BEIRUT, Lebanon—While observers and grandees (notably Jordan’s King Abdullah) are warning that Lebanon may be on the edge of civil war, you wouldn’t have known it from the activity in Beirut this weekend, days after the fatal shooting of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. The downtown area was awash with restaurant-goers, while hardly a free parking space was to be found at a popular open-air shopping mall or a seat to be had at its movie theaters, showing Borat, Casino Royale, and World Trade Center.
Lebanon has written the script for how normalcy coexists with ambient tension, to the extent that this has become a cliché. But there is something deeper than human fortitude at play in the country, as two alignments of opposing political forces nervously face off against one another only three months after the end of the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel: It is that the society imposes complex, unforgiving rules on its political actors—rules made necessary by the sectarian makeup of the country and the need for each religious community to respect the limits acceptable to the other. When these rules are disregarded, conflict tends to ensue.
The Lebanese fear civil war today. While the likelihood of this happening is not as high as many Lebanese and foreigners imagine, the sense of dread stems mainly from Hezbollah’s inability to adhere to the sectarian rules, thanks to its continued collaboration with a Syrian regime that never absorbed its forced withdrawal from Lebanon last year. Syria’s leaders are also worried that a U.N. investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will point the finger at them. The venue for such an accusation is to be a tribunal including Lebanese and international judges now being set up by Beirut and the United Nations. As a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician privately said to anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently, “The Syrians have [told us] they don’t even want to hear the words ‘international tribunal.’ ” Political tension in Lebanon has risen noticeably in response to Syria’s command to scuttle official Lebanese endorsement of the court.
In order to do so, Hezbollah and its allies want to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—or at least take over a decisive share of ministerial portfolios. Their ultimate aim is to gain veto power over Cabinet decisions that go to a vote, be they regarding the tribunal or other matters of importance to them. The Cabinet is made up of a majority of anti-Syrian ministers (reflecting the anti-Syrian majority in Parliament), but it also included a minority of pro-Syrian ministers until six of them resigned two weeks ago in an effort to destabilize the government.
The intricacies of Lebanese politics aside, what most people are worried about is Hezbollah’s threat to demonstrate en masse, perhaps this week, to compel the government to step down or concede veto power to the party and its allies. Anti-Syrian groups united in the so-called March 14 coalition (composed of Sunni, Christian, and Druze organizations and named for a huge rally in 2005 in which hundreds of thousands of Lebanese participated) believe that Gemayel’s murder was part of the same general effort, so Hezbollah’s gambit is risky. What many regard as potentially a Shiite coup might provoke a Sunni backlash, all played out in Beirut’s neighborhoods. A sectarian collision would be catastrophic.
Last week, there was a foretaste of this. March 14 staged a massive rally in Beirut at Gemayel’s funeral, and after the event some Sunni and Druze participants engaged in altercations with the Shiite followers of Hezbollah and Amal, another party. The army and security forces managed to separate the hotheads, but a widespread confrontation would be difficult to control.
The irony is that relations between Sunnis and Shiites have always been good. Lebanon is no Iraq. However, the communities are polarized, even if Hezbollah has its Christian allies and March 14 its Shiite members. For Sunnis, as well as for many Christians and Druze, Hezbollah has gone too far in backing Syria as it tries to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon, particularly given Damascus’ likely involvement in Hariri’s killing and those of Gemayel and others. Most important, Hezbollah has refused to disarm, taking Lebanon into a terrible war last July without consulting anyone. Hezbollah and Amal, on the other hand, accuse the anti-Syrian majority of being in America’s pocket and of wanting to marginalize them. Hezbollah claims its weapons are the most effective deterrent against Israel, not an arsenal at Iran’s disposal, as March 14 insists.
Such dissonance cries for a return to Lebanon’s social contract of mutual compromise. This is easier said than done, though all sides know the possible cost of failing to agree. Hezbollah has yet to accept that its close ties with the Syrian regime are untenable domestically. Nor does it seem aware that intimidation through street protests is likely to backfire in a county where painstaking political tradeoffs occur even in the appointment of senior civil servants. Similarly, March 14 cannot indefinitely refuse to cede some power to Hezbollah and Amal, as Shiite frustration would only sharpen the sectarian divide. What is needed is a Levantine bargain.
This is especially tricky today. Lebanon is also a hostage to regional and international politics, a receptacle and magnet for forces it doesn’t control. Battles between the United States and Iran, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia and Syria are only some of the wars being waged inside the country. That is why so many Lebanese prefer to eat out and have fun; consumption can be an act of rebellion. In their calculated indifference, tinged with anxiety, many Lebanese are telling their politicians and the region: “Leave us in peace—and at peace.”