Vanessa Newby is a PhD candidate at Griffith University. Photo by the author.
A television show called al-Azaim ('The President') is causing great excitement in Lebanon. The concept is simple: members of the public from all walks of life put themselves forward as candidates running for the role of president of Lebanon. Selected by the production team, men and women give a speech summarising their political platform. The candidates are then questioned in a format similar to that of Pop Idol by a panel selected from the great and the good in Lebanon, and required to defend their position.
The topics chosen by the candidates are diverse, ranging from women's rights to the never-ending problem of Lebanon's unreliable electricity supply. Viewers in Lebanon and in other parts of the Middle East and beyond are able to vote by phone for their preferred candidate.
The show is now at the stage where the most popular contestants have been selected and are competing to demonstrate their competence. Reconciling groups of former civil war combatants, visiting Lebanese penitentiaries and generating a hotline for sexual harassment against women are just some of the controversial issues tackled by the final group of candidates, who are predominantly female. The winner of the show will be given funding by the station to launch a political career in Lebanon.
The content of the show and the interest it has generated reflects a desire among the population at large for freedom of speech, gender equality, a fully functioning modern state and most of all, harmony between religions. The vast majority of Lebanese do not want a return to civil war and this television show reflects this.
But, as it ever was in Lebanon, what the people want and what they receive are two different things.
Living in Lebanon these days, having returned after several visits last year, one cannot fail to notice the rise in tensions. The Syrian crisis is slowly and inexorably exerting pressure on Lebanon in the form of refugees refugees, economic decline and the re-ignition of sectarian conflict. The highways and streets of popular recreation destinations like Hamra are filled with children selling flowers to passers-by, female beggars holding babies and men selling packets of tissues. They are without exception Syrian.
Tourism is slowly but surely on the decline. Walking the streets these days I pass foreigners less and less frequently. Overland trade between Syria and Lebanon has all but dried up owing to frequent roadblocks by various members of the Syrian resistance and the shut down of factories that supply the population with pharmaceutical products and other goods. Real estate sales have dropped by 19% since the beginning of the year. Pictures of Bashar al-Assad adorn the streets of Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut which is predominantly Shi'a.
The troubles in Syria are understood here to be a civil war between foreign-backed Salafi movements and the legitimate government. Meanwhile, the Sunni parties continue to align themselves with the position of Turkey and the Gulf states, which is that the regime must fall, and it is just a question of when.
Then there are the troublesome towns of Tripoli and Sidon. The fighting between the Sunni area of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen, which sit side-by-side, divided by a single road, continues to flare up and intensify on a weekly basis. Members of the Lebanese military have been killed and visiting politicians bombed in recent weeks. These events are becoming so common they often don't even reach the international media.
In the southern city of Sidon, tensions continue to rise. For the most part they are caused by the Salafi Sheikh Ahmad Assir and his gang of followers of young men. His activities began last year with a road blocking sit-in calling for the disarmament of Hizballah that lasted for weeks. Now he has grown bolder and regularly issues statements threatening Hizballah and he has gone as far as to attack the homes and offices of known Hizballah organisations and supporters in Sidon.
Several weeks ago there was a stand-off on the streets of Beirut between local Shi'a residents and Assir's supporters which caused the closure of many roads in the central area. Two weeks ago Shi'a youths retaliated by kidnapping five Sunni Sheikhs, forcibly shaving their beards and beating them up. The response was (somewhat predictably these days), the blocking of roads by young Sunni men, this time on the Corniche, with burning tyres. Residents here often joke that they should start to invest in Michelin, so common is this practice.
Sectarian attacks have been swiftly condemned by all sides at the political level, but politics here remains a battle between two political movements for control of Lebanon: the Shi'a-dominated March 8th movement and the Sunni-dominated March 14th group. The Christians are divided, with representation on both sides of the political spectrum, and as always the Druze represent the swing vote (currently they are aligned with the March 8th movement).
The lack of consensus on internal issues is slowly paralysing the country, with numerous strikes and sit-ins by civil servants, the largest being the recent public school teacher's strike which lasted for a month. Politicians in Lebanon are trying to organise a general election but have been unable to agree on a new electoral law and they are now calling to delay the elections by three months. This is in no small part due to the fact that all remain hostage to the desires and wishes of their electorates. The resignation of the Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati two weeks ago, in my view, demonstrates the grip religious groups have on their leaders here, no matter how extreme their views. As always, each sect draws support from outside to reinforce its position, and this is where the trouble has always started for Lebanon.
All things considered, the likelihood that Lebanon will be taken down by the sectarian conflicts raging in Iraq and Syria is quite high. The question of whether it will be domestic or external forces that actually start the fire remains open.