Did a Rainstorm Save Lebanon?

The real story behind the street battles in Beirut.

A funeral for one of the demonstrators killed Sunday

Is it possible that a rainstorm saved Lebanon, at least temporarily? It certainly looks that way in the wake of a mysterious shooting that killed seven Hezbollah-aligned demonstrators Sunday night and threatened to send the nation beyond the political tension, name-calling, and occasional rock-throwing of the last year and into a rerun of the 1975-90 civil war.

Sunday’s demonstration began as a small-scale protest over power cuts and rising food prices—more on that later—with a crowd composed of a couple of hundred teenagers and activist Shiite kids linked to Hezbollah and its secular political ally, AMAL, burning a few tires and chanting slogans against the Western-backed government of Fouad Siniora. Normal stuff in Lebanon these days, except that the protest happened at a crossroads separating the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut from the equally belligerent and sectarian Christian neighborhood of Ain Roummaneh, a community famous for ambushing a bus of Palestinian women and children in 1975, an event acknowledged as the opening salvo of the civil war.

Early in the afternoon, unknown assailants fired shots into the demonstration. The protesters claim either that the army opened fire or that snipers in Ain Roummaneh targeted them. Hezbollah and AMAL both immediately demanded an investigation but—unlike in past tense encounters—didn’t make a clear call for their supporters to stand down. By Monday, at the funerals for two of the AMAL activists, furious residents of the southern suburbs openly called for revenge against the army, Siniora, and, more generally, Christian political figures once linked to civil-war-era militias.

And then it started to rain. Freezing sheets of rain fell on Beirut Monday night, and if anything can act as a kind of Kryptonite to the angry Arab street, it’s a good dousing of winter rain. On Thursday night, the storm broke, and by 4 a.m., there was a clash between Hezbollah and AMAL supporters on one side and the army on the other. Three people were injured.

Weather aside, how did Lebanon get to this point? Most of the analysis seems to concentrate on Hezbollah’s battle with Siniora for more control over the Cabinet: Hezbollah wants to ensure that the government cannot decide to disarm it or further limit its anti-Israeli activities in southern Lebanon. U.S. experts often portray this standoff as a struggle by Hezbollah to control Lebanon by installing a sympathetic figure as president, thus gaining veto power over Cabinet decisions.

This is complete nonsense. There is no reason to fear that Hezbollah might take control of Lebanon, since it’s already the most powerful political and military force in the country. It’s akin to worrying that a victory by Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama might lead to white people taking control of the United States. It wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.

The facts on the ground are clear: Even if it were inclined to take on Hezbollah, the Lebanese army couldn’t beat them. At election time, Hezbollah and its allies regularly win the maximum number of parliamentary seats allocated to them under Lebanon’s complicated and grossly unfair political system that divvies up seats among the major religious groups. If Lebanon were suddenly to liberalize its political system and hold a presidential election on the basis of one person, one vote, it’s not a stretch to imagine President Hassan Nasrallah—except that the Hezbollah leader doesn’t want the job. Besides, the last two presidents were ardent supporters of Hezbollah, as were all the prime ministers before Siniora. Even Siniora himself probably supported Hezbollah’s right to resist Israel in the south until its supporters started trying to force him from office.

So, why the power struggle? It’s an increasingly tragic mix of local and international politics, with every group continuing the devastating Lebanese tradition of looking toward larger outside powers to bolster them against their domestic rivals. Hezbollah and its allies are backed by Syria and Iran, whereas the government and its mostly Christian, Sunni, and Druze allies rely on U.S., French, and Saudi support. Each side accuses the other of being foreign agents without a hint of self-awareness of their own duplicity.

With a much larger geopolitical game afoot—the fight to contain Iran’s influence in the region—you might think that Lebanon’s political leaders would be savvy enough to stay clear, considering the tragic local history of serving as a playground for bad regional actors. Keep dreaming. Lebanon’s leaders always look outside the country for the support they hope will give them the edge over their political enemies. And voters never hold them accountable, because the majority seems blind to the shortcomings of its own sectarian leadership, repeatedly voting for them in hopes of keeping the domestic “others” at bay. But when the other is literally your neighbor, things can get messy before you’ve had time to ask why.

Local politics moved to the forefront Sunday. The riots were not sparked by a complex fight over the role of the resistance in Lebanese politics; they happened because the electricity keeps getting cut off in Beirut’s poorer southern suburbs that are home to Hezbollah’s rank and file. A nearly 10 percent jump in the price of food and gasoline, hikes that hit hardest among Hezbollah’s much poorer constituency, certainly don’t help.

The guys out demonstrating on Sunday have been at it for weeks, arguing that the government diverts capacity away from their neighborhoods—which support the opposition—and shifts it to pro-government neighborhoods, which tend to be more affluent and have better services anyway. It’s a hard claim to prove, but it would hardly be shocking, given Lebanon’s history.

The youngsters who led Sunday’s rioting might be from the same communities as Hezbollah and AMAL, but they are motivated by economic jealousy rather than dreams of martyrdom. Just as Christian, Sunni, and Druze leaders incite their supporters by stoking fear of an Iranian takeover of Lebanon, Shiite leaders not only invoke Israel and the United States but also Starbucks, plentiful electricity, and economic possibilities just a few miles away in downtown Beirut—facilities so inaccessible to Shiite kids from the suburbs that they might as well be in Israel. Those kids are jealous of all the Beirut clichés of rich folks nightclubbing with hot girls in miniskirts while they live the clichéd lives of their own: those of the underemployed, bored, xenophobic Arab street. The only difference from much of the rest of the Arab world is that they can actually ride their scooters just a few miles down the road to see the life they’re missing.

Just as the pro-Western leaders fail to mention that their positions do more for the United States and Saudi Arabia than they do for Lebanon, Nasrallah and AMAL chieftain Nabi Berri never explain to their supporters that anti-Israel resistance probably benefits Iran’s geopolitics at the expense of their economic development. And nobody except Nasrallah mentions the corruption that keeps the leaders in power but costs Lebanon billions in development annually. The billions stolen for patronage or outright corruption have crippled Lebanon’s finances (the nation has highest debt ratio in the world), as well as hampered essential services such as electricity. This climate of corruption extends to people throughout the country refusing to pay their electric bills; in the case of the southern suburbs of Beirut, bill collectors can’t even try—they’d be chased out of town.

So, the Shiite kids were already pretty angry before someone started shooting at them Sunday night. Now they’re furious and calling for revenge. It’s a very bad sign that the army is thought to be partially responsible, because it has been the only Lebanese institution seen as credible by both sides throughout the drama of the last year. Should revenge-seeking hotheads from the opposition attack the army in the coming days, things could deteriorate rapidly, since they’d be attacking the only glue that still binds the nation together. And it’s unclear, after a year of uncorking small amounts of this anger for their political demonstrations, if AMAL and Hezbollah will be able to control it once it spills out completely. People are dead, and the Lebanese tend to like revenge.

In Ain Roummaneh, they aren’t waiting to be blamed. By nightfall Sunday night, just yards from the Shiite demonstrators, the Christian neighborhood’s own version of the scooter kids had taken to the darkened street corners armed with sticks, rocks, and a few guns. From time to time, black SUVs filled with bulky men with shaved heads and leather jackets—the leadership of the Lebanese Forces political-party-cum-militia—would stop by to check on defenses and offer assistance to the “troops.” When asked what the nearby rioting was about, a block organizer named Milo, a fortysomething veteran of the civil war replied, “Outsiders.”

“They come to our country as guests. And they demonstrate, throw rocks at our army, and burn our cars. We are only defending our land from these foreigners,” said Milo, speaking of Lebanese who have lived their entire lives just a few hundred yards from his home.

Fear of the other has always been part of the Lebanese mentality, and now it seems to be making a powerful comeback.