It’s remarkable how quickly everyone remembered the patterns set during Lebanon’s long civil war. When violence suddenly erupted in Beirut on the afternoon of January 25, people rushed to stock up at grocery stores, businesses quickly shut their doors and traffic was snarled throughout the city as everyone hurried home.
While most people prepared for a siege, others were intent on causing trouble: Bands of young vigilantes roamed the streets, armed with wooden clubs and metal pipes, eyeing passing cars for any strangers. The fighting started in the cafeteria of Beirut Arab University between Shiite and Sunni students. In less than an hour, it spread to the surrounding neighborhood of Tariq Al-Jadideh, a Sunni stronghold. Snipers took up positions on the roofs of residential buildings, firing at protesters and Lebanese soldiers trying to break up the melee. Bands of Sunnis and Shiites–some wearing blue and red construction helmets–fought running street battles with rocks and clubs. Armed men roamed through the crowds. Rioters set fire to cars and trash dumpsters, sending plumes of black smoke over the neighborhood.
By the time it was over, four people were killed, more than 150 were injured and the Lebanese army had imposed a curfew on Beirut for the first time since 1996. Rumors circulated wildly, evoking memories of the civil war. The most disturbing news was broadcast on Lebanese television stations shortly before the curfew: Armed vigilantes had set up a checkpoint on the highway linking south Lebanon to Beirut. They were asking people for their identity cards.
The image of gunmen stopping civilians at checkpoints to sort–and often murder–them on the basis of religion is perhaps the most enduring symbol of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war. One of the war’s earliest massacres took place in December 1975, during the so-called “Black Saturday,” when gunmen from the right-wing Christian Phalange militia set up checkpoints throughout Beirut and killed dozens of Muslims. That a checkpoint was erected within the short hours of violence on January 25 illustrates how close Lebanon might be to the brink of another civil war.
In the last war, the sectarian divide was between Muslims and Christians. This time the conflict is mainly between Sunnis and Shiites. It’s also an extension of the ongoing proxy war in Iraq–pitting Iran against an alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes.
There is one major, underreported reason for Lebanon’s slide toward civil war: blowback from Iraq. Fearing the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq and Iran’s growing regional influence, Lebanese Sunnis feel besieged as never before, and they’re lashing out at Shiites. As they confronted Hezbollah supporters during a nationwide strike last week, some groups of Sunnis waved posters of Saddam Hussein. It was a rich contradiction: US-allied Sunnis carrying posters of Saddam, a dictator the United States spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives to unseat. But it was also a declaration of war: Saddam, after all, killed hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Iraq. Many Lebanese Shiites have relatives in Iraq, and the two communities have had close ties for decades.