How Lebanon can avert threat of new civil war
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday said that Lebanon might slide into civil war if left alone to deal with its crisis. The clashes that happened the day before certainly sent an alarming signal of the potential return of civil war.
On Thursday, Hezbollah supporters, on the occasion of Ashura, wanted to hang religious banners in Khalde, a town located to the south of Beirut that is inhabited by Sunnis. This led to a clash, resulting in two deaths. During the funeral, mourners chanted the slogan “(Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah is the enemy of Allah.”
During periods of high tension, a single incident like this can spiral into an uncontrollable wave of violence. We have to remember the circumstances of the mid-1970s and compare them to the current landscape. The two factors that led to Lebanon’s civil war exist again today. The first factor is the existence of armed factions outside the control of the legitimate national army and security forces. The second factor is the insecurity the presence an armed non-state actor creates among the other factions. Then, it was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that was armed, rendering some Lebanese factions insecure, while today it is Hezbollah. More and more Lebanese are becoming vocal about the need to disarm Hezbollah and are attacking Nasrallah personally — something that was considered a grave blasphemy not a long time ago.
In 1975, the Phalangist-Christian faction fired on a bus transporting Palestinians in the neighborhood of Ain El-Remmaneh. The PLO retaliated and this opened the Pandora’s box of the Lebanese Civil War, which was closed only after 15 years of bloody conflict. Today, the Khalde incident could have similar repercussions if it is not quickly and decisively contained.
The average citizen should feel that the army has the upper hand when it comes to the country’s security.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Here, the role of army is crucial. The oversight of the “civilian authority,” or government, which is in Hezbollah’s camp over the army’s, has put the latter in an awkward position. While trying to remain neutral and maintain peace, which is an integral part of its mandate, the army’s task is becoming increasingly difficult. The country is divided between the people in power, who represent the Hezbollah camp, and the opposition, including Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the followers of Walid Jumblatt, who want to return to power. The Hirak popular protest movement is lost in the middle. The Hirak is made up of the civil society that is disgusted by the entire political class, hence its slogan “Killun yaani killun (All means all).” Yet, despite the good intentions of the civil society and the initiatives that are emerging, especially from the youth, it is not organized in a structure that can present a viable alternative to the current corrupt political class.
The prospects are not promising and Lebanon is at a turning point. Some expect Macron to be a savior and that his visit this week will produce miracles. Nevertheless, Macron’s formula, marketed under the tagline of a unity government, will basically freeze the facts on the ground for a while instead of improving the situation. His recipe will not reduce the tensions or the discontent with Hezbollah. On the contrary, recognizing its role under the auspices of a unity government might even increase the insecurity on the other side. The tensions are so high that even an Israeli strike on Southern Lebanon last week did not create the effect of rallying round the flag, as it did in 2006, when internal differences were overshadowed by an Israeli attack. Today, the opponents of Hezbollah are accusing it of instigating the skirmish with Israel to create a diversion.
De-escalation is important. While some voices call for the total disarmament of Hezbollah once and for all and others accuse the army of playing into Hezbollah’s hands by not protecting the protesters that were attacked by thugs from its ally Amal, the cohesion of the army is the last line of defense against a civil war. If the calls in Washington to decrease support for the army are answered, that would be a final blow to what is left of “civil peace.” Nevertheless, pressure should come on the government over its handling of the army. The army should protect the peaceful protesters. Staying on the sidelines while Hezbollah and its ally attack protesters will only fuel the discontent and insecurity. The average citizen should feel that the army has the upper hand when it comes to the country’s security.
The second step is for the army to be very firm with anyone outside of the security forces who is carrying a weapon or threatening an individual or a property. Regardless of which party the person belongs to, very strict measures should be taken against anyone who disturbs the country’s security. These measures should be announced and enforced. This would send a clear signal that the militias, whether that is Hezbollah or anyone else, can no longer rule the streets. Meanwhile, the army should create the space for the peaceful protests to take their course, as ultimately they are the only hope for developing a civil alternative to the corrupt sectarian system. If these measures are not taken immediately, Lebanon is heading toward the abyss.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.