Who's Stoking the Fires?
BEIRUT-The presence of balaclava-clad young men waving weapons from motorbikes is never a good sign. Even so, their arrival during a recent series of street clashes between Sunni Muslim supporters of the current Lebanese government and the Shiite followers of the Hezbollah-led opposition is particularly ominous given Lebanon's tragic history of sectarian violence and civil war.
For more than two months, Lebanon has teetered on the brink of chaos. Hezbollah and its allies have been demanding the American-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora submit to the formation of a so-called national unity government-one that would tip the political balance in favor of the Shiite community. A series of escalating demonstrations finally exploded in late January into sectarian violence that left about 10 people dead and more than 200 wounded. There are concerns about further clashes next week if thousands of pro-government demonstrators turn out to mark the second anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
This should be a parochial struggle among Lebanese in a tiny nation of 3.8 million where the mix of Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians is just diverse enough that no group can dominate. During Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which claimed some 100,000 lives and turned Beirut into a rubble-strewn battleground, the country mainly split between Christians and Muslims. Now, nearly two decades later, the conflict's defining characteristic is the rift within the Muslim community, a split that draws in on opposing sides the region's two major powers, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Lebanon is a testing ground for growing Iranian influence-and for Saudi Arabia's efforts to block it.
This has led to some unusual political twists. After war unexpectedly erupted last summer between Hezbollah and Israel, the major Sunni Arab states-Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan-moved quickly to condemn the provocation by Hezbollah. For the first time, these Arab states essentially took Israel's side.
Lebanon's Sunni Muslims-who include much of Beirut's economic elite-tend to look to the Saudis for patronage. And with the prime minister slot open only to a Sunni (Lebanon's Christians get the presidency and the Shiites get the parliament speaker), Hezbollah's political attack on Siniora is widely perceived as part of an Iran-backed challenge to the Sunni Islam power structure around the region.
When Hezbollah began protesting in downtown Beirut's gleaming shopping district (most of which is owned by Saudi companies), it looked to the Saudis as if Lebanon risked tipping to Iranian control-just as Iraq transformed from a Sunni power under Saddam Hussein to an Iranian-friendly Shiite one.
Political sources say that within days of Hezbollah's initial protests, Siniora was told by Saudis to hold firm and they would pay any economic bill necessary. "It began last summer during the war, when the Arab League came to Siniora's defense," says Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut's English-language newspaper, the Daily Star. "The Saudis promised him then anything he needed. Siniora does not stand for Siniora; he's a steadfast symbol of the Sunni Arab world and its political establishment. He is always someone who has fought for an Arab consensus to every problem. So to assail him is to assail the Sunni Arab world itself."
But then came a series of street clashes between Sunnis and Shiites that seemed to take everyone by surprise, apparently including Hezbollah itself. "Look, Hezbollah is a disciplined organization, maybe the most disciplined in the Arab world," says one security official, who cannot speak for attribution on this subject. "But it's not enough to control your fighters and officials. They clearly lost control of the kids and their allies, who aren't organized like they are. This really scared everyone involved."
Even, perhaps, officials in Saudi Arabia and Iran, who may have their own interests in not having their rivalry push Lebanon over the brink. Whether or not that is the case, Saudi and Iranian officials unexpectedly opened direct talks to calm the crisis. They need to hurry to keep Lebanon from again sliding into civil war.
This story appears in the February 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.