Lebanese anti-riot soldiers protect the Lebanese Government Palace in Beirut following the October 19 bomb blast. Photo by © NABIL MOUNZER/epa/Corbis.

Part 2: The Case for Peace

By Irina Papkova

This is the second of two posts from Lebanon in the aftermath of a car bomb that ripped through a Beirut neighborhood on October 19th. Read the first post here

On Friday, October 19, a car bomb exploded just meters off a popular commercial square in Achrafiye, a predominantly Christian neighborhood in Beirut. A few hours later it emerged that the bomb had targeted on of Lebanon’s top security chiefs, head of police intelligence General Wissam al-Hassan, killing him and at least two other people.  The bombing – the first such occurrence since 2008 – threatened to destabilize Lebanon, bringing the country into the vortex of neighboring Syria’s civil war.

Certainly such a pessimistic scenario was on the minds of most Lebanese immediately after the explosion, the noise of which was heard for several kilometers around the bomb site.  The normally bustling streets of Beirut were eerily empty for two days, as many of the city’s shocked residents felt it prudent to wait and see how what people were euphemistically referring to as “the situation” would develop. Yet, by Tuesday, October 22, life returned to its normal pace. Today, Beirut is once more a city of overflowing cafes, happening bars, thriving businesses and log-jammed traffic.  Talk of civil war is now restricted to the international media channels, and even that has largely disappeared in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the American presidential election. Barely a few weeks after the assassination of General al-Hassan, the Lebanese themselves have moved on and the threat of civil war has receded, at least for now.

What explains this?  One popular explanation emphasizes the memories of the devastating civil war that ended barely two decades ago. The Lebanese are only too well aware of the costs of civil war, both physical and financial. In this highly divided society, one unifying national idea can be heard over and over again: nobody wants to descend into the dark hole of sectarian strife that killed over 100,000 people in the last round.   The government has, consequently, followed a consistent policy of disassociating Lebanon from Syria’s chaos, though admittedly the path has not been easy for the reasons enumerated in the first part of this article.

Past experience with civil war almost certainly plays a role in the mind-set of the country’s governing elite. Several of Lebanon’s political parties are led by men who were, in their past lives, leaders of militias and fought each other on the field of battle over a fifteen year period from 1975 to 1990. For example, Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea led Christian militias in the 1980s; today, they each head their own political party in Lebanon’s parliament (in the “March 8th” and “March 14th” blocs, respectively). Walid Jumblatt, the powerful leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, once led the Druze militia and is famous for saving the cedars of Lebanon from the ravages of the civil war by putting mines around them. Though they fought on opposing sides during the civil war, these men and others like them have subsequently spent twenty years working out their political differences in peaceful ways as part of a pluralistic, democratic system. For now, it seems that they intend to continue doing so, particularly since political power in Lebanon is linked with wealth, and the possibilities of enrichment in a society that is rebuilding itself after a civil war are endless.

Is the balance sustainable?  Answering this question requires a deeper analysis of the two opposing blocs that dominate the scene in Lebanon. The country’s politics today are split roughly along the lines of the pro-Syrian “March 8th” coalition and the anti-Syrian “March 14th” bloc, with the former usually understood as representing the Shiites and the latter ostensibly dominated by the Sunnis. Yet, a closer look at the composition of the blocs reveals that “March 14th” is made up of Christians, Sunnis, Shiite, Druze and secularly-oriented political parties.  “March 8th” is equally eclectic; it also includes Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Druze, and secularly oriented political parties.  Not only is Lebanon split along sectarian lines, the sects themselves are divided in terms of their attitude towards a whole host of political issues, including the question of Syria.   The supreme fragmentation of Lebanese political interests means that none of the parties involved, with one important exception, are strong enough to hypothetically win militarily should a civil war break out. Sober calculation therefore has led the leaders of the various parties to avoid escalating the situation, preferring to resolve differences through back room deals.

The important exception is Hezbollah, the strongest party within the “March 8th” bloc. For reasons too complicated to discuss here, Hezbollah is the only political party in Lebanon with its own armed force, which would give it a significant advantage in the event of a civil war. Should it win such a hypothetical conflict, Hezbollah would institute a Shiite Islamist regime, aligned with Iran. This is an outcome that none of the other parties want, whether they are aligned with “March 8th” or “March 14th,” adding more weight to the argument against sectarian violence.

Life returns to its normal pace on Hamra Street, Beirut, a bustling commercial area and the main street of a Sunni Muslim neighborhood dominated by supporters of “March 14th.” Photo by Irina Papkova, 2012.

Furthermore, Hezbollah itself has been noticeably restrained in its rhetoric since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.  This is counter-intuitive, since Hezbollah is strong ally of the al-Assad regime and one would expect the organization to do all it could to generate support for the Syrian government within Lebanon. However, the civil war in Syria has meant that Hezbollah is no longer able to rely on arms shipments from Iran, which had been traditionally transported into Lebanon through Syria.  As such, Hezbollah has been militarily weakened by the Syrian situation, lessening the militia’s chances of overwhelming success in the event of a Lebanese civil war. The restraint shown by Hezbollah reflects the recognition of its own weakness. Taking these factors into consideration helps explain Hezbollah’s behavior in the case of the car bombing of October 19th: instead of praising it and calling for violence against the Sunnis, Hezbollah quickly condemned the assassination and called upon its followers not to react violently to provocations by Sunni protesters.

Outside of the sectarian balancing act, there is a final factor crucial in the maintenance of Lebanon’s stability.  This is the Lebanese army.  Until relatively recently, the army did not have the capacity to impose the government’s will on the population by force.  The weakness of the army was, in fact, used as a justification by Hezbollah to continue maintaining its own militia in order to protect Lebanon from the threat of an Israeli invasion. Since 2006, however, the army has been systematically strengthened, to the point where it can now legitimately claim responsibility for security throughout most of Lebanon’s territory.  Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese army has successfully curtailed outbreaks of sectarian violence in Tripoli. In the wake of the al-Hassan assassination, the army chiefs asserted their intent to “prevent the assassination of the country.”  The violent protests that broke out over the weekend immediately following the car bombing were quickly put down by a display of the army’s tanks and firepower.

The question is, of course, whether Lebanon will continue to successfully steer a course distancing the country from the Syrian catastrophe.  Only time will tell, but for the moment, the Lebanese ship of state is still afloat, though it may be full of leaky holes.


Irina Papkova is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University and has previously taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. Her book, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” was published by Oxford University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press in 2011. Irina’s current research includes Lebanese politics and the Secular Lebanon movement. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.