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Can Lebanon douse political fires?

Fighting in Tripoli is indicative of rising Sunni-Shiite tensions as the formation of a new government hits an impasse. Religious leaders called for calm Wednesday.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 26, 2008

In the middle: The Lebanese Army was deployed in Tripoli, bringing peace, after two days of sectarian fighting that left nine people dead.

Omar Ibrahim/Reuters

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Tripoli, Lebanon

Thick black smoke billows out of the shattered windows of a small house on the edge of the Jabal Mohsen district in this city as a fireman directs water into the burning building.

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Several other houses nearby also smolder from a spate of arson attacks that are keeping tensions high between the mainly Alawite (an offshoot of Shiite Islam) residents and their traditional rivals in the Sunni quarter of Tebbaneh.

The smoldering fires are an apt metaphor for tensions now threatening a rare breakthrough in this country's governance.

Five weeks ago, Lebanon's feuding political bosses reached an agreement that ended some of the worst internal violence in nearly two decades. Qatar brokered a deal that allowed for the election of a new president and was meant to end 19 months of political deadlock.

But the formation of a new national unity government has hit an impasse. Rival politicians are squabbling over the distribution of cabinet portfolios, and tensions are building once more in flash points around the country.

Some observers also worry that Lebanon, like Iraq, could become a new battleground between Sunni and Shiite extremists. The week-long street battles in Beirut in May – between the militant Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni supporters of the Future Movement – have aggravated simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. But others suggest that these are largely local disputes.

"Differences among the Lebanese have reached the edge of suicide," warned Michel Suleiman, the new president, at a meeting Wednesday of Lebanese spiritual leaders who convened at the presidential palace to discuss how to address the friction.

In a statement after the meeting, Christian and Muslim leaders stressed the need for national unity, denounced extremism, and called on rival factions to refrain from using violence to achieve political gains.

While national political leaders blame their opponents for starting the clashes, most of the recent sporadic outbreaks of fighting in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in the east appear to have been symptoms of old rivalries and localized disputes spinning out of control rather than deliberately orchestrated military campaigns.

Take Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh – two quarters living cheek by jowl in the center of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city. The residents of both districts have been feuding since the 1975-90 civil war when they fought on opposite sides. Today, the residents of Jabal Mohsen, who are mainly Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are supporters of the opposition led by the militant Shiite Hezbollah.

The most popular political party in the Tebbaneh district is the Sunni Future Movement, the largest component of the March 14 parliamentary coalition. But many residents here adhere to the Salafi school of Islam, some of whom believe an ideology that brands Shiites – including Alawites – as apostates.

Continuing political tensions in Lebanon have fanned the glowing embers of rivalry and resentment between Jabal Mohsen and Tebbaneh, triggering two days of vicious fighting earlier this week that left at least nine people dead and over 50 wounded.

The evidence of the fierce fighting lies in the hundreds of empty brass rifle rounds lying on the main road separating the two quarters. Dozens of shabby houses, many of them still carrying the scars of the civil war, are newly blackened by fire and peppered with fresh bullet holes.

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