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In Beirut, signs of Lebanon's growing fault lines

Along an axis stretching from downtown, across tense borders between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, are the ingredients of another civil war whose prospect comes up almost casually in conversation.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

BEIRUT, Dec. 2 -- In a city of frontiers, Beirut built another border Saturday.

On one side of coiled barbed wire and metal barricades were armored personnel carriers manned by soldiers in red berets toting U.S.-made M-16 rifles and guarding the colonnaded, stone government headquarters where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. On the other were the fervent young men of Hezbollah and its allies, who have turned a downtown tailored for the rich into the site of an open-ended protest to force the government's fall.

"This is the point of confrontation between us and them," said Khodr Hassan, who walked 12 hours from his southern village to the protest with 30 other youths. He pointed at his friends at the barricade, some surging forward, others lolling about.

"This is the line of separation," said one of them, Ali Aitawi.

Long divided by the Christian east and largely Muslim west of its 15-year civil war, Beirut is a city snarled today by far more numerous boundaries of sect, perspective and ideology, intersecting and tangling across a capital and country wrestling with a question still unanswered since independence more than 60 years ago: What is Lebanon's identity?

In today's crisis, those fault lines tell the story of the struggle underway between the country's two camps, divided by past and present, with vastly different visions of Lebanon's future: on one side Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, and on the other the government, backed by the United States and France. The fault lines tell, too, of an impasse that perhaps can't be broken.

The borders are drawn by color, flag, portrait and symbol, a claustrophobic contest to lay claim to identity never solely Lebanese. They are defined by ideology: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah, for instance, or the Christian separatism of civil war-era militias with fascist roots. They follow the contours of leaders who command loyalty through personality over politics. And they offer protection in a country where survival can feel precarious.

In downtown Beirut, Hezbollah's protest, with its backers vowing to stay in the streets until the government is brought down, is subsumed in a broader story of the empowerment of Lebanon's Shiite community, the country's largest. Along an axis stretching from downtown, across tense borders between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, are the ingredients of another civil war whose prospect comes up almost casually in conversation. Segregated neighborhoods themselves exude an identity of politics, history and faith so suffocating that even someone living a few blocks away can feel a stranger within them.

"The fault lines are in the minds of the people. It's much more than just the geography of Beirut," said Robert Saliba, a 56-year-old architect and urban planner. "I think the mental geography is more important than what happens on the ground."

A proliferation of borders
Saliba grabbed a piece of bread filled with spice and made his way Saturday from a trendy cafe to nearby downtown, where thousands had pitched tents as part of the protest. Chants erupted every so often: "Siniora out!" At the barricade, boisterous men held up the front page of the daily as-Safir newspaper: "With its masses, the opposition besieges the government in crisis." Cheers erupted when recordings of speeches by Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, were played.

"People here are boiling," Saliba said, surveying the scene. He gestured back at the cafe. "And over there, they are drinking coffee?" The words were sharp, even surprised, a divergence from the sometimes abstract language of his academic training. A Greek Orthodox Christian, he was more observer than partisan. "Just across the road? It's awful."

He looked out at the barbed wire that coiled along the city's sleek, rebuilt downtown.

"You have a fault line again," he said. "When you cross it, you get an electric shock."

In a day, Beirut's downtown was transformed from a hub of half-million-dollar apartments and designer stores into a far more humble and modest place. Vendors sold bread with melted cheese for 65 cents from rickety wooden stands propped up on rusting bicycles. "Tastiest cheese," one promised. From a battered orange van, popcorn went for half that. "That's the price for Sayyid Hasan," the vendor shouted, using an honorific for the Hezbollah leader. Men hung out in circles, sitting in plastic chairs, tugging listlessly on water pipes.

Portable toilets went up in the streets, next to the fashionable Buddha Bar. Alongside them were white canvas tents where wool blankets were still spread for the protesters, their sandals and shoes left outside. In a carnival-like atmosphere, men from the Shiite-dominated southern suburbs shouted fealty to Hezbollah's leader. "God, Nasrallah and all the suburbs!" Others ridiculed Siniora, calling him "tanoura," Arabic for skirt. Some held signs that read, "Until victory." A few chatted with stern-faced soldiers. "You should leave and let us go in," one suggested, pointing to the government headquarters a shout away.

A crossroads
At a construction site along the street, an advertisement read, "Beirut Gate: The New Heart of the City."

As he walked, Saliba recalled the vision for the downtown of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. His detractors were plenty, seeing corruption and questioning whom the downtown was serving. But Hariri viewed it as a crossroads for Beirut's east and west, entertainment and commerce bringing them together. Instead, Saliba said, downtown has become contested space, another border: in March 2005, when Hezbollah's supporters and foes organized mass demonstrations over the Syrian presence here and, in this crisis, as both have mobilized their loyalists in a show of strength.

"It has become a place where power is proven," he said. "It has become the place where things are stated."

He watched crowds barrel down the streets, waving Lebanese flags and Hezbollah banners. Before him was probably the Shiite community's greatest assertion of political power in Lebanese history: seizing the downtown of a capital, in a country where Shiites have historically been disenfranchised. The chants cascaded, uttered with the authority that comes with confidence in numbers and the strength delivered by Hezbollah's organization, its discipline and, unsettling to many other Lebanese, its weapons.

The community's moment? Saliba shrugged.

"This will decide," he said. "It's definitely something that says, 'We are here and for good.' "

"We have this fake notion of coexistence. Now it's being tested the hard way. It's popping up," he said. "Now, in a very decisive way, because they're asking for power. If you want to coexist, then give us power."

He walked past the St. George Cathedral, a Maronite Catholic church, past the sprawling blue-domed mosque built by Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. The face of Nasrallah, a Shiite cleric by training, peered from posters on the walls and in the streets.

"I always say to my students, you have this segregation everywhere. It's part of any geography," he said, as troops lined the boundary between the protest and the rest of downtown. "It becomes a problem through politics and power struggles."

Fears of neighbors' intentions
A 15-minute drive away, Saad Fakhran sat in his Internet cafe, a button with Hariri's face pinned to his lapel. Around the corner were posters of Hariri and his son and successor, Saad. "Your words are commands," one banner read. On Fakhran's door was another picture of the former prime minister. "They destroyed the country," it read. "Where are you, Rafiq Hariri?"

Fakhran took a break from a crossword puzzle in a pro-Hariri newspaper that compared Hezbollah's protests to a coup attempt. Sharply dressed in a suit, his hair graying and his moustache trimmed, he raised his hand and pointed toward the borders that delimit his Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Tariq Jdideh, one of the tenser these days in Beirut. You go to the Khashaqji Mosque, he said, then the Qasqas Highway, a traffic circle, the Martyrs' Cemetery ("For us") and the Cemetery of the Two Martyrs ("For them"). "Who are the two martyrs? Only God knows what they mean," Fakhran said.

Shiite neighborhoods, he said, were in both directions.

"And in the middle is Tariq Jdideh, and we're afraid they'll enter," he said. "We're ready. We're ready by all means."

At 42, Fakhran is too young to remember Beirut's earlier incarnation, as a sleepy Mediterranean port dominated by the country's Sunni and Greek Orthodox communities. As he came of age, a far larger city was undergoing another transformation, as Israeli invasions, economic opportunity and civil war drove Shiites from southern Lebanon toward Beirut. For a time, their settlements on the capital's outskirts were known as "the belt of misery." Today, the southern suburbs, known as the Dahiya in Arabic, represent one of Hezbollah's strongholds -- its name uttered in chants -- and a distinctly Shiite part of the city.

A fight breaks out
Where these suburbs intersect with the Sunni parts of town, trouble has broken out during the month-long crisis. Several clashes erupted after the funeral last month of Pierre Gemayel, a pro-government minister assassinated in an ambush. Sometimes, gangs of youth incite each other; other times, it starts over the placement of banners, posters or flags of the wrong faction. Slogans shouted too loud caused a fight with Shiites in the traditionally Sunni neighborhood of Museitbeh last week. On Thursday night, Fakhran recalled, a few dozen Shiite residents entered Tariq Jdideh on mopeds, flying flags, and yet another fight broke out.

"More of them were hurt," he said with a nod.

Even in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh, scores of supporters and opponents of Michel Aoun, a former general allied with Hezbollah, clashed Monday in Sassin Square over putting up his poster. The police and army intervened.

Beirut was never simply divided between east and west, but the surge of trouble along so many fault lines in the city -- fraying, tense and multiplying as they are -- has worried residents old enough to recall the civil war's start in two local ambushes in 1975 that soon spiraled into chaos. A columnist, Darine Helwe, compared the streets, with police posted every so often, to "a military barracks."

"I'm not a little scared," Fakhran said. "I'm scared a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot."

His fear is not violence, though. It is more existential, he said: worry about his neighbors' intentions. In complaints that echo nearly 1,400 years of history, he wondered why Shiites insulted successors of the prophet Muhammad whom Sunnis revere. He worried about Hezbollah's arsenal. "Who are the missiles for?" he asked. He suggested Hezbollah is more loyal to Iran than Lebanon: "If Iran told them to sit, they would sit." And he is sure Nasrallah has in mind a Shiite Islamic republic.

"In my heart, I think they want to wreck the country," he said. "They don't want to rule it -- they want to wreck it.

"How else could you see it?" he asked.

He talked a little longer, then offered advice: Don't go past the Two Martyrs' Cemetery, the border with the Dahiya.

"Go to Tariq Jdideh, all over the place. But don't go over there. No, no," he said, shaking his head. "Trust me."

What about being Lebanese?
A little before dusk, Zeina el-Zein, a slight, smartly dressed 26-year-old Shiite with long dark hair, walked through the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh. She lives a short drive away, her neighborhood and the next partitioned by their catalogue of colors, banners and portraits. There is the yellow of Hezbollah, its flags and pictures marking Shiite territory. Hariri's portraits stake his family's claim. In Ashrafiyeh, there are other markers: the green and brown of the Phalangist Party, the red of the Lebanese Forces, the orange of Aoun. Each of the leaders has a nickname. Samir Geagea, a Christian, is "the Doctor," Aoun "the General," Nasrallah "the Sayyid."

"We need to remind you this is our neighborhood, our territory," Zein said. She shook her head in disgust. "We do whatever we feel like. This is our territory. If you don't like it, then leave."

"Any wall they can find, anywhere in Beirut, you'll find a poster or a message," she said.

She walked along Monot Street, a fashionable nightspot district.

"Here is a cedar," she said, the symbol of the right-wing Phalangist Party that commanded the largest Christian militia in the civil war. "This is, you know, Bashir," she said, pointing to a picture of Bashir Gemayel, the militia's leader who was elected president after the 1982 Israeli invasion, then assassinated. "We're here to stay in Lebanon," it read.

She walked a little father, past a church, then the neighborhood's sole mosque, as the muezzin's call to prayer drifted across the narrow, winding streets. It reminded her of her days at St. Joseph University, when the mosque's call to prayer and the church's bells would pour through the window of her sociology class, each time forcing the lecturer to stop.

"We were laughing," she recalled. "This is Lebanon."

A little farther were pro-government portraits of anti-Syrian figures assassinated since last year.

"We will never forget," they read.

"You keep nurturing memory," she said. "Everything works in this country so that you cannot forget any single detail of Lebanese history. They don't want us to forget. They really don't, or at least they're not working to let us forget."

Insistently secular
Zein is insistently secular, and in a country where being Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Sunni, Shiite or Druze almost immediately imposes a notion of perspective, outlook and politics, she feels alienated.

At the university, she was expected to defend her community's politics. With Christians, she sometimes has to explain why she might hew to a more socially liberal lifestyle.

What about being Lebanese? she asked.

"I could stay up all night, eating and drinking with them, spending a beautiful evening, and in the end, I'm still Zeina el-Zein, a Muslim Shiite who's from the south," she said. "I will always have this identity, whatever I do."

She sat in a cafe in Sassin Square, drinking coffee. The waiter greeted her in French. Draped over the wall of one building was the flag of Geagea's Lebanese Forces. There was a banner for Aoun across the street. Another sign hung nearby: "Ashrafiyeh is the heart of the Lebanese Forces." More pictures were on light poles: Bashir Gemayel, Pierre Gemayel.

"It has never changed, and I don't think it's ever going to change," she said.

She thought for a moment. "They use, they really use the vulnerability of the people here," she said. "I'm disgusted. Really, I am. I cannot even think about the option of civil war. It was one of the most horrible civil wars, the Lebanese one. It was disgusting, really. Really. I cannot believe after all we've seen, read and lived, we can even think about another civil war."

"Shame on us," she said.

She looked at the posters, the men's portraits peering at the traffic, claiming their territory.

She shook her head. "They're not giving us a choice."