Then came armed confrontations in the past week pitting supporters of the Shiite-led Hezbollah against the Christian Lebanese Forces. Any hope of a turnaround evaporated as Lebanon appeared to descend into a new and potentially deeper crisis.
No one expects an outright civil war of the kind that ravaged Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. Iran-backed Hezbollah is the country’s most powerful political and military force, the only faction with a well-armed militia and vast stocks of weapons that make it more capable than the Lebanese army.
But the flare-up has ignited fears that simmering civil and sectarian strife will indefinitely defer solutions to the multiple other problems Lebanon is facing — from a lack of fuel for the country’s power stations to the slide in the value of the currency that has gutted the finances of its once relatively prosperous citizens.
The streets are now calm, but tensions persist. The senior Hezbollah leader who led funerals for two Hezbollah members — among the six people killed in the clash on Thursday — vowed that their blood had not been spilled “in vain,” hinting at revenge. One of those killed was a Hezbollah fighter who had fought for the group in Syria in support of the Syrian government, according to photographs circulated on social media.
The Lebanese Forces have accused Hezbollah of seeking to impose its will on the entire country, including the Christians, and has warned it would resist any attempts by the Shiite group’s adherents to enter Christian areas.
Lebanese Forces supporters are now patrolling Christian neighborhoods in the vicinity of the clash, said a woman named Souad. She lives in a Christian section of Tayouneh, where the violence flared, and asked that her full name not be used for fear of retribution.
“They are prepared and ready for any attempt to enter the area,” she said of the Lebanese Forces supporters. “They carry sticks, not guns. The guns are hidden.”
The immediate trigger of this latest crisis was a call made earlier in the week by the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for the dismissal of Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of investigating the explosion that killed more than 200 people at Beirut’s port last year.
During a rally held by armed supporters of Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal to support Nasrallah’s demand, at least one sniper opened fire when the marchers approached a Christian neighborhood. That prompted volleys of return fire from the marchers, who then sought to storm nearby Christian neighborhoods.
The Lebanese Forces, a former civil war faction that is now a political party, denies Hezbollah accusations that it was responsible for the sniper fire. But the Forces also have said Christians were entitled to defend themselves against incursions into Christian areas.
The stakes are far higher than the fate of a single judge, however.
The country has now polarized between Christians who support the continuation of the judge’s investigations and Shiites who support Hezbollah’s calls for his dismissal. The standoff touches on sectarian fault lines that crisscross streets, neighborhoods and the government.
“A red line has been drawn between Christian areas and other areas and if [all sides] do not try to de-escalate, this will not turn out well,” said Khaldoun el-Charif, a Lebanese political analyst. “At any moment a clash could take place in any mixed area.”
Even if the violence is contained, the stage is now set for a potentially prolonged period of political paralysis, he said.
Hezbollah is standing its ground. Both President Michel Aoun, a Christian, and new Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, are standing by Bitar. Without a compromise, the government will be unable to agree on the steps necessary to pull Lebanon from its misery, including political and economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund to unlock the emergency funding Lebanon so badly needs.
An alternative scenario is that the president and prime minister submit to Hezbollah’s calls to dismiss Bitar, said Nizar Hassan, co-host of the “Lebanese Politics” podcast. But that comes with its own price. The government probably would lose the support of the United States and other Western allies, which have insisted on a transparent investigation into the port explosion and whose support would be vital if there is to be an IMF bailout.
“In both scenarios the government will become powerless, either because Hezbollah is in conflict with it or the West is in conflict with it,” he said. “So Mikati has no good choices.”
Many Lebanese are questioning why Hezbollah seems so determined to remove Bitar, even at the risk of igniting conflict.
One possibility is that Bitar, who has not revealed his findings, may have uncovered evidence implicating Hezbollah in the shipment of ammonium nitrate that blew up or with negligence in leaving it unattended for over six years at the port, said Kim Ghattas, the Beirut-based author of the book “Black Wave” about the regionwide rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
More broadly, Hezbollah may be seeking to undermine the investigation because of the threat it poses to the established political order, which has for decades protected the country’s powerful and often corrupt elites from scrutiny or accountability, including Hezbollah, she said. Bitar’s attempts to interrogate former senior government officials would set a precedent that could unravel the immunity long enjoyed by the politicians.
With parliamentary elections due to be held early next year, the tensions are unlikely to abate soon, analysts say. It serves the interests of both Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces to encourage sectarian sentiments among Lebanese who are deeply disillusioned with the political system that underpins their collapsed economy and failing state, said Bassel Salloukh, a Lebanon expert and associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies
“It’s a win-win situation for both groups, because they can use this to mobilize their constituencies behind them,” he said.
Continued unrest could also force the postponement of the elections, thereby perpetuating the current standoff and prolonging the survival of the current parliament, in which Hezbollah and its allies command a majority.
“The game becomes who controls the weapons and who [has] the territory. It’s a very smart move to make sure Christians vote Christian and Shiites vote Shiite, not Lebanese,” said Hassan, the podcast host.
The tensions also can’t be viewed in isolation from rising regional tensions between the United States and Iran, which have often played out in Lebanon in the past, Ghattas said.
The unexpected violence followed warnings from the Biden administration that it is growing impatient with Iran’s failure to return to the nuclear accord negotiations. Earlier this month, Iran’s foreign minister visited Beirut to further Iranian influence in Lebanon by offering to build two power stations and to take over the task of rebuilding Beirut’s port.
The fighting broke out on the same day as a preplanned visit by U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who announced $67 million in new aid for the Lebanese army while bullets were flying a few miles away.
“You could argue that what we saw in Lebanon is part of Iran’s regional game to up the pressure on the international community to give in. Iran is playing the negotiating game across the region on the whole chessboard,” Ghattas said.
In Tayouneh, where the violence flared, a group of four friends drawn from different religions drank tea together and cracked jokes about one another’s sects. They said they hoped the clashes were over.
“This is a sensitive area. This is a Christian area, of course, but it’s filled with Muslims. Everyone is living next to each other,” said one of the men, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fears for their security.
“It was blowing off steam,” said another, whose house was damaged by fire during the violence. But, he added, he has since packed two bags filled with essentials such as his identification documents and put them by the door, just in case more fighting erupts again and he has to flee.
Sly reported from London. Suzan Haidamous in Washington and Nader Durgham in Beirut contributed to this report.