Vanessa Newby is a PhD candidate at Griffith University and has just returned from a five week visit to Lebanon. Photos by the author.
They call it 'the situation'. This is how locals refer to the slow rise in tension throughout Lebanon, marked by sporadic kidnappings, tyre burnings on Beirut's airport road and fighting between rival neighbourhoods in Lebanon's second-biggest city, Tripoli.
But the exact nature of 'the situation' has yet to be clarified. Are we talking about a Syrian take-over of Lebanese politics? The eruption of another sectarian civil war? An Israeli attack? No one appears to know. There is simply a sense of foreboding that something is about to go horribly wrong.
Evidence of this sentiment is everywhere. Summertime in Lebanon is always high season. Despite the oppressive humid heat, millions of Lebanese diaspora fly home to see friends and family, and spend time in the mountains or at the beach. Residents of the Gulf states also flock in looking to escape even higher temperatures at home, and enjoy the relaxed holiday atmosphere of Beirut.
Not so this year. Usually in summer the pavement in Hamra (West Beirut) is so crowded you can hardly squeeze onto it. This year, by 11pm there was barely a soul walking about and Gemmayze in the Christian quarter had a similarly empty feel. The majority of visitors to Lebanon these days are journalists and language students. There is a sense that the party is once more over for Lebanon and that things are about to get serious.
My visit over the last five weeks, however, demonstrated to me that while Lebanon will continue to suffer violent flare-ups, it should not be assumed that it is about to descend into another vicious cycle of sectarian warfare – contrary to a great deal of media speculation. It is far more likely that there will continue to be isolated violent incidents for some time before anything like a tipping point is reached.
It was tit-for-tat incidents of the kind we are seeing now that triggered the civil war of 1975, but that was among a population that had no conception of how long and bloody it would be. This time around, people have a much clearer idea of what they might be getting themselves into, and there is no doubt that this has a dampening effect when tensions start to rise; it is usually demonstrated by calls for calm by the leaders of various sects.
It is the underlying shifts in relative power between the sects that will determine how and when war might break out again, not tit-for-tat shelling in Tripoli, which has been going on for years and is driven more by boredom and unemployment than high political stakes. The government in Lebanon has been limping along for years because no one sect has been able to dominate the others. When the opportunity for a power grab exists, then 'the situation' will change. Ultimately, the contest is between Sunni and the Shi'a for both regional and state-level dominance, with the Christians and the Druze acting as balancers.
In my view, the real threat to peace and security in Lebanon will come when the ruling pro-Syrian March 8th movement, led by Hizbullah, feels it has become seriously threatened. For example, the recent arrest of Michel Samaha, a known ally of the March 8th movement, for his alleged role in the alleged Syrian plot to assassinate rival political leaders, is far more likely in the to trigger confrontations than events in Tripoli.
Or, should the Sunni-dominated Qatar-Saudi alliance predominate in Syria, this could embolden the Sunni in Lebanon, with the result that the Shi'a-dominated March 8th movement will feel its interests undermined.
The recent spate of kidnappings would be more worrying if supported by any of the main political players in Lebanon. But they are not, and have been roundly condemned. Less comforting are recent statements by Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah which allude to Hizbullah's inability to control events on every occasion, indicating the potential for support of kidnappings should events not go their way.
The current discontent within Israel over settlements, military duty and the price of food is also of concern for Lebanon. There is a chance that Israeli leaders will take advantage of Syria's disunity and generate a cause for war with Hizbullah to distract a disgruntled domestic audience and to take Hizbullah out in a prelude to an attack on Iran. But the potential for a more regional response to Israeli aggression against Lebanon, and the risk that it might unite sects and states against a common aggressor, might be too great a risk for Israel to take.
The two issues to watch in Lebanon for the next couple of months are, first, the gains that the Sunni (represented by the Muslim Brotherhood among other groups) make in Syria. The Syrian malaise will affect Lebanon, but I don't believe much will change until the fate of the Assad regime is a lot clearer. The second thing to watch is the political repercussions of the Samaha trial, which will provide clues as to the real level of support for the March 8th movement in Lebanon. This too will act as a barometer for the political will to maintain the peace, or take up arms once more.
Of course, all the above comes with the usual caveat: that everything is always fine in Lebanon, until it's not.