Moves to lift the lockdown in Lebanon due to the Covid-19 pandemic do not bode well for the country, as protesters have now come back onto the streets in order to put pressure on the government.
Various political currents have been interfering in the protests with new demands, such as for early parliamentary elections. Matters have also been complicated by quarrels among the protesters, with some demanding that the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah be disarmed and others holding that this will only reduce the Shia participation in the protests.
Some political forces on the left in Lebanon have reservations about this demand, and there have been reports that current and former members of the mostly Sunni Muslim Future Current have joined the protests.
Some 35 protesters and one security man were injured on 6 June after clashes between the two sides outside the parliament building in the Lebanese capital Beirut, according to the Lebanese Red Cross. Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered in the capital’s Al-Shuhadaa (Martyrs) Square to protest against economic hardships and demand early parliamentary elections.
According to sources in the field, some protesters broke the windows of a shop next to the parliament building, causing the security forces immediately to intervene and shoot rubber bullets and tear gas into the air to disperse the protesters.
Hizbullah is also trying to use the streets to confront the protesters, and pro-Hizbullah groups marched towards the protesters in the square chanting sectarian slogans in response to demands by the protesters that the group be disarmed.
What has been worse than the sectarian dimensions of the protests are the sacrilegious incidents that have taken place amid these tensions, including video footage emerging of Shia groups insulting the Prophet’s wife Lady Aisha.
This has further strained Sunni-Shia relations in Beirut, which have deteriorated into clashes between supporters of Hizbullah and the Future Current. The Lebanese army has attempted to limit the clashes and prevent them from spreading to other areas.
The media has tweeted videos of armed clashes in Beirut between Hizbullah and the Future Current, injuring two people in poor areas where automatic and semi-automatic weapons were used.
Several tense hours passed on Saturday night, ripping open the wounds of the Lebanese Civil War and the 2008 attack by Hizbullah on the capital.
The violence brought back reminders of the dangers of sectarian tensions in Lebanon between Sunnis and Shias, especially after incidents in the towns of Ain Rummanah and Al-Shiyahh between supporters of Amal, a party led by Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri who is an ally of Hizbullah, and the residents of Ain Rummanah, who are mostly Christian.
Angry youths burnt pictures of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and stomped on the group’s flag chanting derogatory slogans.
Lebanon’s political and religious leaders have warned against any sectarian violence, and Prime Minister Hassan Diab has tweeted his strong condemnations of all sectarian slogans and urged the Lebanese people and their political and spiritual leaders to be vigilant and cooperate with the army and security agencies.
Despite accusations against Hizbullah of manipulating the sectarian issue, the group and Amal have strongly condemned any insults or chants against Lady Aisha on social media.
“In no way does this express the moral or religious values of believers and Muslims,” Hezbollah said, reiterating the group’s “religious position prohibiting maligning the Prophet’s wives, the mothers of believers and all Muslim sanctities.”
It “strongly” censured “those who incite, benefit from or promote strife. We vehemently reject anything that could lead to sectarian or religious division and tension,” the group said.
Deputy Chief of Amal’s politburo Sheikh Hassan Al-Masri said that “what is being shared on dubious social media outlets is a blatant attempt to incite strife among believers. It violates Islam’s noble values and benevolent morals.”
Former prime minister and leader of the Future Current Saad Al-Hariri urged his followers not to engage in strife and commented on the video insulting Lady Aisha by warning them not to take any action that could disturb the peace or allow the ignorant to ignite sectarian tensions.
“Any insult of Lady Aisha is deplorable and unacceptable and has hurt us in our hearts. It is an insult to all Muslims without exception, and not just to any one sect. It is condemned by all political and religious leaders, both our Shia brothers and Sunnis.”
“I call on all my brethren in all areas to heed the call of Dar Al-Ifta [the Sunni religious authority in Lebanon] and warn all Muslims against falling into the trap of sectarian strife. May God curse all those who seek to ignite it.”
The Lebanese government is nervously anticipating the impact of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act imposed by the US banning dealings with Syria on Lebanon’s domestic scene, due to economic hardships such as International Monetary Fund (IMF) dues that will be negotiated soon if it agrees to overlook gaps in the government’s financial plans.
Through a member of Diab’s cabinet, Hizbullah has failed to draw a distinction between the group and the government, even though some cabinet members are dual nationals, among them US citizens.
The government has also been unable to hide its subordination to Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement, making it a constant target for the opposition, especially the Future Current and its allies that are in contact with influential countries elsewhere.
Lebanese politicians are worried about how the Caesar Act could impact on Lebanon’s fragile situation. Hizbullah is not prepared to compromise on the Syrian crisis, having taken part for years in the Syrian conflict in support of the Syrian regime.
The media have quoted diplomatic sources as saying that “Lebanon cannot be exempt from the Caesar Act if it violates its terms. Smuggling dollars, oil or other commodities will bring sanctions on Lebanon because violations will be severely punished.”
Sources said the law was important for the US because it had started to isolate the Syrian regime and sought to sever its connections with Hizbullah and Iran. Not taking it seriously could be catastrophic, and Lebanon would be subject to US sanctions if it decided to continue trading with Syria, they said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly