Allusions to the civil war: rhetoric or real risk?

Images reminding Lebanese of a bygone era have emerged in recent days in the midst of more than a month-long protest movement characterized by its strong calls for national unity.

Protestors cleaning the Nahr el-Kalb tunnel of all demonstration traces on the 14th of November. The construction, fastly stopped, of a wall within the tunnel revived memories of the Lebanese civil war. Picture Houssam Chbaro

Lebanon’s popular uprising against the country’s political class, which protesters accuse of incompetence and corruption, has entered its second month. For more than 30 days now, there have been continuous and largely peaceful demonstrations, except for a few violent incidents, including the most serious: the murder of protester Ala’ Abu Fakhr in Khaldeh, south of Beirut, last week.

At the same time, warning signs have also emerged over the fear of backsliding toward a civil war or of other security problems and powerful images have brought back old demons.

On Wednesday, a man armed with a Kalashnikov opened fire on protesters in Jal el-Dib (in the Metn area). Witnesses identified the armed man as a member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which quickly denied being involved in the incident (see OLJ Thursday, Nov. 14). Another picture of protesters building a wall inside the Nahr el-Kalb tunnel the next night also harkened back to the war years when Lebanon was segregated into (Christian and Muslim) regions. The so-called wall was quickly dismantled after the image sparked an outcry, briefly haunting people who have witnessed the atrocities of the 1975-90 civil war.

Protesters from all communities and regions of Lebanon have been voicing the same demands and showing the same determination to get rid of the ruling class. So who is waking the ghosts of the past at this time? And are we really at risk of descending into violence?

Iranian President Hassan Rohani is one of the leaders who has evoked the specter of the war. "There are parties (in Lebanon) who want to turn the demonstrations into a civil war," Rohani said, without specifying which party he was referring to.

In a Tweet, Minister of Foreign Affairs and FPM leader Gebran Bassil warned against "any desire for sabotage that would lead the country to clashes.” Minister of Defense Elias Bou Saab, who is a member of the same parliamentary bloc as Bassil, said the country was "in a very bad situation" and compared the current situation with the one that preceded the country’s destructive civil war.

When asked about the multiple references to the civil war, May Khoreiche, the FPM’s vice-president for political affairs, said that “since the early days of the (popular) movement, we warned against actors who could ride the wave of the people’s demands." Khoreiche did not specify the actors in question, but added that her party "does not use the word ‘war’ rather warns against chaos that could lead the country to a security deterioration."

In response to a question about why such warnings were mainly voiced by the FPM and its allies, Khoreiche responded: "It is true that we notice that certain images remind us of the war, but it does not mean that it will take place.”

“On the contrary, it was clear in the President’s speech (referring to Michel Aoun, who is also the founder of the FPM) that we will not allow this to happen,” she continued.

"Certain behaviors nevertheless raise questions, in particular blocking the roads. How does blocking a road and preventing free access to the inhabitants of one's own region serve meeting social demands? To this was added the image of the wall built inside the tunnel of Nahr el-Kalb. Who came up with such an idea in such a sensitive area?” Khoreiche added.

On Jal el-Dib’s incident, she said: "It was inevitable in this context of tension due to roads blocking… But we have nothing to do with it. If we wanted to act that way, we would have done it well before. "

Reviving old rivalries

“The issue of the civil war is extremely sensitive for the generation who was traumatized by that period,” said Georges Okais, a Lebanese Forces (LF) MP, adding that it is being used "for intimidation purposes by the authorities.”

"The (1989) Taif Accord (which ended the civil war) did not really close this painful chapter. It is this current intifada that has done so. How do some see prospects of a civil war while the Lebanese are showing unity across the country? Proof of this, is the unanimous homage all over Lebanon to Ala 'Abu Fakhr, considered the martyr of Lebanon, while the other martyrs are mainly those of their own communities," Okais added.

When asked about why the LF is suspected of infiltrating the protests, and especially of being behind the incident involving the construction of a wall inside the tunnel, Okais said: "They want to make us play a role that is not ours, as if the Lebanese Forces were the only party who participated in the war. Some focus on a long-standing rivalry to get out of this mess, but if they had evidence of that (LF) involvement, they would have revealed it long time ago. "

War of Rumors

Khalil Helou, a retired general who has been active in the revolution since it started, believes that war hints "began with the first statement of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah that contained barely veiled threats, which resulted in the attacks on Riad el-Solh and Martyrs squares in Beirut.”

"The intifada was caused by the difficult financial situation and daily life problems," Helou pointed out. “Some parties want at all cost to assert that the United States is behind this movement. But if they have found any evidence, they would have already disclosed it. The uprising continues because the economic and social situation remains unchanged."

Commenting on the Jal el-Dib’s incident, Helou said it came along with numerous rumours targeting Riad el-Solh square that certain parties were distributing weapons in their headquarters. "But all these rumours are unfounded, as we have been able to verify," he said. “This is a campaign orchestrated to put us at odds with the army. But so far, these many attempts have failed because we are vigilant and the presence of retired generals contributed in building trust between the protesters and the army."

The numerous allusions to the possibility of a civil war breaking out in the country are meant in the first place to undermine the popular protest movement, according to Helou, as are persistent rumours that the protests are being manipulated by parties such as the LF. Such accusations are regularly denied by protesters who oppose the entire political class. "Some parties are concentrating their efforts on two fronts: either to try to revive the conflict between FPM and LF, which would render the uprising meaningless in specific regions, or to provoke tensions between the demonstrators and the army," Helou said.

"It takes two armed parties to wage war"

A delay in forming a new government could make confrontation in the streets inevitable, Helou warned. When asked if this confrontation could lead to a civil war, he responded: "I do not think so because no one wants a war.”

“There could be unrest, but no war, in my opinion. It is true that the situation reminds me of the period preceding 1975 in some respects, but the difference is that only one of the parties is armed, information circulates faster and there is now a level of political maturity that makes disinformation difficult,” Helou said.

In absolute terms, Khoreiche also believes that the ingredients are not there for a civil war. "I am convinced that the parties concerned have no interest in a war breaking out," she said. “From the side of the President and his allies, we seek, above all, to build bridges."

On his part, Okais is convinced that even if violence was to break out because of the fragile situation in Lebanon, civil war is not possible as long as there are no opposing armed parties. "The people want a new elite to take power.” he said. "There is also another very different factor from the pre-1975 period: the fact that our army is united and strong because of the people’s trust (in the military institution).”

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 15th of November)

Lebanon’s popular uprising against the country’s political class, which protesters accuse of incompetence and corruption, has entered its second month. For more than 30 days now, there have been continuous and largely peaceful demonstrations, except for a few violent incidents, including the most serious: the murder of protester Ala’ Abu Fakhr in Khaldeh, south of Beirut, last week. At the...