Ongoing clashes stoke fears of sectarian strife across Lebanon

May 20, 2012, Sunday/ 12:48:00

As the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli became the scene of armed skirmishes between Sunni and Alawite communities in past days, concerns rose among experts and officials that sectarian strife may be further complicating the situation in the politically volatile country.

As already frayed relations between Sunni Muslims, who support the Syrian uprising, and Alawites, who back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, turned to armed clashes last Saturday following the capture of a Sunni Lebanese critic of Assad by security forces, fears flared over the possibility of further escalation of sectarian strife across the country.

Nine people have died and more than 100 people have been wounded since clashes erupted in the Sunni Muslim district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen last Saturday after deepening sectarian tension over the worsening situation in neighboring Syria.

“It is not a new problem,” Rashid Fayed, a politburo member of the Future Movement in Lebanon, said in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman via phone on Wednesday, addressing the complicated nature of clashes in Tripoli, a Sunni Muslim stronghold.

The recent clashes were ignited by the arrest of Lebanese national Shadi Mawlawi, who vehemently criticizes Assad.

He argued that the detention of Mawlawi has a slim legal footing as accusations against detainees of being members of al-Qaeda are politically motivated.

“There are more than 200 people who have been kept in prison without trial for more than five years. They are yet to be brought to court,” said Fayed, who is frustrated with the deteriorating political situation in the country.

Tripoli is home to many dissidents of the Syrian regime and thousands of Syrian refugees who escaped Assad’s brutal crackdown on opponents. The second-largest city of Lebanon suffers from high unemployment and bitter poverty and locals blame the state for failing to resolve the deep socioeconomic problems of the region.

Tripoli was home to Syrian troops until 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on Feb. 14. Hariri was known for his efforts to reconstruct post-war Beirut. Facing international pressure, Syria withdrew its troops from its Western neighbor.

Charged with being a member of a terrorist organization, Mawlawi was taken to prison last week. The Sunni community is enraged with his detention and says it is politically motivated.

Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, the grand mufti of Lebanon, demanded the immediate release of the detainees, a statement from Dar al-Fatwa says. Moreover, Qabbani urged state officials to release dozens of Islamists who are being held in Lebanese prisons without charge.

“Dar al-Fatwa does not accept the detention of people for years without charge [out of concern for] human rights, the dignity of the individual and [so that] their relatives are not harmed,” the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.

An official from an international nongovernmental organization who requested not to be named said the current situation may further worsen if arrests continue in the predominantly Sunni regions. For the moment, he underlined, the escalation of violence is highly unlikely and the rest of Lebanon seems quiet. “The situation in Beirut is now under control. There is no sign of clashes in the capital.”

Regarding possible political tremors as a result of the clashes, the same official from the NGO, which takes part in relief efforts in Lebanon, said the Sunni community has since the death of Hariri suffered from a lack of a strong and charismatic leader to improve its position within the political system.

The situation may affect the political situation in the country as well as the political career of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the official said, noting that if Mikati fails to control the situation on the ground, he may face pressure from strong Sunni families in Tripoli and not hold on to power much longer.

There are signs of squabbles within the government and parliament in Beirut as some circles have begun to call for early elections, he said.

Beyond that, when the clashes erupted, many lawmakers and prominent figures called on Mikati to resign. Mikati is leading a coalition government established after much haggling over the distribution of power and authority among the various groups within the country. He came to office after reaching a deal with Hezbollah and adopted a policy of disassociation from the Syrian crisis.

The same official said there are wounded defectors who are receiving treatment in Tripoli hospitals. He went on to say that the Sunni community in Tripoli is enraged with the fact that militias from the Shiite Amal organization and Hezbollah as well as Syrian intelligence, the Mukhabarat, are sometimes present in the city in a hunt for opponents of the Assad regime.

The official said the main problem in Tripoli stems from the fact that the militias captured several injured defectors and handed them over to Syrian forces over the past several months, making Tripoli’s Sunni residents uneasy and angry.

In the meantime, Timur Göksel, a former spokesman and senior advisor to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) who currently teaches at the American University of Beirut, said he does not agree with comments which assess the recent clashes with relation to the Syrian crisis. “As far as I know, over the last 15 years there have always been clashes between the two neighborhoods. I don’t think the clashes have anything to do with the Syrian crisis. It is local,” he argued.

In remarks to Sunday’s Zaman on Friday, Hani Chemaitelly, the consul general of Lebanon in İstanbul, said the Lebanese government has taken control of the situation in Tripoli and that the clashes have been halted. He said the situation will be handled by legal officials, who will look into what legal channels should be pursued.

Former Lebanese prime minister puts blame on Syria

In remarks to Sunday’s Zaman on Friday, former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who was in Turkey to attend the World Global Political Forum, said the Assad regime is struggling to expand the chaos that has engulfed Syria into Lebanon. Pro-Assad groups want to foment the unrest seen in Syria in other regional countries, including Lebanon, which has a volatile political situation, he argued.

Siniora said a possible democratic change in Syria may have positive implications for the rest of the region and Lebanon. Siniora emphasized that Lebanon had embraced a democratic system nearly 70 years ago but was negatively affected by political tremors in the Arab world over the last few decades, adding that the more the Arab world embarks on a democratic process, the more the political atmosphere in Lebanon would improve.

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