Despite fragile calm, Lebanese fear a return to civil war

Hezbollah supporters march through Beirut on Tuesday in the funeral procession for two militants who were killed in fierce sectarian clashes.
Hezbollah supporters march through Beirut on Tuesday in the funeral procession for two militants who were killed in fierce sectarian clashes. Hannah Allam / MCT

BEIRUT, Lebanon — With one hand firmly on her squirming toddler, Heba al Ali joined hundreds of Shiite Muslims gathered in Beirut this week for the funeral procession of two Hezbollah militants killed in vicious sectarian battles that pushed Lebanon to the brink of civil war.

Hezbollah guards in camouflage uniforms already had passed, carrying two yellow-draped coffins affixed with portraits of the slain fighters — one had a baby face and wispy facial hair that gave him the look of an unlikely guerrilla; the other appeared just as young but offered a cool, serious pose.

At 28, al Ali is old enough to remember the final days of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Yet even with this tiny nation's religious and sectarian divisions so rigidly entrenched, she never really believed that her three children would have to hear explosions, see premature burials of Lebanon's youth or feel the same kind of heartache all brought on as warring factions once again tear apart a land with so much promise.

"My first thought was to flee. But to where?" al Ali said, recalling her reaction when the latest violence erupted May 7. "My next thought was, 'I never should have had children.' What is their future?"

The Lebanese Cabinet on Wednesday rescinded two controversial orders that had provoked Hezbollah and its allies into taking over much of Beirut through lopsided gun battles against less organized pro-government Sunni gunmen. The reversal of the orders is expected to end this current spurt of violence, though the move doesn't resolve the underlying 18-month power struggle between the U.S.-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition movement supported by Iran and Syria.

While leaders of the disparate groups are busy figuring out how to translate the latest upheaval into political capital, ordinary Lebanese of all backgrounds said they wouldn't soon forget the savagery of the past week. They also fear that the balance of power has been altered so dramatically that it's a question of when, and not if, fighting resumes and more lives are lost.

"There is nothing permanent in politics, but the Hezbollah-led opposition has evidently won this cycle of the civil war," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor in Beirut. "The damage is done and we will not return to the pre-May 7 situation. The government has been eroded, its prestige has been dampened and its ability to make decisions has been severely hampered."

Just a day before al Ali, the Shiite mother, expressed regret for bringing children into Lebanon's volatile climate, a Sunni father in a West Beirut neighborhood that was attacked by opposition militias voiced the same thoughts in nearly identical words.

Because tensions remained high in his neighborhood of Tariq al Jadida, the father asked that only his first name, Ibrahim, be used.

When asked about the Sunni defeat, Ibrahim ranted about Shiites, Hezbollah, Lebanese warlords, the Iranians, the Israelis and the Americans. Then he grew quiet, gazing at a pet fish that swam round and round in a small glass bowl in his living room. Ibrahim's 6-month-old daughter cried in another room.

"I wish I'd never gotten married and had kids," he said, casting an apologetic look to his wife. "How could I bring them into this life?"

On Thursday, just hours after the Cabinet rescinded its orders, roadblocks erected by opposition forces began disappearing. Throughout most of Beirut, the Lebanese army was the only visible armed group. The international airport opened to commercial flights that had been canceled for a week. Shoppers ventured out to malls, traffic clogged streets that days ago had been battlegrounds and joggers listened to their iPods as they ran along the boardwalk overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.

By now, the Lebanese are experts at getting on with life the second they sense a crisis has passed. Still, several Beirut residents said in interviews, the aftermath of this violence feels different because the crisis itself was different from any other spasm of bloodshed since the civil war.

Both sides crossed red lines, according to political analysts in Beirut.

The Lebanese government turned its angry words into reckless actions when the Cabinet approved the two orders — outlawing Hezbollah's communications system and dismissing a Hezbollah loyalist from his airport security post — even though nearly everyone knew they'd be impossible to implement.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in turn, broke his vow never to use his militia's vast arsenal against fellow Lebanese. He emerges with new territory and proven military superiority, but the gains cost him dearly.

In Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, Sunnis were appalled that the Shiite army they praised as heroes for fighting Israel to a draw two years ago was now aiming its weapons at Sunni neighborhoods. Demographics aside, Sunnis also considered Beirut their city, and the sect's loss of control was likened in many circles to the Sunni leadership's loss of Baghdad and the rise of Iraq's long-oppressed Shiites.

And, like the Shiites of Baghdad, the Shiites in Beirut couldn't help but revel in their hard-won, if dubious, victory. Minutes after the Cabinet announced the reversal, the sounds of celebratory gunfire coming from Shiite areas echoed throughout Beirut, only hardening the fury of Sunnis and pro-government Christians.

"Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah didn't want to do this. His hand was forced," said Hussein Ghaddar, 30, who runs a photo studio in a Shiite neighborhood that's sandwiched between Sunni and Christian enclaves. "And if had been the other way around, they would have slaughtered us."