Creating new perspectives since 2009

Lebanon struggles to leave its sectarian past behind

January 23, 2014 at 5:27 am

During the two and a half years of the Syrian war, there has been widespread anxiety in the region about the conflict spilling over into neighbouring countries. Nowhere is that more acutely felt than in Lebanon, which was wracked by its own protracted civil war from 1975 to 1990.

The country has had more direct involvement than most in the Syrian conflict. Not only are 1 million of Syria’s refugees displaced to Lebanon (which has a population of 4 million), but the Lebanese Shi’ite militant organisation, Hezbollah, has sent troops to fight on the side of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. This was a sharply polarising move: the pro-west “March 14” political alliance – made up of Sunnis and Christians, together with centrists – opposes this involvement in the war. As was feared, the increasingly sectarian lines of the Syrian conflict are drawing out those Sunni-Shia tensions in Lebanon and other neighbouring countries, too.

Yesterday saw the latest in a series of sectarian bomb attacks – variously aimed at Sunnis or Shi’ites – in Lebanon over the last year. The target was Mohamad Chatah, a former minister, adviser to ex-prime minister Saad al-Hariri, and staunch critic of Assad and of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement. The huge bomb blast in Beirut that killed him also claimed four other lives and injured more than 50.

Chatah’s political allies have blamed Hezbollah for the attack. Hariri said that: “As far as we are concerned, the suspects are those who are fleeing international justice and refusing to represent themselves before the international tribunal.” This is a reference to a long-delayed trial at The Hague, due to open in three weeks time, over the 2005 bombing which killed Saad al-Hariri’s father, Rafik al-Hariri. Hezbollah has refused to cooperate with the court, saying that it is politically motivated, and the suspects are on the run. Preliminary UN investigations also implicated Syrian officials in the 2005 attack. It was after this attack that Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon ended; the forthcoming trial serves as a reminder of the two nations’ long and troubled political history.

Politicians from across the sectarian divide condemned the murder of Chatah. A Sunni Muslim, he was a vocal critic of Hezbollah. An hour before his death, he posted a tweet accusing the group of trying to take control of the country: “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.” This was a reference to current wrangling over the formation of a national government. It has now been months since the last government withdrew – in March 2013 – and yet a new cabinet still has not been formed. Today’s assassination of a senior political player will do nothing to make those negotiations any easier.

Despite outspoken views on Hezbollah and Assad, Chatah is not widely thought of as a controversial figure in Lebanon. Chatah was a key adviser to Hariri, with good diplomatic and international contacts – he worked for the International Monetary Fund in the US and served as Lebanon’s ambassador to the country – but he did not have his own power base. He had a reputation as a moderate, leading some analysts to speculate that the bombing was not about Chatah as an individual, but was intended as a message to the “March 14” bloc.

Earlier this month, Hassan Lakkis, a senior Hezbollah commander with close links to Iran was shot dead near his home in Beirut. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a relatively unknown Sunni militant group. Iran’s embassy in Beirut was attacked by a different jihadist group last month. Some have suggested that today’s attack on a Sunni politician – albeit a moderate one – could be retaliation.

This latest attack tells us that instability in Lebanon is, if anything, growing. The caretaker interior minister, Marwan Charbel, has said that clandestine groups are attempting to destabilise the country ahead of the trials at The Hague, presidential elections next year, and the Geneva 2 peace conference on Syria. The country is certainly destabilised, by various different actors. This can be seen in the fact that Lebanon’s sectarian divisions are appearing to grow ever more entrenched, bomb attacks are growing in frequency, and a viable consensus government stays beyond reach.

Lebanon is a country that relies on sectarian power-sharing, and there is little desire to return to the fragmentation and trauma of the 15-year long civil war. Yet, some commentators have noted, this year’s Independence Day celebrations saw the idea of a unified Lebanon being challenged rather than unreservedly celebrated. Assassinations of politicians on sectarian grounds will certainly not help the situation. This is a serious cause for concern for a nation that has only relatively recently found a path out of sectarian strife.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.