Rita Daou, AFP
Last updated: 24 May, 2012

Deep-seated fear of unrest haunts Lebanon

Fed by the 14-month crisis in neighbouring Syria and rumours of renewed civil unrest, turbulence across Lebanon is stoking fears the situation in the country may take a turn for the worse.

On Wednesday night, a gunbattle broke out in the Caracas district of west Beirut, followed by a clash that lasted several hours and left two dead, according to security officials.

The spark for the clash, during which gunmen used hand grenades against the Lebanese security forces, was a “personal dispute” between at least one of the men and a woman in her early 20s, the officials added.

Though the shootout was an “isolated incident,” a security official at the scene told AFP, “the timing of the incident is very bad, because people in Lebanon are nervous about the overall situation.”

Uncertainty turned news of a crime into a new cause for alarm. That some of those involved in the clash were Syrian nationals sparked rumours on the streets the next morning.

Some wondered where the gunmen got the weapons from, others said their real target was the Lebanese army, and still others raised questions about whether the gunfight had a political backdrop.

The developments have proven right experts who say Lebanon has fallen hostage to the conflict in neighbouring Syria, following deadly sectarian clashes between the country’s pro- and anti-Damascus camps.

Though the violence has on the whole been short-lived and focused on small areas of the country, individual citizens’ lives have already been transformed.

“My husband is travelling and due to return soon,” Mirella Qazzi, 40, told AFP. A mother of four, Qazzi lives in Jounieh, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the capital Beirut.

“I am very worried that when he flies back, he won’t be able to get home, because the roads might be blocked,” Qazzi added.

She said was angry because she felt the spectre of war looming, “even if no Lebanese wants war, regardless of our sectarian differences.”

Though relatively contained, the speed with which the waves of violence have unfolded from specific security incidents has left many feeling shaken.

On May 12, Shadi al-Mawlawi, a young Islamist from the northern port city of Tripoli was arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation. The arrest was followed by clashes that left 10 people dead.

Then on May 20, troops shot dead two Sunni clerics when their convoy failed to stop at a checkpoint in the north, prompting a round of fighting in Beirut that left two dead.

Residents protested the clerics’ killing by setting fire to tyres and cutting off several roads in northern Lebanon.

Youths also cut off roads when a group of Shiite Lebanese pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria this week.

On Wednesday night, west Beirut’s commercial district Hamra saw a second shootout near a pro-Syria party office. Earlier in the day, a political clash broke out between students at Saint Joseph University.

On the same day, two men fought over a bill at a store in east Beirut. The dispute escalated, and led to a shootout. In the evening, residents took to the streets.

“My business partner is from the Gulf region,” said 48-year-old Khaled Saad, a construction consultant, who complained to AFP that his work had been put on hold by frequent unrest.

“I cannot ask him to send me money to start work, when his country won’t let him come to to Lebanon.”

Last week, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait issued their citizens warnings against travel to Lebanon. And the US embassy in Beirut on Thursday warned Americans to be wary of “tensions” and “violent incidents.”

But 25-year-old Caracas resident Hossam said unrest was part of life in the neighbourhood.

“This is the real Lebanon,” he told AFP. “So long as we live in such a divided country, we won’t live in peace.”

Asked whether he was worried about the future, Hossam echoed the voices of thousands of youths and said he might emigrate.

Yousef Mallah, a Lebanese Civil Defence volunteer at the scene of Wednesday’s gunbattle, said “an individual security incident shouldn’t be blown up.

“But because there’s weapons involved, everyone gets worried,” he added.

The Lebanese press too has mirrored the mood on the streets.

An-Nahar daily blamed the authorities for their “scandalous paralysis,” and As-Safir said the country was “cursed with insecurity.”

Baseless rumours too have become rife, with AFP receiving alerts over alleged incidents that turned out to be false.

Still, people have found ways to laugh at the situation.

“The good news for all of Lebanon’s sects is, there’s enough tyres to go around for everyone,” read one joke that has been circulating on Lebanese Facebook pages.