Around the mosque in the Lebanese hilltop town of Abra, the sound of drilling and pounding fills the streets as workers clear up after the latest round of fighting triggered by the war in neighboring Syria.
Installing new windows and painting blackened walls may erase the physical scars of the battle, “but it doesn’t mean the story is over,” said Ibrahim al-Dada, a supporter of radical Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmed al-Assir, who was at the center of the violence last month.
Al-Dada, 62, and other Sunni men keep watch over the mosque, where Assir’s supporters clashed with the Lebanese army for two days in June. They say the military is backed by members of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah. With his cane, he chases away cars plastered with pictures of Hezbollah’s leader that pass the mosque or drivers who slow down to shout obscenities.
Abra, a 10-minute drive east from the city of Sidon where the sparks of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war began, is among a growing number of flashpoints in Lebanon over the past year that is raising the specter of the country turning once more into an all-out sectarian battleground.
The clashes in Abra added to a “treacherous witch’s brew bubbling away in Lebanon,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle Center in Beirut. “And it might be one of the last warning signs before Lebanon’s eruption into widespread sectarian fighting.”
The crisis in Syria, which began in March 2011 with peaceful protests and later evolved into a civil war, has destabilized its smaller neighbor, their fates intertwined as Shiite and Sunni communities become polarized.
More radical Sunni groups gained strength, while Shiite Hezbollah is openly fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Lebanon’s government has been hamstrung since April as disagreements over the new cabinet prevented Prime Minister-Designate Tammam Salam from naming his ministers.
The European Union blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing this week, calling it a terrorist organization. A spokeswoman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which includes European troops, denied a report by the official National News Agency yesterday it was taking precautions including barricades of cement blocks and barbed wire, the NNA said today.
The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, shrugged off the EU measure, saying EU countries will only reap “failure and disappointment” with the move and urging them to correct their “mistake.” The decision gives Israel “legal cover” to attack Lebanon or Hezbollah, Nasrallah said in a speech aired by the group’s Al Manar TV today, adding that if it happened, EU countries would be “full” partners in the assault.
Crime is rife with the breakdown in security leading to kidnappings, thefts and hijacking of cars.
Incidents this month are still making headlines in Beirut. One is the case of a Sunni man whose in-laws from the Druze community severed his penis because they disapproved of his marriage to their daughter.
“There are still worries for Lebanon’s future,” said Sheikh Salim Sousan, the grand mufti for the city of Sidon. “We have Israel in the south, Syria in the north and the east where flames are rising and to the west we have the sea. What do we choose? And you ask me about fear?”
Economically, fighting is taking its toll. At least 1.2 million Syrians, half of them refugees, have flooded into the country of 4.3 million people, straining its resources.
Gross domestic product is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to grow by less than 3 percent for the third straight year. Edward Bell, a Middle East economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, is more pessimistic. He said growth when adjusted for inflation had been forecast at 1.6 percent for this year “but the risks are probably to the downside toward zero to maybe even a contraction.”
The unrest also jeopardizes the development of Lebanon’s potential hydrocarbon resources, said Bell. Lebanon is opening up offshore oil and gas exploration to foreign companies as the country seeks revenue to cut $56 billion of debt. At about 128 percent of GDP, it’s the highest in the Arab world when compared with the size of the country’s economy.
“Given the current political situation and the potential for pretty sizable unrest and violence in Lebanon I wouldn’t expect to see too many companies who’d be willing to sign on in the immediate future,” Bell said.
The battle in Abra, where firebrand Sunni cleric Assir’s security compound was located, began on June 23, when his supporters attacked Lebanese troops, according to the army. Previously little known, he gained popularity among Sunnis since last year after speaking out against Hezbollah and later calling for jihad, or holy war, against Syrian President Assad.
Assir’s wife, Amal al-Assir, said her husband and his group didn’t fire at the army and the clash had been planned to get rid of her outspoken spouse. The fighting ended with Assir and his supporters fleeing. They remain on the run, his wife said.
“He was scared of the army and of Hezbollah,” said Assir, dressed in a black cloak and gloves and a veil that covered her face. She spoke at the couple’s home in a building where the smell of acrid smoke was still strong.
The violence has alienated Sunnis and Shiites in the area, said Mahmoud Saleh, a 56-year-old Shiite mechanic on Talet Mar Elias, a Hezbollah stronghold opposite Abra.
“The only relations that remain are those of mutual interest,” said Saleh.
A large portrait of “martyr” Mohammed Fayez Saleh, with the logo of Hezbollah on the corner, looms over the main street in Talet Mar Elias. Hasan al-Zain, owner of a store selling water pipes, said Saleh sold flowers from a nearby shop and died in the Abra fighting. “Assir was an outlaw who used the claims about Hezbollah to propel himself up,” al-Zain, 30, said.
Inas Dibsi, a housewife, said events in Lebanon are now confusing and the Abra attacks were frightening.
“We’re disgusted with the situation and do not know where we’re headed,” Dibsi, who is also 30, said at a Sidon toy store a few days after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan started. “A store like this should be full of shoppers at this time of year, but people are too worried to go out and shop.”