Sectarian tensions are nearing a boiling point, and what happens next depends on Hezbollah .
In the 30 years since Lebanon’s civil war, the neighborhood of the capital Beirut has been divided along sectarian lines, reflecting the country’s sectarian-based constitutional system of power-sharing. But this political structure has been challenged for months.
In October, Lebanese people from across the religious spectrum took to the streets and demonstrated against their political leaders, whom they described as a corrupt and selfish elite. Last month when an explosion ripped through the city and left several predominantly Christian neighborhoods in ruins, it opened the cover of the country’s sectarian fault line, Foreign Policy noted.
The various Lebanese communities were more suspicious of one another than at any time in recent memory. Amid the tension, which holds the key to chaos and peace, is Hezbollah. It is unclear how these sharp sectarian tensions will be resolved. Nobody wanted the situation to escalate into another civil war.
At a coffee shop in Ouzai, a predominantly Shia southern suburb of Beirut, just 3 kilometers from the downtown neighborhood of the center of the protests, a group of Hezbollah supporters accuse the demonstrators of being foreign agents.
Abu Ali, a cafe owner in his mid-50s, claims the demonstrators are a front for Israeli (as well as American) interests, and they had crossed the red line when they hung a rope around a statue of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah demanding the group give up its weapons.
Hezbollah’s weapon, he said, is the protection needed for Shiites (traditionally Lebanon’s poorest community), both against Israel and in a country torn by sectarian divisions. The social position of the Shia dates back centuries, and reflects the support traditionally given to Christians by Western powers, and the greater wealth and influence of Sunni Muslims, especially under the religious Ottoman rulers.
The rise of Hezbollah, which the other two communities feared, is a matter of pride for many Shia.
Abu Ali identified himself as a supporter, not a member, of the group. Hezbollah fighters rarely speak to journalists and present themselves as civilian supporters rather than taking direct orders from the leadership.
However, two hours after the controversial interview with Foreign Policy , he disclosed his identity on condition of anonymity, admitting he was not only a fighter with a group that fought in the 2006 war against Israel, but that his eldest son also fought the Syrian war with Hezbollah, while more young in training.
As evidence, he provided six photos: himself at the border in an army uniform with a Hezbollah flag flying nearby; a photo when he was 23 years old on the Syrian battlefield posing with an AK-47 and M16; and their younger son (13 years) lay on the ground with his finger on the trigger and aimed from their home in south Lebanon at the unseen Israelis.
“Of course he knows how to shoot. He must be able to look after the house if my eldest son and I are not at home, ”he said of his teenage son.
“My children and I fought against the Israelis, and we have never been able to make peace with them. However, most of these protesters are supported by Israeli friends in Lebanon and paid by Western embassies. “
Abu Ali tries to support his theory by pointing out the visible economic differences between mostly middle-class protesters and relatively poorer Shiites, who cannot afford their neighbors’ cosmopolitan life or buy laptops, some of which were stolen by Hezbollah supporters (or like Abu Ali. like to say, “confiscated”) from the demonstrators.
“They shouted slogans against our Sheikh Nasrallah and then drank whiskey and had a party. If they are poor then why do they have laptops? “
Regardless of the lifestyle, he added, all is fair game if the protesters cross Hezbollah’s red line. “There will be a price. The red line is the red line. “
Hizbullah has clashed several times with the protest movement. Most analysts assume that the leaders of the protests and opposition factions will not want to provoke further, it is unclear what price Hezbollah can take.
Many Lebanese outside the Shia community, and some within it, want Hezbollah to join the army, but know from bitter experience that stiff opposition to the group’s independent control of its arsenal comes at high personal risk.
Professor Nasser Yassin of the American University of Beirut said the group would not shy away from taking over the road, as it did in 2008, if it was physically attacked.
“If some groups (Sunni, Christian or Druze) carry weapons against Hezbollah, and if the Lebanese Army is reluctant to destroy them, then that group will take swift action to take control of the country, as in 2008.”
In 2008, a Saudi-backed Sunni prime minister in the country dared to shut down Hezbollah communications, giving the group the provocation it needs to show its power on the streets. Within days, Hezbollah supporters had flooded into Beirut. From that time on, the Sunnis were weakened.
Ziad Allouki, a commander of a Sunni militia from the northern city of Tripoli, has fought sectarian clashes in the past, but says now his political rulers want to avoid escalation.
Allouki last saw action when Syria’s civil war briefly extended to Tripoli between 2011-2014, and his Sunni fighters fought members of the town’s small Alawi community, who share President Assad’s religion. Alawites are generally considered to be a branch of the Shia.
After the clash, he was arrested along with hundreds of others, and only released on condition that he promised to keep the peace. When its fighting power was weakened, the same happened to the leading Sunni Muslim party, Tayyar Al Mustaqbal or Movement of the Future (FM).
Even when a UN international tribunal last month found a senior member of Hezbollah guilty of the 2005 murder of former prime minister FM Rafik Hariri, people like Allouki couldn’t do anything, even if they wanted to.
“Al Mustaqbal decided not to take to the streets, to avoid clashes with Hezbollah, to avoid the possibility of civil war,” Allouki said.
The common perception among Sunnis in Lebanon is that their leadership both in Lebanon and in the region, led by the Saudis, has left them to the will of Hezbollah and its protector, Iran.
“The absence of armed activity is due to concessions made by our leaders,” Allouki added to Foreign Policy .
Bahaa Hariri (Rafik’s son and older brother of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri) said the party was not ready for confrontation.
“We asked for restraint because we said we didn’t want any problems,” Hariri said by phone from Britain.
When asked how it was meant to disarm Hezbollah (something his father and brother failed to do) he replied, “We need to act together.”
There are people in Lebanese society who would prefer Western powers to somehow take responsibility for disarming the group.
“What can we do with their arms? America has power, not us, ”said a middle-aged woman in Gemmayze, one of the neighborhoods badly damaged by the harbor explosion.
He declined to give his name, but identified himself as a supporter of the far-right Christian faction, the Lebanese Forces. This group (which has been powerless since the civil war) is closely aligned with America and is accused of wanting to make peace with Israel.
Over the past two months, the protest movement has shrunk and, especially since the explosion, has become more sectarian.
“It would be better if Christians had a separate country and Hezbollah had their own,” she said, reflecting a sentiment that is increasingly prevalent in Christian areas, even if people rarely speak on the public stage.
Dozens of Lebanese protesters have told Foreign Policy their movement to seek structural change and economic reforms has been infiltrated by sectarian forces, including Hezbollah and the Lebanese military.
Many protesters say the question of Hezbollah weapons has divided the public and they would prefer that the issue be tackled nationally only when a new system of government is put in place.
Gilbert Doumit, a civil society activist who ran in the last election and lost, blamed not only Hezbollah but all the sectarian leaders for bringing Lebanon back to the brink.
“Since 1990, there have been warlords who have imposed the same sacrifice on the citizens: We protect you and in exchange, we steal from you,” he said.
“Whenever you threaten our interests, we provoke civil war on the pretext of protecting the sect.”
Analysts say that while sectarian distrust is growing, there is no threat of civil war yet, unless Hezbollah decides they want it. Hezbollah and its main Shia ally, the Amal Movement, recently staged a number of their signature motorbike parades, flying the flag of Shia founder Imam Hussain.
Shias currently commemorate the holy day of Ashura, during which they mourn the murder of Hussain. This can usually be seen as a harmless expression of religiosity, but most Beirutis today see it as an affirmation of Hezbollah’s power: a veiled message that their sons can, if they will, take over the road again.
Also read: The threat of the Lebanese Civil War is in sight
Back at the coffee shop, Abu Ali said, Hezbollah does not want civil war and its supporters are only trying to maintain law and order and ensure sectarian tensions do not break out.
“If there are conditions such as civil war, then Hezbollah will attack Israel. He is the leader of all those who want violence in this country, ”said Abu Ali to Foreign Policy .
Internal peace, however, comes at the cost of accepting the hegemony of Hezbollah and its allies. That would trap Lebanon in a crippling status quo : a failed economy and ineffective sectarian politics.