Beirut: Where Valentine’s Day Belongs to Another Kind of Saint

Though Beirut’s opulent array of lingerie boutiques, jewelry stores, and gift shops do brisk business in the romance trade throughout the year, many of them are shuttered on the most romantic day of all. Valentine’s Day is a semi-official holiday in Lebanon, though not because the citizens of this cosmopolitan, Middle Eastern country are reputedly more amorous than the rest of the Arab world. In fact, Feb. 14 is the date that former prime minister Rafik Hariri died in a massive car bombing in downtown Beirut in 2005, and each anniversary since has become a kind of saint’s day for those in the country who believe that the Hariri assassination was ordered by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which occupied Lebanon at the time.

This year, many of them finally feel that justice for Hariri’s murder is at hand — if not in an international court of law than by the whim of history and fortune. For almost a year now, the Syrian people themselves have risen up against Assad’s authoritarian rule, and many of those Lebanese gathering Tuesday at the annual Hariri memorial in downtown Beirut expressed hope that Assad would meet the same fate as the other dictators toppled by the popular revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring. “I hope he goes to hell,” says Joseph Mowad, a bodyguard of one of the anti-Syrian politicians attending the event, referring to the Syrian leader. “I hope he gets exactly what he did to our people in Lebanon.” They also took pride in the fact that the deaths of Hariri and several others led to mass demonstrations which eventually pushed the Syrian army out of Lebanon, an event that become known as the Cedar Revolution. They now claim it as a precursor to the Arab Spring. “I salute the [Syrian] martyrs of Dara’a and Homs,” said Samir Gagea, a member of parliament and leader of an anti-Syrian Christian political party, in a speech to the assembled audience. “The blood that fell there is merging with the blood that fell here… We are all fighting the same tyranny.”

But if justice comes for the dead Lebanese leader, it may likely be the kind of rough justice that throws Lebanon itself into chaos. There are warning signs of instability: the prices of assault rifles have more than doubled in the Beirut black market in the past year as arms dealers funnel weapons to the anti-Assad forces; well-to-do Syrians have been buying emergency apartments in Beirut and less fortunate ones have been heading to refugee camps in northern Lebanon. There is growing fear that the civil war in Syria, which has so far has claimed at least 5,000 lives, could drag Lebanon’s delicate sectarian and political balance down with it.

The Syrian crisis has re-opened one of the most senstive wounds in Lebanon’s body politic. Ever since Hariri’s assassination, Lebanon’s political factions have been bitterly — and sometimes violently — divided between those allied with or against the Syrian regime. In other words, those countries and militant groups that want to be part of the axis of resistance to Israel and America on the one hand, and, on the other, those that look to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for patronage and protection.

Now critics say that Hizballah, the anti-Israeli militant group and Shi’ite Muslim political party, which is now the dominant power in Lebanon and which is supported by Syria, is pushing the Lebanese government to side with the Syrian regime. They say that Hizballah is forcing the Lebanese Army to block the flow of weapons to the Free Syrian Army, and the flow of Syrian opposition supporters fleeing the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown from entering Lebanon. Moreover, the Lebanese government has not joined the rest of the Arab League in condemning the Syrian regime or in calling for Assad to resign. “The present government is telling lies,” said Gagea. “We don’t have to be neutral. We can take the side of the revolution.” For its part, Hizballah, which receives much of its weapons and supplies from Iran, its other main patron, through Lebanon’s porous border with Syria, has promised to back the Assad regime until the end.

For all it’s strong talk, Lebanon’s anti-Syrian alliance is a shadow of its former self, having been defeated by Hizballah in gun battles in Beirut in 2008, and ejected from the government by Hizballah’s political machinations last year. Saad Hariri, Rafik’s eldest son, who inherited his billionaire father’s fortune and the leadership of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, hasn’t dared set foot back in Lebanon since Hizballah ousted him from the prime minister’s office seven months ago. The reputed playboy has been reduced to sending out press releases from his residence in Paris announcing which heads of state sent him condolences after he broke his leg in January skiing in France. Reacting to widespread speculation that his political ambitions have eaten through his personal fortune led to his denial on Monday of reports that his company had received a $2 billion interest free loan from the King of Saudi Arabia to keep it afloat.

But despite — or because of — the Hariri heir’s weaknesses, a groundswell of support for the Syrian revolution is beginning to bubble up, especially in Christian and Sunni areas of north Lebanon outside of Hizballah’s control. The northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest, has become a haven of sorts for free Syrian activists, refugees, and wounded Free Syrian Army fighters. On Friday, a mix of Syrian refugees and Lebanese Sunni Islamist gathered in the city’s central square in sympathy with embattled Syrian cities such as Homs. The angry demonstration — replete with black flags of mourning and prayer — had the same feel of the thousands of anti-American protests that had become routine in the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq, only now the rage was going in a different direction: “There is no God but God,” they shouted. “And Assad is the enemy of God.” Later, a group of young men began chanting “Down with Nasrallah,” referring to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah and the most feared man in Lebanon, until one of the event’s organizers, worried that thing might get our of control, calmed them down. Gun fights broke out later that day between pro and anti-Syrian neighborhoods in Tripoli.

Of course, the feeling of imminent disaster is nothing new in Lebanon. The country fought a 15-year sectarian civil war that ended in 1990, several wars with Israel, and still is home to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Yet it has managed in the last 22 years of semi-peace to gloss over its unresolved conflicts by turning itself into a one stop luxury shop and seaside playground for the region’s oil-elite, complete with nightclubs, beaches and money laundering. But already, tourism has fallen 21% since the Arab spring began, and the IMF last week warned that Lebanon’s economic growth could shrink to 1.5% down from 10% a year ago, a dangerous development for a country with one of the world’s largest per capita public debits. And more generally, the feeling is spreading that the Arab Spring may force Lebanon to a reckoning, and that the good times may be coming to an end. “Lebanon is a bottle of champagne sitting on top of a volcano,” says one skier, riding the chairlift on the slopes above Beirut, with a view of the Mediterranean on one side and a view of Syria on the other. “And it’s about to pop. “

Libya’s Civil War: The Limits of People Power

The huge plume of black smoke rising above oil refinery in the rebel-held city of Ras Lanuf, the result of air strikes Wednesday by the Libyan government, seemed to mark an ominous escalation in what has all the makings of a protracted Libyan civil war. Though the country’s spontaneous democratic revolution made lightning progress in liberating a large swath of the eastern Libya from the dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and took the town of Ras Lanuf several days ago, it’s untrained volunteer militia has since balked in the face of the well-equipped remnants of the Libyan army that has stayed loyal to Gaddafi. Most importantly, the rebels lack armor and air support, and have been pinned down by government attack helicopters, fighter jets, and bombers. The attack on the oil refinery today suggests Gaddafi’s willingness to use his air superiority to target the country’s infrastructure in rebel-held territory, whatever the cost.

The rebel government, located just a few hours drive from Ras Lanuf in Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, used the refinery attack to highlight what they say is the need for immediate international intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Libya. “We believe that the international community won’t stand by and let this regime annihilate its people,” said Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the National Libyan Council, the provisional rebel government. The council also suggested that if attacks on Libya’s oil infrastructure continue, there would be both economic and environmental consequences for the whole world. And should the international community fail to act, the revolutionary government itself would begin procuring the necessary weapons to fight Gaddafi’s army. “We have the money, and we don don’t expect any country to refuse our people assistance in defending themselves,” said Ghoga.

But behind the scenes, the rebel government appears to be less sanguine about their chances for survival without international intervention. “The No-Fly Zone is crucial,” one rebel official told TIME. “Without it, they’re just going to keep killing us.” And the National Libyan Council appears divided over political alternatives to carrying on an against-the-odds military struggle whatever the costs. In an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday, former Justice Minister current head of the National Libyan Council Mustafa Abdel-Jalil that he was in negotiations and offered Gaddafi 72 hours to leave Libya with guarantees of safe passage. But Ghoga, speaking officially on behalf of the council, said that there would be no negotiations with the regime, and no immunity would be given to Gaddafi. “No one has the right to deny justice to the victims of this regime,” he said on Tuesday.

Regardless of where the rebels stand, Gaddafi is pushing forward. Besides air strikes in the east, Gaddafi’s forces are continuing a brutal siege of the pro-revolution city of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, using heavy weapons on an apparently lightly-armed civilian population, according to what few news reports emerge from the city. And in another rambling televised address Wednesday morning, Gaddafi once again accused al-Qaeda of orchestrating the uprising, and threatened to fight any country that participates in a No-Fly Zone.

Besides the ongoing loss of life, a protracted civil war in Libya could have a number of implications. Libya supplies European countries with significant percentages of their crude oil imports (Ireland 23.3%; Italy, 22%; Switzerland, 18.7%; France 15.7%; Greece, 14.6%); many governments are also worried and prospect of a tidal wave of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Libya. And though Gaddafi’s claim that al-Qaeda is leading the revolution is a baseless attempt to de-legitimize a popular uprising, the longer the battle continues, the greater are the chances that it becomes a magnet for violent extremists. That could dilute the very important aspect of the transformational power that the Arab democracy uprisings are having in the region, doing peacefully in a matter of weeks what violent extremists have been unable to do for years: topple secular Arab dictators. But in Libya, people power alone may not be enough.

Libya’s Desert Rebellion: The Lessons of World War II

The whipping sandstorms, low visibility, and stray camels make the five-hour car ride from Benghazi to the oil refinery town of Ras Lanuf a tense one even in normal times. But these days there is nothing normal going on in Ras Lanuf, which lies on the front lines of the clashes between Libya’s volunteer rebel army and forces loyal to the country’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. On Saturday when TIME visited, the gates of Ras Lanuf were guarded by a platoon of opposition irregulars with anti-aircraft guns and recoilless rifles mounted onto the backs of pickup trucks.

But calling this a front-line may overstate the level of organization and planning behind the rebel advance. Though opposition forces have been slowly moving west from their stronghold in Benghazi along the about 700-mile coastal highway to Tripoli, the country’s capital and the center of Gaddafi’s power, Ras Lanuf has changed hands several times. As has Bin Jawad, the next town west down the coastal highway. And looking at the leaderless bands of pick-up trucks gathering at checkpoints to make fresh sorties on government positions with weapons newly acquired from raided government arsenals that they barely know how to use, it’s hard to think of this as anything like a conventional army. But what’s clear is Libya’s desert geography — and Muammar Gaddafi’s attempt to violently suppress what was once a peaceful movement — has transformed the country’s pro-democracy uprising into the first military campaign of the Arab Spring. And it’s also clear the desert is an arena in which people power plays at a disadvantage.

For a dictatorship that’s been in power for 42 years, the Libyan government collapsed with remarkable speed in the eastern part of the country — a handful of days around February 17th. Besides the fact that Benghazi has long been a hotbed of dissent to rule from Tripoli, the terrain of the east — hills, forests, and a daisy chain of relatively dense urban centers along the coast — is also more sympathetic to a revolution. But west of Benghazi, the land flattens out, with the white sand of the Mediterranean shoreline giving way quickly to juniper and sage scrub and a seemingly endless expanse of dirt and discarded plastic bags. Towns along the way are small, easy to garrison, spread far apart, and located at highway intersections, or clustered around oil facilities.

If eastern Libya is guerrilla country, central Libya is tank terrain. Some of the great battles of World War Two were fought by legendary Axis and Allied tank commanders over the course of several years in a back-and-forth war along the north African coast between Tunisia and Egypt. Of course, nothing like the scale of those battles is going to occur in the Libyan civil war. Only the forces that remain loyal to the Gaddaffi regime have anything resembling a modern army. But therein lies the problem for the opposition. Though much of the Libyan military — already under-funded by a suspicious Gaddafi, who lavished money and materiel on his personal security forces instead — defected to the opposition camp, it has been unable to impose any authority or organization on the rebellion’s volunteers who have been doing most of the fighting. And without air support and armor, speeding down straight desert highways with no cover is almost suicide.

Indeed, given their lack of discipline and training it’s incredible there aren’t more self-inflicted casualties. Besides the usual bouts of idiotic celebratory gunfire, among the many nerve wracking scenes of boys playing with dangerous toys that TIME witnessed near Ras Lanuf included a youngster sitting on top of a huge heap of ammunition boxes at a highway checkpoint and nearly knocking over an open artillery shell crate just so he could get more comfortable. And though the opposition claims an explosion at an ammunition depot near Benghazi that killed more than 20 people on Friday was the work of government saboteurs, it could just as likely have been the result of an accident. Meanwhile, though the Libyan government forces fled Benghazi in disarray, they appear to have regained a measure of composure, and according to reports, have dug into Bin Jawad with sniper positions backed by artillery, helicopters, and fighter jets. Fighting will get even tougher if the rebels move closer to Sert, Gaddaff’s hometown, located about midway between Benghazi and Tripoli.

Just how long Free Libya’s desert campaign will last is anyone’s guess. During the North African campaign in WWII, supply lines proved crucial. When the Allied air and sea power cut fuel deliveries to German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Arfika Corps, its Panzer tanks ran out of gas in a region where, ironically, some of the world’s largest oil fields were later discovered. Nowadays the rebel government says it has enough cash to pay salaries for the next two months. It’s asking foreign countries to begin recognizing it as Libya’s legitimate authority, a prelude to formally asking oil companies to begin paying them rather than the government in Tripoli. The Benghazi government also says at least one national oil company, the Sert Oil Company located in Ras Lanuf, has broken with Tripoli and sided with the rebels, and the refineries at Ras Lunuf were refueling opposition vehicles free of charge. The rebels are also getting foreign donations of food and medicine delivered to Benghazi’s port. “This isn’t Darfur, there’s not going to be a humanitarian crisis here,” said one rebel government spokesman in Benghazi . “But let’s not kid ourselves. This is a revolution by amateurs. We can’t keep doing this forever.”

Morale may end up playing the decisive factor in this conflict — though it can’t be too high on the Gaddafi side as they shoot on their own people, amid rumors that many soldiers are ordered to fight by their officers at gunpoint. But the regime and its supporters are fighting for their survival. Swift sanctions, asset freezes and threats from international bodies to investigate the regime for crimes against humanity have given the government little incentive to surrender peacefully.

The rebellion too is fighting for its life. Though the Arab League has offered to help broker negotiations, the opposition says there is nothing to discuss and fears that any return by the regime will be the beginning of a massacre. But fear is in short supply among the rebel volunteers, many of whom believe that their miraculous against-the-odds successes are a sign that God is on their side. After an attack helicopter appeared and began rocketing the vicinity, TIME beat a hasty retreat from Ras Lanuf back to Benghazi. But car after car of young men with guns and flags of the old Libyan monarchy, which has become the new emblem of Free Libya, kept speeding down the other side of the highway to fill the breach. One truck was also flying the skull and cross-bones of a Jolly Roger pirate flag, which perhaps better captured the wild spirit of the rebel campaign, which may yet tilt in their favor. As one veteran of north African desert battles, American General George Patton, said: “Nobody ever defended anything successfully. There is only attack and attack, and attack some more.”