Beirut’s unity?

Beirut’s unity?
Bashir Gemayel
Even as Sasin Square and the surrounding streets of Beirut’s Al-Ashrafiya neighborhood hung with flags of the Lebanese Phalange and Lebanese Forces to commemorate the twenty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of President Bashir Al-Gamayel, whose picture decorated walls and posters alongside signs and banners proclaiming Al-Ashrafiya is the Phalange, in Al-Hamra the banners and flags of the Social Nationalist Syrian Party were being hoisted aloft to celebrate a very different twenty-sixth anniversary. Here in Al-Hamra they remember Khalid Alwan (nom de guerre Michel), a party militant, who gunned down a group of Israeli soldiers as they sat sipping beer in a Wimpy’s on Al-Hamra Street on the anniversary of their invasion of Lebanon in September 1982.

But while the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange might legitimately claim that Ashrafiya is theirs (i.e. that the majority of the neighborhood’s inhabitants are loyal to these two parties) the National Party can make no such claim. The party enjoys no real representation in this area of the capital, whether in the syndicates, the local municipality or in parliament. Incidentally, it would be foolish to consider the Syrian administration’s appointment of Ghassan Matar as Beirut’s MP in the early 90s as an accurate reflection of popular will. Indeed, the National Party is unlikely to ever gain support of any numerical significance so long as its political allies continue to vie for “control” of the streets of West and Central Beirut. This was particularly evident during September, when the Shiite Amal movement swamped these neighborhoods in banners, flags and images of its founder, Mousa Al-Sadr, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his disappearance in Libya.

Yet despite the clear disparity in the popular backing accorded to the Phalange and Lebanese Forces in Sasin Square on the one hand, and that of the National Party and Amal in Al-Hamra on the other, Beirut finds itself grimly and reluctantly returning to the old wartime divisions: a city split into East and West.

A closer examination of the evens being commemorated suggests that this division is a harbinger of conflict renewed. While Sasin Square recalls the assassination of the elected President, Bashir Gemayel, the National Party, which returned to Al-Hamra by force of arms after the “assault” of May 7, 2008, was the very group responsible for the killing (or at least its security wing: it was planned by Nabil Al-Alam and carried out by Habi Al-Shartouni). It is not wholly unreasonable claim that, contained within the celebration of Khalid Alwan’s “heroism”, lies a celebration of another hero: Habib Al-Shartouni.

Al-Ashrafiya celebrates Bashir Gemayel, whose star first rose during his defense of the district against the invading Syrian Army in 1978. It remembers his death, the end of the Christian-Right wing Lebanese Front, which sought to preserve the Lebanese Republic as it had been from 1920 onwards. Simultaneously, the National Party cadres were celebrating the Wimpy operation as the birth of the Patriotic Resistance Front against the Israeli occupation. This is a boast contested by the Lebanese Communist Party. The Communist Party’s own ability to celebrate has been somewhat diminished by the actions of gunmen who razed a monument to the communist martyrs of the Patriotic Front set up in the Southern village of Kafr Raman. The desecration of this monument was a reminder to the Communists that they had been expelled from the ranks of the Resistance in the early 90s by the militias of Amal and Hizbullah. Although part of the March 8 coalition led by Hizbullah, they “lack faith” and loyalty and are no longer permitted to share in the political power and glory of the newly “Islamic” resistance movement. On the other side the National Party enjoys the privileges that come with Syrian protection.
As armed conflicts and memorializing celebrations take us back to a time of war the capital and the country as a whole is gradually losing the rhythms and habits of peaceful civilian life. The marching music of war is back. Sasin Square dons its Phalangist uniform; Al-Hamra billows with bright red Nazi stormclouds. These, then, are the first fruits of what Hassan Nasrallah has called the campaign of “arms to defend against arms”.

The irony of this year’s September in Beirut, clamouring as it is with celebrations of the Wimpy operation and the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, is the absence of any attempt to memorialize another contemporaneous incident: the massacre of the inhabitants of the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps beneath the gaze of the Israeli army. This glaring absence may be the result of a Lebanese consensus. After all, the man who led the massacre and a former commander in the Lebanese Forces, Eli Habiqa, has become an ally of the Syrians, the National Party and last but not least the Amal Movement, which a few short years after the massacre prosecuted a campaign whose bloody intent was directed primarily against these very same refugee camps (and with the connivance of Syria).
This, then, is a massacre whose memory, so embarrassing to the Phalange, the Lebanese Forces and Syria’s allies, must be expunged. Because they are militarily weak, the Palestinians and their various organizations are unable to compete with the Lebanese in their memorialization of this terrible incident.

Beirut has fragmented once more into various histories, events and memories. Gunmen from the National Party, the Baath, Hizbullah and Amal have overrun the streets and alleys of West Beirut, while the Christians have circled their wagons in the East. The anniversary of President Gemayel’s death in Sasin Square is countered by the celebrations for Khalid Alwan and (implicitly) Habib Al-Shartouni). This divide swept away almost all the gains made during the peace: eighteen years when the Lebanese strove to restore the principles of mutual interest and exchange and rebuild the relations required to meet the demands of daily life. Yet their souls were always infected with a rust, a rust that spread and crept every time anyone forget themselves and said, “I went to the West,” or “I crossed to the East,” even though the dangers and fears lurking in that word “crossed” had long faded. This latent divide was further strengthened after May 7, when many, whether voluntarily or against their will, let the neighborhoods of West Beirut for Al-Ashrafiya and the East. This emigration supposes the existence of a zone forbidden to the emigrant, and is profoundly symbolic of the renewed partition of the capital, a partition that extended to all areas of daily life.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between the years of war and the events of 2008. The profoundly rooted partition and civil divide of former years seems imposed and artificial in its present incarnation. The majority of the West Beirut’s residents do not subscribe to the policies of the National Party, Hizbullah and their followers. To be able to raise their slogans and banners these political parties had to take the streets by steel and fire. Throughout the peace they had to forbid the traders of Hamra Street from displaying their banners in support of the Lebanese Army, greeting Arab tourists, celebrating Independence Day or supporting their traditional political candidate, the martyr Rafiq Al-Hariri. For the militias to rest easy, to feel they had control they coveted, civilians had to crouch in silence behind walls of fear and keep their banners stored away and out of sight. Their first move in the May assault was to close the newspapers and shut down (or in some cases, burn down) radio and television stations, before stripping the posters, banners and pictures from the walls. It was an operation, an assault, methodical and comprehensive in its execution and scope.
May 7 and its militias bore with them the images, celebrations and manners of war. Sasin Square reverberated to loudspeakers, anthems, the cries of the crowds and the rattle and clap of party flags, all exhorting the faithful to “attend”, to prepare, to reject… Yet during peacetime this same square bore witness to no more than the symbolic lighting of candles before Gemayel’s statue, never disturbing the habitual rhythms of the square’s public life.
Now, once more, Al-Ashrafiya “is” the Phalange and practical Al-Hamra bows to grim reality. Beirut has divided into two states, two ways of being. It took almost two decades of exhaustive effort to restore unity and harmony to the capital. But the gains of Spring 2005 and the elections of that year have been wrecked by the campaigns of May 7.

The only symbol of Beirut’s unity, the only thing that holds Sasin Square and Al-Hamra together are the Starbuck’s and Costa coffee shops with branches in both locations, serving both sides with equal attention to detail and professional excellence.

Youssef Bazzi

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