Monday, November 19, 2007

Tension in Lebanon

Hezbollah's flag, flying high at the infamous Al-Khiam detention centre, near the Israeli border

Early this year I wrote a piece about the Kalashnikov Index: the changing price of an AK-47 depending on supply, and demand due to perceived changes to security. In Iraq, where security appears to be improving, the Index should be falling, though I have seen no recent price data.

One nearby country where the Index has surged is Lebanon. There, says this report, the cost of buying an AK-47 has recently trebled to $1,000 a weapon. Rising expectations of violence lie behind the rise. Lebanon's politicians are currently deadlocked over the choice of a successor to replace Emile Lahoud, the Syrian-backed president of the country. A replacement needs to be found by 23 November when Mr Lahoud's term ends, but as the Index suggests people are pessimistic that an acceptable compromise candidate will be found.

I got back from a short visit to Lebanon this morning, and my impression was that the country, though outwardly calm, is close to the abyss. Having given the Israeli army a bloody nose last year, Hezbollah is reputedly preparing for trouble. Its distinctive green on yellow flags (depicting a forearm clenching an AK-47) were flying everywhere that I went, south of the River Litani and up the Beqaa valley, where souvenir sellers offering Hezbollah t-shirts congregate outside the famous ruins at Baalbek. It is clear that the spectacular damage to the country's infrastructure done by Israel (and supported without demure by Britain and the United States) during last year's war, let alone the deaths the war caused, has only reinforced Hezbollah's support. And I watched a procession of cars of another pro-Syrian faction, streaming down the main road from the Syrian border towards Beirut, flapping their disconcerting, rather fascist-inspired, red, black and white banners from the windows. Despite the signs of wealth and renovation of Beirut's battered city-centre there seems to be a fatalism among the few Lebanese I spoke to about their ability to influence events, and even a certain ambivalence towards the current, if uneasy, peace. Perhaps this has always been the case. This was my first visit to Lebanon and I have nothing to compare it with.

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