Beirut: the Capital Of the 'Country of Talk'

Talal Salman discusses the role and political culture of Beirut in the context of the changes taking place in the region.

al-monitor Pigeons fly in front of the parliament square in downtown Beirut October 25, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal Saidi.

Topics covered

lebanon, beirut, arab revolutions, arab

Nov 28, 2012

The widespread tumult now shaking the pillars of both old and new Arab regimes has returned once more to Lebanon and its capital city of Beirut.

In its wake, it has revived Beirut’s previous role as a city of expatriates and refugees. This identity had atrophied during the “Syrian era” and had held then by the emerging Gulf city-states, Cyprus and the old Turkey under its secular government and sultan-like president.

The return of Beirut’s previous identity comes as Lebanon is engrossed in its own internal problems, including a glaring vacuum in the institutions of both government and security.

The security problems arise from a multitude of factors, but the most important is the sudden emergence of fundamentalist and Salafist movements. These groups roam between the north, the Bekaa Valley and the environs of Sidon, with its neighborhoods and refugee camps open to the wind. Despite that, Lebanon is subject to the direct influence of the Arab revolts upon the already fragile Lebanese economy, in which people eat, drink and wear products not of their own making.

In spite of all this, in the states that ousted the key figures of their old despotic regimes, many of those rulers who recently ascended to power as well as many new oppositionists who cooperated with the tyrants for profit and shady, lucrative business deals, have come to Beirut — and the open economy it provides — as a new class of refugees. They have sought out its location as a center of communications and coordination with the states that previously sponsored them, whether as rulers or as lackeys who engineered crooked deals and shared in them.

Beirut is witnessing a convergence where amicability prevails between the pioneers of bargains with the heads of deposed regimes and the professional sleeze that successfully offered themselves up to those who ascended to power in the name of the popular revolutions.

The latter convinced the former of the necessity for securing a communications center with those in the outside world keen to safeguard the transitional period. For such purposes, there is no place better than Beirut, the “international capital” which serves as a financial center and open-communications station with the East and the West in all respects, including politics, security and finance in addition to its art exhibits and production studios for all manner of satellite networks, irrespective of their political orientation.

For all the above reasons, one can find in Beirut both those who fled with fortunes made in dubious business deals in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq side by side with the pioneers of similar deals from the era of Saddam himself, to say nothing of “clean” Syrian and Egyptian capitalists who fled with fortunes made during the nationalizations of the Gamal Abd al-Nasser era, while the nouvea riche of Sadat’s era brought in even more fantastic sums, and their successors in the Mubarak era profited still more. Likewise in the period of Hafez al-Assad, many made fortunes and then grew even wealthier in the era of Bashar al-Assad.

There are also considerable numbers of wealthy individuals from the Gulf who have adopted Beirut as a waystation between the sources of riches in their kingdoms, emirates or sheikhdoms of origin, and put some of their assets into local real estate, whether by the seafront or in the mountains. It acts as something of a respite, both enjoyable and profitable at the same time. Thus Beirut today hosts significant numbers of Lebanese, Egyptians and Tunisians. To be precise, one must note the increasing presence of influential figures in (and beneficiaries of) the new Iraqi government, as well as Syrians who always treated Beirut as “their city” and their outlet to the world of the “free economy.” For them, it serves as a refuge of security (financially, politically and — to a great extent — personally) by virtue of their strong relations with the centers of power that seek them out whether they wish it or not.

Obviously, networks of close relations were bound to coalesce between these “distinguished guests” and certain members of the government in Lebanon. These networks need not rise to the level of an outright partnership, though they occasionally do by virtue of a single external source of authority, and according to the the logic of common interests. Politics, economics and intelligence-gathering have come to overlap with the institutions of civil society; these social networks have come to expand and reproduce themselves from all over the planet. And Beirut its one of their most important hubs.

It should also go without saying that Beirut, as the “capital of the future,” is a center for readying internationally-sponsored projects to “rebuild Syria.” This will be desperately needed after the storm of bloody violence has swept through that country, wreaking havoc, destroying vital institutions, factories and centers of production. That storm has ravaged an area ranging from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, passing through Jordan, making an obligatory stop in Iraq, and proceeding from there to the Syrian-Lebanese border and thence the Turkish frontier and perhaps even the Turkish hinterland.

All these projects represent a fantastic opportunity no one could have dreamed of in the shadow of a Syrian regime that seemed too strong for the opposition to shake it. How, then, could it fall apart and leave the road open to change?

For all this, one of the unavoidable consequences in the near term will be the rise in Lebanon of a government too weak to govern and too strong for its multiple opponents to topple it. Any government without a specific political coloration — even if it manages to assemble some groups with divergent ideologies, sects and declared policies into a coalition — will lack any real ability to effect change and progress, whether in the economic, social, cultural or any other field.

Thus, whoever calls for a strong transitional government is committing a grave political error. Doesn’t the proverb say, "when nations collide, keep your head down?"

And who expects change in Lebanon while the ground is shaking all throughout the region, once-mighty regimes are falling like dominoes and transitional regimes that do not truly represent a break with the past concoct plans that flounder. These do not even offer a fully fleshed-out picture of the future; instead they are mired in delusions and daydreaming.

Indeed this is Beirut: a cosmopolitan, international capital whose insides are rife with covert networks in the areas of the quick buck, espionage, collusion and fratricidal wars over diverging interests. Meanwhile her outward appearance reflects the climate of the revolts that have burst forth in order to complete the civil revolutions to change history, and not only specific periods of tyranny and the international interests that bred them and put them in a position of economic decision, behind a political front.

This, too, is Beirut, a thoroughfare of national labor, a pulpit of social progress and a cultural forum open to the four winds of the world — “it is well, such evils as those; for God hath granted a pardon.”

Naturally, this will not prevent grumbling about foreign intervention in Lebanese affairs, rising real estate prices, low wages, the perpetual cutoffs in electricity (bills for which must nevertheless be paid for in US dollars) and prognostications about the relations between foreign countries and their political machinations (along with their “respectable” profits) from serving as topics of entertainment and amusement at the tables of wealthy businessmen and galavanting society ladies.

We have freedom of speech to the utmost limit. This is, after all, the “country of talk” that stays just talk. The benefits are just benefits, no matter how many changes come to the neighboring countries. And, as always and everywhere, there are those who benefit and profit from change.

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