Lebanon: Economic collapse fuels sectarian tension and 'total chaos'

Financial hardship revives old divides as desperate residents fight over scarce resources

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Lebanon’s economic collapse is driving criminality, with armed disputes taking an increasingly sectarian tone and sparking fears of civil strife, experts and politicians have told The National.

Sectarian tensions have always existed in Lebanon, ravaged by 15 years of civil war until 1990, but such incidents have multiplied in the past months in a country awash with weapons.

The latest sectarian flare-up happened in Maghdoushe, south Lebanon, where desperate people fought over scarce fuel last week. The violence exposed the fragility of civic peace that rests upon sect-based political alliances.

Maghdoushe holds special significance to Christians because the village is home to a cave where the virgin Mary allegedly spent a night waiting for Jesus to return from the nearby city of Sidon.

A large bronze statue of the virgin Mary, mounted on top of a 34-metre tower, watches over the small village, nestled in the foothills of south Lebanon.

“We have been living here for hundreds of years, nothing like this has ever happened before,” Raif Younan, who heads Maghdoushe’s municipality said over the phone.

“We need calm, no one wants a war here,” he said, adding that the situation was now under control.

Sect leaders and local representatives have, in many cases, worked to de-escalate the violence, yet such incidents are expected to increase as people fight over scarce resources.

The violence started when villagers from the Shiite town of Anqoun, desperate for fuel, tried to force a petrol station in Maghdoushe to open on Friday. The clashes left six people injured, thrusting the village into the public eye.

In retaliation, men from Anquon, a stronghold for the Hezbollah-allied Amal movement, vandalised cars and a small icon on Sunday. An image of broken glass surrounding a small figure of the virgin Mary went viral on social media, with many users on Twitter reacting to the incident by using inflammatory sectarian rhetoric.

Fights over fuel at petrol stations have become commonplace in Lebanon as motorists queue for hours amid severe shortages.

“We let it pass,” Mr Younan said of the vandalised icon. “We don’t want this to escalate. This cannot be allowed to turn sectarian."

The incident between the two villages sparked concern at the very top of the Lebanese political system, prompting Shiite and Christian leaders to react quickly to de-escalate the violence.

A delegation of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, the dominant Shiite political force in Lebanon, met representatives of Maghdoushe in Sidon to calm the situation on Tuesday, and in previous days.

“We discussed means of enhancing stability between the two towns after the recent events in the region,” a Hezbollah statement read.

The group said that parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whose Shiite movement Amal wields great influence in Anqoun, had also intervened to halt the violence. In the days that followed, men from Anqoun went to Maghdoushe to repair the broken box in which the icon was encased, as a gesture of goodwill.

The tensions in Maghdoushe are the latest sign that economic collapse is reviving old schisms as desperate residents fight over scarce resources and territorial control, says Imad Salamey, an associate professor at the Lebanese American University.

“This is what a total collapse of institutions and state functions looks like,” he said.

“We are drifting towards a moment where no one can really control peace on the same street, in the same neighbourhood.”

The crime rate has shot up in Lebanon since the onset of a severe financial crisis in 2019. The Internal Security Forces reported that in 2020, car robberies increased by 146 per cent, car thefts skyrocketed by more than 100 per cent and murders rose by 38 per cent compared with the previous year.

But criminality is taking an increasingly sectarian turn.

In the past month alone at least three high-profile incidents of violence between Lebanon’s different communities have been recorded, one of them fatal.

Early last month Sunni clansmen in Khalde, south of Beirut, shot a Hezbollah member in a revenge killing. At least two other Hezbollah members were killed in clashes during Ali Chebli’s funeral procession.

The next week, Druze villagers clashed with Hezbollah members when they caught an operative passing through their town with a rocket launcher, after having fired towards Israel. In retaliation, videos emerged of Hezbollah supporters harassing fruit and vegetable vendors in Druze, which prompted members of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party to assault a Shiite van driver, sharing footage of the bloodied man online.

The situation today is, however, not a return to the civil war era, because there is no interest from regional powers to fund sectarian parties, Mr Salamey says. During Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990, regional powers funded and armed Lebanon’s many militias.

“At the moment we haven’t seen a backer for any of these groups other than Iran, which arms Hezbollah,” he says.

“What we have at the moment is personal confrontations, often sectarian, that are spread out across the country.”

Armed disputes over fuel and incidents of sectarian violence have multiplied in the past year as strained security forces struggle to contain them.

The Lebanese Armed Forces chief gave a warning this year that soldiers may go hungry lest the military received international aid due to economic hardship. The Lebanese pound lost 90 per cent of its value in two years, slashing the salaries of policemen and soldiers and affecting morale.

Sidon MP Ousama Saad says that desperate residents are now taking matters into their own hands instead of relying on fragile state institutions. Security in the southern city and its surroundings has declined sharply since the onset of the crisis, he says.

“People are left to fend for themselves and this abandonment is creating total chaos. Chaos is everywhere,” he said over the phone.

“Where are the security forces? Where is the energy ministry? Where is justice? They all seem to be on holiday.”

Mr Saad is aligned with Hezbollah but he came under fire by the group recently after condemning the assassination of intellectual and activist Lokman Slim.

His father was a leftist politician assassinated at the onset of the civil war in 1975.

He expects clashes between different sects, localities and even within the same community to intensify “because there is no rule of law”.

“Maybe it’s in the political elite’s interests to drive the country to chaos,” the long-time politician said of Lebanon’s entrenched ruling class, blamed widely for fomenting the economic crisis.

“They are telling people: it’s either us or chaos.”

Updated: September 04, 2021, 8:35 AM