Lebanon: Not the Summer anyone Expected
By T.K. Maloy
BEIRUT: It was going to be a different summer -- politically, economically, and security wise, for the average Lebanese and visitors alike. "Live, Love, Lebanon" was the slogan of the cool, fast-cut, hip-fun, Tourism Ministry commercial, which showed young and old enjoying themselves, with evening walks through Ashrafieh; diving into an alluring Mediterranean, munching on sumptuous mezzas, and smooching under glorious firework displays in starry skies. These images portrayed the warmth of humanity and the colorful ebb and flow that is Lebanon and its citizens. A kaleidoscope of social portraits showed families and their offspring together with a myriad of exuberant friends cheerfully dining, with the grandmother always exhorting shy diners to "eat, eat" with a welcoming smile. Hospitality, friendliness, and generosity of every kind are the rule in Lebanon. That said, summer was put on hold...tourists never came, "the situation" as all security problems are euphemistically called by the stoic Lebanese predominated, along with ongoing concerns over the stalled economy.
The 2014 tourism season never happened, much like the previous two summers. Each time it was a run of security incidents damaging, even wrecking the tourism industry, but this year was for the record books. From late winter, through to most of spring, there were no major incidents beyond the usual cacophony of domestic political discord. The government, hotels, retailers, and realtors were anxiously looking for a profitable summer season of well-heeled Gulf visitors, but it was not meant to be. The MENA region, Europe and America, including the usual well-off Lebanese expatriates who return back frequently to see family and friends, were a no show.
On June 20 a suicide bomber detonated himself at a checkpoint on the main Damascus-Beirut highway, resulting in one killed, and over 30 injured. That same day, based on a tip-off, security forces arrested around 20 persons staying at hotels in Beirut's busy Hamra district. The majority were released, but worries about jihadists infiltrators remained.
On June 24 a car bomb exploded in southern Beirut after Lebanese authorities pulled over the driver, who detonated himself killing two and wounding a dozen people at a nearby cafe. On June 26, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives vest as security forces were closing in on him at a local tourist hotel in the lush Verdun district, Beirut, wounding three of these units.
At this point in late June, summer was ruined. But while the Lebanese watched the news of ISIS jihadists storming through parts of Syria and western Iraq, on Aug. 1, elements of both ISIS and the Al Nusra front suddenly attacked Arsal, a Lebanese town near the Syrian border. The attack kicked off five days of fierce fighting between the Lebanese Army and Islamist militants. The armed militants, it seemed, had slipped over the border under the cover of thousands of Syrian refugees who were flocking to the outskirts of Arsal, a majority Sunni town, where the refugees were allowed to set camps outside the town and in some cases rent apartments to squeeze in 12 to a room. While the refugee situation was a strain on town resources and made the municipality the target of animosity from nearby Shiite/Hezbollah dominated towns such as Lebweh and the larger Hermel, no one expected that armed ISIS and Nusra (Sunni militant groups) fighters would attempt a coup d'etat at Arsal, including attacks of nearby army barracks and army checkpoints.
Infiltration had been inevitable.
According to UN figures, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon surpassed one million in April. The refugees have established an estimated 1,700 ad-hoc camps of varying numbers. After the Arsal attacks, in addition to security concerns of gunmen among this population, Lebanese intelligence sources have said that there were over 30 "sleeper cells" of highly-trained jihadists who are skilled assassins and explosives experts.
One security source said there are also concerns that members of these cells may have biological weapons, such as Sarin, the deadly toxin. Media reports from Syrian and Iraq have alleged the use of chlorine gas by ISIS. In late October another heavy clash took place between the army and ISIS-inspired militants in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli. A fulcrum point of the battle was when army helicopter units fired recently acquired missiles into the old souk where many fighters had retreated into the maze of alleyways.
On the economic front, this summer's stats included a continued drop in foreign investment, anemic showings by the real estate sector, stalled consumer confidence and a politically frozen government which has delayed bidding by energy companies on undersea oil/gas blocks in the Levantine field, while the Israelis are already pumping and negotiating a pipeline to Egypt. Many of the original potential bidders for Lebanon's section of the basin have removed themselves from the process entirely, frustrated over government inaction. Tourism arrivals are down 20 percent for the first eight months of 2014 compared with the same period in 2011, the last year that showed a robust tourist season. Hotel occupancy rates are currently below 50 percent. The frequent power outages by state-owned Electricite du Liban have become even more frequent as the government coffers cannot afford sufficient fuel for the power plants.
There have been near constant strikes by the large public employees’ union over parliament’s sitting on wage-hike legislation. Sectarian tensions run high, particularly between Sunni and Shia Muslims; and the election of a candidate to the Christian-held office of Lebanon's presidency has been deadlocked for over five months, creating a potentially dangerous power vacuum.
That said, despite the drumbeat of multiple problems, Levantine life goes on. People still get up and go to work every day; whether it is mini- market clerks, chefs, motorcycle delivery boys, bank tellers, teachers, developers, executives, CEOs and factory workers. Traffic is still jammed. And the Banque du Liban is still issuing bonds, and much is still business as usual. It is now mid-November and the beaches have thinned out after a busy summer of young locals, sans tourist. Come evening, the Beirut Corniche seaside is a diverse swirl of Lebanese strolling under lamplight, amid all the chaos breaking loose throughout the Middle East.