BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) — In the TV news business, if a story breaks, you better be ready to turn on a dime, pack your bags and head to the nearest airport.
I was calmly preparing a trip to Dubai to host the December edition of Inside the Middle East, when the assassination of a Lebanese cabinet minister forced a drastic rethinking of our plans.
So it was off to Lebanon again, less than three months after the end of the Hezbollah/Israel conflict, to anchor live from CNN’s Beirut headquarters.
And it was crisis time in the country: The murder of Christian politician Pierre Gemayel had worsened a major political breakdown in Lebanon.
Six pro-Syrian ministers had resigned from the cabinet a few weeks earlier, and the decision of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s U.S.-backed (anti-Syrian) government to approve an international tribunal to try the suspects in last year’s assassination of Rafik Hariri raised fears of open intestine conflict.
Lebanon was only just catching its breath after this summer’s war, and yet again, its future was hanging in the balance.
On the plane flying to Beirut, I tried to follow a corporate video on a tiny TV monitor hanging above my head. It was a short film promoting tourism and investment in Lebanon.
“Bank deposits have increased by 12.5 percent in the last 12 months,” read the subtitle on the screen, over an interview with the chairman of Banque du Liban.
The message: This summer’s war, the political killings, the fears of renewed civil conflict haven’t scared away investors and shouldn’t frighten you, the international visitor, from placing money in Lebanese banks.
The “Visit Lebanon” video ended with shots of the airport’s duty free stores and a commercial for a plastic surgeon in a white lab coat injecting a woman’s frown lines with Botox.
But on arrival at Beirut’s international airport, the parking lot, normally bustling, was nearly empty. My driver, Abdallah, told me hotel bookings were being cancelled daily.
“Even Lebanese expatriates are postponing trips back home because of the situation, “he added in a heavy sigh.
A major problem, I thought, for a country whose growth relies so heavily on tourism, foreign investment and the money wealthy Lebanese living abroad bring back home; not the reality the promotional video on Middle East Airlines was portraying.
That evening, after a live interview on the latest political earthquake in Lebanon, I asked the country’s economy minister, Sami Haddad, about deposits in Lebanese banks.
“The banking sector definitely suffered during the war. It’s impossible to calculate the number now, but deposits were down 5 percent this summer,” he told me, adding: “The peak tourism season this year was completely lost and foreign investment is still much weaker than this time last year.”
Considering tourism and banking both account for up to a fourth of national income here, Lebanon’s in for a bumpy ride. While the world focuses on politics, the economy is being forgotten; and every blow this country takes is chipping away at what it took the Lebanese 15 years to rebuild since the end of the civil war and what is still in ruins after this summer’s deadly conflict.
There are, understandably, more pressing concerns: Who killed Pierre Gemayel? Will Siniora’s government survive? Will Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to bring in a “clean” cabinet, do something rash and bring the current rift between pro- and anti-Syrian politicians to a head?
The fact that political leaders, including the father of the assassinated minister, Amin Gemayel, called for restraint, will probably keep things contained for now. Even Nasrallah called on pro-Hezbollah demonstrators to get off the streets last week.
“Had these calls not been issued right away,” one local journalist told me, “all hell would have broken loose.”
So it’s calm for now, but simmering under the surface; the future here still hinging on Lebanon’s factional leaders to give dialogue a shot or, at least, not to take their differences to the point of no return.
All the while, the money the country needs to rebuild and keeps its young citizens employed and happy — and off the streets — keeps bleeding out of this troubled nation’s borders.