It’s been suspiciously quiet as of late here in Beirut.
Suspicious because, as many a Lebanese will tell you, quiet times in Lebanon are too often merely the segway to the next tussle, a time for their rival politicians to entrench, make money and reward their partisans before launching on the next counter attack.
Such has been the case since 2005, when a wave of popular protests against the Syrian regime in the wake of the assassination of five-time Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri cleaved Lebanon’s politics into two tediously rigid camps: Those who speak out against Syrian interference in Lebanon, and those who say they support Damascus.
The string of assassinations, political rallies, strikes, sit-ins and armed take-overs that followed Hariri’s murder are well known, always pitting the pro-Syrian March 8 group, led by the Shias of Hezbollah, against the Western-backed anti-Syrian group, March 14, led by the Sunnis of the Future Movement.
A less well known outgrowth of this political divide has been the banning of football fans from supporting their teams during matches in the main stadium in Beirut. After fans from rival March 8 and March 14 local teams clashed on the street including, reportedly, a March 8 bus running down some rioting March 14 fans, authorities decided it was too risky in the tinderbox of Lebanese sectarianism and political bickering to allow football fans from rival camps to get hot and heavy in the stadium and on the street.
That left the dejected sight of teams playing out their league fixtures to an almost entirely empty stadium, row after row of empty seats, the only live witnesses to the sporting struggle, a couple of local photographers, the managers and a physio or two.
That’s why, although it was not local teams clashing but the Lebanese national team battling Kuwait for a place in the World Cup 2014, tonight was a significant marker post in the stability that has, temporarily or not, returned to Lebanon: Fans were there to cheer.
With the ban lifted, some 40,000 turned up to see Lebanon draw 2-2 with Kuwait, allowing a late time equalizer when it looked like they were set to vanquish the Gulf visitors.
Across the capital the game blared from every grocers, barbers, café and restaurant. The fans weren’t impeccably behaved: Excess firework firing suspended play temporarily. But their presence was a boost to the national team and, it might well be said, the national psyche.
But now the fans are back in place, it seems some attention might be needed paying to the players. “They were good in the first half, but they got so tired in the second,” said a football fan watching the match at his local barber. “They’re all plumbers and electricians. They don’t have time to train.”