Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rising Tension in Lebanon After Friday's Car Bombing

October 21, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon  Tension has been rising sharply in Lebanon after Friday afternoon's car bombing (October 19), which exploded close to Sassine Square in Beirut's Ashrafieh, a Christian central neighborhood. The bomb detonated in a narrow street that is in the proximity of the headquarters of Saad Hariri's 14 March Alliance. The explosion was well heard around the city from adjacent areas like Gemmayze and Mar  Mikhael to the far hilly neighborhood of Baabda. The blast took the life of eight people, wounded scores and completely ripped off at least two buildings.

The target of the bomb was the head of the Lebanese intelligence branch of the Internal Security Forces (I.S.F.), Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a Sunni Muslim who was profoundly anti-Syrian and who was very close politically to Saad Hariri. Mr. al-Hassan was probably going to be the I.S.F. next head. A couple of months ago he had been behind the investigation that was later the basis for prosecuting the former Lebanese information minister, Michael Samaha and two Syrians for complotting in order to foment religious hatred in Lebanon.
Previously, Mr. al-Hassam directed an investigation into the deaths of the Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri and 21 other people in February 2005. His analysis pointed out strongly toward Syria and Hezbollah's direct implication into the murderous attack. At this regard, it should be noted that the Syrians at the time of the blast still had a military presence in Lebanon. Until last Friday, Mr. al-Hassam had been able to escape several assassination attempts. "He used to move around according to exceptional safety measures and he had his family installed in Paris because he felt himself as a target" added Samir Geagea, a prominent Lebanese politician, senior member with the March 14 Alliance.

Immediately after the blast, many anti-Syrian a politician, like Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, started accusing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to be behind the explosion. And Mr. Hariri's coalition also requested the government, which is run by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, to resign because of its inability to maintain internal security in the country. In fact, Lebanese politicians (especially those belonging to the opposition) are scared by the possible direct involvement of Lebanon into the current Syrian turmoil. It's worth remembering that the Syrian Army withdrew from Lebanon only in 2005, after a 29-year occupation. On Saturday, Mr. Mikati offered to resign so as to create a government of national unity, but President Michel Suleiman requested him to stay in power and to find a way out from this political crisis.

Late Friday, some protests started in Beirut and Tripoli, especially in Sunni-inhabited areas. Currently, people are burning tires and are blocking several roads. On Sunday morning, a fifteen-year-old boy was killed by a random gunfire while confrontations between supporters and opponents of Syria's president occurred in Tripoli. While thousands of Lebanese attended peacefully (but, unequivocally chanting against the government and Syria) the funeral of Mr. al-Hassam in Beirut's Martyrs' Square in the early afternoon of Sunday, then later some people started storming with stones and metallic rods the government offices located nearby. The police retaliated with warning shots and tearing gas.

With reference to the current turmoil in Syria, the Muslim community in Lebanon is almost perfectly split between Shias, who support President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Sunnis, who support Syrian rebels (Druze people are much less numerous). Before Friday afternoon's car bombing, tension had already risen in Lebanon for almost a week, following last Sunday's (October 13) Martyrs' Square's sit-in. On that occasion, the powerful Salafist Sheikh al-Assir from Saida (Sidon) he gained a lot of popularity some months ago after that he and his followers had blocked the road between Sidon and Beirut held a Sunni sit-in in Martyrs' Square, which is the same square where today was celebrated the funeral. While on stage, he hurled all his anger toward Syria's president and Hezbollah. The Sunni rally ended peacefully, but later Sheikh al-Assir's convoy was pelted with stones in central Beirut on its way back to Saida.

The situation looks quite unstable right now and there is now fear that the country may fall back to a cycle of sectarian violence and reprisals, which it has undergone in the past four decades. The only real hope is that Friday's car bombing was only an isolated sort of reprisal against a man who was deeply anti-Syrian and who, as said above, had already escaped some assassination attempts. Instead, were this car bombing the first piece in a series of terrorist attacks, the situation could really push Lebanon into another civil war.

At the beginning of al-Hassan's funeral, politicians, the military and security officials attended at the I.S.F. headquarters a ceremony held with full military honors. There, President Suleiman said that the government and Lebanese people must work "shoulder to shoulder" to overcome these sad events. And then he added: "I tell the judiciary do not hesitate, the people are with you, and I tell the security be firm, the people are with you, with you. And I tell the politicians and the government do not provide cover to the perpetrator." Beautiful words, indeed.

The next days will now prove whether Lebanon will continue with the peaceful normality of the last four years or it will revert to the previous turmoil.