Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Turmoil and restraint

Lebanon’s religious groups are refusing to be drawn into civil conflict by extremist groups, writes Hassan Al-Qashawi in Beirut

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Suicide bombers ended months of calm in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, on Saturday when two men wearing explosive vests blew themselves up in a cafe in the predominantly Shiite neighbourhood of Jebel Moshin. Nine people were killed and dozens injured.

The bombing was particularly shocking as it came at a time when the Future Current, the most powerful representative of Lebanese Sunnis, and Hezbollah, the leading Shiite militia, were believed to have agreed to avoid factional provocations.

The two bombers, both reportedly from Mankubin, a nearby Sunni neighbourhood, were identified as Taha Samir Al-Khaiial, 20, and Bilal Mohammad Al-Maryian, 24.

Yet instead of fanning the flames of factional mistrust, Lebanon took the news in stride. The past few months of strife in the country have not been wasted on the country’s political forces, which, while bracing themselves for the worst, have been reluctant to provoke or escalate violence.

It was clear to many that the bombing, believed to be the work of the Islamist Al-Nusra Front, aimed to re-open hostilities between Shiite militants in Jabal Mohsin and Sunni gunmen in Bab Al-Tabbana.

But the Alawites of Lebanon, led by the Alawite Islamic Council, refused to be drawn into the fray. The leaders of the Arab Democratic Party, who ordinarily speak on behalf of the Alawite community, also kept their cool.

Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the operation via Twitter, saying that it had been revenge for the Noseiri (Syrian) army’s brutality.

Lebanon’s stoic reaction to this sectarian attack marks a shift in local politics. For years, there have been clear lines between two main adversaries in the nation: the 8 March Alliance, spearheaded by the Amal and Hezbollah groups and backed by the Syrian regime, and the 14 March Alliance, led by the Future Current and backed by the Saudis and assorted Gulf and Western powers.

The lonstanding confrontation now seems to be petering out, however, as the Lebanese rally to prevent their country from falling prey to the radicals of the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Nusra Front.

Assuming that anything good can come out of such an atrocity, the bombing in Jabal Mohsin may show that Lebanon as a country has an integrity that goes beyond political and factional rivalries. The quiet, almost unspoken, solidarity between Tripoli’s Sunnis and Shiites may be Lebanon’s saving grace.

Despite old grievances, historical rivalries and doctrinal mistrust, a bond has been found among the Lebanese, a defensive wall that even the bombs of extremists cannot break.

The majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis are opposed to any conflagration that would jeopardise the country’s tenuous political balance.

However, extremists do exist among the Sunnis, a tiny minority no doubt, but one having the ability to inflict disproportionate harm.

The Jabal Mohsin attack, targeting Alawites instead of Shiites, was an attempt to start a vendetta that would lead to wider hostilities.

While there was a time when moderates on both sides would have fallen for this trick, this appears to no longer be the case.

No one wants Lebanon to fall prey to the ravages of IS and Al-Nusra Front, both of which thrive in a climate of hysteria.

For months, extremists in both groups have been trying to instigate Shiite-Sunni conflict in order to pose as the protectors of the Sunnis. One of the conditions IS set for releasing abducted Lebanese army soldiers was the formation of a safe haven, allegedly to protect Syrian refugees from Hezbollah’s assaults.

The extremists hope to create an Iraqi situation in Lebanon, their successes in Iraq having been due to the alienation many Sunnis felt from the country’s Shiite-run government. But the situation in Lebanon is different. The country’s Sunnis make up a privileged, forward-looking, and cosmopolitan community that has no sympathy for the brutal ways of Sunni extremists.

Though a country established on sectarian lines, Lebanon seems to have gained a strength that has risen above its factional beginnings. It has learned the lesson not only of the ongoing crisis in Syria and Iraq, but also of its own civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.

Even the poorest members of the Sunni community, those who live on the outskirts of Lebanon’s cities, have no stomach for the antics of IS and Al-Nusra Front.

However, one cannot rule out that Sunni radicalism may gain traction in the community of Syrian refugees who live on the impoverished margins of Lebanese life, the misery of their makeshift camps an indictment of regional and international politics.

The longer the crisis in their country drags on, the more chance radicalism may find its place in some disgruntled hearts.

The intolerable, prolonged plight of the Syrian refugees may lead to the growth of extremism. They are unwanted by their host country, unable to go back home and derided by some Lebanese who remember the time that Syria ran their country as a fiefdom. The refugees may feel they have very few options, with extremism being one of them.

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