Fears of a possible resurgence of Lebanon’s bloody 15-year civil war surfaced this week with images appeared of Christian Lebanese Forces fighters clashing with Shiite Hizbullah and Amal gunmen, exchanging bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Children sought a hiding place in narrow alleyways and behind cars in Beirut’s Tayouneh neighbourhood. One mother who dared to open her window to take a look was killed by a bullet to the forehead. Residents of Beirut, already suffering months of economic hardship and power shortages, started preparing for worse times to come.
On the surface, Hizbullah and Amal supporters said they were holding a peaceful protest to demand the removal of the judge investigating the August 2020 Beirut Port blast that killed dozens and destroyed nearly half of the city. They charged that snipers belonging to the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party whose leader was jailed for assassinations during the 1975-1990 Civil War, opened fire on the crowds, eventually killing seven and wounding dozens. In no time, Hizbullah and Amal fighters rushed to the scene, exchanging fire with the suspected snipers. The two sides turned Tayouneh and its surroundings into a war zone.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces accused Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah of pushing his supporters to provoke the clashes, intentionally crossing the unofficial but well-known “sectarian red line” by protesting in a mostly Christian neighbourhood. While the latest clashes may seem sudden, the reality is that tensions have been simmering for months, particularly following the deadly blast.
After the investigating judge Tarek Bitar summoned for investigation, a former Amal Movement minister and other officials known to be close to Hizbullah, the Shiite party loyal to Iran accused him of “politicising” the investigation and demanded his removal. A Lebanese court had already turned down a case in which several former Lebanese officials and deputies asked for Bitar’s dismissal. Thus, Hizbullah and Amal supporters decided to take their demands to the streets.
Last week’s clashes occurred within a month of the difficult formation of a Lebanese government led by Naguib Miqati, a veteran politician close to the Sunni Mustakbal Movement led by former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri. Thus, the equation for Hizbullah and Amal was clear: either Miqati intervenes and approves the removal of judge Bitar, or the two largest Shiite parties would force their ministers to resign, leading to a quick collapse of the new government. This government was not just long awaited by the Lebanese people in the hope that it would take urgent steps to prevent a total economic collapse, but also by the international community and Lebanon’s friends who sincerely wanted to aid that country.
The key parties that have been dominating Lebanon’s political scene, and more importantly are in control of its wealth, should recognise two obvious facts. First, the majority of the Lebanese people, especially the young who have been leading peaceful street protests for two years to demand a non-sectarian government, are fed up with all of them. Secondly, the Lebanese people deserve to know the truth, and those responsible for the devastating Beirut Port blast must be held accountable.
Any Lebanese official, member of parliament or politician summoned by the judge investigating the blast must comply and accept questioning, if they truly have nothing to fear. That blast, which was described as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killed 218 people, injured 7000 and caused property damage worth $15 billion, according to the Lebanese government. This huge loss, human and material, definitely requires a serious and transparent investigation. The families of those killed will never forget their loved ones.
But the sad reality is that many horrendous crimes committed in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990 are still unaccounted for. Lebanese party leaders, nearly all of them former warlords, clearly want to continue with the same trade-off: either crimes committed go unpunished, or they push the country back into civil war. But if this was the case for decades, the new generation who have been protesting peacefully since 2019 will not accept the continuation of the status quo.
The international community and Lebanon’s supporters must stand by the Lebanese people, and stop feeding warlords and militia leaders who serve their interests. Historically, the Lebanese people have paid the heaviest price because other countries, regional and international, decided they would turn Lebanon into a front to settle their scores. Without outside support, Lebanese political parties will not be able to continue taking a hard-line or even to safeguard their posts and economic privileges.
A long time friend of the Lebanese people, Egypt stands ready to help. Even before the recent total power blackout that lasted a few days, Egypt had expressed readiness to provide gas and technical expertise. France, the United States and Saudi Arabia have also exerted tremendous efforts to help form the Miqati-led government. The world should not abandon Lebanon because, as last week’s deadly clashes proved, it is easy for the country to slide back into a bloody civil war in which all the pressures and grievances of the past decades will resurface.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly