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Adieu Lebanon.

Over recent weeks several dozen Lebanese politicians have slipped away from their homes in and around Beirut to fly off to Paris, Amman, London or some other foreign bolt-hole, anywhere to put some distance between themselves and the assassins they believe are stalking them. The jumpy politicians, all of them from the anti-Syrian camp, are not the only ones getting out.

There's a haemorrhage of young people who see no prospect of a good life in their homeland, still a bastion of tribal warlords and venal politicians, bought and paid for by outside powers, no matter how much they try to pretend otherwise. The exodus of their political leaders to safer climes does little to persuade them there is much reason to stick around.

The Lebanese have always emigrated in large numbers over the years, particularly during the 1975-90 civil war. But as the dread of a new conflict mortifies this tiny, fractious country that tried to be a nation, many of its citizens fear the final disintegration is closing in.

There is no shortage of potential sparks--an Islamist insurgency in the north, constant bombings and the assassination of prominent anti-Syrian activists, a deepening political crisis between pro- and anti-Syrian factions, the threat of another war with Israel to the south, an economy in sharp decline, and lastly the intrigues of outside powers, who have long exploited Lebanon's sectarian divisions for their own ends.

Western and Arab embassies report that thousands of Lebanese have applied for visas in recent weeks. Sources at the Surete-Generale say that their department has been processing a daily average of 5,000 applications for passports, mostly young people, scrambling to get away. "It's a tidal wave, a tsunami," said one. "I've never seen the like."

In recent months, the citadels of the political dynasties that rule the roost in Lebanon--the Hariris, the Jumblatts, the Berris, the Gemayels and their ilk--have become heavily guarded fortresses whose perimeters extend a city block or two in every direction, guarded by the Lebanese military, the Internal Security Forces and their own private armies of mercenaries whose state-of-the-art equipment makes a mockery of the obsolescent arms and security systems of the state forces.

In the West Beirut district of Koraytem, the hilltop palace of the family of the late Rafiq Hariri, whose son Saad has taken over as the patriarch of Lebanon's Sunnis, and the mansion of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Shi'ite head of the Areal movement, a mile to the west in the Ein El Tineh neighbourhood, have been heavily fortified.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni who was close to Rafiq Hariri, is holed up with some of his cabinet ministers in the heavily guarded Grand Serail building in central Beirut which houses the premier's office and faces the tented camp of Hizbullah-led protesters demanding his ouster. Siniora and his colleagues have been living there since December, fearful of being killed if they stay in their homes.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the last of Lebanon's feudal warlords, stays mainly in his ancestral castle at Mukhtara, deep in the Chouf Mountains overlooking Beirut.

Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is hardly ever seen in public and is holed up either inside the Shi'ite Daniyeh district stronghold in south Beirut that was battered by Israeli air strikes in the 2006 war, or possibly in the Bekaa Valley, the Shi'ite heartland in northeast Lebanon. He remains an Israeli target, the only leader of the pro-Syrian opposition known to be on anyone's hit list.

Every day, the security barriers in Beirut look more permanent, involving heavy steel barriers cemented into the pavement and savage coils of razor wire. US-built Lebanese Army Ml13 armoured personnel carriers, mounted with machine guns, surround these fortified palaces.

Around the Hariri palace, these days only occasionally occupied by Hariri's son and political heir, Saad, trees that once shaded the streets have been cut down so that the security forces have clear fields of fire against any attacker. And ringing each strongpoint in this archipelago of fortresses are men with their fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons.

These days, there is an air of deep and grim foreboding in Beirut and the rest of this country, for decades the plaything of regional powers, as it stares into the abyss once again, helplessly caught up in the cyclone of crisis tearing across the Middle East. Its political leaders are intellectually incapable of breaking out of the rigid tribal taboos that have dominated their thinking for so long or are mired in corruption.

For the hundreds of security personnel deployed around these fortified palaces, guard-duty protecting these pillars of Lebanese politics is eminently preferable to having to slug it out against Islamist militants in house-to-house fighting in the labyrinthine Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared outside the northern city of Tripoli.

The fighting there has been dragging on since 20 May, with more than 200 soldiers, militants and hapless civilians killed. It's the worst internal conflict since the 1975-90 civil war, and it's a fearsome reminder about how perilously close the country is to another bout of sectarian savagery.
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Title Annotation:THE LAST WORD
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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