Beirut Reopens for Business

Hizballah has struck camp, and the denizens of downtown Beirut are as thrilled to see its tent city gone as the movement was to have taken it down. “I lost a year and a half of business,” said one of the owners of a sneaker store in the central business district that the protest site had reduced to a ghost town. “What can you do? This is Lebanon.”

In the heady days after it proclaimed its survival of an Israeli military onslaught in 2006 as a “Divine Victory,” the Shi’ite militant group and its allies had built the protest tent town in the center of Lebanon’s capital, and filled it with hundreds of thousands of angry supporters. “Siniora out!” they shouted up towards the palatial Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the office of Prime Minister Fouad Sinora, the U.S. ally accused by Hizballah of trying to disarm its military wing. But when Siniora clung to power with American support a ring of riot police and barbed-wire barricades, the opposition protest movement stalled. The campground became a dusty, semi-deserted shanty town with an air of post-apocalyptic permanence: tattered refugee tents, droning electrical generators, and bored old men smoking water-pipes. For 18 months, it was a visible symbol of Lebanon’s dysfunction.

And now it is gone. Almost as soon as Lebanese leaders announced an agreement in Doha on Wednesday, a small army of opposition supporters began tearing down the campground while sanitation workers carted away the wreckage. By Sunday, the country had a new President, General Michel Suleiman, who filled a post that had been vacant since November because of the political bickering.

For Hizballah, the results were even sweeter. When its mass demonstration failed to bring down the government, it staged a series of increasingly aggressive street actions that culminated earlier this month in lightning attacks on pro-government gangs and offices in Beirut. The speed and ease with which Hizballah’s fighters surrounded the homes of government ministers left them little option but to give into Hizballah’s demands. The Doha agreement, which accepts the opposition demand for veto power over all government decisions, is the death knell for the Siniora government, and ends any possibility that the Lebanese state will disarm Hizballah. “This is as a victory over the American administration,” said one Hizballah camp follower. “If anyone tries to touch our weapons, we will cut off his hands.”

If the violence of Hizballah’s battle to protect its military infrastructure from government interference scared the country to the core, the Lebanese people — tired of war, tired of upheaval, tired of their leaders — are greeting the Doha agreement with almost universal relief. “It’s a day of a thousand ‘Mabrooks!’” said a trainer at a suddenly busy sports club in the heart of the government district. “Everyone is telling each other ‘Congratulations! Why didn’t the politicians do this 18 months ago?’”

The Lebanese are particularly happy that their political crisis is ending just in time for the beginning of the summer season. Tourism is the economic mainstay of this balmy Mediterranean country, which is the vacation destination of choice for oil-rich Arabs fleeing the sweltering summers of the Persian Gulf. Yet for the past two summers, the good times have ended in tears: first with the Israeli invasion, and then afterwards with a jihadi uprising in a Palestinian refugee camp. Now the mood is buoyant in Beirut’s bars and nightclubs, and there are also signs that Hizballah’s victory in Lebanon is pushing all sides of the Middle East cold war towards pragmatism. Almost as soon as the Lebanese announced their agreement, Israel and Syria announced that they have been holding indirect peace negotiations, with Turkey as an intermediary.

Will this Summer of Love last? That’s the one question on everyone’s mind. Lebanon’s sectarian system is built on a delicate balance of power among all the country’s 17 religious and ethnic groups, and change here is almost always violent. The Doha agreement would give Hizballah — Lebanon’s largest Shi’ite political party — a disproportionate amount of power over other communities, and its military actions in the streets of the capital opened up sectarian scars that may take some time to heal. Hizballah will need to be magnanimous in victory, since it can’t run this chaotic country on its own.

And somewhere out there in the Lebanese hills, confident in their ability to easily dispense with all challengers in this country, are Hizballah’s thousands of fighters, the world’s most formidable guerrilla army. Can Lebanon be, simultaneously, party central for Middle Eastern hedonism, and the capital of Islamic resistance? That’s a question the Doha agreement won’t solve.

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