Lebanon Is Paralyzed by Fear of Another Civil War

Sectarian tensions are nearing the boiling point—and what happens next is up to Hezbollah.

During the 30 years since Lebanon’s civil war, the neighborhoods of the capital Beirut have been split on sectarian lines, mirroring the country’s sect-based power-sharing constitutional system. But this political edifice has been under challenge for months. In October, Lebanese people from across the religious spectrum came out on the streets and demonstrated against their political leaders, whom they described as a corrupt and self-serving elite. Last month when an explosion ripped through the city and left some of the dominantly Christian neighborhoods in ruins, it blew the lid off the country’s sectarian fault lines.

Lebanon’s various communities are more suspicious of each other than at any time in recent memory. At the center of tensions, holding the key to both chaos and peace, is Hezbollah. It’s not clear how these vitriolic sectarian tensions will be resolved. No one wants the situation to escalate into another civil war.

At a coffee shop in Ouzai, a Shiite-dominated southern suburb of Beirut barely 3 kilometers from the downtown neighborhood at the epicenter of the protests, a group of Hezbollah supporters accused the protestors of being foreign agents. Abu Ali, the owner of the cafe in his mid-50s, claimed the protestors were a front for Israeli—and by extension, American—interests, and that they had crossed a red line when they hung a noose around the effigy of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, demanding the group give up its weapons.

Hezbollah’s weapons, he said, were necessary protection for the Shiites, traditionally Lebanon’s poorest community, both against Israel and in a nation riven with sectarian divisions. The Shiites’ subordinate social position dates back centuries, and reflects the support traditionally given to Christians by Western powers, and the greater wealth and influence of Sunni Muslims, particularly under their coreligionist Ottoman overlords. The rise of Hezbollah, feared by both of those other communities, is a matter of pride for many Shiites.

Abu Ali identified himself as a supporter, rather than member, of the group—Hezbollah’s fighters rarely speak to journalists and present themselves as civilian supporters rather than as taking direct orders from leadership. However, two hours into a contentious interview with Foreign Policy, he revealed his identity on the condition of anonymity, admitting that not only was he a fighter with the group who had fought in the 2006 war against Israel, but that his elder son also fought in the Syrian war alongside Hezbollah, whilst the younger was in training. As evidence, he produced half a dozen photographs: of himself at the border in army fatigues with a Hezbollah flag fluttering near him; of his 23-year-old in the Syrian battlefield posing with an AK-47 and an M16; and of his younger, 13-year-old boy, lying on the ground with his finger on the trigger of a gun and taking aim from their home in southern Lebanon at invisible Israelis.

“Of course he knows how to shoot. He needs to be able to guard the house if my elder son and I are not at home,” he said of his teenage son. “My sons and I fight against Israelis, and we can never make peace with them. But most of these protestors are backed by Israel’s friends in Lebanon and are on the payroll of Western embassies.”

Abu Ali tried to back up his theory by pointing to the visible economic disparity between the largely middle-class protesters and relatively poorer Shiites who could neither afford the cosmopolitan lives of their neighbors nor buy laptops, some of which Hezbollah’s supporters stole—or as Abu Ali liked to put it, “confiscated”—from protestors. “They chant slogans against our Sheikh Nasrallah and then drink whiskey and party. If they are poor then how come they have laptops?” Lifestyle apart, he added, all is fair game if the protestors crossed Hezbollah’s red lines, “There will be a price. Red lines are red lines.”

Hezbollah has already clashed on several occasions with the protest movement. Most analysts assume that protest leaders and opposition factions will not want to provoke it much further, unclear as to what price Hezbollah could extract. Many Lebanese outside the Shiite community, and some within, want Hezbollah to merge with the army, but know from bitter experience that loud opposition to the group’s independent control of its weaponry comes with high personal risk. Professor Nasser Yassin of the American University of Beirut said the group would not shy away from taking over the streets, as it did in 2008, if attacked physically. “If, and that is a big if, some groups (Sunni, Christian, or Druze) carry arms against Hezbollah, and should the Lebanese Army be reluctant to crush them, then the group will take a swift action to control the country, 2008-style.”

In 2008, a Saudi-supported Sunni prime minister in the country dared to shut down Hezbollah’s communications, giving the group the provocation it needed to demonstrate its power on the streets. Within days, Hezbollah’s supporters had flooded Beirut. The Sunnis have since been on the back foot. Ziad Allouki, a Sunni militia commander from the northern city of Tripoli, has fought in sectarian clashes in the past but said that now his political overlords were keen to avoid escalation. Allouki last saw action when Syria’s civil war briefly spilled over into Tripoli between 2011-2014, and his Sunni fighters took on members of the city’s small Alawite community, coreligionists with President Assad. Alawites are generally regarded as an offshoot of Shiism.

After those clashes, he was arrested, along with hundreds of others, and only released on condition of a promise to keep the peace. As his fighting force was enfeebled, the same happened to the leading Sunni Muslim party, the Tayyar Al Mustaqbal or Future Movement (FM). Even when a UN international tribunal last month found a senior Hezbollah member guilty of the 2005 assassination of the FM’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, men like Allouki could do nothing, even if they wanted.

“Al Mustaqbal decided not to go down to the streets, to avoid clashes with Hezbollah, to avoid the possibility of a civil war,” Mr Allouki said. The general perception among Sunnis in Lebanon is that their leadership both in Lebanon and in the region, led by the Saudis, have abandoned them to the whims of Hezbollah and its patron, Iran. “The absence of armed activity is due to the concessions made by our leaders,” Mr Allouki told Foreign Policy. Bahaa Hariri, Rafik’s son and older brother of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said the party was not ready for confrontation. “We called for restraint because we said we don’t want any issues,” said Hariri on the phone from the United Kingdom. When asked how it intended to disarm Hezbollah, something both his father and brother failed to do, he answered: “We need to get our act together.”

There are those in Lebanese society who would prefer the Western powers to somehow take responsibility for disarming the group. “What can we do against their arms? America has the power, not us,” said a middle-aged lady in Gemmayze, one of the neighborhoods heavily damaged in the port blast. She refused to give her name but identified herself as a supporter of the right-wing Christian faction, the Lebanese Forces. This group, disempowered since the civil war, strongly aligns itself with America and is accused of wanting to make peace with Israel.

Over the last two months, the protest movement has both dwindled and, particularly since the explosion, become more sectarian in tone. “It would be best if the Christians got a separate country and Hezbollah got their own,” the woman said, reflecting an increasingly common sentiment in Christian areas, even if one rarely spoken on a public stage. Dozens of Lebanese protestors told Foreign Policy that their movement to seek structural change and economic reform had been infiltrated by sectarian forces, including both Hezbollah and the Lebanese military.

Many protesters say the question of Hezbollah’s weapons has divided the public and that they preferred it be addressed nationally only when a new governing system was in place. Gilbert Doumit, a civil society activist who stood in the last election and lost, blamed not just Hezbollah but all sectarian leaders for bringing Lebanon back to the edge of a cliff. “Since 1990, there have been warlords who have imposed on citizens the same tradeoff: We protect you and in return, we steal from you,” he said. “Any time you threaten our interests we provoke a civil war under the pretext of protecting the sect.”

Analysts say that while sectarian mistrust is increasing, there is no threat of a civil war just yet —unless Hezbollah decides it wants one. Hezbollah and its main Shiite ally, the Amal Movement, have recently staged a number of their signature motorbike parades, waving flags of Shiism’s founding father, Imam Hussain. Shiites are currently commemorating the holy day of Ashura, during which they mourn Hussain’s killing. This might normally be seen as a harmless expression of religiosity, but most Beirutis nowadays see it as an assertion of Hezbollah’s power: a veiled message that its boys can, if they want, take over the streets again.

Back at the coffee shop, Abu Ali says that Hezbollah does not want a civil war and that its supporters are merely trying to maintain law and order, and ensure sectarian tensions do not break out. “If there were civil warlike conditions, then Hezbollah would attack Israel. It is the head of all those who want violence in the country,” said Abu Ali.

Internal peace, however, comes at the cost of accepting the hegemony of Hezbollah and its allies. That would trap Lebanon in the crippling status quo: a failed economy and ineffective sectarian politics.

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