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Beirut is Burning: Why I Don’t Blame the Rioters

Photograph Source: Shahen books – CC BY-SA 4.0

I thought the days when I kicked burning tyres off roads had ended. I used to clear the road in Belfast in 1972. Then, often, I did the same in Beirut.

But there I was yesterday, as my faithful driver Selim waited patiently for me to shake hands with the local militiaman and explain why I wanted to get to Damour (about 12 miles south of Beirut) and wave my little Lebanese press card in his face, slowly using my best brown shoes to push his burning tyres off the highway.

They were hot. Just to look at the flames made my eyes hurt.

That’s what burning tyres are supposed to do, of course. And the Lebanese drivers, backed up behind us like rabbits, turned round and went home.

Well, we got through. And drove and drove and drove, and laughed that we had done so. But this was a very serious matter. The army stayed away; the police advised motorists to go home. Law and order – you remember those old words? – were less important than the lawful right of way. But, for several hours, Selim and I exercised our own right of way.

For the most part, the men lighting these fires belonged to the Amal Movement, the Shia group controlled by Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament. Or so they told me, and I did not argue about it.

This tells it own story. Some were very poor, and looked it, and I don’t really blame them for their actions. Lebanon has never been a very rich nation – save for their Sunni merchants and Christian bankers – and these were the people who did not have enough to eat. For days, they had been protesting their fate. The Lebanese pound had fallen, the price of food had rocketed – all true, I promise you – and they protested.

I was not surprised, yet there was something new and surprising about this. All this week, the mountains of Lebanon have burnt. Their great glory of pine trees and wonderful mountainsides have blossomed with flames. The government’s three anti-fire helicopters lay rotting at Beirut international airport – the government did not maintain them – and it needed GreeceCyprus and Jordan to send its aircraft to quench the burning hills. My own apartment on the Beirut seafront stank of smoke. On Wednesday night, God visited Lebanon – he does come here occasionally, I have decided – and drenched the country in rain and tempest. On Thursday morning, my balcony was covered in sand and ash.

But there is something far more serious going on here. The physical rage of Lebanese people is not just a militia outburst. It’s not because ordinary people are hungry – and they are – but because an unjust system (ever more taxes, ever higher prices) is making it impossible to work to bring home money and food.

Let me ask just one small question. On the corniche seafront where I live – the Avenue de Paris, as the French mandate decided it should be called in the 1920s – almost every apartment block is empty. Save for those who share the small bloc where I live, there is nothing but darkness. You can drive downtown from here, for miles to the centre of Beirut, and you will not find a light. These buildings are owned as investments – by Iraqis, for the most part, but also by Syrians and Saudis – and no one lives there.

In a country where the poor of the Beqaa Valley and the refugees from Syria and the Palestinian refugees (of whom of course we no longer speak, since they are the wreckage of the Israeli state) exist in shacks, these mighty sentinels of cash stand triumphant: empty, rich and shameful.

So I fear we shall have more burning tyres on the road.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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