Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The good news: Lebanese still don't want civil war (yet)

[Originally posted at NOW]

What are we to make of the past 48 hours in Lebanon, during which angry young men have blocked roads, tipped over bins, set tires ablaze, and generally made a scene around the country in response to the seemingly-unprovoked beatings of four senior Sunni clerics in two Shiite neighborhoods of Beirut?

Official sentiment has tended markedly toward doom and gloom. “Lebanon, in the last 24 hours, has endured the most dangerous security situation since [the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri],” said army Chief Gen. Jean Qahwaji. “I see dark clouds on the horizon,”warned Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.

And yet, almost without anyone noticing, life is continuing as normal. Faced with a bona fide casus belli – the sight of one Dar al-Fatwa sheikh hospitalized in a neck brace; another with his beard humiliatingly shaved off – not one Sunni in Beirut has retaliated with violence. Sidon’s Ahmad al-Assir, who in the past has deployed gunmen at the mere sight of Hezbollah posters, and who is known in Beirut’s tougher Sunni suburbs as the “Lion of the Sunnis”, made no noticeable departure from his normal routine. Even in Tripoli, where RPG-battles are a near-monthly occurrence, the fallout was limited to a few gunshots and a grenade – the sort of thing that typically follows, say, a routine politician’s speech. For all the sectarian rhetoric, and all the loose talk of “spillover” from Syria, it’s been made clear once again that Lebanon’s Sunnis are not looking for a serious fight with their Shiite compatriots.

Equally, Shiite leaders have done their utmost to douse the flames. Clearly both concerned and embarrassed that one of “their own” would carry out so brazenly sectarian an assault, both Hezbollah and Amal reportedly gave an immediate green light to arrest the individuals responsible. Accordingly, seven suspects have already been apprehended, and Hezbollah deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem has called for their “severe punishment”. Just to hammer home the point, representatives of the Shiite Higher Council paid a visit to Grand Mufti Sheikh Rashid Qabbani earlier today.

In sum, this tells us that Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite bosses remain distinctly opposed to the idea of sectarian war – for now, at any rate. I for one take this is as good news. The bad news, however, is that their partisans on the street grow further antagonized every day. “We hate the Shiites till death”, as one Tariq al-Jedideh resident put it to NOW’s Matt Nash and Yara Chehayed yesterday. The cycle of contained violence, alternating with defusion and temporary calm, therefore, seems destined to continue.

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