Protests in Lebanon, now in their fifth week running, took a much-feared violent turn on Monday with the death of two southern civilians burned alive in their car as they attempted to cross a highway blocked by anti-government protesters. The second fatal incident, after the shooting of a prominent Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) headed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, some two weeks earlier has raised tension in the small Mediterranean country and caused a nation-wide outrage against road blockers. The new victims, a man and his sister in law who came from the mainly pro-Hezbollah southern areas of Lebanon, were burned alive when their vehicle hit some metal roadblocks and swerved out of control to hit a concrete wall along Al Jiyyeh coastal highway.
With so many axes to grind, violence is inevitable
The surge in violent clashes between supporters of rival political factions in Lebanon over the past two days, aggravated an acute economic situation and a looming political vacuum after caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, under tremendous pressure from some Lebanese as well as regional and even international power breakers, had announced his intention to forsake the formation of a new government. Hariri resigned his post at the outset of massive popular protest that had started as a peaceful anti-government uprising with legitimate demands five weeks ago, only to turn into more violent inter-factional clashes that bring sad memories of the 15 years of Civil War (1975-1990) that shattered the country. The UN Security Council and some EU nations have called upon all actors in Lebanon to refrain from acts of violence and respect of peaceful protests demanding an overhaul of the country’s political system and sectarian divisions.
From day one, protesters raised the controversial and extremely precarious slogan ‘ALL Means ALL’, targeting the most influential Lebanese figures in the country. While demonstrators, in general, appeared very much united and keen on burying traditional sectarian and political divisions, and succeeded to do so for some time at least, patience soon ran short for some influential power brokers who viewed the uprising as a well-planned, pre-fabricated regional and international effort designed to undermine the rule of President Michael Aoun and his close powerful allies, Amal Movement (headed by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri) and anti-Israeli Hezbollah and its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.
While stressing their demand for a total change, Lebanese protesters campaign has particularly focused on the president Aoun’s influential son in law, Foreign Minister and chairman of ruling FPM (Free Patriotic Movement) Gibran Bassil, whom they accuse of running the country on behalf of the president. The ongoing protests broke out immediately after Bassil had announced his intention to visit the Syrian capital Damascus to discuss the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from Lebanon.
Paradoxically, Syrian businessmen since the start of war in their country some nine years ago, are reported to have deposited up to $30 billion. Analysts argue that this in itself has damaged the Syrian economy and caused the national currency, the Lira, to hit an all-time low opposite the US dollar since the war broke out in 2011. No surprise then, that recent clashes have mainly been between this ‘patriotic’ triangle (which by the way includes Christian Maronite and Shiite Muslims) with strong ties to Syria and Iran on the one hand, and supporters of other Sunni, Druze and Christian factions with strong bonds to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, the US and in the case of Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, even to Israel.
Protests and counter-protests as gloom looms
For the third consecutive day, Lebanese army soldiers and security officers have had to intervene to break up confrontations between rival protests against the country’s elite. Gunfire has been reported in some parts of Lebanon amid claims and counter-claims that parties are armed and ready to escalate the situation much further once they get the green light from their bosses or operators. Although such accusations are accurate or not remain unverified, it has become more certain since the outbreak of protests, that Lebanon has entered an extremely dangerous phase which demands an urgent set of measures and actions that are badly needed in order to avoid a very likely and highly unfortunate slide down the hill of anarchy and chaos.
Lebanese broadcaster LBCI aired a video Monday, that showed heavy gunfire around the Cola bridge in the capital, Beirut. No injuries were reported and the source of the gunfire was not immediately clear. Several cars belonging to supporters of President Aoun were attacked by rival protesters as they crossed a Beirut suburb yesterday, and two protesters were reportedly wounded after Hezbollah and Amal supporters attacked some road-blocking demonstrators in the capital.
Is Lebanon’s worst danger lurking in the north?
Albeit recent confrontations in Beirut and some of its radical suburban areas were some of the worst since protests erupted in Lebanon, the worse could still come from the northern militant Sunni strongholds of Tripoli and Akar, where hardliners, masterminded and run by the influential former Justice Minister and Police Chief General Ashraf Rifi are reported to be armed to their teeth, supported by some Gulf Arab states, and getting ready for an imminent bloody showdown with rival Shiite and Christian factions alike. Rifi has recently established his well-organized, lucratively paid and heavily armed militia’ City Guardians, in Lebanon’s largest northern city of Sidon. His men quickly took over streets and squares with unchallenged numbers as protests escalated. Reports that thousands of terrorists and hardline Islamic fighters have managed to flee the Syrian conflict and take refuge in north Lebanon are likely to be true, but yet to be verified by independent sources.
Political pressure and popular outrage aggravated by extensive high-level corruption, a worsening economic crisis that features massive government debts, poor economic performance and US dollar shortage – let alone conflicting national and regional agendas in the country- are all factors pushing Lebanon faster towards the brink of the abyss. Unless a genuine and largely magical solution is forged out pretty quickly, this once called ‘Paris of the East’ could, God forbid, irrevocably fall into the mayhem of chaos, violence and destruction.