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Blaming Others: A History of Violence in Lebanon

[A gunman near a burning building during clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, June 2, 2012. Image by Bilal Hussein/AP Photo. ] [A gunman near a burning building during clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, June 2, 2012. Image by Bilal Hussein/AP Photo. ]

Violence has defined the seven years since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But there are ruptures in the now familiar landscape of burning tires; Israel’s abduction of Lebanese citizens, its invasion of the country’s airspace, mounting casualties from Israeli land mine and cluster bombs; the abuse and killing of migrant workers, and the sound of lonely machine gun fire somewhere in the night. This is a list of the most discernible violence in Lebanon this past decade:

In 2006 a war with Israel left thousands of civilians dead and almost a million others displaced. In 2007 the Lebanese army, with the vocal support of many Lebanese citizens, made debris out of a Palestinian refugee camp. The army’s aim was to “root out” Salafi Islamists that had infiltrated the camp which housed four generations of Palestinian refugees. In 2008 a “mini civil war” broke out between the March 14 dominated Lebanese state and March 8 forces. Over one hundred people were killed and/or wounded in armed skirmishes in Beirut and in the mountains. These clashed were deemed diminutive against that always-already comparison of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, the big brother that all violence is measured against. In 2011 violence returned to Beirut's streets when the government of Saad Hariri collapsed and Najib Mikati came to power. This year has been marked by violent clashes between Lebanese who support the Syrian regime and those who oppose it.

All this violence cannot be attributed to sectarianism alone. After all, Lebanese from all sects, genders, regions, and classes cheered on the destruction of a refugee camp and the killing and displacement of its inhabitants. In 2008 Lebanese citizens from all sects supported Hezbollah's actions, and Lebanese citizens from all sects were against them. By 2011, Lebanese of all sects had grown tired of Saad Hariri's multifaceted deficiencies and Lebanese of all sects supported him. The word “sectarianism” fails to capture the nature of these disputes over Lebanon's future and its geopolitical alliances. In addition to a political system that produces sectarian identities as political identities, Lebanon is defined by underdevelopment and a class structure that sags with extremes. Furthermore, political leaders, many of whom used to be militia leaders during the 1975-1990 civil war, practice corruption and incite violence with impunity. This impunity rests on the painful truth that a majority of Lebanese citizens depend on these leaders and their patronage to make their families’ lives more livable. More painful still is the hard fact that beginning with the post civil war tenure of Rafik Hariri, all mainstream political parties have, without exception, followed neoliberal economics that ravage the middle and working classes. Only elites with disposable capital have been able to capitalize on these policies, further exacerbating the class divide.

In past weeks politicians, journalists, bloggers, and activists have described the shootings and killings in Beirut and Tripoli as both sectarian and a Syrian “spillover.” These tropes are all too familiar; violence in Lebanon is more often than not attributed to an easily discernible “sectarianism” and to the negative influence of “outsiders” and “foreign” elements. Discourses of sectarianism and outside infiltration flatten the multiple factors that contribute to violence. Politicians use these discourses to absolve themselves of any responsibility. They use them to position themselves as the soothing balm of their constituents' frustrations and aggressions and as national figures who would protect Lebanon from the negative influence of outsiders. As they speak on TV and in newspapers, the public school system groans under the death kiss of still more budget cuts, electricity runs through the country with less confidence than candle wax, and unemployed and underemployed young men find purpose, a gun, and a paycheck in the defense of their neighborhoods—neighborhoods that become more homogeneously sectarian with every spasm of violence.

A focus on sectarianism and on “outsiders” also glosses over other important factors in this conflict. We should not forget that, in the name of domestic and international war against terror, Salafis from the north of Lebanon have been detained and jailed without trial or any hint of due process for years. Their singling out for “Lebanese justice” is part of what fuels their actions today. But not all who support the Syrian uprising are Salafis, because sectarianism has always been more of a secular political identity than a religious affinity.

What is happening in Lebanon should also be viewed through the geopolitical lens of the Arab-Israeli conflict and US-Saudi foreign policy, part of which is war against Hizbollah and the very idea of armed resistance against Israel. As violence continues, Hizbollah loses their standing as a “national party” and is increasingly seen as a Shiite political party and militia. Their ability to maintain a ceasefire comes through brute force and the knowledge that they can easily defeat any configuration of Lebanese factions, at least militarily. This is a sad and dangerous chapter in a story that includes within it the national euphoria and pride that enveloped Hizbollah following the Israeli withdrawals of 2000 and 2006.

Similarly, a focus on sectarianism obscures other threads that together weave this warscape. The ties between communities in North Lebanon and in Syria cannot be reduced to "sectarian affinity." These are communities that have been linked by marriage, trade, and deep social ties for generations. These ties carry the scars of redrawn borders and highways that tried to redirect trade and sociality away from Syria and towards Beirut and the rest of “Lebanon.” These ties also carry the scars of a failed economic policy that has abandoned North Lebanon to its failing schools, its corrupt and irresponsible leaders, and its dilapidated infrastructure. But North Lebanon is not alone. Everywhere, Lebanon has been abandoned to its criminal politicians, hastily dug up weapons, and ineffectual institutions. After all, only in Lebanon could the deployment of the army to quell violence that has claimed hundreds of casualties in the country's second largest city be seen as something extra-ordinary. We should not forget that the faces that promise us swift resolution and peace on our television screens are also the faces that threaten or have at one point threatened our lives with death, both bodily and economic.

Above all, we should remember that the Lebanese did not need a Syrian uprising to start killing each other or killing Palestinian refugees or Syrian workers. We have been doing it, to the applause of our politicians and militia leaders, quite successfully for decades now. 

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