BEIRUT – The political upheaval that has engulfed Lebanon following the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri has given rise to fears of renewed sectarian bloodshed and hopes that it can be avoided.
The upheaval has resulted in an ongoing standoff between government loyalists and the opposition movement, a surge in street demonstrations, and a recent series of targeted bomb attacks on Christian-populated areas.
A fragile nation still in the process of rebuilding itself after a devastating 15-year civil war, Lebanon is at pains to unite a still fragmented sectarian society. Members of the country’s 18 different religious factions tend to group together in settlement patterns that have changed little since the 7th century, sending their children to their respective private religious schools and still predominantly marrying within their own confessional group.
"We glued the pieces of the broken glass back together again after the war, but with the divisions ensuing from the current political crisis, we won’t be able to do the same you can’t fix a broken glass twice," says a historian and leader of a local civil society movement, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I am extremely concerned about the present situation, in which no third parties dare raise their voices, because the situation has become so tense and polarized."
Despite the fact that both government loyalists and the opposition movement include different religious factions, the divide is loaded with intercommunal undertones, which have played themselves out more openly in the streets.
Among the leaders of the mass demonstrations and ongoing opposition sit-it at Martyrs Square are a dozen Christian factions, whose agenda since the end of the civil war now overlaps with the primary objective of the opposition movement: rid Lebanon of all Syrian military presence and political interference. Other religious groups have participated in the demonstrations, but the image of the street movement remains in the eyes of some that of an enclave of disgruntled Christian activists seizing the opportunity to regain lost political ground.
"I went down to Martyrs Square the day the government resigned, to celebrate with everybody," an Armenian Orthodox restaurant manager recalls. "Initially, there was unity, and everybody was calling out the same things. But then all of sudden these people started calling for the return of [exiled Christian former army commander General Michel] Aoun and the release of [jailed Lebanese Forces militia leader Samir] Geagea, and I thought this isn’t for me anymore."
Mohammed Ali, a 50-year-old Sunni coffee seller on Beirut’s waterfront, believes that the demonstrators are exploiting the assassination of Hariri to return to power. "They are using the situation to change the regime and get back into government, under the excuse of demanding the truth." Yet, despite misgivings about the motivations that drive certain groups supporting the opposition, the divisions created by the political crisis have not followed the traditional Christian-Muslim divide.
Most noteworthy is the Sunni participation in the opposition movement, led by member of parliament Bahia Hariri, sister of the slain former premier. Although relatively few in numbers at the initial stages of the protests, the Sunni population showed up in force at the million-man demonstration commemorating the one-month anniversary of the attack on March 14.
The event dwarfed all previous demonstrations, including that of the loyalists led by Hezbollah the previous week. Many observers point to that as the catalyst that spurred the Sunnis into action. Bereaved of its leader, whose killing many blame the Lebanese and Syrian authorities for, the community reacted strongly to the show of support displayed by the Shia Amal and Hezbollah movements for both the Lebanese government and Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.
With Sunnis and Druze (a people in the region following a religion similar to Islam) playing central roles in the opposition movement, the Muslim community has found itself divided over the issue of the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
"What we are seeing now are both old and new divisions emerging at the same time," says Nizar Hamzeh, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut (AUB). "Both the loyalists and the opposition camps have representatives from all the Lebanese factions. On the opposition side you have Christians, Druze, [and] Sunnis, and the Shi’ites are not completely unrepresented."
The loyalist side may be predominantly represented by Hezbollah and Amal, "but you also have a few Christians with them," he added. "If any of the two camps were to lose an entire sect or more, then the situation might start to look more similar to 1975 [when the civil war broke out]. But at the moment, this is not the case. Individuals are rallying around political, rather than sectarian, issues." Hamzeh says deep mistrust has set in between the two opposing political camps.
"The opposition has the support of the European countries and the U.S. regional policies of democratization and freedom, which they are trying to capitalize on. The loyalists perceive this as an attempt to substitute the Syrian presence in Lebanon with that of the Americans and the Israelis. The opposition, on the other side, blames the government supporters for their loyalty to Syria, despite everything that has happened. So you see mistrust on both sides."
The polarization has spurred concern that foreign interference is pushing the country toward renewed civil strife.
"In its dogged drive for implementing the [UN] resolution [1559 calling for full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon], the American administration is, hopefully inadvertently, pushing the Lebanese people to the brink of civil war," former premier Selim Hoss wrote in a commentary for the Daily Star newspaper. "In case a civil war should break out, God forbid, there is nothing that the American administration can do to help us."
Such warnings have for the most part been rejected by analysts and political figures alike, who view them as a tool employed by government loyalists to stifle popular support for the opposition movement.
"I urge you to resist loudly those seeking strife, especially officials who have turned into foreign correspondents who talk about our disagreements, divisions, fragile unity, and internecine fighting," Bahia Hariri said in her speech March 14.
International relations professor Farid el-Khazen at the AUB says the elements that led to the Lebanese civil war are no longer present. "There is no risk of a war breaking out whatsoever. The conditions which led to the outbreak of the war in 1975 are no longer there, neither at the national level, nor at the international level."
If local reactions to the three recent bomb attacks that hit the Christian heartland of Lebanon are anything to go by, Khazen’s certitude seems founded. There have been no retaliations to the attacks against Muslim areas so far. Calls are being issued by both sides for people to exert restraint, and accusations have first and foremost been lodged against Syria.. The attacks were seen as an attempt to show that Lebanon will inevitably slip into chaos if left to its own devices.
"It saddens me when the international press talks about the risks of Lebanon falling into civil war again, after everything that we achieved over the course of the past weeks," says Joseph Aoun, a 20-year-old Christian political activist from Fanar, a town located in the area of the bomb attacks.
"Nobody wants this," he said. "They talk of the Muslim-Christian divide, but this isn’t true. This isn’t what is happening. We won’t fight each other again."
At the political level, members of the Muslim factions of the opposition movement have been making concerted efforts to bridge the divide between the two camps. In her March 14 speech, Bahia Hariri lauded the contributions of both the Amal and the Hezbollah movements in the fight to liberate Lebanon from Israeli occupation, and called for the two factions to come together to build the country’s future.
Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah Sunday, and reiterated the opposition movement’s stance that the disarmament of the Shi’ite resistance group as called for by UN Resolution 1559 was not on the present agenda.
"There are divergent views both within the opposition camp and the loyalist camp," says Hamzeh. "What we could witness is the creation of a third camp, based on Bahia Hariri’s bridge-building efforts, which unites members of both factions on the main points that most people agree upon: finding the truth about who assassinated Rafik Hariri, demanding the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents, implementing the Taif accord [which ended the civil war], and protecting the resistance movement from threats to disarm them."