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Lebanon on a Knife's Edge

Pro-Hezbollah demonstrators on the streets of downtown Beirut.

Tens of thousands of pro-Hezbollah supporters take to the streets of Beirut calling for a change of government.

At a recent concert by Lebanon's beloved diva, Fairuz, well-heeled Lebanese packed a large Beirut hall. They cheered loudly as the diminutive performer, draped in apricot silk, glided on to the stage.

Just blocks away, tens of thousands of protestors were staging a sit-in to bring down Lebanon's pro-Western government. The audience had braved army checkpoints, barricaded roads and threats of clashes to attend the Fairuz concert. When they arrived, they were unusually subdued for a Beirut crowd. Only when the deep voice of Lebanon's national icon filled the auditorium did their faces light up and their worries seem to momentarily fade. Even in the midst of political turmoil, the show goes on in Lebanon, I thought. Escapism at its best.

I too tried to escape my anxieties that night as I squinted through opera glasses at the 72-year-old superstar. But two-thirds of the way into the concert, my phone beeped. It was a text message telling me a Shiite boy had been murdered in a Sunni neighborhood and a huge brawl was raging. The knot that had been in my stomach for the past week tightened. Was this the start of the descent into violence we had all feared? Was this the start of Lebanon's next civil war? For me, was it time to finally think about leaving Lebanon?

My home for the last six years feels like it's on the verge of a total meltdown. The atmosphere these days is far more unsettling than during last summer's 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. I knew that war would eventually end. This latest crisis, however, a fallout from the summer war, has the potential to drag Lebanon into something longer lasting and even uglier.

My home for the last six years feels like it's on the verge of a total meltdown. The atmosphere these days is far more unsettling than during last summer's 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.

It began several weeks ago, when six of Hezbollah's ministers and their allies resigned from the government, demanding the formation of what they called a national unity government. Specifically, Hezbollah and its allies are seeking one-third of the seats in Lebanon's present government, which would give them veto power over all cabinet decisions. That includes the decision of whether or not Lebanon should cooperate in a U.N. tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim.

The rationale behind Hezbollah's demand is that Fouad Siniora's pro-Western government no longer represents the will of the majority. The militant Shiite group accuses the prime minister of being an American lackey and of betraying "the Islamic resistance" by not backing Hezbollah during its war with Israel. Indeed, Siniora accused Hezbollah of "adventurism" for kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and sparking the July war; but the prime minister then worked feverishly to bring about a ceasefire.

When talks with the government over the formation of a new cabinet broke down recently, Hezbollah and its allies took to the streets to press their demands. First they held a mass demonstration last Friday attended by followers of Hezbollah and the secular Shiite party, Amal. Also among some 800,000 gathered were tens of thousands of Christians who support the populist former general Michel Aoun, a recent ally of the Shiite Islamist group.

The government opposition then planted hundreds of tents in downtown Beirut and began a sit-in until the government resigns. Now in its eighth day, the protest feels a bit like a carnival with peaceful crowds waving Lebanese flags, beating on Middle Eastern drums and dancing to nationalist songs blaring through loudspeakers. Vendors hawk balloons, sesame bread and small cups of strong coffee to families with young kids in tow, while bearded men recline next to their tents puff on water pipes.

Protestors and media camped outside the Grand Serail government building in Beirut.

A mass sit-in has been underway for more than a week, with antigovernment protestors camped just yards from the prime minister's offices inside the Grand Serail.

With an irony that is lost on no one, Hezbollah's protest is taking place in the heart of Lebanon's posh downtown, a Mecca for rich Gulf Arabs and home to now-shuttered designer boutiques and pricey sushi bars. Built by the former prime minister Hariri to lure tourists and investment back to Beirut, the downtown is hardly welcoming to most working- or middle-class Lebanese. Many have long complained that Hariri spent billions on Beirut's showcase downtown, while doing little to improve the lives of Lebanese elsewhere in the country. Now as they literally camp out on Beirut's most expensive real estate, Lebanon's long disenfranchised Shiites seem to be taking their sweet revenge.

"What did Hariri and his cronies ever do for me?" asked 21-year-old engineering student, Hassan Saad, leaning against a closed-up cigar store. Saad told me he was from Beirut's largely Shiite southern suburbs, which were pounded to smithereens during last summer's war. "I will have no job when I graduate next year," he told me. "And then what will I do? While the government gets rich and steals our money, we just get poorer."

But the ongoing protest is about a lot more than just economic discontent. Members of the current government are calling it an attempted coup. They accuse Hezbollah of doing the bidding of its patrons -- Iran and Syria -- by trying to thwart Siniora's U.S.-backed government, the first independently elected government since the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005. And despite Hezbollah's claim that it supports the tribunal to investigate Hariri's death, many in the government believe that the Islamist group is trying to grab power and suppress Lebanon's cooperation in a court that might find Syria guilty of Hariri's murder.

Members of the current government are calling the protest an attempted coup. They accuse Hezbollah of doing the bidding of its patrons -- Iran and Syria -- by trying to thwart Siniora's U.S.-backed government.

And while the mood at the sit-in is generally festive and upbeat, there are threatening undercurrents to the protest. Hezbollah has pitched scores of tents some 200 yards from Siniora's office building, the Ottoman era Grand Serail, where the prime minister has remained holed up throughout the crisis. The encampment resembles a medieval siege. Hezbollah's foot soldiers are well-stocked with water trucked in by the group; food is distributed throughout the day. Bands of youth keep up the psychological pressure by pointing their megaphones toward the prime minister's office chanting slogans such as, "Condoleeza Rice is evil, Ahmad Fatfat (the Sunni Interior Minister) is a Jew and Fouad Siniora must die." Just a few coils of razor wire and a half-dozen tanks separate tens of thousands of protestors from the blockaded seat of government.

"This is a war," an angry Hezbollah supporter, who only gave his name as Hussein told me, in the shadow of the Serail. "This government betrayed us; it did not support the Shiites when Israel bombed us. Now many of us don't have homes and the government has done nothing to help us. This government," he added emphatically, "has to go, even if by force."

Hezbollah's campaign of intimidation is backed by the largest collection of arms in Lebanon. Although the Shiite group has sworn never to use its guns against the Lebanese, no one is feeling especially reassured these days.

Protestors wave flags in mass protests in Beirut.

Hezbollah has rallied support among other groups, including the secular Shiite party, Amal, and Christians who support the populist former general Michel Aoun.

But what's even more worrisome is the sectarian anger that Hezbollah's demonstration has unleashed. Many Sunnis back their fellow Sunni prime minister, who was elected following the Hariri assassination in 2005. They don't take kindly to Hezbollah's anti-government insults. And with Shiite-Sunni tensions erupting in Iraq, emotions between the two sects are already high. Although the fault lines in this crisis are essentially political (progovernment versus antigovernment), in Lebanon everything eventually reverts to sectarianism.

This past Tuesday morning in the Sunni neighborhood of Qasqas, a few miles from downtown, a shop owner swept up the broken glass outside his small grocery store. The night before, he said, a group of about 60 Shiite protestors rampaged through his neighborhood, smashing cars and shop windows.

"They are thugs," cursed Mohammed Daher. "They are taking this country down the drain."

"If they want war, we are ready to fight them," his 20-something son jumped in.

Two days of street brawls between Shiites and Sunnis in the Qasqas and Tarek Jadide area have left one Shiite dead and scores wounded on both sides. Lebanon's army and internal security forces -- tasked with separating the groups -- have been strained by the clashes.

In a rare political statement, the head of Lebanon's army, Gen. Michel Suleiman, said earlier this week that the absence of a political solution and the recurrence of security incidents of a sectarian nature were "weakening the army's neutrality."

"This weakness may make the army unable to control the situation in all areas of Lebanon," Suleiman added, unreassuringly.

In my Gemayze neighborhood, a largely Christian area, residents and shopkeepers fear the worst. Down the street from my apartment, I found my local antique dealer, soft-spoken 62-year-old Michel Samah, moving his most valuable items, like the crystal chandeliers, down to his basement. It was Sunday, a day he would normally spend relaxing in his village in the mountains.

"My wife told me not to take any chances," Samah said. "We're afraid there's going to be a lot of bloodshed."

"We had hoped we'd never face this again," added Samah, who spent most of Lebanon's 15-year civil war commuting between his shop near Beirut's green line and the safety of his Maronite Christian village, some 45 minutes away. "The Christians tried to assert their dominance before they were cut down to size by the civil war. Now," said Samah, "the Shiites are making the same mistake. Just because they have large numbers and have guns, they think they can bully the rest of Lebanon, but wait till they see how the rest of Lebanon reacts," he warned.

"The Christians tried to assert their dominance before they were cut down to size by the civil war. Now, the Shiites are making the same mistake."

Samah, like others here, believes Lebanon may be on the brink of a war -- this time mainly between Sunnis and Shiites. Despite the fact that the Sunnis didn't have much of a militia during the civil war and are ill prepared to fight a war today, Samah, who is a former Christian militiaman, thinks there's a solution to that. "Sunni money will fund the Lebanese Forces," he told me, "and the LF will fight the Shiites on the Sunnis' behalf."

It sounds a bit far-fetched to me, although nothing is out of the question in Lebanon. In the meantime, some are expecting the government to work out a temporary agreement with Hezbollah, perhaps granting it more cabinet seats, until new elections can be held. There are rumors about a war in the spring or summer, when the Sunnis will have had time to arm and Israel might try to finish off the Lebanese foe that left it bruised and humiliated this past summer. But, of course, this is all local speculation.

Personally, I'm worried about how long Lebanon can withstand the current crisis before it's brought to its knees by capital flight, the departure of businesses and companies to safer shores like Dubai, and the emigration of thousands of young, educated Lebanese seeking a healthier environment elsewhere. Several of my friends have started to pack up their apartments; they tell me they're too depressed by the current situation. They see no future for Lebanon.

It's a sad ending to a period of hope launched by Lebanon's so-called Cedar Revolution in the spring of 2005. Then, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand Syria's withdrawal and the creation of a free, independent Lebanon. But since then, a bickering political elite has done little to build a country that all Lebanese could feel a part of. America made the mistake of backing Israel in its bombing campaign against a populist guerrilla group, hence weakening its Lebanese allies. And today Iran and Syria clearly have the upper hand in a proxy war that could lead somewhere very ugly for Lebanon.

Kate Seelye is a Middle East correspondent for Public Radio International's "The World" and a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. Read more of Seelye's dispatches from the region and watch her May 2005 FRONTLINE/World report from Lebanon and Syria following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. You can also listen to Seelye's latest radio reports from Beirut on The World's Web site and learn more about the history of Hezbollah.


James Gallagher - Ellesmere Port, UK
I expect that the Israelis are sitting back at the moment rubbing their hands with glee as events unfold in Lebanon.

Al Fawaz - Rochester, NY
This is an unbalanced article that almost wants to drive the reader to think in only one direction. A civil war in Lebanon will only further worsen the political influence of the United States in the Middle East. It will allow other powers like Russia and China assert more influence.

Andy - San francisco, California
What planet does "Prism" live on? Hezbollah is threatening a coup in Lebanon. They are trying to block the UN and Lebanese investigation of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah's protests are not some progressive love fest. They are undermining the Sunni-Christian-Druze alliance of last year's "Cedar Revolution" when the Lebanese finally compelled Syria to end its occupation of the country. Let's hope the Lebanese can survive this latest threat to their national independence.