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Tensions Remain High in Lebanon

In the aftermath of yet another political assassination in Lebanon, analysts say political and sectarian tensions are at the highest point since the end of the civil war more than 15 years ago. But despite what all agree is a potential for the country to slide back into conflict, the current crisis does not appear to be heading in that direction. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

With the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel last week, Lebanon looked set to explode. He was the sixth anti-Syrian politician to be killed in the last two years, and the son of a prominent Maronite Christian family that has produced two presidents. After his death, the anger on the streets of Christian neighborhoods was palpable.

"If you look at a checklist, a cliché checklist, there is every possibility of a civil strife breaking out again," Goksel says. "But it doesn't."

Long-time U.N .spokesman Timur Goksel is now teaching at the American University in Beirut and is a respected political analyst.

"Certain people, they saw the dangers that was caused by this murder, and they stopped it," Goksel says. "I mean, as you see, Hezbollah backed out, Amal backed out, and all the key parties that would cause mischief, mayhem in this country, they all put the brakes on. If they hadn't, we would have gone straight into free fall interior war here."

Before Gemayel's death, the opposition parties, including the Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, had been planning to hold street protests to push for the resignation of the government. They say it is illegitimate after six ministers resigned from the cabinet, including all five of the Shiites, in a dispute over an international tribunal that would prosecute those responsible for the political assassinations.

Ibrahim Mousawi is the editor of Hezbollah's weekly newspaper, Al-Intiqad. He says the planned protests had to be postponed for fear of violence in the wake of Gemayel's death.

"What happened with this assassination of Pierre Gemayel is that they were dealt a blow, a heavy blow, that they need to reconsider all their demonstration policy, or opposition protest policy with all of its constituents and phased schedule," Mousawi says. "And now they are waiting to reassess and see what they want to do."

And so for the last week, all of Beirut has been waiting to see what Hezbollah will do. Now, the group's leaders have announced that the protests will begin Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the anger on the streets remains, and Lebanon is more divided than it has been in many years. But the situation is very different than the one that disintegrated into civil war in 1975. Former enemies are allied with each other, and former friends are on opposite sides of the widening ideological chasm.

The day after Gemayel's funeral, university student Elie Geagea joined a march of young Phalange party loyalists marching to Martyr's Square in the center of Beirut, to hang a picture of the slain minister and decorate a famous statue with party flags.

"Yes, I am sure that the government will survive, because the government is supported by the Lebanese people, Christian, Sunni," Geagea says. "I know most of the Shia are with Hezbollah, because Hezbollah has the arms and Hezbollah has the money. When Hezbollah will work for Lebanon, I will say that I will be with Hezbollah, but not with the arms of Hezbollah.":

The opposition group includes both main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, plus the largest single Christian group in parliament, the Free Patriotic Movement led by General Michel Aoun. That alliance has sparked tensions within the Christian community, where the other major factions are allied with the government.

Earlier this week, a group of Aoun's young supporters clashed with students from other Christian factions. And there have been other incidents, small confrontations between groups of Druze and Shiites, or groups of Shiites and Sunnis. Many media reports, both here and abroad, have raised the specter of a possible return to civil war. But nobody seems to really want that.

Geagea - who is not related to the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea but is a member of his mainly Christian party - said at a Lebanese Forces lecture on campus recently, he heard a strong anti-war message.

"And he has told us, whatever, whatever the price, we should not go into war. We have seen the war, the war has not given us anything. We should always use the diplomatic way," Geagea says. "The diplomatic way will help us. We will try, we will keep trying."

And according to Ibrahim Mousawi, Hezbollah leaders have also made it clear that their intentions are peaceful.

"The opposition, Hezbollah and the others, they have put it very clearly, that 'we want to do anything and everything democratic, everything peaceful," Mousawi says. "We are going to resort to a peaceful and democratic, constitutional measures. We don't want to have destabilization, we don't want to have any clash in the streets.'"

Although both sides are calling for peace, both sides are also clearly encouraging their supporters to remain angry over the current political crisis, as a way of trying to keep momentum on their side.

And so as gloomy predictions of all-out civil war appear to be fading, the tensions on the streets of Beirut remain high, and are likely to stay that way until the political standoff is resolved.