/ 28 April 2011

Push to ban liquor in southern Lebanese town

Two months after Yaacoub Yaacoub opened his liquor store in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatieh he shut it down — not for lack of customers, he says, but due to pressure from Hezbollah sympathisers.

“Members of local political parties came to see me and made it clear that stores that sell alcohol were not welcome in town,” said Yaacoub (50) from his home in the mainly Shiite town where the powerful Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement, hold sway.

“And I was made to understand that they could harm me if I didn’t abide by their demand,” he added.

A banner recently hoisted near his store drove the message home.

“The residents of Nabatieh want all liquor stores to shut down,” it reads.

Alcohol is widely available in Lebanon, a multi-confessional country long considered one of the most liberal in the Middle East, but it is frowned upon is some Muslim regions — both Shiite and Sunni — as its consumption is forbidden in Islam.

More than 10 years ago the southern coastal town of Sidon, which has a Sunni majority, witnessed a string of attacks against liquor stores that no longer exist in the city.

A secular man
Yaacoub said it was clear to him that those behind the campaign to close down his store in Nabatieh were loyal to Hezbollah and Amal.

Both parties declined comment for this article.

Besides Yaacoub’s store, several more shops in Nabatieh that sell alcohol have also closed in recent months. Other stores have resorted to selling liquor discreetly without displaying bottles on shelves.

The store closures were ordered by Nabatieh’s mayor Ahmad Kahil, after 900 local residents signed a petition demanding their town turn dry.

“Alcohol affects moral values and the social order,” Kahil told Agence France-Presse.

His decision has grabbed headlines in Lebanon and sparked a heated debate online.

Many local residents who spoke on condition of anonymity said had Hezbollah not condoned the liquor store closures, no one would have dared draw up a petition, let alone submit it to local leaders.

“Banners against the sale of liquor began popping up about a week ago,” said Samir Sabbagh, who along with his father heads a 20-year-old liquor wholesale company.

“Unknown people then started distributing leaflets calling for the closure of liquor stores,” he added.

“Last Friday, after the Muslim prayer, protesters held a march during which they chanted slogans against alcohol consumption.”

He said he has since decided to shut down his company for fear of reprisals.

“I am a secular man, I am for personal liberties but I had no other choice,” Sabbagh said.

‘Individual liberties’
Social networking site Facebook meanwhile has been awash with indignant messages describing Nabatieh as an Iranian city or comparing it to an “Islamic republic”, in reference to Hezbollah which is considered a proxy of Iran.

One page in Arabic is entitled “The freedom of Nabatieh’s youngsters is a red line” while another declares: “No to oppression, yes to alcohol in southern suburbs” of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Ali al-Sabbagh, a resident of Nabatieh and member of the local council, said he would have favoured more strict controls on the sale of alcohol rather than an outright ban.

“One must not meddle in people’s private business,” he said. “Banning liquor by force is counter to the constitution which guarantees individual liberties.”

He also pointed out that the stores targeted had been granted liquor licenses by the state.

But Abbas Fahes, another local resident, holds a different view.

“The real threat to individual freedom here is the existence of liquor stores in an Islamic city,” he said. “The majority of the population is Muslim and opposed to the sale of alcohol.

“The minority represents 10% of the population so who is the aggressor here?” — AFP