Almost every country in the world has had a civil war, but rarely has a nation survived a second one.
The outburst of violence that erupted on the streets of West Beirut last week now threatens to rip apart the small patchwork state, with analysts here and in Lebanon saying that the events over the next days will determine whether the fighting will push the country over the precipice of sectarian bloodshed, or whether a lull in violence will bring the political actors to the negotiating table.
"The historical moment of reckoning for Lebanon has arrived, and the people have one choice in front of them," said Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut Daily Star, in a conference call to reporters Tuesday from Beirut.
"Are the [Lebanese] going to move to a situation like Baghdad with ethnic cleansing and fighting and perpetual warfare, with external supporters from both sides, or are they going to move to a situation like Belfast [Northern Ireland], where the warring parties sit down and work out a political accord that is inclusive and fair for everybody?"
The decision by the Lebanese government last Monday to shut down a private telecommunications network operated by the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah sparked the clashes. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, called the move a "declaration of war," as the "resistance" guerilla army and other allied militias, including the Shi’a Amal and Syrian Nationalist Party, moved through the streets of West Beirut, fought, and beat ineffectual government-supported militias.
Clashes continued throughout the country on Tuesday between opposition forces led by Hezbollah and government supporters who are aligned with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and parliamentary majority and Future Movement leader Sa’ad Hariri. And the fighting, according to journalists on the ground, is beginning to take on the polarising sectarian hues of Iraq.
"This is more and more becoming a Sunni-Shi’a conflict. It really does feel like Iraq," said journalist Nir Rosen in a conference call with analysts and reporters at the New American Foundation.
"Sunni militias, backed by the Future Movement, formed over the last year, and have been a complete failure, perhaps because they were fighting for money. They just disappeared and caused a great sense of betrayal and shock among Sunnis," said Rosen, adding that the perceived victimisation of Sunnis had instigated more radical circles in Tripoli to fight against the "apostate Shi’a," that they appeared "eager to start this battle," according to Rosen.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah remains a popular political movement and is widely lauded for its "resistance" against Israel; it is the group’s raison d’etre. The Lebanese and U.S. government have tried unsuccessfully to curb the number of weapons and militias in the country. But even with the U.S. putting international pressure on Hezbollah and Iran, and providing "practical assistance" to the Lebanese Army to deal with domestic security threats, as U.S. President George W. Bush said to reporters Monday, Hezbollah has drawn the red lines. So far, the army hasn’t crossed them.
The last few days has also witnessed a certain degree of collusion on the streets between the Lebanese Army considered the only impartial institution capable of uniting the country and Hezbollah. Rosen, who is currently in Beirut and accompanied Shi’a Amal fighters as they battled on the streets, described Hezbollah fighters acting "hand in hand" with the army on the commercial strip of Hamra Street in West Beirut. Most of the targets captured by Hezbollah and their allies were subsequently turned over to the army.
"They are not trying to change the demographic balance in Beirut, it is to make a show of force to let rival militias know [Hezbollah] could have a real political coup," said Rosen. "Hezbollah’s main concern is to keep weapons; it doesn’t have much interest in running things in Lebanon."
Often mislabeled as a "fragile democracy," Lebanon is more accurately a microcosm of the incoherence of state power that plagues so many countries in the region. And the Bush administration’s poster child for democratic transformation has been stuck in a parliamentary impasse for more than a year. With each passing day, domestic positions harden, as does the Lebanese dependency on external actors to broker a peace.
"Lebanon, in the post Hariri period, is not in any really meaningful sense a democracy. It is a political order rooted in the distribution of political assets along sectarian lines, and the patterns of distribution are way out of whack with demographic reality, particularly with regard to the Shi’a," said Flynt Leverett, once a senior specialist on the Middle East for the Bush administration’s National Security Council.
Leverett described the Lebanese political arena as a "sideshow" when compared to the Bush administration’s real strategic interests in the region. Washington champions hollow talk about "democracy" as a bulwark against radical influences, he said, but in reality the policy what he called the "height of strategic malpractice" only serves as an excuse for the U.S. not to diplomatically engage with the countries it must: Iran and Syria.
"[It was a mistake] to latch on to this so-called March 14th coalition Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and to decide to use it as a fulcrum for trying to leverage various U.S. policy objectives," said Leverett.
"What we have done here is basically what we did in the 1980s. We picked a group of Western-oriented Lebanese political actors whom we liked because they kind of looked like us and talked like us," he said. "We decided to array them against people who have real street cred; the results then were disastrous, and I think the results now are proving to be very bad."