Edging Away From the Abyss

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Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty

Lebanese army soldiers arrest a man brandishing a knife in Beirut, January 25, 2007. Demonstrators from rival political factions fought street battles across the capital.

Lebanon peeked into the abyss on Thursday, then — not surprisingly — it began to back away. The bloodshed in the clashes at the Arab University in Beirut, two days after a general strike led by the Shi'ite Hizballah party against the Sunni-led government, eerily resembles the city's street tensions immediately before the 1975-90 civil war that took more than 100,000 lives. Some of the first shots in that war were fired during a demonstration in the port city of Sidon, driven by the economic grievances of local fishermen as much by the desire of leftist parties and local Sunni leaders to flex their muscles against the Christian-dominated government of the day. Then, as now, Lebanon was plagued by internal political divisions that were aggravated or manipulated by outside forces — in those days, the PLO and Israel, today Syria and Iran on one side and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on the other.

Despite the fearful echo, there are a number of reasons to question whether the current tensions will actually erupt into a full-scale civil war:

  • The Lebanese army remains intact, and helped restore some order — while it is not strong enough to prevent a civil war, its splintering on sectarian lines would nonetheless signal that one was imminent;
  • No major faction in Lebanon fears imminent annihilation or significant loss of power;
  • There is no sign that any faction has been preparing for a civil war, or wants one. All sides called on their supporters to get off the streets after the university disturbances. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah even went on his group's TV station to warn that it was an Islamic duty to leave the streets and to show restraint.

    One of the factors behind the current tension is Hizballah's difficulty in making the transition from a revolutionary movement to a political party — particularly its fear of being marginalized by the trends that began with the abrupt exit of Syrian troops in 2005. The group is particularly worried about international demands that it disarm, complaints about its funding by Iran and signs that the U.S., which is hostile to Iran and calls Hizballah a terrorist organization, is influencing the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Hizballah pulled out of the national unity government when Siniora ignored Hizballah's objections and paved the way for an international tribunal to prosecute the suspected assassins of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, Siniora's lifelong friend.

    But given its deep popularity among Shi'ites — which has made it an effective force in parliament — Hizballah knows that it stands to lose more than it could gain by plunging Lebanon back into civil war. Hizballah might like to block the Hariri tribunal, which is expected to accuse some of the group's Syrian backers of having a hand in the murder. But it is questionable whether Hizballah, which always stresses its devotion to Lebanese unity, would start a civil war as a favor to its Syrian friends. Iran, for its part, has shown a growing desire to calm the tensions in Lebanon rather than exacerbate them. Iran's Supreme National Security Council chief Ali Larijani held talks with Saudi King Abdullah last week, and Abdullah's envoy, Prince Bandar, a close friend of the Bush family, was hosted in Tehran by Larijani on Thursday.

    Even before Thursday's mayhem, Nasrallah seemed to grasp that he was playing with fire and announced that his party would refrain from toppling Siniora for the sake of peace — and that display of hesitancy by Hizballah's leadership reveals an instinct to be cautious. Little wonder, considering how the group seemed genuinely surprised by the devastation triggered by its attack on Israel last July, and equally surprised that its mass protests against Siniora that began in December have failed so far to bring down the government. Nasrallah could become isolated if he loses his only significant ally, the Christian opposition group headed by former general Michel Aoun. Aoun, evidently realizing his own base would evaporate in the event of a sectarian civil war, wanted to postpone Tuesday's general strike altogether.

    Siniora, meanwhile, has pressed ahead with the international tribunal, but has kept the door open to Hizballah rejoining the government. He is a businessman, not a militia leader, and has no desire to engage Hizballah in an armed confrontation. (When the fighting erupted in Beirut Thursday, he was in Paris winning pledges of reconstruction aid.) And Siniora's comrade, Saad Hariri, whose late father led the rebuilding of Lebanon after the civil war, has worked constantly behind the scenes to work out an accommodation with Hizballah, downplay sectarian tensions and eliminate the risk of totally destroying what Rafic Hariri had achieved.

    But Lebanon's problems are not simply tensions among the Lebanese. The country is a regional geopolitical battleground for the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, and looks likely to remain that way as long as Damascus fears the international tribunal, Tehran worries about a U.S. strike against its nuclear facilities, the U.S. frets about a reversal of democratic gains in Lebanon and the Saudis remain concerned about the survival of Siniora's government. But the Lebanese have been here before, and there are some signs emerging that they recognize the urgency of avoiding the fatal mistakes of the past.