Tonight many Lebanese fear that Hezbollah’s resignation from cabinet last week will be a case of history repeating itself. The last Hezbollah withdrawal from government–in November 2006– was followed by a bitter two year political crisis, during which the party of God and its Christian allies succeeded in shutting down a relatively small part of Beirut around the prime minister’s office. This time however, the action could be broader, judging by what appeared to be a trial run for a new strategy early this morning.
At around 7AM, groups of young men mysteriously gathered at key intersections and neighborhoods across the Lebanese capital and then disbanded one hour later. Local broadcaster MTV developed an interesting graphic for the story:
After listing each neighborhood where the young men gathered, it then connected the dots to form a rather intimidating net cast over nearly half the city:
According to news reports, members of the opposition such as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called the gatherings “spontaneous” outbursts of protest against the government, but on today’s talk shows, pro-government politicians sarcastically questioned the possible spontaneity of multiple gatherings around the city at 7AM. MTV also said some of the men appeared to be holding walkie talkies.
If accurately reported, the scenario is hauntingly familiar to late 2006, when Hezbollah and its allies marshaled young men equipped with walkie talkies around the prime minister’s offices, who, accompanied by tens of thousands of anti-government protestors, easily overwhelmed security forces in the area. The army, fearing a split among its ranks, remained neutral and basically stood and watched for 17 months as boys ruled the streets of the capital.
Back then, Hezbollah said its take-over/demonstration was motivated by a government conspiracy to destroy them–a theory which was more or less confirmed by wiki leaks documents that alleged close cooperation between Israel and Lebanon’s then defense minister. Hezbollah viewed its actions, which were largely non-violent, as a democratically-sanctioned act of civil disobedience, an act that helped win the party and its allies increased power in government at the time. Today, Shia-led Hezbollah says its existence has been threatened once again, this time by the imminent start of an international tribunal that seeks to frame it–according to Hezbollah– in the murder of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni figure in recent memory. So how will a democratically -framed revolt against the government take shape this time?
If the map above is accurate, such a broad act of civil disobedience could have far more de-stablizing effects then the 2006 action. As opposed to the relatively unpopulated neighborhood surrounding the prime minister’s offices–an area known as downtown–the areas illustrated in the above map are heavily populated, mixed Sunni/Shia areas that have been known for fighting between the sects in the past, especially among groups of young and highly territorial boys. As opposed to the little resistance displayed by security forces downtown, the desire to challenge potential road blocks outside one’s home may be much greater and more violent.
Hopefully all sides have learned at least some lessons from past conflicts and will be very cautious about the inflammatory nature of Beirut’s streets. Additionally, the army has deployed in all the neighborhoods where gatherings took place. Once again, the Lebanese will look to negotiations by regional powers– now underway between Qatar, Syria, Saudi Arabia and others– for a deal to prevent further escalation. Then again, the consistent failure to come up with homegrown agreements could lead to a patchwork solution at best, not unlike the now expired Doha accord of 2008.