The murderous price of Lebanon's sectarianism
Diplomat and journalist Ghassan Tueni’s immortal plea of “Let my people live” at the UN in 1978 resonates today, as Lebanon once again teeters on the brink of sectarian bloodletting and social collapse. Lebanon’s streets have again erupted in furious desperation after the currency plunged against the dollar, leaving salaries and pensions almost worthless.
Lebanon is losing the foundations of statehood. It is a bankrupted economic basket case in perpetual political crisis, bled white by corrupt thieves. It is a country in the latter stages of dissolving itself. Recent days have witnessed scenes of panic-buying, while other citizens are terrified of stepping outside their front doors, with civil chaos set to escalate.
Hassan Diab’s Hezbollah-backed government is fiddling while Beirut burns. There is nothing it can do, short of dissolving itself and making way for a civilian administration not underwritten by Tehran.
Lebanese financial institutions have been the primary vectors for Iranian and Syrian money laundering. With the US poised to impose fresh Caesar Act sanctions against the Assad regime and its cronies, destitute Lebanon will, for the thousandth time, pay the price of being dragged into Tehran’s ill-omened “resistance axis.”
Seeing its own followers joining the protests, and with a minority chanting for paramilitary disarmament, Hezbollah’s leadership reacted violently. It mobilized rock-throwing thugs, who chanted sectarian insults against Sunnis and Christians, along with the inevitable “Shia, Shia, Shia.” Nevertheless, Hezbollah supporters later joined protests as part of their agitation against central bank chief Riad Salameh.
The toxic sectarian logic of Hezbollah’s insistence on retaining its weapons was spelled out in one of many widely circulated videos. It employed viciously insulting language against other sects and asserted that, even if all problems were solved with Israel, for “a hundred years and more” the Shiite “resistance” weapons would never be handed over — even if the Lebanese “die of starvation” and all Lebanon is “burnt down” — because “these weapons give us dignity.”
Lebanese social media is increasingly a hotbed of rumors and toxic sectarian conspiracy theories.
Lebanon’s Shiites didn’t achieve their “dignity” because of their weapons, but through education and hard work. Such justifications manifest what we always feared: That “the resistance’s weapons” are ultimately intended for use against other Lebanese. Hassan Nasrallah loves to remind us that he will cut off the hand that seeks to take Hezbollah’s weapons. The group’s traitorous readiness to see Lebanon starve or burn before surrendering its weapons does Israel’s work for it.
If every sect and faction suffered from such an inferiority complex that it needed to be armed to the teeth in order to feel “dignity,” the resulting arms race would be a recipe for Lebanese Armageddon.
Sectarian chants by groups brandishing Hezbollah and Amal regalia are a chilling reminder of the calculated cultivation of sectarian hatred during Lebanon’s civil war: We went from hardly knowing one another’s sects to murdering each other at checkpoints just because someone’s name happened to be George, Omar or Hussein.
Hezbollah’s propaganda outlets systematically distort history. Sectarian hatred and a climate of Shiite victimization are fueled by a narrative that states that Lebanon’s other sects “cowered in their homes” while the “Shiite resistance” stood alone against the “Zionist enemy.” The reality is that all Lebanon’s sects have struggled and sacrificed — and will be forced to do so again if malicious hands push us back into war. Nasrallah ceaselessly berates the Gulf Cooperation Council states, yet for years they tirelessly bailed Lebanon out with billions of dollars and stepped in after these confrontations to rebuild schools, villages and hospitals.
Bizarrely, Hezbollah’s media outlets accused Israel of both being behind the anti-Hezbollah protests and responsible for the widely circulated sectarian insults used against protesters. Hezbollah and Nabih Berri thus would have us believe that, last week on Beirut’s streets, Israeli infiltrators were fighting Israeli infiltrators.
Iran is not the worldwide protector of Shiites. Throughout the region, it stokes socially corrosive civil tensions that have contributed to the disenfranchisement and weakening of these communities. The agent of Arab Shiites’ marginalization pretends to offer their salvation.
As long as Hezbollah presented itself as a nationalist, pan-Lebanese entity, “the resistance” enjoyed sincere cross-sectarian support. However, its post-2006 mutation into an aggressively sectarian faction, doing Tehran’s bidding and massacring citizens in Syria, alienated other sects and Shiite moderates.
Hezbollah can either be a force for defending the well-being and security of all Lebanese, or a sectarian Iranian proxy that turns its guns on citizens in its quest for supremacy. It cannot be both.
Nobody “won” the Lebanese Civil War. We simply killed each other until we were so sick of killing that exhausted, punch-drunk factions signed whatever was put in front of them. If Hezbollah really desires to let the sectarian genie out of a bottle, this fate again awaits us; while Israel, Iran, Bashar Assad, France, Russia and America sit on the sidelines stoking the fire.
Lebanese social media is increasingly a hotbed of rumors and toxic sectarian conspiracy theories. Just as in 1975, rumors become self-fulfilling prophecies by destroying trust and pitting sects against one another, with ample cannon fodder — a generation of unemployed, starving and angry young men and women who believe they have nothing to lose. We need only look to Syria for a reminder of how much Lebanon still has to lose.
Lebanon as a nation only exists as the sum of its many parts. The only way Lebanon’s diverse social fabric can survive these catastrophic times is through recalling the words of Tueni after Hezbollah and Syrian agents murdered his son Gebran during the 2005 succession of assassinations: “Let us bury hatred and revenge along with Gebran.”
Hezbollah holds all the weapons and could dominate or destroy its compatriots at will. But if Hezbollah’s foot soldiers reduce their motherland to rubble, what is left for them and their families? They certainly shouldn’t expect Tehran to welcome them with open arms or to help them rebuild.
Hezbollah must acknowledge that, when it holds a knife to Lebanon’s neck, it is ultimately only threatening to slit its own throat.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.