Beirut/Brussels - The crisis that has gripped Lebanon since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri five years ago has taken a new and dangerous turn.
New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen, the latest International Crisis Group briefing, looks at risks of escalation by focusing on two volatile neighbourhoods of Tripoli. The anticipated implication of Hizbollah members by the international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination raises existential issues: inter-communal relations, the legitimacy of the resistance embodied by Hizbollah, the tribunal’s credibility, survival of the current national unity government, the future of the recent Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and the country’s fragile stability.
The Islamic movement’s categorical rejection of the tribunal and the difficulty current Prime Minister Saad Hariri – Rafic’s son – would have to disavow it suggest Lebanon is heading toward an impasse. Political tensions would quickly reverberate in the streets, notably in under-developed and marginalised areas.
“Many politicians and commentators evoke the possibility of an impending coup d’état or even a new civil war”, says Sahar Atrache, Crisis Group’s Lebanon Analyst. “But the more probable short-term scenario is repetition of a recurring Lebanese cycle: a political stalemate that triggers popular tensions which, in turn, political actors manipulate in order to bolster their leverage”.
Instability is most likely to occur in Lebanon’s under-developed peripheral areas, whose populations are deeply divided by current events, harbour painful memories of the civil war and are largely left to their own devices until escalating violence brings them into the political game. Such is the case of Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, the one predominantly Sunni the other mainly Allawite, which recently have witnessed both verbal and military escalation.
These two neighborhoods replicate, in miniature, the challenges to the stability of the country as a whole. Over the last few years, deadly incidents in these geographically and socially remote areas have been linked to disputes far beyond their horizon. This microcosm, largely hidden to those who focus on the capital’s political scene and the secret regional power games played on the regional stage, offers a key to understanding the interaction between the local, national and regional levels. Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen have served as an arena for proxy wars, as external actors back local fighters in a struggle that is less costly and more easily managed than open warfare in the capital.
The ebbs and flows in the antagonism between the two neighbourhoods serve as a reliable barometer for tracking two fundamental issues facing Lebanon: tensions between Sunnis and Shiites on the one hand; and relations with Syria on the other. Notwithstanding a period of relative calm in both regards thanks to the Damascus-Riyadh rapprochement – exemplified by Saad Hariri’s reconciliation efforts – popular resentment is very much alive, if not rising.
“What is happening at the ground level illustrates the scepticism and suspicion with which ordinary Lebanese have greeted agreements reached at the top, and how little such agreements have altered underlying dynamics”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East & North Africa Program Director. “The international tribunal easily could bring the temperature on the street back to boiling point. Should that occur, Tripoli’s barometer could take another plunge”.