Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

Unrest mounts in south Lebanon

A young Egyptian died in the crossfire of a recent shooting in the southern city of Saida between local Salafis and supporters of Hizbullah, reports Andrew Bossone

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The tragic death of Ali Al-Sherbini was the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For many in Lebanon, it is not his death but the events around it and what will follow that are of the most concern. The shooting that killed three people and injured five is the worst outbreak of sectarian violence in the country since clashes in Beirut in 2008.
The unrest is a clear sign of Sunni-Shia tension, and indicates that the Salafis of Saida led by Sheikh Ahmed Al-Assir are escalating tensions on the street. The sheikh who protested over the summer against non-state weapons now could be forming an armed wing of his group.
The conflict that led to the death of two of Al-Assir’s bodyguards seems to have started when some of Al-Assir’s supporters demanded the removal of Hizbullah banners. A video aired on the Lebanese LBC channel showed a poster torn down amid the clashes, but also showed another video that appeared to show clashes beginning before the banner was removed. While the details are uncertain, the two sides show they have more sway over the streets than Lebanese authorities.
Despite this, officials have tried to make assurances that state security forces are able to maintain peace. Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel went as far as to say that anyone showing arms in the street would be shot. At the funeral for Al-Assir’s bodyguards, men held rifles and shotguns as the army watched on the side.  
“The army is fulfilling its role, not only in Saida but in all Lebanese areas. Security is a red line,” Jean Qahwaji, chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces, told As-Safir newspaper. “Therefore, we will not allow conflict and the army will prevent it no matter what the sacrifice is,” he said.
Scepticism that state security forces can and should be the sole guarantor of stability runs high. The weakness of the Lebanese military in the face of violent aggression, be it foreign or domestic, is certainly apparent. Following the recent bombing that killed state investigator Wissam Al-Hassan, for example, the military and police did nothing to stop hoards of young men blocking roads with burning tires and dumpsters. It has also handed over forensic evidence in the bombing to the FBI, as well as the investigation into the killing of prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, to an international tribunal, which, despite tens of millions of dollars of annual funding and seven years since his death, has yet to complete its work.
“The Kataeb Party warns against the danger of the security instances that have been occurring in more than one region in Lebanon, and most recently in Sidon where dangerous provocations reached the limit of strife,” said the group in a statement reported by Now Lebanon. “This security deterioration is a tough test for the state… and a proof of its security impotence.”
For some, a weak security presence is better than the alternative. In the case of Hizbullah, its own power allows it a degree of independence after an explosion in the Bekaa Valley at a suspected arms depot. Hizbullah supporters denied the Lebanese army access to the site. Its power also acts as a buffer against Israeli attacks and gives it the image as the sole resistance against Israel. Hizbullah is in a contradictory position though, because its alliance is the ruling party in the government. So Hassan Nasrallah’s comments in a speech following the clashes were somewhat ironic. “It is ultimately the state that should bear responsibility for what happens in the country,” said the Hizbullah leader. “Some want to move Sidon toward sectarian strife as the Lebanese state nearly stands completely on the side.”
For others, such as activists and laborers who are routinely overwhelmed by state security forces, a stronger military would only mean more repression. And the military and police crackdown on worker strikes in the 1960s and 1970s was one of the instigators of the civil war that tore the country apart.
The US government, for its part, supports the Lebanese military and police through cooperation, but that support has its limits. Two days before the clashes a general from US Central Command met with Kahwagi to discuss military cooperation. In a statement, the general noted US support for Lebanon’s implementation of UN Resolution 1701 that ended Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon. Days after the clashes, as Kahwagi watched troops stationed in the area, Israeli jets flew above for several minutes in direct violation of Resolution 1701.

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