Two Visits to a Fast-Changing Lebanon

I first visited Lebanon in December 2006, when Hezbollah and other opposition forces were occupying the center of Beirut, staging large rallies in an effort to force the pro-independence March 14 majority bloc to give Hezbollah more power. I'd never visited the Middle East before, but when the opportunity to fly to Beirut to photograph Hezbollah's December 10 rally was offered, I took it, partly because I'd been blogging about politics and the Middle East for years. Here was an opportunity to learn more about different political groups in the area. Also, I was intensely curious about a city that was portrayed as being similar to Paris and/or a terror-ridden Islamist war zone.

In December 2006, Beirut-as-warzone was the most prominent image in the media. Reading reports like this one in the BBC which says, "Led by Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies, the rally is possibly the largest demonstration Beirut has seen," one would get the impression that all of Lebanon supported Hezbollah. Being there, I knew that the December 10 rally was not the largest demonstration Beirut had ever seen. The Cedar Revolution (March 14) rally for Lebanese independence from Syria was much larger.

On my first visit, I saw that Beirut was more Paris than war zone. Just a few weeks before Christmas, I walked down the sun-speckled streets of the Gemmayze district, past a florist shop decorated with poinsettias and plastic Santas, to a French cafe which offered fine pastries and cafe au lait. Sunni West Beirut was overflowing with crepe stands and hooka bars. Although the neighborhoods appeared to be divided along sectarian lines, Sunnis and Shia went to Gemmayze bars and Christians lived in West Beirut. While much of Lebanon suffers from an unhealthy addiction to politics, this is counteracted by a healthy addiction to living their lives to the fullest.

Beirut and most of Lebanon wasn't -- and still isn't -- an Islamist stronghold. The majority of Lebanese avoid confronting Hezbollah because most would do anything to avoid another civil war. But even Hezbollah knows that no one would tolerate the installation of Sharia laws in Lebanon. Lebanon relies on tourism, a large part of which consists of Gulf Arabs who come to Lebanon to spend great amounts of money to escape their homemade Islamist misery.

Hezbollah's effort to take over Lebanon is often portrayed as a religious quest, but at the rally, in the tent city and in the crowd, I saw few signs of religious devotion. I saw a lot of evidence that Hezbollah's "civil disobedience" was politically opportunistic extortion. With their ability to gain allies, with their weapons and their support from Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and friends were demanding that the rest of Lebanon give in to their demands or risk civil war, basically saying, "Nice country you've got; wouldn't want anything to happen to it."