Tensions in Lebanon are high after deadly clashes in a Beirut suburb took the lives of seven people and injured several others, and saw property being damaged and residents further stressed as they already struggle with daily pressures from the Mediterranean country’s continued economic downfall.
We cannot forget that Lebanon is still reeling from last years deadly port blast on August 4. In fact, the Port of Beirut blast has been called one of the biggest explosions in world history and resulted in billions of dollars in damages, as well as lives.
It was the investigation by Judge Tarek Bitar into the cause of this blast and who was responsible that led to this flare up, which was among the worst sectarian clashes in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war.
In recent weeks, the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah accused Bitar of political bias as he sought to question some of its members and ministers, as well as members from fellow Shiite party Amal.
Supporters of both parties in Lebanon took to the streets on Thursday around the Justice Palace in support of the Shiite duo.
Some of the protesters, numbering into the thousands, then continued to march into the Beirut suburb of Ain El Remmeneh, the site of the infamous green line which separated the Christian dominated East Beirut and the Muslim dominated West Beirut during the civil war.
Some of the protesters became rowdy and started to destroy property while shouting sectarian slogans.
Unknown gunmen stationed on rooftops fired into the crowd after clashes broke out when residents tried to stop the violence. Seven people were killed, all of them Shiite.
Hezbollah has come out and accused the gunmen of being members of the mainly Christian Maronite Lebanese Forces Party – something that the Lebanese Forces have denied.
Last year’s port blast killed many Muslims but damaged mostly Christian areas of Beirut. Most members of the victims families have supported Judge Bitar’s investigation and are eagerly waiting for the results of these investigations.
While Hezbollah’s protests have further fuelled tensions in Lebanon’s already divided political landscape between those who want Bitar to continue and those accusing him of bias, its main Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, condemned the deadly clashes and called for an investigation into what transpired and have largely stood against their Shiite ally.
While the Lebanese Forces Party have denied any involvement into the deadly clashes, the party’s head Samir Geagea, a former Christian militia leader during the civil war, said that the residents of Ain el Rememaneh were right in defending themselves from “invasion of outsiders.”
Some have called this “political posturing” by Geagea and his party, an effort to garner support in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections next year.
The Lebanese Forces are currently the second largest holder of Christian seats in parliament, second only to that of the Free Patriotic Movement, which currently holds the largest number of seats. The Lebanese Forces have seemingly been gaining popularity over the last two years amid protests against the economic downturn and then the port blast.
While it’s rival, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) – whose founder Michel Aoun is the current President of Lebanon (a post allocated to Maronite Christians), have failed to implement the many reforms that they had promised to undertake, the same promises which got them the majority of their parliamentary seats.
The FPM and their leader Gebran Bassil (President Aoun’s son-in-law), now find themselves in a precarious political situation.
They have backed Judge Bitar (he himself a Lebanese Greek [Rûm] Christian), and his investigations, but do they continue to do so and risk losing their Shiite allies support? Or do they risk losing face in the Christian arena as many see the Lebanese Forces Party’s alleged actions as standing up against Hezbollah’s hegemonic approach to Lebanese politics.
Further adding to the complicated situation is that many supporters of the FPM have felt betrayed by the Shiite duo’s lack of support toward President Aoun and his former party, as they have stood idly by and watched as the FPM has bared the major brunt of protests in the last two years even though it was the Shiite duo, and not the FPM, who has taken part in every government since the civil war ended.
On the other hand, the Lebanese Forces Party are trying to portray themselves as being a the real “defender of Christian rights”. While many Christians agree with this, others are weary of possible further clashes in an already volatile situation.
Adding to the the internal divisions are the external pressures stemming from the now decade long conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Lebanon’s Christians in general have been divided by Syria. Along with the millions of mostly Muslim Syrian refugees that have put even more pressure on the already struggling Lebanese economy and demography, many feel that Lebanon’s sovereignty was violated by Hezbollah’s intervention in the conflict.
On the one hand, other Christians are aware that Hezbollah intervened to help it’s ally, the Syrian government, which was fighting thousands of Turkish and Western backed terrorists that arrived from all over the world, killing and displacing millions of Syrians including the the indigenous Levantine Rûm, (Syrian Greeks – both Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic) among other minorities, and appreciate Hezbollah’s efforts in helping the Syrian Army in defending Christian areas.
While the FPM agreed with most Lebanese that the country’s sovereignty and control of it’s borders were violated, they appreciated Hezbollah’s reasons for going there.
On the other hand, the Lebanese Forces Party has been accused for several years, along with the Saudi backed Future Movement, of backing Syrian militants.
Many Lebanese Greeks (Rûm), while weary of Hezbollah ‘s growing hegemony and political influence, are well aware that the fall of Syria into the hands Islamic extremists would have had a disastrous effect on Lebanon and the wider region.
Still, many Rûm feel their fate is intertwined with their fellow Christians in Lebanon and support their compatriots in Ain El Remmeneh, standing up for their neighbourhood in the face of the protesters incursion and of seemingly growing pressure from the Shiite duo against Judge Bitar.
As ever, Lebanese Greeks are in a hard place, faced with more possible political and civil conflict as the fate of Bitar, the investigation into the port blast, and both the on air boasting by the Lebanese Forces Party and Hezbollah that they don’t want civil war but each have thousands of fighters ready.
Lebanon’s general geopolitical and economic situation is still very much up in the air.
Elias Bechara is a writer interested in Lebanon and the wider East Mediterranean region, as well as Byzantine history.