Airspace fiasco sums up train wreck of a year for Lebanon

On Friday night I was in Malmo, south-west Sweden, when I received a call from an agitated Mrs Karam who told me that I wouldn’t be flying to Beirut on Sunday because … wait for it … the Russians had requested that Lebanon close its airspace for 72 hours. This was while it “conducted military manoeuvres”, which was presumably shorthand for sticking it to ISIS.

Surely not? Beirut airport is a crucial economic artery. Had Hizbollah, which doesn’t really care about such things and whose soldiers are fighting alongside Russian troops in Syria, applied pressure on the government of Tammam Salam? Not according to the local media, which was reporting that it was the Russian navy that had … again wait for it … “faxed” its intentions to the Lebanese civil aviation authorities, bypassing the seat of government completely. Curiously, the Russian ambassador to Lebanon announced that he knew nothing about it either.

One of the advantages of being a small and intimate nation is that we can still talk to humans and so I phone a friend who works for Middle East Airlines at Heathrow. She told me her phone had being ringing non-stop since the rumour broke, but the good news was that flights were leaving London on schedule. There had been no cancellations. Business class is fully booked and BA had not cancelled its flights to Beirut. Apparently we were just taking a different route into Beirut “as a precaution”.


I wasn’t entirely reassured but decided to go anyway. The confusion was yet another pathetic example of just how far adrift the Lebanese state has become from the rest of the country. No one in the government, as far as I could tell, had really “gripped” the situation.

The year 2015 will surely be remembered as a train wreck. A toothless state has not only showed it is supremely incompetent in the face of an environmental and health crisis of monumental proportions and a security lapse that led to the deaths of 40 civilians in a bomb blast in southern Beirut nearly two weeks ago, but the Salam government has added insult to injury by not even having the decency to step down in the face of its ineptitude.

But the year isn’t over yet. And just as the Lebanese were once again wondering who actually runs their country these days, the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian political party, decided it would throw its weight around, when Simon Abi Ramia, one of its MPs, told the local media that his party would shut off the water supply to Beirut if work on a local dam project didn’t begin immediately. You couldn’t make it up.

The FPM rose to prominence in 2005 after the return of its founder, the former exiled army commander general Michel Aoun. The party promised transparency, vowing to fight corruption and as such appealed to many professional and educated Lebanese fed up with militia politics.

Not only is it now behaving like the political parties it swore to stand against, the party has also recently faced questions over the financial probity of its newly elected leader Gebran Bassil, who is also Lebanon’s foreign minister and Mr Aoun’s son-in-law. It also doesn’t help that the FPM also a staunch ally of Hizbollah.

It is one of the sad realities of Lebanon that even the brightest feel they have to belong to a political party and it is equally sad that the FPM’s supporters ended up backing the wrong party for the right reasons. They are one of the few vertebrae left in Lebanon’s increasingly brittle economic spine and they have a duty to ensure the country’s economy doesn’t disintegrate under the multiple pressures – external and internal – that it faces. Sticking with Mr Aoun and his dubious son-in-law is not helping the cause.

Thankfully we have heard nothing more from Mr Abi Ramia and in the end I made it to Beirut. On Sunday, the transport minister Ghazi Zeaiter revealed the Russians had decided not to hold naval manoeuvres after all and that in fact Russia never requested that Lebanon’s airspace be shut down. “Nobody would accept Lebanon’s airspace be [sic] closed,” Mr Zeaiter said solemnly.

Heaven forbid.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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