A surreal uprising

Observations on Beirut

"They were so cute," said Wardieh. An employee at a late-night snack stall that remained open through out Thursday night, he watched as, against a deafening soundtrack of gunfire punctuated by thunder and lightning, Hezbollah took control of West Beirut on 9 May.

"Really, I am a Druze, and I am with [the pro-government MP] Walid Jumblatt, but they were so calm, so organised . . . if other people had arrived at that point in the fighting I would have thought they were going to kill us." Unable to return to their homes just metres away, when the gun-battles broke out, the staff at Snack Faysal elected to carry on serving manoush - a kind of local pizza - to Lebanese security forces, who, under orders not to intervene in case it exacerbated the situation, had little better to do than consume it. By morning, Hezbollah were striding into the stall, not to order manoush or to take it over, but to "check" things. Faysal's team struggle to describe to me the phases of an insurrection so unconventional that it bordered on the surreal.

The prospect of civil violence has loomed over Lebanon since Hezbollah withdrew its ministers from the coalition government in 2006. For the past 17 months, the US and Saudi-backed government on one side and the Iranian and Syrian-backed opposition led by Hezbollah on the other have sought to gain the advantage.

Nonetheless, the speed and efficiency with which Hezbollah took over half the city took many by surprise. On Thursday morning, the cafes of Hamra, a prosperous Sunni district, were full of the usual well-dressed students sipping lattes. By the afternoon, after the Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah had called the government's decision to close its communications network an act of war, it was a battle zone, with Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) fighters allied to Hezbollah battling Future Movement gangs allied to the government. The next morning, the blue ribbons of the Future Movement, which have bedecked Hamra Street for the past few years, were gone. In their place were SSNP flags, emblazoned with the party's red cyclone symbol. SSNP gunmen sat grinning in front of the shuttered boutiques, showing off Kalashnikovs amid piles of broken glass. "We kicked the bad gang out!" declared one triumphantly.

At the end of Hamra Street, near Starbucks, what one soldier called a "new red line" emerged, with Lebanese army and Internal Security Force tanks blocking the road leading on to the parliament and the prime minister's residence. But it seemed to mark the limits of Hezbollah's strategic objectives, rather than its military capacity. "They have much better weapons than the Lebanese army," admitted a security source.

By Saturday evening, the army had brokered a face-saving deal, allowing the government to back down on its decision to close the phone network. Hezbollah, having made its point, agreed to pull its gunmen from the streets of Beirut. "After all this, we are back to where we started, which was nowhere: no president, no parliament, nothing," said one Hamra resident.

But though the status quo has been restored, in the minds of many Hezbollah has crossed a line. "We feel very nervous," said Rami, a Sunni grocer from Cola in West Beirut. "They used their weapons inside Lebanon for the first time." The Shia group has been allowed to develop a formidable arsenal, supplied by Iran, on the understanding that it will only be used against the Israelis, whom Hezbollah has been fighting in South Lebanon since the 1980s.

A political solution looks unlikely in the near future. But on the street, despite the superficial calm, the tension is palpable. With the airport roads still blocked, and fighting continuing to spread outside the capital, Beirut remains a city on edge, braced for the next outbreak of hostility.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel