By Will Todman
“Hezbollah are in the streets! Another civil war is starting!” our taxi driver spluttered as we sped through Beirut’s empty streets to one of its trendy drinking areas on Sunday night.
Having lived in Lebanon for almost a year, when faced with the prospect of political instability we have developed a degree of the Beiruti equivalent to the British stiff upper lip. So, seeing no signs of the gunmen reported to be roaming the streets, blocking roads with burning tyres and setting fires, we carried on to the bar.
But as an area of southern Beirut erupted into a deadly gun battle between pro and anti Syrian factions later that night after the army’s murder of two Sunni clerics, it seemed clear that this time, it was more than just rumours.
The thud of the rocket-propelled grenades and AK47s echoed in the silence of the night and the streets outside my flat became eerily devoid of life. Twitter was alive with updates of the fighting and grim predictions of sectarian civil war and the bloodshed to come.
And that night was certainly bloody: two people died and 20 were injured in the worst fighting Beirut has witnessed for years.
But crucially, the clashes were between different groups of Sunni Muslims, not along religious lines, and aside from the pressures of the kidnapping of Lebanese pilgrims in Syria, and the continual burning of tyres, blocking roads across the country, the following days have proved relatively calm and peaceful.
A video on YouTube of a roof-top party in full swing just 500m from the heart of the explosions sums up what is best about Lebanon. Not Beirut’s obsession with partying (as extraordinary as it is), but the clear show of determination to continue life as normal, despite the political folly exploding around them.
Lebanon’s recent history is particularly tragic. Even after the decades long civil war finally subsided, continual assassinations rocked the country until all out war returned when Israel invaded the south in 2005. Sectarian tensions are undoubtedly still simmering, but what the last week has showed is that there are enough people in Lebanon who are determined to not let the country slip back into war.
The day after the fatal clashes, a ‘No 2 War’ rally was organised, fittingly, in Martyrs’ Square. But in the event, a tiny proportion of the predicted attendees materialised, and expats and journalists outnumbered those Lebanese actually protesting for peace.
This should not be taken as a sign that the Lebanese do not want peace. Instead, it shows that rather than escalating the situation, the recent events may have actually released some tension.
Inevitably, finger pointing followed the fighting, but this has later been replaced by an unusual show of political harmony. Despite having egged their factions on for years, most sectarian leaders now realise just how destructive another war could be.
Countless politicians have pledged their support for the army as an institution to preserve the country’s unity. Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s mysterious leader, publically denounced blocking roads and he even congratulated his political rival, Saad Hariri, for his efforts in releasing the Lebanese pilgrims held in Syria.
Lebanon does not want another war. Geographically, Syria may be close and politically, it seems inseparable, but what we are now witnessing is a united effort, irrespective of religious, sectarian or political lines, to preserve Lebanon’s peace and stability as Syria continues to rumble to the east and north.
As my flatmate said to me, the only people who want war in Lebanon are journalists and tyre sellers.