Lebanon on the edge
- 20 Jun 07, 04:33 PM
Newsnight's man in the Middle East Richard Colebourn will be providing regular despatches from across the region and putting your questions to the people in charge.
BEIRUT - Overlooking the Mediterranean, Beirut’s Sporting Club is an institution. Families come to swim. Women clad in immodest bikinis top up their tans. Leathery Lebanese men play backgammon and cards and smoke. Lebanese MP Walid Eido was a regular. Last Wednesday he, his son and his bodyguards came for the afternoon.
There are also normally a few pale foreign journalists and UN-types. Wednesday afternoon saw my first visit. I recall thinking that if you squinted you could be in the south of France.
At twenty to five, whilst swimming in the deep end, I witnessed Eido’s convoy of cars explode near the entrance to the club as they left. Some 150m from the pool, a giant plume of black smoke shot into the sky carrying bits of car bumper and clothing. The bomb killed ten in total, including two young footballers from the neighbouring club.
The contradictions and the volatility of Lebanon were made clear - a bit too close for comfort.
Eido is the sixth Lebanese critic of Syria to be killed since 2005. As significantly, his death reduces the majority of the governing coalition in Lebanon to just four. That coalition is unsympathetic to the Syrian regime and is supported by the United States and Europe. Four more deaths or defections and this government falls.
Fingers have been pointed at President Assad’s government but Damascus has denied any involvement in this and previous killings.
By Wednesday afternoon, the three biggest international stories on BBC News bulletins were from this small region. Hamas was routing Fatah in the Gaza Strip. Suspected Sunni attacks on the sacred Shia al-Askari shrine in Samarra in Iraq prompted fears of even more intense sectarian conflict there. And the Lebanese were left wondering how many more assassinations this fragile state could take without sparking civil conflict.
All three stories reveal different tensions, different fissures within a region that seems particularly unstable and complicated right now.
And there are new problems emerging that worry Arab governments as well as Washington and London. In the north of Lebanon, fighting continues at the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp. More than 150 people have been killed so far. It’s the worst internal conflict since the end of the civil war here in 1990.
The Lebanese army is fighting Fatah al Islam, an Al Qaeda-linked group inspired by martyrdom. It’s a kind of Al-Qaeda franchise – locally organised but benefiting from the brand name and external support.
There are numerous questions and competing theories. What’s the primary inspiration of this Sunni group - the war in Iraq? Challenging the Shia Hezbollah? Who is funding and arming them? How should Western governments respond? Where else in the region could such groups spark conflict?
Fatah al-Islam is not alone. There are other groups, in other refugee camps and towns, in Lebanon and in other countries in the Middle East. They succeed in sending fighters to Iraq and they threaten the stability of the countries within which they reside.
The weak Lebanese state is stretched to contain this group. The new edition of Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting index of failed states. In the Middle East, only Iraq and Yemen are ranked as weaker, and Lebanon only just trumps Yemen because of its stronger economy.
So the Lebanese are jumpy right now. They’re worried about their security. They’re worried about the state of the economy. They wonder whether this summer might bring another conflict with Israel.
I hope to write some blog entries that highlight some of the complicated tensions in the region, through the eyes of people here. I’d also like to write about the Middle East that never makes the news bulletins. If there are questions you want answered about this region’s politics, religions, economics or daily life, post them below. I’ll try and ask the politicians, religious leaders, experts and people on your behalf.