As we watched a series of foreign dignitaries step out of armored SUVs and Mercedes sedans at the Lebanese parliament today, one journalist remarked, “I feel like I’m at Cannes.” Indeed, the red carpet was rolled out and scores of photographers elbowed over one another in paparazzi zeal hoping the dignitaries would turn their way for a good shot. “Mr. Solana!”, “Mr. Kouchner!”, “Mr. Erdogan!” the yelled desperately, in a reference the the EU foreign policy chief, French foreign minister and Turkey’s prime minister as they walked up the parliment steps. Even Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, showed up for the voting in of Lebanon’s new president. “Maybe we should comment on what they are wearing,” another reporter on the scene said.
Lebanese journalists have a reason to be skeptical. They have seen this all before: visits by foreign ministers, smiling politicians shaking hands with former enemies; hope springs eternal, but Lebanon’s past is a bastion of unresolved differences and unsolved crimes that are likely to haunt its future. Chief among these is the string of assassinations over the past three years. Many wonder, will these acts of murder be swept under the rug, as had been done during numerous other occasions in Lebanese history?
Still, many average citizens are relieved. They are happy to have some semblance of peace in their lives. Even the journalists cheered and clapped as they watched the parliment speaker announce the country’s new president. “I am happy, even if we don’t have work,” a local correspondent for a major Arab news network told me. “It’s going to mean a lot more days off,” she said smiling.
And although blocks of downtown were sealed off to keep security tight during the vote, we could still hear the crackle of machine gun fire as many of those who took over West Beirut last month also celebrated the occasion.
UPDATE: I’ve just spoken about the situation with CNN’s Hala Gorani and posted more pictures on her blog. I told her that celebratory gunfire continued well into the night, raising the thorny issue of disarmament, which has been an illusive goal for successive Lebanese governments since the end of the civil war. Can the new president make a difference?