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Lebanon Feels The Pain Of Syrian War Spillover


Now, let's focus in on Andrew Tabler's metaphor about that house at the end of the block of row houses: Lebanon. It has long been said that the peace and security of that country depends on stability in Syria. Lebanon was once famous for its cultural life. The capital, Beirut, was known as the Paris of the East, and it was considered one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East. Then Lebanon was devastated by a 15-year civil war, starting back in 1975. And now, the instability in Syria is spilling across Lebanon's borders and uprooting Beirut's nightlife and tourism. To talk more about this, we reached Michael Young in Beirut. He is the opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper and the author of the book, "The Ghosts of Martyr Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle." Mr. Young, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Lebanon has always kind of prided itself on being this very cosmopolitan place, and Beirut in particular, which is known for its nightlife. Now, two years of conflict in Syria, right next door, how is that now affecting life there?

YOUNG: Well, obviously it's affected political stability in the country, which in turn has affected people's attitudes, the general mood of the country. Economically speaking, the country's been affected by what's going on in Syria, which means that you see many more places closing. There's just less of a mood, if I can say it, for the nightlife, for the cultural life. It's a place where many people today are more frightened of traveling to than they were before. Tourism has taken a big hit in the last two summers, because it's in summer that the Lebanese wait for tourists. The last two summers have been catastrophic in that respect.

MARTIN: Is there a sense among locals that this is something exceptional? I mean, these are people, if they lived through the civil war, they are accustomed to a certain degree to violence. Are Beirutis just kind of bearing down or is there a pending sense of doom?

YOUNG: Well, definitely, the Lebanese have a high tolerance level for instability. But we have to be aware that, you know, the ongoing divisions within Lebanese society. The big fear today, of course, is that the tensions between the Sunni and the Shiite community could eventually break out into open conflict. So, I think this has really put a damper on any confidence, on any positive expectations there have been in the country.

MARTIN: It may be hard for some in the West to understand this, but, I mean, Lebanon's geographic position, squeezed between Syria and Israel, it really has defined so much of its history and those public perceptions about stability. I mean, it would make sense that the Lebanese would have a kind of existential fear about the country's survival.

YOUNG: Well, that's true. I think that you chose precisely the right word. In Lebanon, anxieties are always existential. It's always a question of will the country survive, will the economy survive? There is always this perception that Lebanon, at least in times of instability, that the instability could lead the complete collapse of the system. There are many reasons for this. The Lebanese system in and of itself is one, you know, that has always been unstable. It's a system where basically the religious communities and their representatives bargain and political power is shared between these representatives. You know, that has its positive side but it also has many negative sides. You have a fairly weak state. And so there is always a sense that, as I said, everything can collapse.

MARTIN: And finally, a more political question, Michael. I mean, Lebanon is unique in the Middle East for its diversity. There are 18 officially recognized religious groups there. The divide between sects of Islam is driving the conflict in Syria. I wonder how that has affected any sectarian tensions there in Lebanon.

YOUNG: Most of the major political organizations in both the Sunni and the Shiite communities realize that a war would be devastating for everyone. No one would come out of this in one piece. So, up to now, while we're going through a period of extended instability, there has been not been a full outbreak of fighting. And the machinery of war is not quite in place. Hopefully, we will avoid a war.

MARTIN: Michael Young. He is a journalist in Beirut and he is the author of "The Ghosts of Martyr Square." Michael, thanks so much for talking with us.

YOUNG: Thank you, Rachel. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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