Michael Hirst
Two days of violent street clashes across Lebanon in late January raised the specter of renewed sectarian fighting in a country still reeling from 15 years of bloody civil conflict, a 29-year Syrian occupation and last summer’s 34-day bombardment by Israel. Street battles across the country that left seven people dead and hundreds wounded were portrayed as a largely Muslim affair, since much of the fighting was between pro-government Sunni groups and Shiite supporters of the militant group Hezbollah. But the violence also stirred internal Christian rivalries that had lain dormant since the civil war, leading to what some have termed a battle of elimination among rival leaders for control of the Christian street.

On one hand are the pro-government Christian groups, comprising the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea and the Phalangist party of former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel. Both are strongly right-wing, former militia groups that remain staunchly opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon. On the other hand are those Christians who back Hezbollah’s efforts to topple the government: the Free Patriotic Movement (F.P.M.), led by former General Michel Aoun, and the Marada Brigade, run by former Interior Minister Sleiman Frangiyeh, a personal friend of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanon’s president, Emile Lahoud, whose term in office was extended while Lebanon was still under Syrian tutelage in 2004, is also a Christian.

January’s violence came as Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led opposition alliance ratcheted up its two-month campaign to topple the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which they claim is an unrepresentative and corrupt puppet regime of the United States. The antigovernment campaign started with the resignation of all five Shiite ministers and one Christian from the cabinet last November. Lebanon’s sectarian-based constitution requires that all the country’s religions be represented at cabinet level.

The campaign continued with hundreds of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators taking to the streets of downtown Beirut in early December, creating scenes comparable to those of the 2005 Cedar Revolution, which prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. Protesters set up camp outside the prime minister’s office, an imposing Ottoman fortress in the city center. A few hundred have remained there ever since, separated from the prime minister by coils of razor wire and heavily armed soldiers deployed to keep the peace.

An Aggressive Strike Turns Violent

Support for the demonstrations from the F.P.M., the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, has lent national credibility to the predominantly Shiite-led movement. While early demonstrations were for the most part peaceful, the opposition alliance became increasingly frustrated by the government’s refusal to accede to its demands. On Jan. 23, Hezbollah and its allies took more aggressive action, calling for a national strike, which they enforced by setting up roadblocks across the country that prevented even those who wanted to show solidarity for the government from turning up to work.

The stench of scorched rubber filled the air as the main arteries into Beirut and several other cities were blocked by piles of rubble and burning tires. Many roadblocks were manned by balaclava-clad supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, Lebanon’s other major Shiite party run by parliamentary speaker Nabi Berri. In Christian areas of Beirut and north of the capital, members of the Marada faction and the F.P.M. manned the roadblocks dressed in their party’s distinctive orange T-shirts and caps.

Although the Lebanese army and police had fanned out across the country to keep rival groups apart, violence broke out when militant pro-government Christians from the Lebanese Forces party took to the streets to reopen roads in order for ordinary citizens to continue with their lives. Both sides blamed each other for the inevitable fighting that ensued.

In a media campaign almost as intense as the fighting itself, rival Christian leaders held televised press conferences showing photographic evidence of Christian militia members firing on Lebanese soldiers or unarmed civilians. One such photograph, used as evidence by Michel Aoun, purported to show a Lebanese Forces gunman with a white crucifix stenciled on his shirt-sleeve firing into a crowd of Lebanese soldiers. But the image was soon afterward proven to be fake. The image of a Hezbollah militant firing an automatic weapon during last summer’s war had been crudely imposed onto a background of fleeing soldiers, a cross stencilled onto his sleeve for good measure.

Aoun defended the action of his supporters during the national strike, arguing that they were merely asserting their democratic right to protest against what they saw as a corrupt and unrepresentative government. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, for his part, decisively condemned the action as having nothing to do with democracy or freedom. It is a revolt in every sense of the word.

Aoun’s Bid for the Presidency

The two leaders have a bitter history dating back to intra-Christian fighting during the final years of Lebanon’s civil war. Aoun, who spent 15 years in exile in Paris, was one of Syria’s fiercest critics until the 2005 withdrawal of the country’s forces from Lebanon. But Aoun performed a drastic U-turn last year when he struck an alliance with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s reclusive Lebanese leader and a close ally of Syria.

Aoun argues the move was motivated by his opposition to corruption within Lebanese politics. He objects to the fact that he has been labeled pro-Damascus since his pact with Hezbollah, arguing that he wants a Lebanon free from Syrian tutelage.

Aoun’s backers see him as a Lebanese De Gaulle, who wants to end the sectarian divisions, claiming that after a strong performance in Lebanon’s 2005 elections, Aoun has around 70 percent of the Christian community’s support. His critics contend his volte-face was a naked display of opportunism, aimed at boosting his chances of being elected president when current incumbent Emile Lahoud, a Maronite, stands down later this year. (Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the post of president is reserved for a Maronite, while the prime minister must be a Sunni, and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite.)

Aoun argues that were he elected president, he would resolve the issue of disarming Hezbollah, as required by United Nations resolutions, by increasing the role of the country’s army in defending Lebanon’s borders and by integrating militia fighters, including those from Hezbollah, into that force. But he has come under increasing pressure to end his pact with Hezbollah and join other Christian factions in the anti-Syrian majority since last November’s assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the industry minister and scion of one of Lebanon’s most prominent Maronite families. Many Lebanese Christians blame Syria for the killing and are furious with their F.P.M. coreligionists for siding with Syrian-backed Hezbollah.

Dispute Over Hariri’s Assassination

Government supporters argue that the assassination was merely the latest in a string of murders of prominent, anti-Syrian politicians and claim the ongoing protests are part of a Damascus-led plan to topple the cabinet in order to scuttle an international tribunal’s look into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Senior Syrian officials have been implicated in the killing, but Damascus vehemently denies any involvement.

Pro-government leaders used the second anniversary of Hariri’s killing on Feb. 14 to insist the tribunal be formed in short order. They called on Hezbollah and its allies to return to the dialogue table. But Hezbollah’s allies argue they have not been properly consulted on the form the tribunal should take and remain suspicious that the court may be exploited as a political tool for American ends.

We do not seek the victory of one part of the country over another but that of all Lebanese people, said Aoun. This can be achieved through a clear and transparent investigation that leads to the identification of the criminals, as well as through the formation of a national unity government.

Many within the Christian community are concerned their influence within Lebanon is waning as a result of the current internal power struggle. Speaking of late January’s violence, former president Amin Gemayel told the Christian Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation: Events, especially in Christian areas, look like internal fighting. We paid a heavy price in the past because of internal fighting and the war of elimination.

Despite claims that Aoun has severely compromised Lebanon’s Christian power-base, and reports that several of his parliamentary allies are thinking of crossing the floor to join the anti-Syrian government alliance, the septuagenarian former general has insisted he will stand firm with Hezbollah’s opposition alliance. After late January’s violence, Aoun promised more political surprises if the government failed to accede to demands for the formation of a new cabinet in which Hezbollah’s allies would have essential veto power, and calls for new elections.

The death or resignation of two more cabinet ministers would render the cabinet without a quorum, forcing new elections. But Siniora’s beleaguered cabinet has so far stood fast against what it sees as intimidation. The prime minister has the backing of the wider Arab world, the United States, France and other Western countries, as exemplified by the $7 billion pledged to the rebuilding of Lebanon at a January conference of international donors in Paris. By late January, Saudi and Iranian diplomats, as well as the Arab League, were diligently trying to reduce tensions in what many perceive is a proxy conflict between Iranwhich funds and arms Hezbollahand a U.S. administration that views Siniora’s administration as a bastion of democracy in a troubled region.

A Plea for Christian Unity

The spiritual leader of Lebanon’s Christians, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the Maronite patriarch, has repeatedly urged Christian unity during Lebanon’s simmering crisis. In his Feb. 4 homily at Bkerke, outside Beirut, he said: Politicians are competing to win seats for the prestige of being in control, when they should work to ease the burdens of the Lebanese people and provide younger generations with job opportunities so they do not have to work abroad and leave their country to foreigners.

In December, Cardinal Sfeir urged the country’s political leaders to agree to a code of honor pledging to settle any differences through dialogue. In February both pro- and antigovernment leaders signed a pledge that aims to avert the possibility of renewed intra-Christian violence.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 25, a dispute in an ethnically mixed university cafeteria sparked the worst sectarian fighting Lebanon has seen since its civil war. On that occasion, the army deployed in massive numbers to keep rival groups apart, ultimately imposing Lebanon’s first curfew in a decade in order to separate the rival factions. Since the army itself is a mixture of Sunni, Shiite and Christian soldiers, it is not certain how long these forces can remain united in the face of sustained street fighting.

When two buses exploded in Lebanon’s Christian heartland on Feb. 13, killing three people and wounding 17, Lebanon’s rival leaders were for once united in their condemnation. The unclaimed, carefully coordinated attacksthe first large-scale targeting of civilians since Lebanon’s bitter 15-year civil warmade the potential cost of renewed sectarian fighting all the clearer.

With Lebanon’s political situation now so volatile, and its Christian support-base fractured, many educated young Christians see their futures elsewhere. They are opting to join the already substantial Maronite diaspora rather than take their chances in a country that could soon be immersed in another civil war.

Michael Hirst is the Beirut correspondent for The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London.