There is worse to come. That is what Lebanon’s opposition, led by the Hizbollah, said only hours after they lifted their violent day-long “strike” on Tuesday night and – here is the rub – there are few in this country who do not believe it.
At least three deaths, 120 wounded and sectarian fighting across a hundred miles of Lebanon, we are now told, was only a “warning to the government”. If Christian versus Christian and Sunni versus Shia Muslim is not enough, then, what will be? And how planned is the coming tragedy?
Planning is what came to mind yesterday among all those who live here. How, we are asking ourselves, did those thousands of violent young men all have near-identical, brand new wooden coshes? How come so many men emerged on to the Beirut streets in near-identical hoods? How come the “general strike” called to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, was switched off in a matter of minutes?
But there were other, far more disturbing elements to Tuesday’s scandalous day of violence. Two of the old civil-war fault lines – on the road north of Beirut and in the suburbs of the city – were reopened. Siniora himself started warning of the dangers of civil war and the United States – as Hizbollah must have hoped – came out in support of the government, claiming, quite falsely, that the violence came from the Hizbollah-led opposition.
It certainly did come from their Amal militia ally but Sunni Muslim supporters of the government were in gun battles in Tripoli – they continued yesterday – and the “Lebanese Forces” youths of Samir Geagea, an ex-militia murderer who supports the government, were engaged in pitched stoning battles with other Christian Maronites.
Indeed, the inter-Christian war, in retrospect, was probably the most vicious of the day. Most of the wounded were hurt when Geagea’s men tried to stop supporters of the Maronite ex-general Michel Aoun blocking roads outside the capital. Through some odd and tragic tradition of history, the Christian communities in Lebanon have often fought cruel battles with each other. Aoun and Geagea’s forces killed each other at the end of the civil war. Even during the Crusades, the Christians of Tyre fought each other when Salahedin was at their gates.
Of the various foreign powers taking sides in this frightening battle for power in Lebanon – and they include Iran and Syria, of course, as well as the United States – one might well ask if the destruction of the Christian population of Lebanon was not part of their plan.
And what of the economy? Lebanon nurses a £20bn (repeat: billion) public debt – one of the reasons why the Shias as well as Aoun’s Christian movement claim that the government represents a corrupt clique rather than democratically elected ministers. This, however, hides at least two salient facts. Most of this monstrous waste was perpetrated when Lebanon lay under Syria’s hegemony when a Lebanese academic memorably told me that Lebanese government officials did not hold PhDs in corruption. “They have professorships in corruption,” he told me.
And last year’s war with Israel, which began after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others, added billions of losses to the economy – a figure that will now be increased by the collapse of further foreign investment generated by Tuesday’s “strike”.
Siniora is supposed to receive more promises of foreign aid in Paris today. The Americans and Europeans are sure to be generous. But it is also a fact that hundreds of thousands of Shias, who suffered most at Israel’s hands, genuinely support the Hizbollah and do indeed demand the resignation of the government. How can Siniora change their minds?
Also see: Opposition demonstrations turn Beirut into a violent sectarian battleground