Tale of two Lebanons


 BEIRUT, Lebanon — Valentine's Day has become a ritual of remembering the dead in some parts of Beirut.

This year, in a small corner of Hamra, young men banged drums and chanted slogans for Lebanon's late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, assassinated four years ago to the day.

Hanging from a building above the men was a giant poster of a local martyr, teenager Ziad Ghaleeyani.  He was killed during clashes last May between the mainly Sunni Muslims from Hariri's Future Party and the mainly Shiite members of Hezbollah and their allies. The fighting erupted over Hezbollah's private communication network, established outside the Lebanese government's control. In response to threats to remove the network by their political rivals in the government, Hezbollah and their allies took over west Beirut for several days.

Hezbollah prevailed: the communication network was left undisturbed, and the two sides reached a peace deal and power-sharing agreement, brokered by the Qatari government in Doha. But the fighting polarized an already divided population.

This weekend, both sides celebrated their dead, and talked about two different visions for Lebanon.

In one political corner, a gathering of partisans of the so-called "March 14" movement — named for the date in 2005 when more than 1 million Lebanese turned out at a massive rally that, along with pressure from the international community, forced Syria to withdraw, at least overtly, from Lebanon. 

The group — led by Hariri's son, Saad Hariri — blames Syria, a patron of Hezbollah, not only for Hariri's death but for much of what ails Lebanon.

At the time Hariri was killed, Syria had occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years, maintaining de facto control over the government, military, intelligence services and economy. An initial United Nations inquiry found evidence that Syria may have been behind the murder. Syria denies any role.

In the other corner, members of the  "March 8" movement — for the date in 2005 when Hezbollah supporters and their allies mounted their own pro-Syria rally in Beirut — gathered in the city's southern suburbs to mark a year since the assassination in Damascus of senior Hezbollah official Imad Mugneeyah.  Hezbollah accuses Israel of the killing.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said it was only "natural" for the group to make sacrifices. "The blood of the martyrs has allowed the citizens (of Lebanon) to return to their lands and homes," he said, in reference to his group's role in ending Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

Nasrallah urged all the Arabs to back the "resistance option" against Israel — led by Hamas and Hezbollah, and supported by Syria and Iran — saying the "compromise offer has collapsed."

Back in 2005, anti-Syrian politicians from the U.S.-backed March 14 won a majority in parliamentary elections, but their continued popularity has not been without more bloodshed.  In four years, eight more politicians and officials, most from March 14, have been assassinated. Every Feb. 14, the list of the dead, including Hariri, grows longer, and the international criminal investigation of his murder drags on.

At the Hariri rally on Saturday, Yassine Nassif, an 18-year-old Sunni Muslim and supporter of Hariri, said he doesn't see Israel as the main enemy. It's Hezbollah, he says.

"Hassan Nasrallah fights because he wants to kill all of us," Nassif said as he walked with thousands of others toward the Hariri rally.

Nassif lives in an area where Sunnis loyal to Hariri's Future Party clashed with March 8 supporters during May last year.

"Nasrallah wants to make this country only for Hezbollah and only for Shiites. But we are here today to tell him that all the Sunnis are here, and we are many more than he thinks," Nassif said.

The events of Saturday and Monday were the first true political rallies since a peace deal called the Doha agreement ended the May fighting. Lebanon has enjoyed relative calm since then.  But the tiny country of four million people remains a  front line of sorts in the "cold war" between Iran and Syria on one side, and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia (Rafiq Hariri was given Saudi citizenship, as was his son Saad) on the other.

The next battle for control of Lebanon will be fought in an upcoming round of parliamentary elections in June.  Both sides  claim they have majority support.

Somewhat predictably, the electoral season kickoff triggered violence.

A member of March 14 leader Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) was stabbed to death Saturday as he walked from the Hariri rally through a March 8 neighborhood. In retaliation, PSP party members blocked a major highway near the PSP's mountain stronghold and assaulted two people from March 8.

On Sunday, Jumblatt told mourners at the family's home, "We all condemn these acts but we shall not react. Let us offer our condolences and be united."

Nasrallah in his Monday night speech sent condolences to the family of the murdered man.

Fears of further violence before the election have led to the conciliatory tone among the opposing parties. Both Jumblatt and Nasrallah said neither March 14 nor March 8 has a domestic "enemy."

But Hariri supporter Yassine Nassif says his neighborhood is edgier than it's been in eight months.

"God willing, things won't be like they were for the last two years and there won't be any more violence," he said on his way to the Hariri rally. Nearby, his friends chanted a song taunting their political opponents, and hinting that Hezbollah had a part to play in Hariri's death.

"Listen, Nasrallah, we won't forget about our martyred Sunnis," they chanted. "The blood of the Sunni is not for sale."


Other GlobalPost dispatches by Ben Gilbert:

Some Lebanese call for civil unions

Lebanon bankers cool in a crisis

For Which it Stands: Lebanon