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Can Tenuous Peace Among Lebanon’s Religious Sects Survive Stress of Syria’s War?

June 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Fragile relations between Lebanon's various religious sects have been strained by the continuing fallout of neighbor Syria's civil war and resentment of Syrian refugees. Margaret Warner concludes her series of reports from Lebanon with a closer look at the country's sectarian politics.
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JEFFREY BROWN: In the final story of her overseas reporting trip to Lebanon, Margaret Warner looks at the tenuous peace among the country’s various religious sects, and whether it can survive as the conflict in Syria moves deeper inside Lebanon’s borders.

MARGARET WARNER: In a high-end jewelry store in the Hamra district of Beirut, owner Elie Nawbar is entertaining a diverse set of friends.

ELIE NAWBAR, Lebanon: He is a Shiite, and I’m a Christian. He’s a Muslim Sunni. And we live together.

MAN: And I’m very close friends.

MARGARET WARNER: And you want to keep it that way?

ELIE NAWBAR: Yes. And this is Lebanon.

MARGARET WARNER: Nawbar spent much of Lebanon’s brutal 15-year civil war, ending in 1990, in London, but he’s back in business here and convinced that, even under the sectarian strains now inflamed by Syria’s civil war next door, his countrymen won’t let it happen again in Lebanon.

ELIE NAWBAR: And they know what this means, war. Nobody wants it anymore.

MARGARET WARNER: But plenty of other Lebanese aren’t so confident, as they live amid reminders of the city’s savage past, people from all walks of life, like this store clerk on Beirut’s waterfront promenade.

WOMAN: People here don’t like each other. It’s not easy to live here anymore. The situation in Syria is affecting Lebanon, and all the people here are scared.

MARGARET WARNER: Sharing her fears on the water’s edge below, a 50- year old fisherman who lived through the civil war.

MOHAMMED AL-GHOUL, Fisherman: People are very scared, but what can we do?

MARGARET WARNER: No wonder they’re scared. As militias of Lebanon’s Shiite party, Hezbollah, fight for their Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, sectarian fighting plagues Tripoli, and Sunni and Shiite villages in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley suffer regular rocket strikes.

All this is putting at risk a government pact made after the civil war, giving Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians and other sects each a piece of the power pie.

So says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

PAUL SALEM, Director, Carnegie Middle East Center: The Lebanese have found a way to coexist and manage their tensions without major confrontation. That arrangement is coming under a lot of stress because of the conflict in Syria.

FOUAD SINIORA, Former Lebanese Prime Minister: Hassan Nasrallah, what he did, effectively, he entrapped Lebanon into the Syrian quagmire.

MARGARET WARNER: Hezbollah’s engagement in the Syria conflict, led by Hassan Nasrallah, has angered many, including former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

FOUAD SINIORA: Well, this is endangering the political situation, the social cohesion in the country, as well as the economic and social consequences in Lebanon that are very devastating.

MARGARET WARNER: As head of a moderate, largely Sunni bloc in parliament, Siniora joined with other factions to forge an official government policy of neutrality in the Syria conflict. But that policy was always a sham, says newspaper editor Ibrahim Al Amine, who is close to Hezbollah and its leader.

IBRAHIM AL AMINE, Editor, Al Akhbar: No Lebanese can say he is not concerned with what is going on in Syria. In Lebanon, there are two sides, one force supporting the Syrian regime and another supporting the opposition. The forces supporting the opposition started acting on the ground first, before Hezbollah did. The difference is, Hezbollah’s capacities are much greater.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s little dispute about the economic damage the Syrian war has brought here. On a visit to Hezbollah-dominated Baalbek, home to majestic Roman ruins, cab driver Sayed Hasan tried to insist tourists were still coming.

MAN: From all places, Arab and Western countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Until a fellow cabbie jumped in.

ABBAS EID, Cab Driver: What is wrong with you? You tell them there are tourists? Look inside the shops. They are all empty. There is not work and no tourism here.

MARGARET WARNER: Business is bad down the road in Machgara too for this owner of a roadside shawarma eatery, now that most legal trade between Lebanon and Syria has been shut down.

HAJJ ABU WAEL AL SULTAN, Lebanon: The economy has become very bad because all the products I got were cheaper and came from Syria. Now everything is very expensive because the road is closed.

MARGARET WARNER: This business owner also happens to be a Shiite refugee from Syria who fled after Sunni rebels burned out his restaurant and home near Damascus. He’s part of another war-related stress on Lebanon, the waves of Syrian refugees. And he is one of the luckier ones.

In the shadow of a new Saudi-funded mosque outside the Sunni border town of Arsal, we found the unlucky ones, struggling to put up tents. Most didn’t bring money, but many brought newfound sectarian passions.

Thirty-year old Sunni Khadija Jamal Alahmad trekked here with her 10 children after her husband was shot.

KHADIJA JAMAL ALAHMAD, Refugee: Shia and Hezbollah attacked us, and they left nothing. They burnt the house, and we had a shop, but it is all gone now.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain to your children why they are here and why you left?

KHADIJA JAMAL ALAHMAD: The children know everything. I don’t say anything to them. They saw how people were being killed and how the fighting was going on.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you feel now about Shias, all Shias?

KHADIJA JAMAL ALAHMAD: I hate them.

MARGARET WARNER: All Shia?

KHADIJA JAMAL ALAHMAD: Yes,all of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Even with an influx of one million refugees into a country of just four million, the government won’t allow official camps. So, poorer Syrians make do in garages or empty buildings. Working and middle-class Syrians have rented apartments, driving up prices.

Tripoli restaurant manager Roula Sidawi says they are also taking Lebanese jobs.

ROULA SIDAWI, Restaurant Manager: The Syrian worker gets paid 10 times less than the Lebanese worker, so the boss fires the Lebanese and hires the refugees.

MARGARET WARNER: So is there resentment among Lebanese of the refugees?

ROULA SIDAWI: A lot.

MARGARET WARNER: The tidal wave of mostly Sunni refugees could also upset the demographic balance in Lebanon among Sunnis and Shias and a major combatant in Lebanon’s civil war, the Christians. Though they’re an estimated 35 percent of the population, many worry they will be persecuted or driven out, as Christians in Iraq and Egypt were after political upheaval brought Islamists to the fore.

At a mountaintop shrine to the Virgin Mary, Joelle Karam voiced that fear.

JOELLE KARAM, Architect. The majority of the Christians here are leaving the country. They are leaving Lebanon.

MARGARET WARNER: But Beirut’s Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop, Cyril Bustros, says Christians here need not fear or flee, if they keep their heads down.

ARCHBISHOP CYRIL BUSTROS, Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut: They cannot be caught in the war, and if they don’t collaborate in and participate in the war; 2,000 years, we are here, and there is no way that we will leave the country to the Muslims. So we have to stay here.

MARGARET WARNER: But on a carefree night, the kind that makes Beirut a magnet for so many in the Middle East, young partiers of all sects told us they would just as soon leave than watch their country slide again toward instability.

So did three friends who had sought out a quiet restaurant nearby. Zalfa Halabi is due to graduate soon from prestigious American University of Beirut.

ZALFA HALABI, Student: We’re not sure what’s going to happen next, and so our lives are sort of on hold.

MARGARET WARNER: But graphic artist Bane Fakih, also on the verge of graduating, dreams of British Columbia, not Beirut.

BANE FAKIH, Student: I really don’t want to live what my parents lived, because I know, they told us stuff, and it seems really ugly. I’m definitely not staying here.

MARGARET WARNER: Amidst the revelry that is still Beirut, a sobering warning for Lebanon.

JEFFREY BROWN: On our World page, you can read personal stories of three Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon.