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Lebanese think the unthinkable: another civil war

Times Staff Writer

For a glimpse into Lebanon’s precarious, death-tinged mood, consider the words of two young men. Each hails from an extreme end of this nation’s gaping political and religious divide. And both say they are willing to die fighting for power.

Electronics student Shadi Akouri, a 23-year-old Christian, says he would “pay in blood” for control of the Lebanese government. “Hezbollah has arms and [is] making clear [it] wants this. OK, we want it too. If their intention is to fight, we’ll fight. If you don’t defend yourself, what is the point of existence?”

Across town, 18-year-old Hezbollah supporter Mohammed Haidar also said he was willing to give up his life. “When you want to change the government, people always die,” said Haidar, a Shiite Muslim who says the U.S.-backed Lebanese government is illegitimate. “I will be on the front lines. Why? Because I want to build a country where we can hold our heads up because we are Shia.”

As recently as last year, many Lebanese emphatically stated that there would never be another civil war, that their nation had suffered enough, killed enough, paid enough. They had learned a bitter lesson during a conflict that erupted among religious groups in the mid-1970s and raged until 1990.

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Since the civil war, talk of religious sects had almost been considered taboo, at least in public. It was common to hear people complain about the Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah, but not the Shiites; the powerful Sunni Hariri family, but not the Sunnis.

When Christians, Sunnis and members of the Druze sect united to demand Syria’s ouster in 2005, many Lebanese rejoiced in the notion that, at last, patriotism was about to overcome religious divisions.

But with Shiite Hezbollah making a hard play for greater power, and with Sunni-Shiite warfare in Iraq exacerbating religious friction throughout the region, conventional wisdom among Lebanese elites has become bleak. On both sides, a tone of wary negotiation has been replaced by hardened faces and fiery pledges to risk death to ensure that their own vision of Lebanon, and their faction’s political power, prevails.

On the street, politics are openly laced with religious prejudice. Christians and Sunnis fret about being overrun by Shiites. There is tension among rival Christian factions over Maronite Catholic Michel Aoun’s affiliation with Hezbollah, which is seen by other Christians as a betrayal of his sect. Acute animosity has flared between Shiites and Sunnis, fed by the civil war in Iraq.

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The summertime war between Hezbollah and Israel stripped many Lebanese of their livelihoods and drained them of hope. With the economy in shreds and sectarian splits cracking open, there is a sense that the status quo is not worth preserving.

“I can see it in the eyes of my students,” said Walid A. Fakherddine, a media and communications professor at the American University of Science and Technology. “The people are ready to go to war, or they want to leave the country. They can’t stay where they are.”

Many Lebanese even describe a sort of nostalgia for civil war, especially among youths too young to remember the bloody horrors of street battles, kidnappings and mortar attacks.

There is still hope the two sides can negotiate their way out of the crisis. But these days, many Lebanese bluntly say they expect to face another civil war; others just shrug and say “anything can happen.”

Few rule out the possibility of further fighting.

Many people are afraid that if Hezbollah and its allies take to the streets in coming days to demand a change in government, as they have repeatedly pledged to do, clashes will erupt. Hezbollah members swear they will stay in the streets until the government falls. And their rivals have threatened to unleash security forces to defend government institutions attacked by demonstrators.

“We fear the reaction of the ruling majority when and if we decide to carry out these protests,” said Trad Hamadeh, a Hezbollah member who resigned, along with other Shiite political officials, as labor minister this month. “They control security. They control the real power on the ground.”

Lebanon’s political woes deepened when Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year-old minister of industry and scion of a powerful Christian political family, was gunned down in the streets of Beirut last week.

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Since Gemayel’s death, the capital has become a montage of scenes of tension. Sunni and Shiite gangs have clashed in the southern suburbs. Rival Christian gangs brawled in the Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh.

During one recent rally, Christian electronics student Akouri stood on the gravel in a vacant lot during a rally in downtown Beirut. Nearby, college-age youths cupped hands around lit candles and chanted, “The one who killed Pierre, we want to drink his blood!” and, referring to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, “Wait, Nasrallah, wait. We will dig your grave.”

Messages of division, and a sometimes less-than-subtle call to arms, are blasting through Lebanon’s many television channels. The antagonism is coming not just from the array of talk shows, but is implicit in carefully produced commercials.

The Future channel, owned by the Hariri family, has kept up relentless pressure on viewers to “remember the martyrs,” or assassinated politicians. Cartoons show Lebanon as a prisoner with a ball and chain, presumably Hezbollah, around its leg, or as people choking on black fumes, also representing Hezbollah. “Let us live,” runs the slogan.

On Hezbollah’s Al Manar channel, the Lebanese government is routinely referred to as “Feltman’s government” -- a reference to U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman.

A commercial tells viewers: “We are the resisters. We are the ones whose homes were destroyed. We are the ones who were buried alive. We are the defenders of the nation. We are a sovereign Lebanon.”

“I can’t deny that Hezbollah is Lebanese, but they are supported by Iran. And I don’t know what they are doing, where they are going,” said Omar Alewian, a Sunni student. “If we have to do something ... I’m ready to die.”

Meanwhile, a handful of Cabinet ministers have taken up residence behind the gun-toting guards, high walls and armored personnel carriers that ring the prime minister’s headquarters in downtown Beirut.

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If any more ministers are killed, the government could collapse.

With rumors racing of a Syrian-backed plot to kill off opposition Cabinet members, the ministers are frightened for their lives.

“I’m nervous about my country blowing up,” said Nayla Mouawad, the Christian minister of social affairs. “The people are put back with their old devils.”

For ministers such as Mouawad, the sprawling hilltop headquarters has turned into a prison. Mouawad’s hairdresser and secretary come through the checkpoints to visit her, but she refuses to leave. She knows well the dangers of political assassination; her husband, President Rene Mouawad, was killed in 1989. She blames Syria for the slaying.

Dressed neatly in a charcoal suit, smoking one Marlboro Light after another, Mouawad said she didn’t anticipate getting her freedom back. Not any time soon.

“We expect the crisis will last,” she said. “I expect violence.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com


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