The war of words between Lebanon’s political leaders has translated into actual battles on the streets, as Wednesday’s opposition-supported labor strike quickly devolved into violent clashes and rioting. With the labor issue apparently pushed off the agenda, unrest has been stripped down to a contest between the government and Hezbollah, which the government has accused of trying to stage a coup.
In recent weeks, Hezbollah’s intractability has become the subject of increased government focus, culminating with the cabinet’s removal of Hezbollah-linked Brigadier General Wafiq Shqeir from his position as airport security chief, and the declaration that Hezbollah’s private communications network is “illegal and unconstitutional,” after a marathon cabinet session ending early Tuesday.
Hezbollah has given the Siniora government a 48-hour ultimatum to revoke the decisions. However, the government remains adamant that any retreat is out of the question.
Today, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will deliver a “historic” address, at his first press conference in two years. It is possible Nasrallah will use the podium to attempt a face-saving exit before the situation fully detonates. However, with so much at stake, it seems far more likely that Nasrallah’s words will veer in the opposite direction.
Battle of wills
With neither side apparently ready to back down, the situation is expected to escalate further. In addition to Nasrallah’s press conference and a continuance of yesterday’s civil disobedience, opposition workers will reportedly hold protests across the country on Thursday. One opposition source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to NOW Lebanon that, “the protests could possibly continue for a couple more days.”
This grim assessment was shared by members of the pro-government coalition. “All indicators at the moment suggest that they are planning to continue for more than one day,” announced Rami Rayes, a spokesman for the Progressive Socialist Party, a member of the majority March 14 grouping.
According to Rayes, Wednesday’s protests were part of what he referred to as Hezbollah’s “mini coup d’etat,” rather than about the single matter of Brigadier General Shqeir’s removal. “If it was not Wafiq Shqeir, it [would] have been something else – Hezbollah would have found a pretext,” he claimed. “They have failed at all political levels and have now moved on to the next step.”
The Shqeir sacking has put the Party of God in a tricky situation. Hezbollah has demanded he be reinstated, but if the government stands firm – as all indications suggest it will – the party could find itself backed into a corner. Its only option would be yet further escalation, a move its masters in Iran may be reluctant to allow, especially without erstwhile allies the Free Patriotic Movement to provide Hezbollah with pan-sectarian cover.
Indeed, so far, most of the fighting has occurred between Shia opposition protestors and Sunni government supporters, taking on a worrying sectarian tone. On Wednesday evening, Grand Mufti of the Republic Sheikh Mohammad Qabbani appeared on live television denouncing Hezbollah and its occupation of Beirut. While Qabbani called upon the opposition to withdraw their gunmen, he also warned that “the Sunnis are fed up” with Hezbollah practices.
March 8 loses its cover
Lost in the mix has been the opposition’s Christian cover, FPM leader Michel Aoun and his supporters. While Aoun had previously called for peaceful demonstrations on Wednesday, the FPM was nearly invisible on the streets of Beirut. While Hezbollah and Amal supporters protested in areas where they dominate, supposed Aounist strongholds were quiet. In areas outside of Beirut, such as Jbeil, Baabda and the Metn region, schools and businesses were open as usual.
“General Aoun was completely absent from events today,” Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra told NOW Lebanon. “The people that he counts on, they choose to support the state and its institutions, while he supports Hezbollah and Iran.”
But even without the ground support of Michel Aoun, Hezbollah shows no signs of giving up. The party has announced that its supporters will continue to block the airport road, erecting another “tent city” on the highway to house them overnight. As a result, many visitors recently deposited at the airport by arriving flights – including legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz – were stranded, forced to choose between waiting indefinitely at the airport terminal or continuing to Beirut on foot.
“Hezbollah has taken a very big step to take control of the state, by saying that the airport road – Lebanon’s link with the whole world – is under their control,” Zahra explained. “This is a big confrontation between the idea of the Lebanese state, and Hezbollah’s mini-state.”
The security situation is near to its breaking point, and Lebanon can do little but brace for even more conflict in the coming days. Both sides are apparently unwilling to back down, and many Lebanese are asking if this is indeed the end game they have both wished for and feared in equal measure.