x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Lebanon's political crisis turns Beirut into a ghost town

After a Hizbollah-backed candidate was chosen as Lebanon's prime minister-designate, heightened tensions between rival groups mean the centre of Beirut is now marked by roadblocks, armed patrols and closed-off streets.

A tank passes burning tyres in Beirut. Tanks are stationed in politically sensitive areas in the Lebanese capital.
A tank passes burning tyres in Beirut. Tanks are stationed in politically sensitive areas in the Lebanese capital.

BEIRUT // The normally bustling streets and neighbourhoods of Lebanon are beginning to mirror the paralysis that has beset the country's politics after the collapse of Lebanon's government.

"Our sales were down 90 per cent in the past month," said Youssef Ibrahim, 26, the branch manager at Città Resto Café, an up-market eatery in Beirut's rebuilt central area.

The city centre, with its planned streets and widespread cafes and restaurants, is a major draw for tourists who make up almost all of Mr Ibrahim's customers. But, given its proximity to the parliament building and other government offices, the centre of Beirut is now more like a ghost town marked by roadblocks, armed patrols and closed-off streets.

"This area is very sensitive," Mr Ibrahim said. "If anything political happens in Lebanon, [the centre] is the first place to react."

Political tensions began to mount months ago over the issue of a United Nations-backed tribunal expected to charge members of Hizbollah with involvement in the 2005 assassination of the prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Hizbollah, which denies any links to the killing, together with its allies walked out of the previous government when then prime minister Saad Hariri - the son of Rafiq - refused to denounce the tribunal. Security was beefed up considerably after the government's collapse on January 12 sparked riots during protests against the naming of a Hizbollah-backed prime minster, Najib Miqati.

Politically sensitive areas, such as the neighbourhoods where major Lebanese leaders live, are all but shut down. Security has been strengthened in areas inhabited by people of different faiths, where tension is running high. Tanks are stationed in areas such as Aaycha Bakkar in west Beirut and Cola to the south of the city, which are often the sites of sectarian clashes. Earlier this week, Sunnis angry at the nomination of Mr Miqati stormed Cola, an important transportation hub, blocking roads with burning tyres and rubbish skips as they battled the army for hours.

This weekend, a calm had returned to Cola. Taxis and minibuses dropped off and picked up people. But the hubbub was at a fraction of what it normally is.

"People are afraid and wary of this area after all the problems and after what they saw on TV," said Sami Banna, 29, an optometrist from the Cola area. "There have been economic changes. There are no people shopping around this area. Normally it's busy but after this problem with the army and government took place, the area is in shock."

Mr Miqati, the prime minister-designate, wrapped up two days of consultations with all of Lebanon's political blocs on Friday and met the president, Michel Suleiman, yesterday to discuss forming a government.

Residents of Beirut are accustomed to the restrictions on movement and lockdowns of sensitive areas associated with the ebb and flow of security this country has endured for decades. The architecture of crisis - roadblocks, check points, cinder block barricades - can appear and disappear rapidly according to the political situation. But analysts say that regardless of whether a government is formed, tensions are linked to larger grievances and they will remain.

"Even if the government is formed, I don't think security measures will be removed," said Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. "The security is unstable and it could be destabilised further at any moment." Even if Mr Miqati does manage to form a unity government and thereby returning stability to Lebanon's streets, there is another bump in the road ahead - if the tribunal indicts Hizbollah members as expected, it is certain to renew tensions.

"People will return to a normal life," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "But we are bracing ourselves for the press conference of the tribunal which will take place on February 7. I think there will be turbulence in the country."

dduncan@thenational.ae