TYRE, Lebanon, 12 February (IPS) - The solemn black-clad crowd rallied in Tyre’s downtown for the Muslim commemoration of Ashoura, which marks the battlefield death of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and an enduring symbol of resistance for the Shia in Lebanon. The population here is mostly Shia Muslims.
A few blocks away along the Mediterranean shore, a small, rapt audience watched Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah sermonize on a cafe television. On a veranda next door, bar worker Hussein and his friends drank beer and soaked in the sun.
“From 1980 I used to come here and drink beer on the beach,” said Hussein, who was born in the south but grew up in Beirut. “This town is (parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri’s party) Amal, and Hizballah does not ask us about this.”
Tyre enjoys a reputation as a laid back summer resort with a “liberal” lifestyle in the heart of south Lebanon — with its striking Roman ruins, ancient Christian fishing harbor, and bustling beachfront lined with restaurants, coffee shops and bars.
But during the off-season — and compounded by the negative impact of the summer 2006 conflict with Israel, the ongoing political crises in Beirut and skyrocketing prices nationwide — the town’s family-owned retail shops and businesses, farmers and fishermen barely make a living.
“Nearly all people here work two jobs,” says Chawki Ghandour, local branch manager for the Bank of Beirut. “And most depend on funds sent from their family members working abroad.”
Ten miles south of the Tyre waterfront lies the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping headquarters at Naqourra, and Israel’s border just beyond. On the hills and on the coastal plain in between are acres of citrus and banana plantations, and the villages where the Hizballah party draws some of its strongest support.
Under fierce bombardment in 2006, many villagers fled to Tyre’s plush Rest House resort and the surrounding Palestinian refugee camps for relative safety, before heading up the dangerous coastal road north to Sidon. “During the war my family home was bombed, and they went to Beirut,” says Hassan Lehaf, the charismatic owner of Skandars bar. “I stayed here, and there were journalists sleeping here. Every night under bombing we would think it was our last, and we’d bring all the bottles out onto the bar.” While Tyre itself was spared most of the violence, by the end of the 34-day conflict the civilian casualty count was way over 1,000. Vast swathes of infrastructure were destroyed, and an estimated hundreds of thousands of unexploded cluster munitions lay indiscriminately scattered across the south.
Since then, in accordance with UN Resolution 1701, UNIFIL has upgraded to nearly 15,000 strong. It is deployed with the newly arrived Lebanese Army below the landmark Litani River, and alongside the hundreds of operational foreign de-miners and charity workers. These are the south’s current, albeit temporary, main employers, and the source of a considerable cash infusion into its ailing economy.
Daoud, a soft-spoken man in his twenties, worked with the commercial Armor Group until it wrapped up its de-mining operations in Lebanon last December. He and many colleagues at the local Red Cross were snapped up to work as medics on ordnance clearance teams, while hundreds more were recruited for the hazardous work of searching for deadly munitions. They are paid 800 to 1,000 dollars a month, a windfall salary in the south, where average take-home wages otherwise are about the national minimum of 200 dollars a month.
But with a December deadline to finish all cluster munitions clearance, and with only a few companies staying on for further mine removal, most medics and searchers like Daoud will be out of a job.
“I have work, but it’s little work,” he says. He has a 350 dollars a month job as a guard at a national telecommunications company. “Everyone has another job, not just me,” he says. “Mine action is a good job for one year, but people don’t give up their jobs from before.”
During Tyre’s summer weekends, the beachside cabanas are filled with families seeking refuge from the humid heat, while the scantily clad lie poolside at the exclusive Rest House resort. At night Skandars is a perennial favorite for international workers and Lebanese visiting from Beirut or abroad, and packed with bodies drinking and swaying to loud dance music. Others dance energetically elsewhere to Arabic singers on stage, while the many locals who frown on alcohol congregate at the coffee bars.
Outside in the honking traffic, white UN cars tangle with mopeds and pickup trucks. Those too poor to enter a venue sit along the promenade to watch. “The economic situation is linked to the political situation — if the political situation is resolved, then the economy will improve,” says Tyre’s mayor, Abdel-Mohsen al-Husseini. “Right now many people are buying just the necessities — if they need water, they will buy one instead of two.”
There is consensus that Hizballah, with wide support in Tyre, does not want to start a conflict over alcohol, and is instead working to keep the internal peace. Hizballah’s major concern is the multitude of outside threats: the national political unrest, recent attacks on UN peacekeepers and the possibility of another war with Israel are already exacerbating heightened tensions.
For the past two weekends a small group of youths have burned tires in Tyre’s streets, in solidarity with Beirut’s violent protests over electricity cuts in the southern suburbs. Although co-opted by political parties, the message is resonant in the south where the price of electricity is high. Tyre’s severe power cuts can last all day during winter months.
Medhi moved back to Tyre from the US a few years ago to start a seafront cafe serving cake and cappuccinos out of his childhood home. “We have the highest phone costs in the world, the highest electricity costs,” he says. “I pay more for electricity in two months than for all the employees that I have. How do I survive? I don’t know — the street is not as good as it looks.”
“The wealth from UNIFIL is not being evenly spread,” Medhi continues. “When I opened my business I had peacekeepers come here, but after the Spanish bombing it stopped.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Where the wealth is spread is with the de-miners. They just took two of my employees. I told them to be careful,” he adds.
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