For Lebanese, Crisis Has Become a Way of Life
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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- With a swagger as haughty as his jeans were tight, Samir Khalaf deflected a question about Lebanon's crisis with a question of his own.
"What crisis?" he asked. "There's a crisis?"
"We've seen so many disasters," said Mr. Khalaf, 50, a vendor of a lingerie store in a bustling stretch of Beirut. "We've been through so many wars. It doesn't matter what happens anymore. One day there's a crisis, the next morning we wake up and nothing. It's like a 7-Up. You shake it and it explodes. You leave it alone, and it stays flat."
Few want to play down the significance of the confrontation that erupted this week in a country that pivots on some of the most overarching conflicts in the Middle East: the struggle between Iran and America, the prospect of war with Israel and the flaring of sectarian tensions. The next weeks or months will determine essentially whether the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah will decide who rules this Mediterranean country, a development that will help define America's influence in the region.
But Lebanon is to crisis as a sherpa is to the mountain. It has been there often. In fact, since Rafik Hariri, a former Sunni Muslim prime minister, was assassinated in February 2005, the country has weathered more months without an effective government than with one.
So perhaps it is exhaustion. Maybe a healthy cynicism is at work. Some might chalk it up to faith in God, a desire for the good life or disdain for all the machinations.
But unlike the worst moments since 2005 -- war with Israel that destroyed parts of southern Lebanon and street fighting in which Hezbollah and its allies seized a large part of Beirut -- this crisis feels oddly unlike a crisis.
"Bananas! Bananas!" vendors shouted in the city's Tariq Jdeideh district, long a fault line in the confrontation between Lebanon's Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Children's shouts drowned out the clatter of backgammon stones. The only blasts came from horns, vainly protesting the ritually snarled traffic in Beirut.
With a seeming lack of urgency, Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik and the prime minister whose government was toppled Wednesday, returned only on Friday afternoon from a trip to Washington earlier in the week.
"If you're watching a movie and one gunman shoots another, are you scared?" asked Afeef Hamdan, a store owner in the revived neighborhood of Hamra. "No! That's what it is. We're watching a movie. The actor comes in when the director tells him, and he leaves when the director says, 'Cut!' If it gets too bad, you have the remote control."
Down the street, Ahmed Hassan, a furniture maker, was more cynical.
"Don't worry, they'll agree," he said. "Tomorrow, the money will show up, they'll make a deal, everyone will get their cut, and we'll move on like it was before."
"The people," he added, "we're used to it."
Hezbollah and its allies brought down the government in a dispute with Mr. Hariri over an international tribunal that is expected to indict Hezbollah's members in his father's killing. Hezbollah wanted Mr. Hariri to denounce the indictments and to stop cooperating with the tribunal.
Backed by the United States, he refused, a stand that may prevent him from becoming prime minister again. President Michel Suleiman has said he will begin talks on Monday on forming a new government, and some Hezbollah officials have already suggested that, barring a shift in his position, Mr. Hariri cannot return.
Red lines, though, tend not to be all that red here. Maybe more orange. And most analysts expect the negotiations that begin next week to untangle into months of talks before an agreement is reached. That is, if all goes well -- the indictments themselves could stoke tension, and Hezbollah, which is believed to have planned a series of potential steps to mount pressure, may eventually lose patience with the stalemate. But in a country where politics are supposed to fall under the rubric of "no victor, no vanquished," many expect that some kind of deal, however long in waiting, is inevitable.
After his return, Mr. Hariri suggested as much. "There is no alternative to dialogue," he said, in a statement that echoed what many others were saying.
"The battle lines are clear, and the power equation is clear and there's nothing anybody can do to change either of those two things," said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. "To resolve it you need a political agreement, and a political agreement in Lebanon usually happens after a long period of negotiation."
There was a sense of inevitability to this week's events, coming as they did after so many months of threats and pressure, with the breathless coverage they generated.
When Hezbollah and its allies did withdraw from the government on Wednesday, traffic disappeared from the streets. Many of the cars that remained could be found in lines at gas stations. Bread in Tariq Jdeideh was sold out; people stocked up to weather bad times. Even cellphones added to the anxiety. An automated message for a news service declared: "The situation in Lebanon is tense. Subscribe now for the latest."
It was possible to detect, too, a certain sense of triumph in Shiite neighborhoods and a dejection in Sunni ones. In Tariq Jdeideh, a television crew for a station aligned with an ally of Hezbollah was kicked out of the neighborhood the day before.
"They came to gloat," said Fadi Zaarour, 32, a resident there.
But even there, the crisis generated more weariness than anxiety.
"People are tired," said Ahmad Sultan, 60, an engineer who was getting his hair cut. "We are all worn out from this charade. But this is our life. Whoever marries your mother, you might as well just call him uncle. You have to face the reality."
First Published January 15, 2011 12:01 am