That Wartime Feel Returns to Lebanon

BEIRUT – Lebanon‘s recent string of bomb attacks directed against Christian areas around Beirut has resulted in a war-weary population returning to old behavioral patterns.

Set against the backdrop of an ongoing political crisis spurred by the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, the late-night bombings have taken place at a regular four to five day interval. To these have been added several bomb threats and isolated incidents of street clashes between pro-Syrian and anti-government factions.

Rumors abound as to where the next bomb will hit, and Beirut’s once bustling nightlife, already subdued since the Hariri attack, is brought to a virtual standstill after each explosion. Neighboring coastal city Jounieh, the Christians’ area of choice for a night out during the civil war years, has witnessed a boost in business since the country plunged into crisis, to the detriment of the capital’s bars and restaurants.

Beirut’s streets have again become the scene of late-night army patrols and ad hoc checkpoints, further rattling the nerves of anguished citizens.

"It’s not so much that I am concerned for my own safety – I don’t go around thinking I am going to get killed by a bomb all the time," says Mayssa Dimechkie, a 30-year old Beiruti. "But there is a widespread sense of anxiety and depression that is affecting everyone, the sort of anxiety you feel when faced with a threat which is beyond your control."

In the Christian neighborhoods in and around Beirut, citizens have come together to form security vigils, patrolling the streets and alerting the army about any suspicious activity. Gathered in groups of five to ten, young men are seen throughout the night sitting together at street corners or doing rounds of their blocks.

"All the Christian areas have vigil groups operating at night," says Maroun Fares, a 43-year-old taxi driver from the Ain el-Remaneh suburb of Beirut, who does a four-hour vigil shift every night. "We started doing this right after Hariri was killed, because we knew that there was going to be trouble. We all have weapons at home, but we never bring them with us when we do the vigils."

Lebanon is still armed to the teeth 15 years after the end of the civil war. A million weapons are believed to be in private circulation among the population of 3.7 million. Some 30,000 rifles and shotguns are sold every year, and the sale of small arms has witnessed a substantial increase of late.

"I have always had an unarmed guard in front of my house," the head of a Lebanese research and consulting company says. "But my guard, who was Syrian, quit in protest because I wouldn’t let him get a gun. I now have two armed guards, which is something I never thought I would have."

The surge in arms sales prompted outgoing defense minister Abdel-Rahim Mrad last week to freeze new weapons licenses until further notice. But lax police monitoring and the ease with which arms can be acquired makes it unlikely that growing arms sales will be readily curbed.

Daytime security measures, most notably around commercial centers, which have been the primary targets of the four bomb attacks, have taken note of the lessons learned during the war. Parking next to major buildings is now off limits, and several underground parking lots have been temporarily closed. Those that remain open have guards at the entrance who meticulously search every car.

Shoppers and mall employees are subject to stringent security measures by an increased number of guards. An official from Protectron, one of the 70 security companies operating in Lebanon, estimates that the security business has increased 25 percent since Feb. 14.

The good fortunes of the security industry stand out amid an economy increasingly feeling the impact of the ongoing crisis.

The tourism industry – one of the engines of Lebanon’s increased economic growth over the past two years – is struggling to recover from the spate of attacks that have set the country back in its efforts to regain its pre-war image of a safe haven in an otherwise turbulent region.

The retail and catering businesses in Beirut have registered a significant drop in profit, leading to a steadily growing number of layoffs. Investments have stalled in the face of a wait-and-see attitude until the elections scheduled for May.

In a country already suffering from high emigration rates due to lack of job opportunities, the worsening economy added to the precarious security environment is providing a further push to those thinking of leaving.

"Over the course of the last two or three years, almost 90 percent of my friends have moved abroad to work, so I was already thinking of leaving before the attacks," says Christina, a 27-year-old customer service manager in Beirut. "I am going to give it another two months to see what happens with the elections, and then make a final decision."

Others feel they have seen enough, and are sending their family members out of the country immediately. The high number of Lebanese holding dual citizenship or with family abroad facilitates moving.

"I want my mother out of the country before the elections," says a 27-year-old pub manager from New Jdeideh, whose apartment windows were shattered by the bomb attack March 18. "She was planning on moving to Canada later this year anyway, to join my siblings there, but with everything that is going on we decided it was better for her to leave immediately, so we got her a visa and she is leaving next week."