Beirut, between high tourism hopes and alarming terrorist attacks
Fires burn and smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut downtown area - REUTERS
By AMIRA EL-FEKKI

CAIRO: The Lebanese judicial system is currently investigating more than 25 people over accusations of belonging to the Islamic State, and joining the ISIL militant group to conduct terrorist attacks in Lebanon.

Judge Riad Abu Ghayda, in charge of military investigations, interrogated a Saudi suspect on charges of belonging to a terrorist group and planning bomb attacks in Lebanon, The Daily Star reported Tuesday.

Among the 28 suspects to face trial, a French citizen remains fugitive, another is in police custody, and a Saudi man has been arrested, AFP reported July 7, adding that the French Embassy confirmed news of the arrest.

On June 20, security forces raided Napoleon hotel in the district of Hamra in Beirut and arrested the French man. The same day, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a security checkpoint in Dahr al-Baydar, in eastern Lebanon, killing one person.

According to a report broadcast by the Lebanese Future TV, The Intelligence Bureau of Internal Security Forces revealed that the car blast was related to another one which took place in the district of Tayouneh on June 23.

Investigations said the two cars came from the governorate of Beqaa, and were going to be used in a double bombing targeting Al Dahieh Al Janoubieh – the southern suburb – in Beirut, where the majority are Muslim Shiites.

On their way to Beirut, a breakdown in one of the cars caused the double operation to fail, and raised suspicions which lead to security forces being on their tail, informing forces in Dahr al-Baydar about the necessity to stop a car they have been chasing. The suicidal driver blew himself up as soon as security men approached him at the checkpoint, killing officer Mahmoud Jamal el-Din.

The other car had disappeared, and was seen three days later in the Hadi Nusrallah Avenue, a district controlled by Hezbollah. The car blast was similar to the first one, as it exploded when security forces attempted to prevent the driver from blowing himself up, killing one police officer.

The report said the attacks were planned by Qaeda affiliated Azzam Brigades – Kataeb Abdullah Azzam. Among the group’s previous terrorist attacks were the 2004 Sinai bombings which killed 34 and injured over a hundred Egyptians and tourists.

The series of blasts continued through the week. On June 24, security forces stormed Duroy Hotel in Raouche, by the Corniche of Beirut. A man blew himself up inside his room before forces reached him, leading to the injury of several people, including his partner. Both men were identified as Saudi.

According to AFP, the bombings in Lebanon are linked in general to the war in Syria, as extremist groups aim at fighting Hezbollah, the ally of the Syrian regime’s forces. Furthermore, Lebanese officials see a strong connection between the increase in terrorist attacks and power gain of the Islamic State, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and also referred to as Da’esh in Arabic.

The city, the people and tourism

“Paris of the Middle East”, Beirut, has always been the city to be in, especially during the spring and summer season. Known for its top-notch restaurants, venues and extravagant nightlife, it is no wonder that they gained a reputation over the years: the Lebanese know how to enjoy life.

But the security situation disturbed the ambiance of leisure, as people have become more wary. In an article published by London-based newspaper Al-Araby, a Lebanese Taxi driver said that many people are now fleeing the city and spending more time in their hometowns because it’s safer, something they did not do often, usually during seasonal vacations only.

For Lebanese people, “summer has begun” summarizes their comments on the bombings of residential and commercial neighborhoods, coffee shops, hotels, and other crowded areas. “We’re used to this at the beginning of each summer,” 26-year-old entrepreneur Leony el-Sahili told The Cairo Post, during the week of the blasts.

“We live in fear, and we must deal with it,” explained a bartender at Charlie’s Bar in Gemmayzeh. “What else can we do?” he added.

It was the night of June 23, the game between Brazil and Cameroon was on, amid cheers of fans to their favorite World Cup teams. Shortly before midnight, Sara Helou, co-founder of e-Tobb, a health startup, received a call from her family who live close to the checkpoint of Tayouneh, which was attacked. Terrified, they asked her not to come home for a while, after describing how the blast shook the entire apartment.

Lebanon had been facing some challenges boosting their tourism sector.  In the past two years, Gulf States had banned their citizens from visiting Lebanon due to security reasons. This year, the country had high expectations of receiving many Arab tourists.

A campaign in the media to promote tourism was launched by the Ministry of Tourism.

In May 2014, Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaon announced that Arab states lifted the ban on Lebanon, giving their people the “green light to travel to Lebanon,” Al-Jazeera reported. Optimistic, Pharaon expected a high flow of Arab tourists during the summer of 2014, stating that hotel reservations varied between 60 and 70 percent completion, compared to 35 percent at the same time in 2013.

According to Al-Jazeera, Arab tourists represent 65 percent of tourism in Lebanon, a number that had declined by 80 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Despite the explosions, Pharaon remains positive about an increasing stream after the holy month of Ramadan in August. “In the past two months, 4,000 Saudi tourists visited Lebanon, in addition to 14,000 Iraqis, and 7,000 Jordanians,” Pharaon told Asharq Al-Awsat July 1.

Meanwhile, travel agencies, hotels and restaurant owners had prepared eventful schedules to welcome tourists, including sightseeing tours to the coasts, natural sights, monuments, as well as celebrating annual summer festivals in Beiteddine Annual Festival, southern Lebanon and Baalbek, in the east.

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