x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Road to progress needs work

Purse-snatching is back in, it is said, which cannot be a good sign, but a peaceful election may well bode well for the future.

BEIRUT // Back in 2005, a particularly big hole or "joura" as it is locally known, was a nuisance for drivers along the main highway connecting Beirut to its northern cities, and almost ruined my tyres as I sped along it to cover the parliamentary elections in Lebanon. That same hole is still causing havoc on the highway in 2009. For although people talk of "change" coming here - and it might have, in the form of the quality of the campaigning itself, the high voter turnout and the dedication of the interior minister, Ziad Baroud, to maintain transparency - much on the ground remains the same.

Many of the northern and southern cities as well as parts of Beirut itself, remain as run-down, neglected and poor as I remember them. Purse-snatching is back in, it is said, which cannot be a good sign. Although some of the war-ravaged roads and buildings from the 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel have been fixed, there is still a lot to be done. If just a tiny percentage of the vast sums pumped into the campaigns - just one million, say, from the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on such things as tickets for overseas Lebanese to return to vote - were put into the rebuilding of the country, then it would be money well spent.

At any rate, after weeks of intense campaigning and spending by all the major political camps, parliamentary elections ended with the March 14 coalition winning more seats in parliament than the opposition March 8 group, which is headed by Hizbollah. The outcome is being hailed as a victory for the interests of the United States and Europe over those of Iran and Syria. I always found it fascinating how this tiny country had so many big brothers and sisters interested in its internal politics.

Regardless of the outcome, the major camps have vowed to "work together" and form a national unity government or at least some other creative form of a functional government, with crucial input from the widely respected and mostly neutral president, Michel Suleiman, who is expected to pick 11 of the 30 ministers in the new cabinet. What was actually different about these elections was their calm feel. As passionate as the Lebanese were about them, most were not scared about the possible eruption of clashes despite the defeat of some major traditional political families, such as the Saads in Saida and Karamehs in Tripoli.

Anyone remotely associated with the opposition is believed to be close to Syria, and that is something the Lebanese voted strongly against. Or perhaps, they are giving March 14 a chance to see if it will bring the change it promised. Although it was not much of a battle in Tripoli, it is important to note some obvious changes in the once-cosmopolitan city. I tagged along with several members of my family when they went to vote, and some of the polling stations were in areas that have deteriorated to the extent that it pushed one of my elderly relatives to tears.

"I can't believe people are living here in run-down homes that are over a hundred years old and nobody seems to care enough about helping them live a better life," said my aunt, who is 70. She noted the overwhelming number of conservative families now in the port city she says was much more diverse before the civil war of 1975-1990, which saw the ousting of Christians and other minorities from the now predominantly Sunni city.

Women refused to show their faces from behind their niqabs to security officers as they headed to the polling stations, something my family members say they had never seen before in Lebanon. "With poverty comes extremism, and I think it is important for the politicians who won and who claim to be more secular to tackle this before it becomes a permanent problem here," my aunt said. Tripoli and its nearby areas have had a series of serious clashes over the past few years between state security forces and Sunni fundamentalist groups linked to al Qa'eda. It is said a country is judged by the way it treats its poorest citizens, and so in those terms, Lebanon has a lot of catching up to do - even if it calls itself an exemplary democratic country on the brink of a "new dawn".