Beirut: Where Valentine's Day Belongs to Another Kind of Saint

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Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP / Getty Images

Billboards bearing portraits of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri are pictured on the Sidon-Beirut highway in southern Lebanon on Feb. 13, 2012 on the anniversary eve of his assassination.

Though Beirut's opulent array of lingerie boutiques, jewelry stores, and gift shops do brisk business in the romance trade throughout the year, many of them are shuttered on the most romantic day of all. Valentine's Day is a semi-official holiday in Lebanon, though not because the citizens of this cosmopolitan, Middle Eastern country are reputedly more amorous than the rest of the Arab world. In fact, Feb. 14 is the date that former prime minister Rafik Hariri died in a massive car bombing in downtown Beirut in 2005, and each anniversary since has become a kind of saint's day for those in the country who believe that the Hariri assassination was ordered by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which occupied Lebanon at the time.

This year, many of them finally feel that justice for Hariri's murder is at hand — if not in an international court of law than by the whim of history and fortune. For almost a year now, the Syrian people themselves have risen up against Assad's authoritarian rule, and many of those Lebanese gathering Tuesday at the annual Hariri memorial in downtown Beirut expressed hope that Assad would meet the same fate as the other dictators toppled by the popular revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring. "I hope he goes to hell," says Joseph Mowad, a bodyguard of one of the anti-Syrian politicians attending the event, referring to the Syrian leader. "I hope he gets exactly what he did to our people in Lebanon." They also took pride in the fact that the deaths of Hariri and several others led to mass demonstrations which eventually pushed the Syrian army out of Lebanon, an event that become known as the Cedar Revolution. They now claim it as a precursor to the Arab Spring. "I salute the [Syrian] martyrs of Dara'a and Homs," said Samir Gagea, a member of parliament and leader of an anti-Syrian Christian political party, in a speech to the assembled audience. "The blood that fell there is merging with the blood that fell here... We are all fighting the same tyranny."

But if justice comes for the dead Lebanese leader, it may likely be the kind of rough justice that throws Lebanon itself into chaos. There are warning signs of instability: the prices of assault rifles have more than doubled in the Beirut black market in the past year as arms dealers funnel weapons to the anti-Assad forces; well-to-do Syrians have been buying emergency apartments in Beirut and less fortunate ones have been heading to refugee camps in northern Lebanon. There is growing fear that the civil war in Syria, which has so far has claimed at least 5,000 lives, could drag Lebanon's delicate sectarian and political balance down with it.

The Syrian crisis has re-opened one of the most senstive wounds in Lebanon's body politic. Ever since Hariri's assassination, Lebanon's political factions have been bitterly — and sometimes violently — divided between those allied with or against the Syrian regime. In other words, those countries and militant groups that want to be part of the axis of resistance to Israel and America on the one hand, and, on the other, those that look to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for patronage and protection.

Now critics say that Hizballah, the anti-Israeli militant group and Shi'ite Muslim political party, which is now the dominant power in Lebanon and which is supported by Syria, is pushing the Lebanese government to side with the Syrian regime. They say that Hizballah is forcing the Lebanese Army to block the flow of weapons to the Free Syrian Army, and the flow of Syrian opposition supporters fleeing the Syrian government's brutal crackdown from entering Lebanon. Moreover, the Lebanese government has not joined the rest of the Arab League in condemning the Syrian regime or in calling for Assad to resign. "The present government is telling lies," said Gagea. "We don't have to be neutral. We can take the side of the revolution." For its part, Hizballah, which receives much of its weapons and supplies from Iran, its other main patron, through Lebanon's porous border with Syria, has promised to back the Assad regime until the end.

For all it's strong talk, Lebanon's anti-Syrian alliance is a shadow of its former self, having been defeated by Hizballah in gun battles in Beirut in 2008, and ejected from the government by Hizballah's political machinations last year. Saad Hariri, Rafik's eldest son, who inherited his billionaire father's fortune and the leadership of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community, hasn't dared set foot back in Lebanon since Hizballah ousted him from the prime minister's office seven months ago. The reputed playboy has been reduced to sending out press releases from his residence in Paris announcing which heads of state sent him condolences after he broke his leg in January skiing in France. Reacting to widespread speculation that his political ambitions have eaten through his personal fortune led to his denial on Monday of reports that his company had received a $2 billion interest free loan from the King of Saudi Arabia to keep it afloat.

But despite — or because of — the Hariri heir's weaknesses, a groundswell of support for the Syrian revolution is beginning to bubble up, especially in Christian and Sunni areas of north Lebanon outside of Hizballah's control. The northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest, has become a haven of sorts for free Syrian activists, refugees, and wounded Free Syrian Army fighters. On Friday, a mix of Syrian refugees and Lebanese Sunni Islamist gathered in the city's central square in sympathy with embattled Syrian cities such as Homs. The angry demonstration — replete with black flags of mourning and prayer — had the same feel of the thousands of anti-American protests that had become routine in the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq, only now the rage was going in a different direction: "There is no God but God," they shouted. "And Assad is the enemy of God." Later, a group of young men began chanting "Down with Nasrallah," referring to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah and the most feared man in Lebanon, until one of the event's organizers, worried that thing might get our of control, calmed them down. Gun fights broke out later that day between pro and anti-Syrian neighborhoods in Tripoli.

Of course, the feeling of imminent disaster is nothing new in Lebanon. The country fought a 15-year sectarian civil war that ended in 1990, several wars with Israel, and still is home to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Yet it has managed in the last 22 years of semi-peace to gloss over its unresolved conflicts by turning itself into a one stop luxury shop and seaside playground for the region's oil-elite, complete with nightclubs, beaches and money laundering. But already, tourism has fallen 21% since the Arab spring began, and the IMF last week warned that Lebanon's economic growth could shrink to 1.5% down from 10% a year ago, a dangerous development for a country with one of the world's largest per capita public debits. And more generally, the feeling is spreading that the Arab Spring may force Lebanon to a reckoning, and that the good times may be coming to an end. "Lebanon is a bottle of champagne sitting on top of a volcano," says one skier, riding the chairlift on the slopes above Beirut, with a view of the Mediterranean on one side and a view of Syria on the other. "And it's about to pop. "