Is Lebanon on the verge of another civil war?
The fatal clashes in Beirut on Thursday have reminded many people of the Ain El-Remmaneh incident that sparked fighting between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Phalangists which ultimately led to the 15-year Lebanese Civil War.
This week’s incident began with Amal, Hezbollah, and their Christian ally in the North — Al-Marada — calling on their supporters to protest against Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation into last year’s explosion in Beirut Port.
This was not a peaceful protest by civilians carrying banners, however, but by people carrying weapons and deliberately trying to intimidate and undermine the judiciary. The head of the judiciary, Suhail Abboud, ultimately asked all judges to vacate Beirut’s main court for their own safety. The angry crowd proceeded to the Christian stronghold of Ain El-Remmaneh, where gunfire resulted in six deaths.
Calm was restored the next day after the army was deployed, but the mood in Beirut is seething. The question is: Are we witnessing the prelude to a civil war? Lebanon is, obviously, a very different place than it was in 1975. But that does not necessarily mean that the country is not heading for some severe turbulence.
Arabic daily Al-Akhbar — considered Hezbollah’s mouthpiece — has warned that Hezbollah might be “losing patience.” While Hezbollah ostensibly remains the main nonstate military power in Lebanon, every time it has tried to flex its muscles recently, it has received a slap in the face. If Hezbollah were to instigate an open confrontation at the moment, it would most likely lose. In 1975, the country was divided into two camps. Now, Hezbollah is opposed by numerous factions.
Any confrontation would likely mean that Hezbollah would quickly lose its Christian ally. It is telling that President Michel Aoun has publicly come out in support of Judge Bitar and his investigation, knowing that — had he not done so — he would have lost much of his support from the Christian community, whose neighborhoods were most heavily affected by the port explosion.
So despite Al-Akhbar’s veiled threat, Hezbollah will need to think twice before raising the stakes again.
Also, there is seemingly no popular appetite for a civil war. This explains why the concept of federalism has been mentioned so often lately. People do not want to live with, or under the rule of, Hezbollah, but they do not want to fight against the militant group either.
What does actually happen next will depend greatly on what concessions Hezbollah is willing to make to ensure its survival.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Another significant difference from 1975 is that the Lebanese army today is far stronger and more cohesive than it was back then. A source told me that the army is “doing all it can” to defuse the current tension. While many are calling on the military to seize this chance to crack down on illegal arms, it is taking a softer approach, being careful not to spark a confrontation with Hezbollah that could take the country to the unknown. I have seen video footage of soldiers trying to act as a shield to prevent armed Amal members entering Christian areas, instead of disarming them by force.
Hezbollah’s aggressive stance against Bitar has resulted in growing accusations that the party is responsible for bringing the ammonium nitrate that is seen as the main reason why the Beirut Port explosion was so devastating into the port in the first place. The phrase “Bitar doesn’t need to continue the investigation; the culprit has confessed” was prevalent on social media this week, and MTV’s evening news bulletin on Oct. 13 asked the pertinent question of why, if Hezbollah is innocent, it is so nervous about the investigation taking place. To date, Bitar has not summoned any Hezbollah members for questioning.
Farid Fakhreddin, a Lebanese activist, told me: “Amal, Hezbollah and Marada make up a third of the Cabinet and a quarter of the parliament. Are these people who are using weapons to intimidate the judiciary the same people who will negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (to rescue Lebanon from this crisis)?”
Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government announced that Friday would be a day of mourning and the day after the weekend is a public holiday. In that time, it will doubtless be searching for a solution to the showdown that allows everyone to save face.
For now, it remains unlikely that the investigation into the explosion will be shut down. The Lebanese people are still passionately vocal about their desire for the truth to come out. And so far, at least, Bitar appears immune to intimidation. As time goes on, Hezbollah and the political elite are running out of room to maneuver. And with elections coming up, any decision to remove the judge from the investigation would likely result in domestic damage, as well as killing any credibility they are trying to build with the international community. Would Mikati or Aoun really take such a step just to keep Hezbollah happy?
Ultimately, this traumatic episode in the current crisis is unlikely to lead to a civil war. However, what does actually happen next will depend greatly on what concessions Hezbollah is willing to make to ensure its survival. Is it willing to accept the investigation and sacrifice one or two of its high-ranking members if it means it continues to hold a seat at the table of power? We shall see.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.