Lebanon Descends Into Chaos as Rival Leaders Order General Strike
Burning tyres on the airport road, flights suspended, demands from the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt that Hizbollah moves secret cameras from runway 1-7 and end the militia's equally secret underground communications equipment. Across Corniche Mazraa, crowds of shrieking Sunni and Shia Muslims hurl abuse and stones at each other. A soldier comes up to my car at the crossroads. "Turn round," he shouts. "They're shooting."
Lebanon seems to feed on crisis, need crisis, breathe crisis, like a wounded man needs blood. The man who should be the president is head of the army and the man who believes he leads the resistance -- Sayed Hassan Nasrallah of the Hizbollah -- accuses Mr Jumblatt of doing Israel's work while Mr Jumblatt claims the head of Beirut airport security, Colonel Wafic Chucair, works for the Hizbollah and should be fired.
Yesterday, in case you hadn't guessed, was a "general strike" by opponents of the Lebanese government with all the usual chaos. Mr Nasrallah is to hold a press conference today and then we'll all find out if this latest crisis is the greatest crisis since the last great crisis. Yes, a good cup of cynicism is necessary to wash down the rhetoric and threats of the past few days. At its most serious is the incendiary language in which Lebanon's politicians now address each other, the kind of menacing words that could easily touch an assassin's heart.
Indeed, the start of this latest drama might be traced to the murder of two Phalangist officials in the Bekaa town of Zahle a few weeks ago. The murderer has been named, is linked to the pro-Syrian opposition and is still at large.
You could hear gunfire crackling across Beirut all morning. To top it all, soaring price increases -- even of basic food -- is creating a little revolution in the hearts of many Lebanese. Yesterday's strike was supposed to be organised by the General Labour Confederation, which is objecting to the government's new minimum wage offer of £171 a month.
The darker side of all this, of course, involves Beirut airport. Mr Jumblatt's claim that Hizbollah has installed cameras beside one of the runways appears to be correct. Lebanese army officers have apparently noticed the cameras which can monitor executive jets taking off and landing. However, the apparatus may well have been installed because the Hizbollah believes that runway 1-7 -- which starts a few metres above the Mediterranean -- could be used for a small seaborne landing by Israeli troops. There is a persistent rumour in Beirut that the Israelis were about to stage such an operation against the Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut on 28 April but that it was cancelled for equally mysterious reasons. Was this the origin of the cameras and of Hizbollah's unpleasant suggestion that Mr Jumblatt is doing Israel's work?
As usual, it was the sectarian content of the street violence which alarmed the army -- a good many stones were chucked from high-rise buildings near the Cola bridge in west Beirut, the exact location of Sunni-Shia fighting in January last year. Even in the very centre of Beirut, piles of tyres were set alight, giving the city a sombre curtain of black smoke that drifted out to sea. So the capital of a country without a president -- and for most of the time without a sitting parliament -- is set to lose yet more international confidence.
What is it about Lebanon that creates these crises? Maybe at heart, it is the same old problem: to be a modern state, Lebanon must abandon confessionalism -- the system which provides a Maronite for the presidency, a Sunni for the prime minister's seat, a Shia for the speaker of parliament, and so on. But if Lebanon abandoned confessionalism, it would no longer be Lebanon, because sectarianism is its identity; a fate which its children do not deserve but whose country was created by French masters on the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Ironically, the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora now rules -- or tries to rule -- his nation from a building which was once the Beirut cavalry stables of the Ottoman army.