I went to cover a demonstration in West Beirut yesterday morning – yes, please note the capital W on "West" – and then I get a text from a Lebanese woman on my mobile phone, asking if she will have to wear a veil when she returns to Lebanon. How do I reply? That the restaurants are still open? That you can still drink wine with your dinner?
That is the problem. For the war in West Beirut is not about religion. It is about the political legitimacy of the Lebanese government and its "pro-American" support (the latter an essential adjective to any US news agency report), which Iran understandably challenges.
A few days ago, I went to view an exhibition – here, in Beirut – of posters of the terrible 15-year civil war which cost the Lebanese and Palestinians 150,000 lives. It was called "Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon's Civil War, 1975-1990", and I came to the conclusion that there would never be a civil war in Lebanon again. How could a people who were prepared to show such outrageous placards re-fight this hopeless conflict? But, am I not seeing almost identical posters in the streets of West Beirut?
So let us start at the beginning (be that the Ottoman, French, post-Versailles beginning of Lebanese history). Or let us begin yesterday, when it was broadcast that two Hizbollah members (for which read Shia Muslims) were knifed to death in Aley by Druze Muslims. Outrageous, if true. So let us begin with the statement that the Lebanese army command has decided to let Brigadier General Wafiq Chucair remain in command of security at Beirut airport. And that the Lebanese army commander – General Michel Sulaiman (the favourite for president if parliament, after 18 sittings, decide to choose one) – was determined to restore "law and order".
Thus (if the reader is not already confused) we should advance to the near-present. The army is demanding an end to all militia presence, for example the armed checkpoints in Lebanon; also, the opening of all roads. The army's fear, of course – and this is not in the official communiqués – is that if the militias do not end checkpoints and open all roads, then the army itself will split and its soldiers become part of the checkpoints. Yesterday, though, Hizbollah TV said the militias would comply with the request.
But let's go back to that demonstration I was covering in Beirut. Two days ago, Hizbollah, in its takeover of West Beirut, captured Saad Hariri's Future Television. This was the station of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri prior to his assassination on 14 February 2005 (for whether Syria was responsible watch this space, as they say). When Hizbollah took over West Beirut two days ago, they cut Future's cable, and so the 200 or so demonstrators who turned up yesterday were wasting their time.
Meanwhile, back at the poster exhibition, the Phalangists (still very much alive) tell their supporters that their "martyrs" died "for Lebanon to live". Another tells readers that "the Morabitoun [in Arabic, the Muslim "Ambushers"] destroyed the symbol of fascist treason, of black Zionism". The Syrian Social Nationalist Party calls, after 53 years, for "the renaissance and unity of society, and for the liberation of the nation from Zionist and foreign occupation". Let us remember here that the SSNP still wants an Arab nation which includes "Palestine", and Cyprus. And there is poor old Bashir Gemayel (Phalangist leader, assassinated in 1982, after winning the pro-Israeli presidential ticket) telling the Lebanese, Kitchener-like, that "Your nation needs you – yes, You!"
And when I walked round that exhibition, I thought – yes – that this war could never be recreated. I even contemplated an article saying that there would not be another civil war here. On reflection, I should have sent that story to this paper. For despite everything that we have witnessed these past three days (or two years, or the 30 years or 2,000 years, you take your pick), I don't think the Lebanese want another civil war.
Five days ago, I recorded an interview for Saad Hariri's Future channel about my new book, and told my interviewer that I did not think there would be another civil war in Lebanon. Because Hizbollah has cut the cables of the channel, there will be no programme. "You did it for nothing," the young Lebanese woman interviewer told me yesterday. Yes, I think she was right. But I still suspect that the Lebanese will not tolerate another civil conflict.
And I say this in front of the facts: that Hizbollah paraded down the Corniche in front of my apartment with their weapons, and that my car is shredded with bullet holes courtesy of – let us speak frankly – Hizbollah's venal allies, the Amal militia (owner; Nabih Berri, speaker of parliament). Like all who live here, my driver and I are happy we were not in the car. But in Lebanon, the question is: who will drive the car?