Lebanon faces prospect of civil war
It was a dispute in a university cafeteria that erupted into the worst sectarian violence in Lebanon in 15 years. How it started and who is to blame depends on which side tells the story.Skip to next paragraph
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But even as young Shiite and Sunni men on both sides armed themselves for a bloody face-off last Thursday, their parents begged them to stop – horrific images of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war rekindling in their minds.
The political standoff between the government and opposition, simmering for two months, has taken an increasingly violent and sectarian turn in the past week, exposing long-dormant divisions between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites, and rival Christian factions.
At stake in the spiraling conflict is who will define the identity of Lebanon, a colonial-era construct that includes 18 confessions, and in recent decades has served as the proxy battlefield for broader regional struggles by Israel, Syria, Palestinians, and today, the US and Iran.
"My mother was crying ... and telephoned me to come back," says business student Alaa, a Sunni who dismissed his mother's pleas on Thursday, as black smoke from burning cars belched above the largely Sunni Tareq al-Jdideh neighborhood.
"They know about the civil war and they fear it again," says Alaa, speaking of his parents. "[But] if we do not do this and defend our homes, [Shiites] could come and invade and stay."
That battle pitted Sunni supporters of the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who dominate the area around the Beirut Arab University, against Shiite Hizbullah and Amal loyalists who want to topple the government and who called in armed and helmeted reinforcements to back up their students.
The specter of renewed conflict could mar the ambitions of both Lebanese camps and jeopardize a transformation that has rebuilt Beirut from the ashes of civil war. Lebanon is still reeling from the 34-day war this summer, between Hizbullah and Israel, that devastated the nation's infrastructure. Donors in the Western camp met in Paris Thursday to pledge $7.6 billion to help.
"Only God can stop a civil war now," says a Christian father and former officer in the Lebanese Forces militia of Samir Geagea, a Christian leader once indicted for wartime killings. Two of his sons are in the Army, which has so far not been overwhelmed by the spasms of violence.
"We're between catastrophe and peace in Lebanon," he says. "The smallest accident could set it off, because blood is moving and is inflamed."
"For 15 years the TV and news showed there was peace," says another Christian, a militant who maintains a personal arsenal of two assault rifles, a pistol, and stocks of ammunition, hidden in cupboards and amid piles of clothes.
"But inside ourselves, we prepare for the next big fight. All groups have [prepared]," says the man, who asked not to be identified. "I don't believe we can all live together. There is too much religious racism, and hiding [of true feelings.]"
Those mutual suspicions have been edging closer to the surface, driven by uncompromising politicians willing to take their differences to the street. Violence first broke out last Tuesday when the Hizbullah-led opposition shut down Beirut and other cities with flaming barricades and gangs of club-wielding men during a one-day nationwide strike.
The further eruption Thursday was more shocking to many Lebanese, because the spark was apparently so small. Afterward, leading politicians of all stripes called for calm and a withdrawal from the streets.
Though it was quiet over the weekend, many Lebanese spoke of mistrusting politicians and concern that tension is rising beyond their ability to control the street.
"I didn't get scared in the past war, but now I am worried," says Adel, a Sunni who lives with his family behind Beirut Arab University. "I felt like I was completely in a trance [during the fight]. We are concerned it could get worse, but we hope it will end here. No one is looking for war.