BEIRUT, 20 February 2007 (IRIN) - “Please, no discussion of politics,” reads a sign that has appeared in shop windows in the Mazraa district of western Beirut.
On a work-day afternoon, it is the only hint that the area’s bustling main streets — lined with snack-bars and grocers, clothes shops and jewellery markets — has witnessed a sharp rise in Sunni-Shia Muslim tensions over the past few months.
“People would strike up conversations in here about politics and they’d turn into arguments. Now I can just point at the sign and say ‘come on, that’s enough’,” said the owner of a cubby-hole bookshop, who preferred not to give his name. “No one strikes up a conversation these days without wanting to know immediately which side someone’s on.”
Sunni-Shia tensions in Lebanon came to the fore in January when two days of clashes killed nine people in the worst sectarian strife since the country’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Corniche Al-Mazraa, a main artery in western Beirut, saw some of the worst fighting. On one side of the road is a predominantly Sunni area, on the other a mixed Sunni-Shia area. Two groups fought running battles on 23 January hurling stones and abuse at each other while soldiers struggled to separate them.
But although talk of a clash between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon fuels many a think-tank or newspaper columnist, many local analysts say the current crisis — and therefore its solution — is political in origin.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut, warned against seeing trouble between the two communities as purely sectarian.
“It’s essentially a political conflict involving issues such as foreign policy, security policy, the tribunal [to try suspects in former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination], [UN Security Council Resolution] 1701, power and government, power-sharing — all the complex issues that are really on the table,” he said.
“But once things get politically out of hand and begin to spill over into the street, it turns into something else. Obviously, that’s the case because the government has a major Sunni party and the opposition has a major Shia party.”
Since Hariri was assassinated two years ago in a car bombing many blamed on Syria, Lebanon has been divided into a pro-Western camp led by Sunni Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora and Hariri’s son Saad, and an opposition led by Damascus’s ally Hezbollah. Christians are split between the two sides.
The Israel-Hezbollah war last summer deepened the rift and led to opposition calls for a unity government that would give it more say on national issues, a demand rejected by the parliamentary majority. From November, the dispute focused on the international tribunal. The anti-Syrian ruling coalition accuses the opposition of shielding Syria, which they blame for the killing. The opposition has approved the tribunal in principle, but stalled over procedures.
A line of mixed-sect areas falling roughly between the mainly Shia southern suburbs and Sunni-dominated western Beirut have formed a new frontline of sorts in the latest tensions. Fifteen years after the end of a ruinous civil war fought along sectarian lines, Lebanon and its capital remain largely segregated into Christian, Sunni and Shia areas.
In Mazraa, as elsewhere, allegiance is shown openly. A speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah blares from one shop while the shop next door its has posted pictures of Hariri, father and son.
The signs helped to cool tempers, said Imad Batrouni, a member of the board of the Mazraa traders’ organisation that came up with the idea.
“Groups of people were arguing. It was affecting the way people who had worked on the same street for years were getting along,” he said. “That was why we decided on the signs, to stop things getting out of hand.”
In a confessional political system that carves up power according to religious sect, sectarian and political issues often overlap.
“It’s not a religious or sectarian issue in that neither of the groups is trying to convert the other and it does not aim at solving historical Sunni-Shia differences,” says Ahmad Moussalli, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut who specialises in political Islam.
New Sunni-Shia fault-line
Lebanon’s civil war was broadly fought between Muslims and Christians, not Sunnis and Shias, so the intensity of feeling between the two Muslim sects is relatively new and appears to some to add a new fault-line to an already fractured country.
“There has always been some kind of Sunni-Shia tension, it’s just there, but it’s not stirred up unless there’s a political conflict,” Moussalli said. “You could look at this as different groups having different agendas and mobilising the sectarian issue for different ends,” he said.
In nearby Tarik al-Jadida, the Beirut Arab University, split 50/50 between the two Muslim sects, saw some of the worst Sunni-Shia clashes after a cafeteria brawl turned into pitched street battles. Snipers on the roofs recalled the dark days of the civil war. Now, the university has banned political activity on campus and students are searched for weapons.
Ordinary people, especially neighbours, have started to look at each other with suspicion. Deep inside they’re not comfortable with someone because they’re with Hariri, Hezbollah or whoever.
Sects have become more territorial in recent months. For example, an opposition encampment that has taken over two squares in the Downtown area of the capital since December is seen by many Sunnis as an occupation of ‘their’ Beirut by southern Shias. Clashes have erupted when demonstrators have marched through an area ‘belonging’ to the opposite side.
Analysts say Sunni-Shia bloodshed in Iraq is fuelling tensions in Lebanon. Shia Iran and the US — with its Sunni Arab allies led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are exchanging sharp rhetoric that raises the spectre of a confrontation.
With Saudi Arabia backing Lebanon’s ruling coalition and Iran backing Hezbollah, many Lebanese are placing their hopes in an ongoing dialogue between the two regional powers to find a compromise on core Lebanese issues.
Mazraa and neighbouring areas have ostensibly returned to normal apart from the armoured personnel carriers on the main roads and security forces milling around. But residents fear tension could flare up at any time.
Kamal al-Ubaidi, Mazraa’s mukhtar, or local official, said the ‘no politics’ signs in Mazraa shop windows were born of fear and could only last so long.
“Ordinary people, especially neighbours, have started to look at each other with suspicion. Deep inside they’re not comfortable with someone because they’re with Hariri, Hezbollah or whoever,” said al-Ubaidi. “The leaders have got to be aware of this and find a political solution so we’re not dragged into strife. That would change the face of Lebanon completely.”
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