Lebanon’s future on shaky ground

When Israel was bombing Beirut during the war of 2006, a colleague and I sat drinking a beer after a long, hard day, listening to the explosions coming every few minutes from the southern suburbs. "Is this what it felt like to be somewhere in central Europe in the 1930s?" he mused. Comparisons are never exact, but I saw what he meant. Lebanon and the region were  dogged not just by the violence of that year's war, but also by a gnawing feeling that the future could contain something worse.

In Lebanon one of the strongest counterweights to the predictions of bad times ahead is the memory of bad times in the past. Fifteen years of civil war in the Seventies and Eighties left many scars.

Lebanon has managed to survive a succession of serious crises since the assassination – by Syria, bereaved supporters say – of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A year later there was a war with Israel, in 2007 a protracted battle with jihadists in a Palestinian refugee camp and there was a minicivil war in 2008. The list goes on.

For every Lebanese person I have spoken to in the past few days, the assassination on October 19 of General Wissam al-Hassan – the most important security official in the country – is every bit as serious and could have even greater consequences. Faisal Karami – one of Lebanon's rising politicians, the son and nephew of past prime ministers – did not try to play down the seriousness of what had happened.

"He was killed right in the middle of Beirut. It's one of the most dangerous moments for Lebanon since independence in the 1940s," he said.

In the slums of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbanneh a few miles away, Sunni gunmen were trading bullets with Lebanese Alawites from the same Shia sect as President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters. "We've already got a mini civil war going. People are being shot in the streets."

Powerful foreigners
In every recent crisis, despite dire predictions, Lebanon's leaders, often with foreign help, have found a way to restore a certain sense of quiet in a country that has never been properly stable. What makes it harder is the civil war in Syria, a short drive away, and the uncertainty across the Middle East. In the region people have no idea what will happen a month from now, let alone next year.

Lebanon's curse is that it does not control its own fate. Leaders depend on the alliances they make with powerful foreigners. Inevitably, that makes them party to their patrons' quarrels. The alliances are partly based on sectarian sympathy and plug Lebanon into one of the region's most basic conflicts – between the allies of Saudi Arabia and the West and those who support Iran. The leader of Lebanon's Sunnis, Saad Hariri, is the client of Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is doing all it can to unseat the Assad regime in Syria. The Assads, with Shia Iran, are the patrons of Hezbollah, the movement of fighters and politicians that is the most powerful force in Lebanon.

With conflict in the region comes sectarianism. The Lebanese are the Middle East's experts on the subject. They know what it is like to co-exist – which is why you can see bikinis and beer on Beirut's beaches and black chuddars in the city's southern suburbs – and they know what happens when communities fall out. Power has always been parcelled out on sectarian lines. Sometimes the system works, but when it breaks down people reach for their guns.

As the Middle East goes through a historic transformation, sectarianism is emerging as one of the strongest features in the political landscape. The fault line that divides Sunni and Shia Muslims goes back to the dawn of Islam. But it has been sharpened by the events of the last decade, starting with the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

For societies that are overwhelmed by political uncertainty, sectarianism is a form of friction they do not need. Nationalism had a similar role in Europe in the 20th century. Sectarianism in the Middle East is as divisive and perhaps potentially as dangerous. Arab countries and Iran are not – yet – as militarised as the Europeans were. This is not a prediction of catastrophe. But dangers, serious ones, lie ahead. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC's Middle East editor. His new book, The Arab Uprisings, was published on October25 by Simon & Schuster

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