I had been keeping a close eye on the situation brewing in Lebanon for a few nights while still in Hargeisa. The news about the popular uprising in Tunisia had stolen most of the headlines but I would occasionally catch a glimpse about Lebanon’s political turmoil. I had two choices. Fly to Beirut and attempt my overland Middle East journey or fly to Cairo and be South East Asia-bound much sooner than expected. It looks like it didn’t matter what choice I made because Tunisia has seemingly lit a fire of revolt in the Arab world that is making travel just a little bit more concerning.
The situation in Lebanon is complicated and unrelated to Tunisia and Egypt, but I’ll share what I’ve gathered so far. Constitutionally, the Lebanese government is power shared. This means that the President must be Christian, the Prime Minister, Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament must be a Shi’a Muslim. The population of Lebanon is split at about a third between the three religious sects. Hezbollah, who the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization, ceased power a couple of weeks ago and Lebanon has been in a sort of limbo since.
I arrived in Beirut at about 9pm on Monday night. The taxi driver updated me on the current situation and said that things were still tense. He asked me what I was doing in Lebanon and I told him, tourism. He replied, “Now? Huh.” He said to be aware that things can change by the minute and that the road to the airport opens and closes at random intervals. When I got to Beirut, there was no government. I have to say my first night in Beirut was intense. I have been around the world and on some adventures but have never had the adrenaline pumping like when I arrived here. The driver pointed out the Islamic quarters and the Palestinian encampments and said as long as I avoid these areas I should be fine.
I woke up the next morning to the news that the new Hezbollah-backed Prime Minister was elected and the opposition called for a “Day of Rage.” I decided it might be best to hang low and check up on the news online. An Italian NGO worker staying in the dorm with me has been a big help on getting information. His embassy has been in contact with him to update him on road closures, demonstrations and just about any information that might be important. The U.S. embassy also urged citizens in Lebanon to take precautions. The news I was reading online through multiple sources, including: CNN, Al Jazeera (English) and BBC World News, all seemed to show a different story than what was happening. If you paid attention to headlines and saw glimpses of the situation on the world news, you would think that the entire city was in crisis mode. It is true that the situation remains tense but the demonstrations that did happen were peaceful as both Hezbollah and the Western-backed opposition called for peace in the streets.
There were hand grenade attacks on the media in some towns outside of Beirut but in the city itself there were merely peaceful demonstrations and tires being burned in the street which seems to be more symbolic than to create problems. There are daily demonstrations scheduled for Martyr’s Square which is only about 100 yards from where I am now but I haven’t heard or seen anything alarming. The army and police presence in Beirut has increased. It is not surprising given the history of Lebanon. It is quite a common sight to see tanks and trucks full of soldiers driving through the city.
I’m in a very safe area of Beirut right now. Even if things start to get ugly (which is starting to look unlikely) I will be well protected. There is a big difference from last night and tonight with the amount of people who are out doing things. I’m staying in a neighborhood called Gemmayze, which has been nicknamed the Greenwich Village of Beirut. It is an upscale area with lots of pubs and fancy restaurants. It’s also the “Christian Orthodox” section of Beirut as the city is divided into many parts.