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Lebanon: The Nightmare of Civil War

"Lebanon is dead. Look how beautiful my country was!" sighs this Lebanese businessman encountered in Damascus who has taken the road that winds through the mountains to reach Beirut. In the side roads that the army roadblocks impose - the detours that are obligatory since Hassan Nasrallah's Hezbollah closed the Lebanese capital's airport road - the air charged with the fragrance of damp pine and the calm of the forest feeds the illusion of a recovered peace for one outtake of breath. Yet all too soon we perceive the mushrooms of smoke from the Party of God's rockets pounding the Partisans of the Druze Walid Joumblatt in their bastion on a facing hillside. Those rockets are sounding the death knell of the Cedar Revolution and its compromise peace negotiated twenty years ago. While West Beirut has fallen into the hands of the opposition, here, in the Druze mountains, as in Tripoli, in the north of the country, civil war draws Lebanon's new face with mortar fire.

As we make our way down, Beirut offers a sad spectacle. Under control of the army, which has deployed its tanks and its Jeeps, the streets of the capital are impeded by concrete barricades, mounds of rubble or plastic bristling with flags that slap like declarations of war and with photos that no one dares remove any more, such as portraits of Syrian President Bachar al-Assad. Militiamen who have swapped their fatigues for sweatpants cause an atmosphere of fear and accusation to prevail. Everyone looks dazed. Even the "winners."

Nabih Berri's Amal Party militiamen, who have replaced those of Hezbollah in West Beirut the last few days, are also gloomy, as though this revenge taken on their fellow citizens had a bitter taste. The atmosphere is sticky, much more so than during the 2006 war when Hezbollah - in spite of its ruined neighborhoods - proclaimed its "divine victory" over Israel. Today, the Party of God enjoys a discreet triumph. Only a very few young militiamen, apparently content, do "wheelies" on their new playground, the road to the airport, blocked by rubble.

I meet Walid Jumblatt, prisoner in his own home on Clemenceau Street, in Beirut, in the atmosphere of a wake. His eyes are half-closed as though he wanted to maintain the illusion for a while that this beginning of a civil war was only a nightmare. "Hafez al-Assad [father of the present Syrian president] had announced that he would burn down the mountain and now see; they've done it. Reread these pages that Mitterrand wrote in 'L'Abeille et l'Architecte' [The Bee and the Architect] on the ancestral hatred between the Syrians and the Druze," blurts out this man who would normally explore the psychological subtleties of his reversals of alliance with humor. But this is no longer the hour for textual exegesis, but rather for despair: "The pro-Syrians have succeeded in their military coup d'état; now we'll witness the translation of this victory into a political coup. What Nasrallah wants; he'll get." Prime Minister Fouad Siniora eventually refused to negotiate under constraint, whereas the army had decided to freeze the decisions that set off the Lebanese powder keg: the dismissal of the Shiite head of airport security and control of Hezbollah's telecommunications network. And the fighting continues.

The same despair reigns in the corridors of Sunni Party head Saad Hariri's house, where this pillar of the majority confesses to political error, without quite spelling it out: "We would never have imagined that Hezbollah would dare attack Beirut. But such an operation, which calls into question both the regional and global order, had been prepared for a long time. In any case, they would have found another pretext for taking power." At the Hariris', they know it will cost them dearly with their base for not having called for taking up arms against the "Shiites." Already in the North, in Tripoli, Saad Hariri's party, the Current of the Future, is having trouble not being swamped by Salafist extremists, especially in the Palestinian camps. These jihadists have launched an appeal for war against "the Persians:" "Hezbollah militants have entered our men's homes. Using threats, they've replaced photos of Rafic Hariri [the assassinated former prime minister] with those of Hassan Nasrallah. People are afraid and soon you'll see that there will be rallies to whoever is strongest."

In West Beirut, in the 90 percent Sunni Barbour neighborhood, Hassan, a Shiite Amal Party militant, stands guard from Nabih Berri's former house. He denies launching a new sectarian war by taking up arms against Hariri's Sunni Party. According to him, the "resistance parties," Amal and Hezbollah, are not Shiite, but a multi-sectarian coalition directed against Israel. "Lots of Sunnis around here support us, come and see." But the guided tour of supposedly pro-Hezbollah Sunnis said a lot about the pressures the Shiite militias are exerting on them. Only one little girl dares to confess her rue: "My parents taught me to hate Israel, not my own brothers." As for her father, he doesn't believe in civil war: "The communities are too mixed up; it's the politicians who talk about Shiite and Sunni, but we're all Lebanese!" Sad recollections: these professions of patriotic faith recall those of Iraqis who were outraged when they were asked what sect they belonged to before the outbreak of the civil war.

In the house next door, Hezbollah Shiites pray around the photo of their son, Hassan Ali, who died in Bint Jbeil, in the south of the country, during the July 2006 war with Israel. Due to the compulsory cult of secrecy, it wasn't until they were informed of his death that his parents learned of his membership in the Party of God. His family talks about their hatred for the Hariri, for "Saudi billionaires." But it's social resentment far more than the religious question that feeds their animosity. They don't recognize the Lebanese government. As far as they're concerned, Sayyed (descendant of the Prophet) Nasrallah is the true head of state.

Suddenly, an employee of Lebanon Electricity rings their doorbell to have them pay their bill. He's thrown out without any ceremony: "By what right do they ask us, poor people, for money, while Hezbollah pays us a salary since our son's death?" They believe this functionary can only be an agent for the other side....

In Ashrafieh, Beirut's Christian neighborhood, although life is softly resuming at café patios, people talk only about "the situation." And the role of the international community. "The problem is that we no longer have any recourse. Everyone, inside the country as well as outside, is connected to the Lebanese parties. The West and Saudi Arabia support Hariri; Iran and Syria are behind Hezbollah. So then who can arbitrate?" sighs one journalist. A politician from the majority harps on his resentment against France. "They wanted Munich: they've got it! Today Iran controls the country. Tehran has restored its 'border' with Israel that had been destroyed during the 2006 war. Bravo for the international community!"

In the entourage of Parliamentary President Nabih Berri, whose Amal Party supported the military coup begun May 7, people acknowledge that the party was overtaken by its base and is not in complete agreement with the Hezbollah leader. But above all they accuse the government of having committed an unpardonable mistake: "In a multi-sectarian country like Lebanon, for good or for ill, you don't fire the head of airport security, a Shiite, without negotiating with the religious communities!" In 1975, it was the same sort of risky decision at the time, the disarmament of Palestinian groups that supplied the pretext for a disproportionate riposte. And then Lebanon foundered into civil war.

Sara Daniel, Translation: Leslie Thatcher.

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.

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