Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 November - 6 December 2006
Issue No. 822
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Where next, Beirut?

Is Lebanon on the verge of sectarian strife? In Beirut Omayma Abdel-Latif seeks answers

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Christian Lebanese youths wave the Phlange Party and Lebanese Forces flags during a rally to mark one week since the murder of Lebanese industry minister Pierre Gemayel at the site where he was shot dead in the Beirut northern suburb of Jdeideh

Lebanon waits

Saad and Syria

Mounting tension following the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel has set alarm bells ringing that Lebanon is tilting towards civil war. At no time have manifestations of social strife been clearer than they are today. The political tension and polarisation that engulfed the country some two years ago after the killing of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri is taking a more militant form now, raising questions about the degree to which the sectarian-inspired incidents that took place in Beirut last week are prophetic of things to come. Statements by King Abdullah of Jordan, which lumped Lebanon together with Iraq and Palestine as countries facing the prospect of civil war, only added to popular fears.

Until last week, political grievances between Lebanon's two main political camps --14 March and 8 March -- have been confined to demonstration and counter- demonstration, with each group claiming to have "the true majority" on its side. The ideological rivalries between the two camps -- both represent a cross-sectarian coalition of political forces -- have been confined to non- belligerent forms of protest and political mobilisation. Will this hold?

Several incidents took place last week raising concerns that the country was moving towards an outbreak of sectarian-inspired violence. In Ras Al-Nabaa, a district in northern Beirut close to the downtown area, supporters of Amal and Hizbullah clashed with Saad Al-Hariri supporters who took out posters of Hizbullah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and made insulting remarks against Nasrallah. Angry Hizbullah supporters reacted by hurling stones at the pro- Hariri crowd. Four injuries were reported as a result of the clashes.

Similar clashes were repeated in Zoqaq Al-Balat area in northern Beirut. Also, clashes were reported between supporters of Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and supporters of Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces militia in Kesrwan, reflecting mounting divisions within the "Christian street" that are also taking a more militant form. Elections of student unions, bar associations and at the Pharmacists' Syndicate witnessed similar climates of tension, rivalry and extreme polarisation between supporters of the two main political camps.

The tone of the public debate is also becoming ever more belligerent. Slogans raised by demonstrators during the burial of Gemayel blatantly played on sectarian hostilities until now masked by the rhetoric of national unity. One incident was particularly revealing. During Gemayel demonstrations, Hariri supporters -- mostly young men -- were caught on camera mocking the rituals of Ashoura, a Shia ritual, and insulting other religious symbols. The slogans raised by Hariri supporters carried overt sectarian language. Until recently, such pointed political rivalry was unthinkable.

Further, some Sunni residents who have lived in Al-Dahia, a mainly Shia populated area, for more than two decades were said to be relocating to a Sunni area.

Although such cases remain isolated in nature, unreflective of collective decision, they are indicative of how sectarian discourse by political leaders is beginning to take hold in the population. The Sunni religious establishment has entered into the foray of political mobilisation along sectarian lines. Prominent Sunni figures such as Sheikh Mohamed Ali Al-Joso, the mufti of Mount Lebanon, has used strong sectarian language in criticising Hizbullah and its political conduct. Nasrallah was not spared the sheikh's wrath.

Equally alarming, leaflets have been circulated in some Beirut districts -- mostly in areas where there is a majority of Shia residents -- reminding them of 13 April 1975, the day the civil war broke out, and warning that 21 November, the day Gemayel was killed, will not be forgotten. The leaflet was signed "Friends of Pierre Gemayel".

Such signs of communal hostility have been the product of two major factors. First, the manipulation of public anger over the killing of Hariri, and other killings that followed, for the purpose of rallying support for a particular agenda. Second, the failure of the political elite over the last two years to develop a grounded political consensus over substantive issues of national sovereignty and the political destiny of the country.

The desperate search for a rallying cry that could keep the momentum going that emerged after Hariri's death led directly to sectarianism's new lease of life. Stressing primordial identities, as well as the distinctiveness of one group versus the other, has become the only guaranteed instrument capable of whipping up sentiment against the opposing camp. And political leaders are not at all reticent about it. The most recent example was that of Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt, who -- at Gemayel's funeral -- mocked symbols of Shiism. He even went so far as to make insinuations about Shia's "love of death" versus "our love for life".

Indeed, the discourse of key political figures belonging to the 14 March bloc is replete with binary distinctions between a virtuous "us" and a diabolic "them", the latter always meaning Hizbullah. The media plays a central role in exacerbating these social and political tensions.

The process of blaming and name-calling escalated to new heights following the Israeli war on Lebanon this summer. It moved beyond a classic war of words between political adversaries to overt accusation of treason. Haj Hussein Al-Khalil, a prominent member of Hizbullah's politbureau, accused Jumblatt of "craving to see Sunni- Shia bloodletting". It was the first time ever that a leading Hizbullah member accused Jumblatt of working to incite fitna -- or conflict -- between Lebanon's Sunni and Shia communities. The slogans which were raised by Sunni demonstrators during Gemayel's funeral belied the sense of distrust, fear and tension in some sections of the Sunni street, particularly that which are under the tutelage of Saad Al-Hariri, the majority leader in parliament and head of Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal (the Future Movement).

Hariri's declared discourse and that of Hizbullah is, nonetheless, one of national unity and outright dismissal of prospects of civil strife. Hariri has been keen to describe the current crisis gripping the country as purely "political" and not "sectarian".

Both Hariri and Nasrallah show themselves to be fully aware of the consequences of descending into civil war, particularly one that pits the Sunnis against Shias. Realities on the ground, however, tell a different story. The varied combatants continue to be locked in a rancorous political discourse with each threatening to invoke the "street" as the final arbiter in the unresolved political impasse.

This is a dangerous game since the street is being mobilised along purely sectarian lines, which raises the prospect that the most trivial slight or petty personal feud -- as clearly shown in Beirut last week -- can easily turn into an occasion for bloodletting. The time is now for leaders who call for national unity to eschew all sectarian allusions that only are invoked to increase their popular standing. By not doing so, they are by default preparing the grounds of a psychological and moral justification of violence against their opponents.

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