Blowback in Lebanon
Two days before the rioting at Beirut Arab University, I stood on a street corner in a mixed Beirut neighborhood with a group of about 100 Sunni men clutching wooden clubs and metal chains. Many of them were wearing blue headbands, the color of the US- and Saudi-backed Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. They were stopping the few cars coming into the area, looking for "strangers"--a code word for Shiites.
"This area is 100 percent Sunni," says Maher Amneh, a 32-year-old clothing-store owner wearing a wool cap and carrying a metal pipe. "We all know each other. So if we see anyone strange, it means he doesn't belong here."
"So there are no Shiites in this area?" I ask him.
"No. And everyone knows that," he replies. (We happened to be standing opposite one of the city's best Lebanese restaurants, a hole-in-the-wall place called Abu Hassan. It's owned by a Shiite from the south.)
"So what would you do if you saw a stranger?"
"We would ask him, 'What are you doing here, now, at this time?'" he says nonchalantly. "And if he doesn't give us an answer, it means he's coming from them [Hezbollah], and he wants to take a look--to count us."
That day, January 23, Hezbollah and its allies had organized a nationwide strike as part of their campaign to topple the US-backed Lebanese government. Before dawn, the Party of God dispatched groups of young Shiite men, some wearing ski masks, to close roads by burning tires and cars. Hezbollah's Christian allies, especially the Free Patriotic Movement led by Maronite politician and former army commander Michel Aoun, also took to the streets in Christian areas. Three people were killed and dozens wounded in clashes throughout the country before the strike was called off that night.
As soon as Hezbollah bused its supporters into Sunni areas of Beirut to close roads and force people to stay home, local Sunnis took to the streets. They saw it as an invasion by Hezbollah. At the intersection where I met Maher, two men from the Future Movement sat in a black SUV, talking into walkie-talkies and earpieces and directing their men. About 500 yards away a group of Hezbollah supporters had closed Beirut's seaside corniche and milled around a burned car in the middle of the street. They too had men with walkie-talkies directing them.
"The Shiites are occupying our area," says Bahi Amneh, a 19-year-old finance student and Maher's cousin. "It's our duty to free it. They came here from the southern suburbs to force everyone into a strike. It's our duty to make them leave. If they don't, we will attack them."
"Why are Shiites the only ones allowed to have weapons?" one of his friends interjects. "Why aren't Sunnis allowed?"
As Bahi and his friends gathered around the men in the black SUV with tinted windows, more people began joining in. Young men came around the corner on mopeds.
"You know, it's just unfair. We want to live in peace. But every time we try, Hezbollah makes trouble," Bahi says bitterly. "Hezbollah has its own country within Lebanon. They have weapons. They don't respect the laws." A few minutes later shots rang out, and the two groups began throwing chunks of cinder blocks at each other as Lebanese soldiers rushed to separate them.
How did things deteriorate to this point, where Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites are increasingly afraid of each other? At the end of the civil war in 1990, all militias were disarmed under the Saudi-brokered Taif Accord. But Hezbollah was allowed to keep its weapons as a "national resistance" against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, which ended in 2000. After the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri--Lebanon's most prominent Sunni leader--international pressure and mass demonstrations forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The Bush Administration then began pressuring the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which took office after elections in June 2005, to disarm Hezbollah.
The current crisis erupted last July, when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. That set off a thirty-four-day war with Israel. After the war, Hezbollah began accusing Siniora's government of being a US puppet and demanded more seats in the twenty-four-member Cabinet. When talks to form a national unity government failed in November, six ministers representing Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the Cabinet. Siniora's ruling coalition--of Sunni, Christian and Druse parties--accuses Hezbollah of walking out of the government to block a United Nations investigation into Hariri's murder, which has been widely blamed on Syria.
Hezbollah's leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly vowed that his group will never use its weapons against fellow Lebanese. But Sunnis are worried that, left unchecked, the militia will be tempted to take power by force.
After Hezbollah and its allies began an open-ended protest in downtown Beirut on December 1, setting up hundreds of tents outside the main government palace, relations between Sunnis and Shiites deteriorated quickly. All the while, Lebanese Sunnis were keeping a wary eye on developments in Iraq, where Shiite death squads were killing Sunnis and Iran was extending its influence over the Iraqi government.
Then came Saddam's execution on December 30. Many Sunnis view the United States and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government as killing off the last vestiges of Arab nationalism by executing Hussein. He was among the few Arab leaders who defied the West. In the Sunni view, America and its allies eradicated the idea of a glorious Arab past without offering any replacement for it, other than sectarianism. And the repercussions are being felt in Lebanon.
"The Saddam execution and Hezbollah's drive for political power are making Sunnis very nervous about Shiite actions," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of Hizbullah: Politics and Religion and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "Sunnis support Hezbollah wholeheartedly when it comes to resistance against Israel. But when it comes to political power, that changes the equation, and Hezbollah is seen as a threat when it directs its power inside Lebanon."
Because Shiites are a plurality in Lebanon--making up about 40 percent of a total population of 4 million--and because they are more powerful militarily and politically than in many other countries, Sunni-Shiite tensions are more pronounced in Lebanon.
After last summer's war, members of Siniora's ruling coalition quickly demanded that Hezbollah disarm, as required by the UN cease-fire resolution. Many Shiites, who viewed Hezbollah as their protector during the war, felt threatened by these demands, which drove them even closer to the militia.
"This was a sect whose houses and farms had been destroyed, who lost their livelihoods, but they had not been humiliated because of the way Hezbollah fought," says Wassif Awada, a columnist at the Beirut daily as-Safir. "Then some government leaders started demanding that Hezbollah give up its weapons, without leaving any time for the wounds to heal. Many Shiites felt like their identity was under attack after the war. They became more attached to Hezbollah because they view this as a battle for their existence."