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The peace is disturbing

Observations on Lebanon

Something strange is happening on Beirut’s streets. Shops are open. People are sitting outside drinking lattes. Normal life is going on.

It wasn’t how most people expected the election to turn out. With Hezbollah’s coalition apparently poised to take power, people were equally fearful about either a win or a defeat for the radical Shia group. As Israeli military manoeuvres went on south of the border, and US policymakers muttered darkly about a change in relations, many feared a Hezbollah victory would bring disaster to the country. But the Lebanese, mindful of May last year, when Hezbollah took over West Beirut, did not expect them to be good losers if victory did not transpire.

“If Hezbollah wins, it will change the country for the worse. If they lose, Hasan Nasrallah will send people to the streets,” a taxi driver said glumly, just before voting started.

“I stocked up on food,” confesses Rana, a teacher. “I even made sure I got extra classes in before the elections. I was sure something was going to happen.”

In Lebanon, social life is largely dictated by spontaneity; but even more than usual, people refused to make plans for after the elections. “Everything was inshallah,” says Sawsan, who works in a laundrette in West Beirut.

Election day itself was a big security challenge. There is some correlation between Lebanon’s political parties and the militias that fought each other in the civil war. With so much at stake, and the usual backdrop of feuds and tit-for-tat aggression, there were fears that scuffles between supporters of rival groups could get out of hand. This year, the elections were held on one day, stretching the army and police almost beyond capacity.

“We were all saying, in five minutes, in one hour, something’s going to happen,” recalls Sawsan. “People didn’t believe nothing was happening. They said, are you sure? What does the TV say?”

But somehow both the election, and its surprising result – a victory for the Hariri-led, pro-Western governing coalition – passed without incident, and Nasrallah made a graceful concession speech. Over in Iran, the elections have resulted in a clash of protesters. Meanwhile, the Lebanese, rather bemusedly, went back to work.

The conspiracy theory mill has been working in overdrive to explain the result and Hezbollah’s calm acceptance of it. The most persistent theory is that Hezbollah was deliberately trying to lose. But whatever the reason, after the increasingly apocalyptic tone of the campaigning season, people are enjoying the peace and quiet. “It’s amazing!” says Sawsan, then pauses, thinks about it, and shakes her head. “Lebanon is so weird.”

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran