Lebanon’s bloody summer

Hanging from a building still scarred from the civil war, a poster depicting a Lebanese soldier on the ruins of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp reads, “Its people, its army.” All around Lebanon posters like these have been put up by various political parties and in this case a private media company. Current campaigns to support the army are said to be false attempts at uniting the country. (Matthew Cassel)

The car bomb that shook Beirut’s waterfront on the evening of June 13 was the sixth explosion in Lebanon in less than a month. But unlike the other bombings, which were intended more to instill fear than to cause serious damage, this one had a political target: Walid Eido, a member of the US-backed parliamentary majority. With the killing of one more legislator — the fifth in two years — Lebanon is hurtling toward yet another crisis.

The bomb, which was planted in a parked car, ripped through Eido’s black Mercedes as his motorcade left a swimming club where he played cards with friends almost every afternoon. The explosion resonated throughout Beirut, shattering windows 100 yards away and throwing body parts onto a nearby soccer field. It killed Eido, his son and eight other people. Within minutes, ambulances filled the Corniche, a palm-tree-lined boulevard that overlooks the Mediterranean and is often packed with people out for an evening stroll.

As soon as the bomb went off, dozens of young men rushed to the scene, and soldiers had to push them back from the burning cars. They gathered around two fire trucks, picking through twisted wreckage. Naim Chebbo, a 33-year-old waiter, ran for a half-mile from his restaurant, following the cloud of black smoke. Drenched in sweat and hyperventilating, he screamed, “Look at what the Syrians are doing to us! Don’t ask me why this bombing happened. Ask the Syrians!” He pointed up a hill, toward the headquarters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. “I’m going to get the SSNP. I’m going to fuck them up!” he shrieked. “They’re just sitting up there laughing.” His friends restrained him from marching up the hill.

When Chebbo began insulting Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah — leader of Hizballah, the Shiite political party and militia allied with Syria — calling him a “terrorist” and a “criminal,” a bystander told Chebbo to keep quiet. The two began shoving each other, and a dozen soldiers toting M-16s moved between them, at one point cocking their guns to shoot into the air. Soldiers finally managed to wrestle Chebbo away, and he walked off, still cursing.

This is the state of Lebanon today: deep sectarian anger that could boil over at any moment. In mixed Beirut neighborhoods, tensions rise between Sunnis and Shiites after each bombing. Tempers flare, small fights get out of hand, people start calling their friends and relatives to come in from other areas to help them and eventually the police have to step in. (A Shiite friend who lives in a mainly Sunni neighborhood told me that for several days after Eido’s killing, he found a broken egg each morning on his car.) And there’s no shortage of bombings to stoke tensions: On June 24 a car bomb exploded near a convoy of United Nations peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, killing six troops under Spanish command. It was the first attack on the UN force since it was expanded to 13,000 soldiers after last summer’s war between Israel and Hizballah. Some Lebanese politicians quickly blamed Syria for the bombing, but there is also evidence that Sunni militants tied to al-Qaeda have been plotting for months to attack UN peacekeepers in the south.

Throughout Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war, foreign powers battled for control of the tiny country, either directly or through proxies. But a great deal of the day-to-day fighting involved well-armed rival neighborhood gangs. In a city on edge, angry young men like Chebbo can easily get out of control. Perhaps at the next bombing, they won’t be held back.

“The elements for a new civil war are here. They are ready. But there are some red lines that prevent it from happening. We saw an example in January, when sectarian violence broke out but the national leaders quickly asked everyone to calm down,” says Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general who is now an independent military analyst. “You need an incident or catalyst that can ignite the situation. It’s not yet here. But people’s hearts are full of hatred.”

“Everything Is Blowing Up”

Lebanon’s current round of assassinations began in February 2005, when a powerful truck bomb killed former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri as his motorcade drove along the Corniche. Hariri’s murder cast a harsh light on Syria’s domination over its smaller neighbor. Faced with international pressure and mass protests, the Syrian-backed prime minister resigned, and Damascus pulled thousands of troops out of Lebanon. But the killings continued, mainly targeting politicians from the anti-Syrian bloc led by Rafiq’s son Saad Hariri.

Today Lebanon is bracing for a showdown over the presidency. It could be a bloody summer, as the presidential election looms in late September. The president is appointed by a majority vote in Parliament. After the last parliamentary election, in June 2005, Hariri’s Future Movement and its allies won seventy-two seats in the 128-member legislature. But with several defections, Eido’s killing and that of another legislator last November whose seat remains unfilled, the parliamentary majority is down to sixty-eight. If the majority loses another four members — either by death or defection — it will no longer be able to determine the next president. “Eido was assassinated to reduce the parliamentary majority in order to bring the government down,” Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian group that is part of the ruling coalition, said after the bombing. “It seems that we’re the opposition because we’re the ones being targeted by assassinations.”

There’s another danger: Without a majority, it’s conceivable that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government could fall in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Siniora’s twenty-four-member Cabinet has been in danger of collapsing since November, when six ministers representing Hizballah and its allies resigned after talks to form a national unity government failed. (Siniora’s ruling coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druze parties accuses Hizballah of walking out of the government to block a UN investigation into Hariri’s murder, which has been widely blamed on Syria.)

Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni leader, and his killing changed the dynamic within the Sunni community. During Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, Sunnis and Shiites were largely allied under the banner of pan-Arabism and support for the Palestinian cause. But the current conflict has fractured them, with most Shiites supporting Hizballah and most Sunnis backing the younger Hariri. Christians are divided between the two factions. Hizballah is currently allied with Michel Aoun, a former army commander and prominent Maronite Christian politician.

Syria is likely the biggest beneficiary of these political killings. But the coming showdown over the presidency could prove catastrophic for all sides. And there doesn’t appear to be any way out. All of Lebanon’s crises have become intertwined — and they’re all converging on the battle over the presidency. Ironically, the latest series of crises began in September 2004, when the Syrian regime forced the Lebanese Parliament to extend the presidential term of Emile Lahoud, a former army commander and Syrian ally, for three years.

Lebanon’s problems are rooted in a sixty-four-year-old power-sharing agreement among the country’s rival religious groups. The system was designed to keep a balance among eighteen sects, dictating that power must be shared between a Maronite president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite speaker of Parliament. But this confessional system has barely changed since it was put in place in the early 1940s, when Lebanon won its independence from French colonial rule. After decades of intermittent crises precipitated by the unworkable confessional balancing act, the structure again risks creating a failed state.

The Lebanese predicament is also an extension of the ongoing proxy war in Iraq — pitting Iran and Syria (which support Hizballah) against the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes (which support Hariri’s alliance). As soon as Siniora’s government took office, the Bush Administration began pressuring it to disarm Hizballah.

The crises are interconnected in a Gordian knot: the Hizballah-led Shiite walkout from Siniora’s Cabinet, which throws the government’s legitimacy into question because the Lebanese Constitution dictates that every major sect must be represented in the Cabinet; the creation of a new government; the pressure on Hizballah to give up its weapons; and the disarming of various factions in twelve Palestinian refugee camps scattered across Lebanon. The issue of Palestinian weapons boiled over in late May, when a group of Sunni militants attacked the Lebanese Army, which then besieged the Nahr al-Bared camp near the northern city of Tripoli.

Siniora’s government claims that Syrian intelligence created the militant group Fatah al-Islam and is using it to destabilize Lebanon. But as with the attempt to hold Syria responsible for the bombing against UN peacekeepers, the ruling coalition has provided little evidence to back up its claims about Fatah al-Islam. Some reports in the Lebanese press tied the group’s leaders to al-Qaeda and to militant networks that are recruiting young Sunni men from northern Lebanon to fight in Iraq. It’s unclear if Fatah al-Islam played a role in the attack on UN troops in the south, but the group is part of a growing militant Sunni movement in Lebanon, which is drawing inspiration — if not logistical help — from al-Qaeda. (In several messages over the past year, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged Muslims to open a new front on Israel’s border with Lebanon and to attack “Crusader forces” in the south — meaning UN troops.)

“All the problems that were suppressed for thirty years are popping up, and they’re all popping up at the same time,” says a Lebanese NGO worker who could not be quoted by name. “The Hizballah weapons, the Palestinian weapons, the presidency; I mean everything, everything is now blowing up. It’s thirty years of bullshit. The Pandora’s box has opened up.”

“The Blood of Sunnis Is Boiling”

When Hizballah 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. On January 23 the opposition organized a nationwide strike as part of its campaign to topple Siniora’s government. Two days later, rioting erupted around a university, killing four people, injuring dozens and forcing the army to impose a curfew in Beirut for the first time in ten years. Lebanon teetered on the edge of another civil war.

In the following months, sectarian tensions eased slightly — until Eido’s assassination, which further inflamed the hatred between Sunnis and Shiites. The funeral procession on June 14 for Eido and his son passed through the Sunni neighborhood of Tarik al-Jadideh, the scene of January’s bloody street battles. Overnight, billboards throughout Beirut were plastered with pictures of the two men, calling them “the martyrs of justice.” Hundreds of supporters carried the blue flags of the Future Movement and white flags with a stencil of a roaring tiger — the logo of the Ras Beirut Tigers, the movement’s pseudo-militia, which has become more active in Sunni neighborhoods in recent months. At this point, the Tigers lack an organized military structure and weapons; instead, they’re focused on showing their strength at rallies and on the streets of Muslim-dominated West Beirut.

“The blood of Sunnis is boiling!” a crowd of young men shouted as they marched behind the coffins. “Terrorist, terrorist, Hizballah is a terrorist group!” Koranic verses warbled from the minarets of every mosque along the route, mixing with the loudspeakers mounted atop minibuses that blared out, “Today is the funeral for a new martyr killed at the hands of Bashar Assad” — the Syrian president. Other mourners insulted Hizballah’s revered leader, chanting, “Nasrallah is the enemy of God!”

After Saad Hariri spoke at the funeral, his supporters pumped their fists in the air and bellowed, “Labayk ya Saad-Eddine!” (We obey you, oh Saad-Eddine). It’s the same rhythmic chant — freighted with religious overtones — that Nasrallah’s followers intone whenever he speaks in public.

At Eido’s funeral, the next Lebanese political crisis began to emerge. Within hours of his assassination, members of the Future Movement started calling for a special election to replace Eido, and another to fill the seat of Pierre Gemayel, a Maronite member of Parliament and minister allied with the Hariri bloc who was assassinated last November. Two days after Eido was buried, Siniora’s Cabinet approved a plan to hold elections on August 5. But special elections also need the president’s consent, and Lahoud has vowed not to sign any directive issued by Siniora’s government because he “and half of the Lebanese people” consider it unconstitutional.

Even if the elections are held, it’s unclear if the two new legislators would be allowed to take their seats in Parliament. Speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite Amal Party and a Hizballah ally, has refused to convene Parliament ever since the Shiite ministers resigned in November. For months, Berri blocked the legislature from approving a UN Security Council plan to establish an international tribunal that will try Hariri’s killers. In late May the council created the tribunal anyway — without Lebanese approval. (With the vote for president looming, the Future Movement and its allies have threatened to convene a parliamentary session without Berri; opposition legislators would likely boycott such a meeting.)

On June 17 Lahoud met with the octogenarian Maronite Patriarch Butros Nasrallah Sfeir, the most powerful Christian leader in Lebanon. Lahoud told the cleric that he’s not being obstinate for his own sake but rather is trying to protect the powers of the presidency. Lahoud’s argument is meant to appeal to the Patriarch and to Lebanese Maronites in general, who are worried about the waning power of the presidency — the last vestige of Christian influence. “Siniora and his government are trying to usurp the authority of the president, and that is a dangerous precedent that I cannot allow,” Lahoud told Sfeir, according to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. “These powers do not belong to me personally. They belong to the presidency.”


In the short term, Siniora’s government began losing Shiite support after Washington backed Israel during its war last summer against Hizballah. Fresh off its perceived military victory against a far superior Israeli army, Hizballah accused Siniora’s government of being a US puppet and demanded more power. After months of on-and-off negotiations, Hizballah and the Siniora-Hariri bloc now stand at an impasse.

But even if the two sides reach a compromise, another political crisis is sure to emerge, unless they address the root causes of Lebanon’s instability — like the fact that the country’s largest sect, Shiites, do not have power equal to their proportion of the population. Eventually, the Lebanese will have to tackle the question of what kind of country they want.

That question has dominated Lebanon since it gained independence in 1943. When the French left, they created the confessional system and handed the lion’s share of political power to the Francophone Maronite elite. The system was enshrined under the National Pact, an unwritten agreement among Lebanese leaders. Seats in Parliament were divided on a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians to Muslims, with parliamentary seats and executive offices divided among the major sects, and that partitioning was extended to most government jobs.

The division was based on a 1932 census, which showed Maronites as the majority in Lebanon. Since then, the government has refused to hold a new census. By the 1960s, when Muslims began to outnumber Christians, Muslims began to clamor for a change in the balance of power. A recent State Department report estimated that Lebanon’s population of 4 million is more than two-thirds Sunni and Shiite. Some Lebanese researchers estimate that Shiites make up 40 percent of the population, although others put the number slightly lower.

When civil war broke out in 1975, the political imbalance was one of the driving forces that prompted each sect to form its own militia. Because of the confessional system, Lebanese political institutions never got a chance to develop; the country remained dependent on the powerful clans and feudal landlords that held sway in much of Lebanon. The zaeem, or confessional leader who usually inherited rule from his father, became paramount during the war. With most people loyal to their sectarian leaders, few Lebanese were invested in developing the constitutional institutions of the state.

As the war waned in 1989, Lebanon’s political class convened in the Saudi city of Taif to salvage the sectarian system. Brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, the resulting Taif Accord restructured the National Pact by taking some power away from the Maronites. Parliament was expanded to 128 members, divided equally between Christians and Muslims. Taif also called for all militias to disarm — except for Hizballah, whose military branch was labeled a “national resistance” against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000. All factions in Lebanon constantly affirm that they will abide by Taif, elevating the document to the status of a Magna Carta. Yet few acknowledge that the agreement also called for eventually abolishing the sectarian system, although it gave no time frame for doing so.

Confessionalism leads to a weak state. It encourages horse-trading and alliances with powerful patrons. And it’s easily exploited by outside powers (Syria, Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia being the latest examples). But most of the current players are too invested in this system to really change it. And foreign patrons don’t want change, because that could reduce their influence.

“Whenever you talk about a new Taif, people freak out. … Lebanese are always afraid of changing any social contract,” says Khalil Gebara, co-director of the Lebanese Transparency Association, an anticorruption watchdog group. “Because the problem is that, in Lebanon, social contracts are changed only in times of violence.”

What if the battle over the presidency continues past September, and the country is further paralyzed? There’s a real fear that the Lebanese government could once again split into two dueling administrations, as happened in 1988, when outgoing President Amin Gemayel appointed Aoun as a caretaker prime minister because Parliament could not agree on a new president. He created a largely Christian government, while the sitting Sunni prime minister refused to leave and led a rival Muslim administration. The crisis ended in October 1990, when Syrian warplanes bombed the presidential palace, driving Aoun into exile in France. It’s remarkable how many Lebanese are talking openly today about the possibility of another government breakup; some are even resigned to it.

Splitting the country into two administrations in 1988 was a logical endpoint of the confessional system. Lebanese leaders are going down the same path once again: They’re trying to run the country under a system that’s no longer viable and that continues to create a perpetual crisis. Until the Lebanese can agree on a stronger and more egalitarian way to share authority, they will be cursed with instability, their future dictated by foreign powers.

Mohamad Bazzi is a Lebanense-born journalist and Newsday’s Middle East Bureau chief. This article originally appeared in The Nation and is reprinted with the author’s permission.