CAIRO/BEIRUT: Violence returned to the streets of Lebanon early this month as Hezbollah took control of the capital in response to government attempts to curb the group’s power.
Beirut was shut down with Hezbollah gunmen blocking major roadways as well as the Rafiq Hariri Airport, as residents braced themselves for another civil war.
As the fighting ensued for two weeks, representatives from Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told local media that they contacted all Egyptians in Lebanon to make sure they were okay. Pakinam Agha, a Master’s student at the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut, begs to differ.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt, Agha expressed her utter disappointment at the Egyptian embassy in Lebanon.
The clashes, which left 67 people dead, forced the Lebanese cabinet to rescind decisions to sack the airport security chief and declare Hezbollah’s private telephone network illegal. Violence peaked on May 7 and ended two weeks later when delegations from both parties reached a peace deal after negotiations in Doha, Qatar.
“When the clashes started I told other Egyptians let’s call the embassy, they all looked back at me and said, ‘The embassy will be the first to shut the door in your face,’ said Agha.
She soon discovered that was true. No one from the embassy contacted Agha or any of her friends. Only when her parents back in Egypt worked through their connections did she get that call.
“A person from the embassy called to check on me and told me not to leave my building, but no one tried contacting my two Egyptian roommates, she recalled.
Agha, who lives in an area called Al Ashrafiya in east Beirut, describes the situation during the clashes as “a time of war; there were shootings and bombings all the time.
“I left the dorms once to get some food and I will never forget what I saw: tanks and snipers everywhere – it was terrifying, she said, thankful to have made it back to her room safely.
A number of Egyptians who were in Beirut during the clashes echoed the same sentiments.
“We called the embassy’s secretary the first day and she told us not to be scared, but afterwards we couldn’t reach anyone at the embassy. Meanwhile, we heard that Kuwait, Bahrain, Italy and other countries were evacuating their nationals, said an Egyptian woman who preferred to remain anonymous.
The embassy did contact her again, saying that her family had to leave Lebanon because their visa would expire the following day.
“We were relieved, but when we asked them to get us out, they said, We will get a car to drop you at the Syrian borders and from there [you can] find transportation to the airport.’ We turned down the offer because we were three women by ourselves, she said.
Their hotel proved to be more helpful, making room for them in an underground area during the clashes.
“They explained to us that these rules regarding their visas do not apply during [times of] war, she said. The family stayed at the hotel until the airport reopened and they were able to take the first flight to Egypt. Watching Lebanese satellite channels, it seemed as if everyone was carrying on with their lives as the usual entertainment programs continued to air. Many wondered how people there could still party while the city was being held captive.
Omnia Abdel Moeity, an Egyptian, was in Beirut for the weekend to attend Star Academy’s weekly concert, which aired on schedule to a crowd of fans, singing and dancing.
“We were in the Christian side of Beirut, so we didn’t feel anything there, Abdel Moeity said. “However, my daughter arrived on a plane after Hezbollah took over the airport, and she was surrounded with armed men until she arrived at the hotel – they were the longest three hours of my life, said Abdel Moeity.
She also took a car to Syria and took a plane from there. “It was a very difficult experience, she said. Getting around Beirut was almost impossible and traveling on the roads blocked by Hezbollah was risky.
“People could still get around in their cars and in taxis; they just had to take a few detours. Of course, it was dangerous trying to get around with bullets flying everywhere, so people mainly stayed inside until the clashes settled down their areas, said Nour Deeb, a student at the American University in Beirut (AUB).
Deeb lives in Hamra, in downtown Beirut. On Thursday May 7, she heard the noises of machinegun fire and rocket propelled grenades. The firing continued through the night and the following day; and then things quieted down – Hezbollah had gained control of the area.
“I am, and always have been, perfectly safe [in Beirut]. We’re all being cautious and not staying out too late, but life goes on. After the war with Israel, we all know what precautions to take, said Deeb.
Deeb, who is half Lebanese, is determined to stay in Lebanon no matter how the politics play out. “I definitely do not want to leave; Lebanon has always been a country in turmoil and that’s not going to change or be helped by us leaving, she said.
“As long as AUB continues giving classes, no matter what happens in the country, I’ll stay. That’s how a lot of people feel here. There’s just something about this country that inspires loyalty. Anything can happen, but I feel that staying is worth the risk, she added.
Watching events play out on the news, it would seem to many in the international community that Lebanon is completely destroyed. The reality on the ground is different and the Lebanese are determined to move on with their lives as soon as the fighting stops. And that’s exactly what they did the day after clashes stopped.
“Lebanon isn’t in pieces; it takes way more than that. Nothing could really disrupt life here, said Claudine Hodroj, a Lebanese. “I’m going shopping tomorrow, she added.
Lebanon’s feuding factions reached a breakthrough deal Wednesday that gives Hezbollah and its allies veto power over all government decisions. They also chose Army Chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as the consensus candidate to be elected as president on Sunday.
Life is pretty much back to normal in Beirut. The roads and the airport are now open and classes have resumed.
“Most places [especially outside Beirut] are already back to normal; people are going to the beach and going out at night, said Deeb.
“Life goes on. No one knows more about that than the Lebanese people. I guess getting on with our normal lives – the way things were before the uprising – is our way of dealing with it all, she added.
“Life is back to normal this week, but I can see that no one can stand the Shia and Hezbollah. People, whether they are Sunni, Druze or Christian, hate them and Nasrallah for what they’ve done to the country, said Agha.