Trial by fire for Lebanon's government
Clashes in northern Lebanon have heightened fears of growing sectarian tensions and external meddling, writes Lucy Fielder from Beirut
Within a week of the formation of Lebanon's new cabinet, the political mudslinging between Damascus's allies, who dominate the government, and the anti-Syrian opposition has turned ugly.
Clashes broke out in a flashpoint area of the northern town of Tripoli, raising fears of heightened sectarian tensions and drawing accusations of external meddling. Unrest in neighbouring Syria and fears of possible "spill-over" have also exacerbated local divisions.
It was the first security challenge for the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati, who is from Tripoli. "The timing of what happened in Tripoli is suspicious," Miqati commented. "Civil peace is a red line. There will be no bargaining over security."
At least seven people were killed in the clashes, including a Lebanese soldier, and more than 50 wounded. Dozens of people had gathered in Nour Square in mainly Sunni Bab Al-Tebbaneh to demonstrate against the Syrian regime and in support of the uprising.
Many of Bab Al-Tebbaneh's Sunnis have a history of rancour towards the Syrian regime, which heavily shelled the area during the Lebanese civil war. This was not the first Friday that Sunnis had come out after prayers to show solidarity with protesters against the Syrian regime across the border. What happened next is subject to dispute, but it appears that a concussion grenade was thrown in the area, generating confusion.
A gun-battle then broke out between the Sunnis of Bab Al-Tabbaneh and Alawite gunmen from neighbouring Jabal Mohsen. Lebanon's tiny Alawite community is sympathetic to the Damascus regime, which is dominated by co-religionists, while Saudi Arabia has close relations with many Lebanese Sunni factions, particularly the anti-Syrian Future Movement headed by former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri.
Fire fights engulfed Syria Street, which divides the two areas and has long been a fault-line between the two communities. "Where they clashed is a kind of Saudi-Syrian fault-line, where Sunni-Shia differences are aired," said Osama Safa, a Beirut-based analyst.
The Alawite sect is an offshoot from Shia Islam, and although it now holds quite distinct beliefs it shares the Shia reverence for the Prophet Mohamed's grandson Ali, from whom the sect takes its name.
"It's a message that the formation of the new government has annoyed the Sunni powers that be," Safa said. Snipers also shot at the Tripoli-Minnieh highway, and rocket-propelled grenades were deployed in the clashes.
According to the confessional divisions that structure Lebanese politics, the country's prime minister is a Sunni. Both Miqati and his predecessor Al-Hariri are billionaire business tycoons, and both have a strong support base.
"Miqati has six good Sunni technocrat ministers, and that's setting up a rival to Al-Hariri's leadership," Safa said. "The message is that there's only one Sunni leader in Lebanon, and that's Al-Hariri."
Since the clashes broke out, Al-Hariri's 14 March Movement has called for an "arms-free" Tripoli, a highly unlikely prospect in a city that stands out even in Lebanon for being awash with weapons. Safa said the call was intended to embarrass Miqati, who commands considerable clout in his hometown.
Despite fears of deepening sectarian fissures in the country, Safa said that he believed Friday's incident had been related to the formation of the new government and that the violence would for the moment stop. "I think it's really a limited thing in Tripoli," he said.
Miqati himself was in the northern city on Friday in order to attend a celebration to mark the formation of his new government, though this was cancelled after the clashes. Within hours of the visit, Miqati had issued a thinly veiled accusation directed towards his opponents of stirring up the clashes.
"I said in our statement that we understood that the opposition was peaceful," he said. "That's what we were promised."
The government of Al-Hariri was brought down on January 26, when ministers from the alliance led by the powerful Syrian and Iranian-backed Shia party Hizbullah resigned in a dispute over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Hizbullah expects the Hague-based court to indict some of its members in connection with the killing of Al-Hariri's father Rafik in 2005.
Since Hizbullah held more than a third of the ministerial positions in Al-Hariri's cabinet, the government collapsed when the party defected. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt then formally completed his political about-face from an anti-Syrian figure to a Hizbullah ally by joining the group in voting for Miqati, instead of returning Al-Hariri.
For their part, followers of the latter have accused Hizbullah and its allies of staging a political coup, the 14 March Movement accusing Damascus of "taking Lebanon hostage" as a result of the formation of the new government and dismissing the Sunni credentials of Miqati and his fellow Sunni ministers in the new cabinet.
As always in Lebanon, where the sectarian spoil-sharing system encourages horse-trading, the government took many months to be born, even though it has been formed of figures entirely from one side in the country's political divide.
When the new government did eventually lurch into being, many observers in the country believed that Syria had decided that enough was enough, seeing little to benefit from a vacuum in Lebanon while it faced escalating challenges at home.
One factor that added to the sense that Damascus had given the green light for the government to be born was a last-minute compromise by Shia Amal leader Nabih Berri, speaker of Lebanon's parliament and a close friend of Damascus.
Berri awarded a Shia seat in the cabinet to a Sunni politician, thereby removing an obstacle to the formation of the new government.
Although criticised by its opponents as being a Hizbullah government, due to the role the group played in bringing down the last one, the new cabinet has only two Hizbullah ministers. A majority of the posts has gone to the party's Christian ally, Michel Aoun, whose bloc now has 10 ministers in the new government.