab Elias. "So far so good, but our big fear is that should the battle for Damascus really unfold, we can expect 1 million refugees in two days." If that happens, we have no chance of coping, he added.

To make matters worse, kidnapping is on the up and local businessmen in the area are taking no chances.

At the Kassatly Chtaura jam and soft drinks factory, security has been strengthened and the owner Nayef Kassatly now has a bodyguard at all times. A day earlier, a botched abduction in broad daylight in the middle of Chtaura turned into a full-blown shoot-out in which a security officer was killed.

Meanwhile, in the western Bekaa, farmers are recognising that renting tents to Syrian refugees is more profitable than growing root crops.

"They can now get US$16,000 [Dh58,768] a year from a plot of land that would normally yield $1,000," one grape grower told me. "We are becoming landlords."

The government has been magnificently incompetent, torn as usual between loyalty to Damascus and its duty to the people of Lebanon.

It wanted avoid the idea of camps, no doubt fearful of a repeat of the Palestinian legacy and being seen to take sides. But camps at least keep people and families in one plac,e and this is better than having thousands of desperate young men roaming the country.

With an almost biblical sense of timing, locusts were spotted in parts of the country, including the Bekaa, raising fears that what is left of Lebanon's agriculture industry was now under attack from Mother Nature.

The cold weather this weekend is expected to kill off the infestation, but it was yet another headache for a country perilously close to breaking point.


Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer