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Lebanese think the unthinkable: another civil war

November 30, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — For a glimpse into Lebanon's precarious, death-tinged mood, consider the words of two young men. Each hails from an extreme end of this nation's gaping political and religious divide. And both say they are willing to die fighting for power.

Electronics student Shadi Akouri, a 23-year-old Christian, says he would "pay in blood" for control of the Lebanese government. "Hezbollah has arms and [is] making clear [it] wants this. OK, we want it too. If their intention is to fight, we'll fight. If you don't defend yourself, what is the point of existence?"

Across town, 18-year-old Hezbollah supporter Mohammed Haidar also said he was willing to give up his life. "When you want to change the government, people always die," said Haidar, a Shiite Muslim who says the U.S.-backed Lebanese government is illegitimate. "I will be on the front lines. Why? Because I want to build a country where we can hold our heads up because we are Shia."

As recently as last year, many Lebanese emphatically stated that there would never be another civil war, that their nation had suffered enough, killed enough, paid enough. They had learned a bitter lesson during a conflict that erupted among religious groups in the mid-1970s and raged until 1990.

Since the civil war, talk of religious sects had almost been considered taboo, at least in public. It was common to hear people complain about the Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah, but not the Shiites; the powerful Sunni Hariri family, but not the Sunnis.

When Christians, Sunnis and members of the Druze sect united to demand Syria's ouster in 2005, many Lebanese rejoiced in the notion that, at last, patriotism was about to overcome religious divisions.

But with Shiite Hezbollah making a hard play for greater power, and with Sunni-Shiite warfare in Iraq exacerbating religious friction throughout the region, conventional wisdom among Lebanese elites has become bleak. On both sides, a tone of wary negotiation has been replaced by hardened faces and fiery pledges to risk death to ensure that their own vision of Lebanon, and their faction's political power, prevails.

On the street, politics are openly laced with religious prejudice. Christians and Sunnis fret about being overrun by Shiites. There is tension among rival Christian factions over Maronite Catholic Michel Aoun's affiliation with Hezbollah, which is seen by other Christians as a betrayal of his sect. Acute animosity has flared between Shiites and Sunnis, fed by the civil war in Iraq.

The summertime war between Hezbollah and Israel stripped many Lebanese of their livelihoods and drained them of hope. With the economy in shreds and sectarian splits cracking open, there is a sense that the status quo is not worth preserving.

"I can see it in the eyes of my students," said Walid A. Fakherddine, a media and communications professor at the American University of Science and Technology. "The people are ready to go to war, or they want to leave the country. They can't stay where they are."

Many Lebanese even describe a sort of nostalgia for civil war, especially among youths too young to remember the bloody horrors of street battles, kidnappings and mortar attacks.

There is still hope the two sides can negotiate their way out of the crisis. But these days, many Lebanese bluntly say they expect to face another civil war; others just shrug and say "anything can happen."

Few rule out the possibility of further fighting.

Many people are afraid that if Hezbollah and its allies take to the streets in coming days to demand a change in government, as they have repeatedly pledged to do, clashes will erupt. Hezbollah members swear they will stay in the streets until the government falls. And their rivals have threatened to unleash security forces to defend government institutions attacked by demonstrators.

"We fear the reaction of the ruling majority when and if we decide to carry out these protests," said Trad Hamadeh, a Hezbollah member who resigned, along with other Shiite political officials, as labor minister this month. "They control security. They control the real power on the ground."

Lebanon's political woes deepened when Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year-old minister of industry and scion of a powerful Christian political family, was gunned down in the streets of Beirut last week.

Since Gemayel's death, the capital has become a montage of scenes of tension. Sunni and Shiite gangs have clashed in the southern suburbs. Rival Christian gangs brawled in the Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh.

During one recent rally, Christian electronics student Akouri stood on the gravel in a vacant lot during a rally in downtown Beirut. Nearby, college-age youths cupped hands around lit candles and chanted, "The one who killed Pierre, we want to drink his blood!" and, referring to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, "Wait, Nasrallah, wait. We will dig your grave."

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