Killing of British diplomat exposes fragility of Lebanon’s civil peace

Within Beirut’s expatriate community, Dykes’s killing unleashed fears that it was its members who had been the target of the attack.
December 24, 2017
Tragic fate. An undated family photo shows Rebecca Dykes, a British staffer at the British Embassy in Lebanon, who was found strangled by the side of the road east of Beirut, on December 16. (Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
Tragic fate. An undated family photo shows Rebecca Dykes, a British staffer at the British Embassy in Lebanon, who was found strangled by the side of the road east of Beirut, on December 16. (Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Beirut- Lebanon and its capital, Bei­rut, at least to some West­erners, are synonymous with war, destruction and the senseless killing of in­nocents due to the nebulous under­standing of sectarian differences. While this might apply to wartime Lebanon, this Levantine republic, with its traffic jams, power and wa­ter cuts, primordial internet service and all that comes with it, remains home to numerous foreigners.

Among them was Rebecca Dykes, a 30-year-old British national who worked as a programme and policy manager for the Department for International Development at the British Embassy in Beirut. Dykes, who enjoyed the streets of Beirut as an avid jogger, had no trouble fitting in, nor did she feel under threat either as a woman alone in a foreign city or as a diplomat in a complicated and occasionally con­tradictory meeting place of nations and religions.

This sense of security was shat­tered when Dykes’s body was dis­covered December 16 a few kilo­metres from Beirut on a relatively secluded motorway, with indica­tions she was the victim of a vi­cious sexual assault.

Within Beirut’s expatriate com­munity, Dykes’s killing unleashed fears that it was its members who had been the target of the attack. However, within 24 hours of her body’s discovery, it was clear that many of the implications of her death started and ended within the forensic detritus of the crime scene. The others, from the alacri­ty with which the police reacted, to the negligence of the taxi company, Uber, entrusted with driving her home, will endure for some time.

“Becky’s death has been a shock to everyone in my community,” said Stephanie d’Arc Taylor, an American journalist and social entrepreneur who has lived in Lebanon since 2012. D’Arc, who cofounded, which connects families with trusted child-care providers, said: “I can’t speak for anyone but myself but I think many of us believe she was simply in the wrong place and [at] the wrong time.”

D’Arc agreed that “women are murdered every day in cities all over the world and those of us who live in Beirut are lucky enough to usually feel safe working and so­cialising and going from place to place. I’ve found that women in Beirut are coming together in new ways to be supportive of each other and share their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, which is probably as commonplace in Beirut as it is in other cities I’ve lived in.”

Reading beyond the tragedy and the immediate arrest of Dykes’s al­leged killer — an Uber driver and ex-con, who reportedly confessed to the crime — is the endless de­bate over how this may affect the Lebanese state and what this tragedy tells us about it.

In reality, it tells us that, in some respects, the Lebanese state is quite strong. Despite the many challenges Lebanon’s Internal Se­curity Forces (ISF) encounter be­cause of the political, sectarian and tribal make-up of the country, what can’t be disputed is that they exhib­ited remarkable skill in reconstruct­ing the events after Dykes left a bar in east Beirut and making an arrest in the case within 24 hours.

Yet for many, the debate sparked by Dykes’s death is not so much about the civil and political impli­cations of the tragedy as it is the is­sues raised over corporate respon­sibility.

Jasmine el-Gamal, an Ameri­can-Egyptian who recently made Beirut her home, said she is more concerned about the lack of re­sponsibility shown by Uber in hir­ing an ex-con apparently without properly vetting him.

“All I can say is that given the level of safety I’ve felt here — com­parable to living in Washington, DC — I was shocked and outraged at Uber for risking the safety of its riders in such a way.” Gamal, a stra­tegic communications adviser, said that “if anything this entire inci­dent says more to me about Uber, which I will not be using again, than the Lebanese state.”

While the Lebanese government works diligently in reassuring the diplomatic community that the streets of Beirut are safe for their nationals, it is equally keen to re­assure foreign donors that money spent on the ISF has been well used. In this case, sources close to the in­vestigation told The Arab Weekly that the Lebanese state had been es­pecially concerned about seeking a speedy resolution to Dykes’s killing to waylay fears the British may have entertained over their competence.

Official propaganda notwith­standing, it can’t be denied that the ISF’s solid performance in arrest­ing a suspect in Dykes’s killing so quickly will bolster the country’s standing going into the fundraising conference for Lebanon in Rome in early 2018, aimed at attracting exactly the kind of support for the Lebanese Army and security forces that this case has highlighted.

While much emphasis has been given to the army, the real under­dog, the ISF, has proven itself wor­thy of support, especially in coun­terterrorism and domestic security. The ISF, contrary to the Lebanese armed forces, has been relatively immune to Hezbollah’s influence and foreign investment in its de­velopment would likely prove safe from the sticky fingers of the Party of God.

While Dykes’s friends and family must inevitably take time to mourn their tragedy, for Lebanon the sorry affair raised and resolved a variety of questions. The speed in which an arrest was made demonstrated that the security of Beirut’s foreign guests will always take precedence over its native population — and that way ahead of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees.

Critically, while the state has been quick to brag about the speed in which this matter was resolved, it has highlighted the limits of its authority beyond the safe streets of Beirut, to areas where drug king­pins and car thieves do not hide behind the wheel of an Uber and where they are not afraid to show their faces.