BEIRUT: The municipality recently removed Hezbollah slogans, images and billboards that had been erected for years on the road to Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut.
They have been replaced by welcome signs by the Ministry of Tourism to welcome tourists and expatriates returning to Lebanon for the summer holidays.
Photos of Hezbollah leaders and deceased party members, as well as yellow party banners, have long lined the airport road space on both sides and in the middle strip.
The airport road borders the neighborhoods housing the offices of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement – the two main Shiite parties – and their security areas.
The size of the photos almost exceeded that of the houses and small businesses located on either side of the road.
The images were not limited to Lebanese party members, but also included Iranian and Iraqi military, religious and political leaders such as Qassem Soleimani, Ayatollah Khomeini, Ali Khamenei and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, so much so that many people crossing this road were confused as to whether it was part of Lebanon or Iran.
Politicians opposed to Hezbollah have often called for the removal of the images, which they called “provocative for the Lebanese”.
They blamed the state for its compromise with the party or its inability to confront its authority, displayed prominently on the route taken by diplomats and political figures coming to Lebanon.
The removal of the propaganda material came in response to a call from acting tourism minister Walid Nassar, who is affiliated with the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement.
Earlier this week, Nassar called on the media administration of Hezbollah and the Amal movement to reduce the number of images and symbols over the next three months and replace them with images of tourist attractions in Lebanon.
The ministry has launched a tourism promotion campaign targeting expatriates and tourists and urging them to visit Lebanon this summer in a bid to boost Lebanon’s stagnant economy. The campaign slogans are “You are welcome” and “Do you miss Lebanon?”
Nassar’s call to remove the images and slogans drew widespread criticism on social media.
Activists have expressed their dissatisfaction with the “respect” Nassar says he has for the figures depicted in the images, who have nothing to do with Lebanon, namely Soleimani (Iranian) and Al-Muhandis (Iraqi).
Activists said Nassar’s remarks “reflect a weak state that is unable to apply the law to Hezbollah and its ally, while it applies the law harshly to the rest of the parties, as it did on 1 June “.
But is Hezbollah’s removal of the photos on the airport road some kind of self-examination in the face of mounting public criticism or is it a temporary response?
Dr Ahmad Fatfat, head of the National Council to End the Iranian Occupation of Lebanon, told Arab News he believed “what happened was coordinated in advance between Minister Nassar and the Hezbollah and is only a temporary stage”.
Fatfat, who was interior minister in 2006, said: “Hezbollah may have agreed to this request because they know that people are fed up with the economic situation the party has brought them into, and legislative election results showed this unrest. ”
If Hezbollah did not feel like it was losing support, Fatfat added, it would not agree to delete the footage and would instead repeat what it did in the summer of 2006 when it provoked Israel’s aggression , which destroyed Lebanon while the presence of tourists and expatriates in the country was at its peak.
Nassar, who visited the airport road, promised that the tourism campaign would cover all Lebanese territories over the next week with more than 150 billboards.
He said the indicators the government has received from the private sector show that the summer season will be very promising in terms of tourism.
Lebanon is counting on tourism this summer – based on flight, hotel and restaurant bookings – to provide much-needed oxygen to the Lebanese economy to revive it.