What Next in Lebanon?

Here’s at least one good thing that happened in the midst of yesterday’s sectarian madness in Beirut. The Lebanese army got involved. When the quarrel between Sunni students and Shia students that broke out at Beirut Arab University turned into full-scale street fighting, the Lebanese army began sealing off surrounding neighborhoods. They made arrests. They disarmed many of the gangs moving in to join battle. And for the first time since 1996 (when Israel bombed the country in Operation Grapes of Wrath) they declared a curfew.

That was in marked contract to Tuesday’s general strike when the army stood and watched as the Hizballah-led opposition set up barricades to shut down Beirut. The concern was that if they were seen to be taking sides in the country’s political crisis, they would risk splitting the army along sectarian lines, as happened during the 1975-1990 Civil War. But by doing nothing on Tuesday, they opened the door for pro-government gangs to take the law into their own hands.

So there’s still hope that Lebanon will avoid more mass unrest, especially if yesterday’s riot pushes the rival sides in the political crisis back to the bargaining table. The country is so deeply — and so evenly — divided in their support of or their antagonism towards Prime Minster Fouad Siniora’s Westernized government that for weeks many observers have been saying that it will take some tragedy or explosion to bring the country’s leaders to their senses.

This could be that opportunity. Because the violence didn’t occur as a result of a planned opposition protest, Hizballah-leader Hassan Nasrallah has enough face-saving room to return to talks without accepting responsibility for the chaos. He could play the statesman in order to avoid more of the same.

But the opposition in general and Nasrallah in particular will be ultimately responsible for any violence that occurs if the opposition continues its street campaign to topple the government. Their claims of democratic legitimacy, and it’s use of the term “civil disobedience” to describe their actions, became void the day they prevented people from driving on the roads of their own country.

The concern now is Ashura, the Muslim holiday held especially dear by Shia, as it marks the day their ancestors were massacred by the armies of the Sunni Caliph in Karbala in Iraq in the seventh century. Tempers tend to flare on Ashura — which is celebrated among Lebanon’s young Shia men by ritually beating and cutting themselves. Earlier in the week, opposition leaders had said that the next stage of the street protests will take place sometime before Ashura, which is on Monday. If they stick to that schedule, it could be 1975 all over again in Lebanon.

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