Beirut's schizophrenic identity

The Syrian civil war is spilling into Lebanon and drawing Beirut’s schizophrenic sectarian identity to the surface.

Arthur Bernhoff
26 August 2013

War-torn Barakat building, Beirut.

Since my first visit to Lebanon in 2009 I have been made aware, by graffiti, flags and posters, of just how entrenched sectarian-divisions are, not only in the eight muhafazah (provinces) but particularly within the capital Beirut itself. Walking from one neighborhood to the next one sees the local “lookouts” on street corners, drinking coffee, smoking nargileh, or playing backgammon. A carry-over from Lebanon’s civil war, they are part of an informal intelligence-gathering system, now acting simultaneously as security lookouts for each neighborhood and the sect that controls it. 


Local security

Tags on buildings and street corners, were used as a means of identifying the confession of each neighborhood during the civil war. Today this is expressed through an abundance of party/sect flags fluttering throughout the city.

Civil war Amal tag

The neighborhood where I work, Zokak al-Blat, has been marked as an Amal (Shi’a political party) neighborhood since before my first arrival in 2009. There has been a gradual inclusion and at times overbearing of Hizb’allah flags since 2012. Not so surprising in light of the current Amal-Hizb’allah political alliance, but unusual in that it sits across the street from a number of western embassies and 100 metres further down from Lebanon's parliament buildings.


Hizb'allah and Amal flags in Zokak al-Blat

After Hizb'allah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah's speech on May 25 in which he openly acknowledged Hizb’allah’s active military engagement in favour of Syria’s Assad regime, dozens of Hizb’allah flags appeared on electrical poles, lamp posts, and balconies, extending from the area of Zokak al-Blat all the way down to Sodeco Square where the Christian district begins. 


Hizb'allah flags on Green line

A similar though perhaps more subtle display of confessional neighbourhood dominance can be seen on the other side of the Green Line, around Sassine Square and the larger Achrafieh neighbourhood in the form of Christian political party flags of the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb Party, and Free Patriotic Movement. The Christians are further divided in that two of the parties, the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb, oppose Hizb’allah and its “March 8 Alliance” while the Free Patriotic Movement is in the March 8 Alliance with Hizb’allah. 

Kataeb Party and Lebanese flag

If one travels directly south from Zokak al-Blat, the flags of Hizb’allah’s rival, the Future Movement (Sunni political party) start to make their territorial markings on every second building.

Future Movement flags

If one walks in any other direction one will encounter the distinctly marked Kurdish Democratic Party neighbourhood, Phalangist (Kataeb) neighbourhood, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Armenian Revolutionary Federation community, a Salafist neighbourhood, and a Progressive Socialist Party (Druze) community.

Progressive socialist party

My bus ride to work each day thus provides a glimpse into the simmering sectarian divisions of the city. Beginning in Sassine, I wait for the bus outside the Kataeb Party offices, 20 metres from where the Lebanese police intelligence chief was assassinated in a car bomb in October 2012; in what is considered a Syrian-related assassination. From there, I travel to Sodeco Square where the iconic Barakat Building, like many other buildings in Beirut, retains the scars of the Lebanese civil war.Lebanese Forces flag

In Sodeco Square political markings are absent, replaced by a strong military presence stationed at the intersection. The army, a neutral broker at the east-west crossroads, often acts to filter out armed groups from the south from entering downtown.

As the bus passes from Sodeco Square and enters the neighborhood of Basta, an abrupt barrage of posters of Shi’a martyrs begins. The small roads in Basta are littered with both Hizb’allah and Amal flags, pictures of recent martyrs plastered on every other building adjacent to those of martyrs of the past. From there, the bus passes along Independence Avenue, where Hizb’allah flags started appearing in May 2013, prominently displayed in the centre of the road as if to celebrate a national holiday yet without a single Lebanese national flag in sight. From there one passes near the Future Movement TV station, the site of battles between Hizb’allah and the Future Movement during armed clashes in 2008.


Hizb'allah flags in Beirut

The terminus of the bus route is Hamra Street, a commercial and tourist destination complete with Starbucks, Costa Coffee, high fashion shops and restaurants. Up until 2008 this Syrian Social Nationalist Party (Baathist) dominated neighbourhood had its cross/crescent-inspired flags on full display when the government enacted measures to take them down. Their flags are now found on the less-touristy side streets.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party flag near Hamra street

Many Christians from the Sassine area do not go to Hamra. The memories of the civil war and the Green Line have been passed down through generations and many Christians feel that Hamra is still not a friendly place to venture. Likewise many Muslims, will have never set foot in Sassine. The neighbourhoods are clearly divided but redevelopment and some economic success since the civil war had led to a middle-class of Lebanese that have began to explore their own country, including the previously avoided neighbourhoods of other sects. Against this backdrop enters the Syrian conflict.


Assad posters in Beirut

Syrian Catalyst

As the Syrian civil war enters its third year, its Sunni-Alawite dimension is exacerbating Lebanon’s own unresolved sectarian divisions. Hizb’allah is openly fighting in Syria with the Alawite (an offshoot of Shi’a Islam) regime against the predominantly Sunni opposition. The Syrian opposition in turn draws on Lebanese Sunnis for support. Convoys of Lebanese Shi’a and Sunni leave Lebanon and battle each other in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, and Qusair, engaging in what has become as much a sectarian as a political conflict, and come back across the border into Lebanon shortly after. Are they expected to forget whom they have been engaging with upon return and greet each other as fellow Lebanese? Considering that there were few efforts at sectarian reconciliation after the 15-year Lebanese civil war, this is not very likely. The government’s efforts regarding the civil war have instead been equated to a form of “state-sponsored amnesia”. The unresolved tensions from Lebanon’s civil war are even manifest in the country’s inability to agree on a history of events that took place, leaving schools with no coherent history book. Most Lebanese do not even consider themselves to be Lebanese first, they are identified by their confession above all else.


Syrian and Hizb'allah flags in the Basta neighborhood

Lebanon is experiencing the consequences of the Syrian conflict, which acts as a catalyst for pre-existing sectarian divisions. These are witnessed through ongoing Sunni-Alawite gun battles, grenade and mortar attacks in Tripoli, attacks on Shi’a shrines and artillery shelling in border areas, sectarian kidnappings, battles throughout the Bekaa Valley, the beating of protesters opposed to Iranian and Hizb’allah involvement in Syria, the murder of one of the protesters in front of the Iranian Embassy, gun fights and assassination attempts in Sidon, battles between the army and Salafists in Sidon, and the murder of four Shi’ite in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.


The Syria, Iran and Amal flags

Drawing Syria’s war directly into Lebanon, clerics have now issued fatwas (Islamic rulings) justifying jihad against Hizb’allah in Lebanon including a fatwa by the Lebanese-based Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. The Free Syrian Army has likewise vowed to hit Hizb’allah in Lebanon. New players are revealing themselves such as the June 14 announcement of the formation of the Sunni “Ahrar al-Kharoub”, the June 17 announcement of the formation of the “Lebanese Shield of Beqaa Battalion”, the July 10 announcement of the involvement of the Syrian “313 Brigade”, and on August 15 the “Brigades of Aisha”, all dedicated to taking the Syrian conflict to Hizb’allah in Lebanon.

Salafist flag

On May 26 two rockets struck Hizb’allah’s Dahieh neighborhood in Beirut. A second attack took place on June 21 with one rocket knocking out power to Beirut and the second remaining in its launcher. On July 9 the Dahieh was struck by a car bomb causing massive material damage and injuries. This was followed by a second car bomb on August 15 that killed at least 22 and injured more than 290. All of these incidents are quickly unhinging the precarious sectarian balance Lebanon had tenuously maintained over the past few years. If Lebanese involvement in Syria continues then the battles may reach the divided neighborhoods of Beirut and ignite the sectarian animosities that the end of the civil war never addressed.


July 9 car bomb in the Dahieh

With open participation by Hizb’allah and Iran in the Syrian conflict, Hizb’allah’s cadres have seen fit to prominently display both Iranian and Syrian flags alongside Hizb’allah flags in downtown Beirut. The Future Movement has likewise coupled their flags in Beirut with the flags of their, and the Free Syrian Army’s, backers: Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Hariri, Turkish, FM and Salafist flags, Beirut

The one flag all these parties appear to have in common is not the Lebanese national flag but instead the Syrian flag, Hizb’allah and Amal flying it in support of the Assad Regime and the Future Movement flying a variant of it in support of the Free Syrian Army.

Undermining salvation

The Lebanese government collapsed on March 25 with the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati citing irreconcilable political divisions within his Cabinet. Since then Lebanon’s sectarian parties have become so divided and uncompromising towards one another that there is no hope of forming a new government any time soon. The Lebanese Parliament, whose
term would have ended on June 20, arbitrarily extended its mandate on May 31by another 17 months citing “security concerns”. While the Lebanese protested the extension, media coverage of more violent regional events drowned their voices into obscurity.

Lebanese protest against parliamentary extension, 21st June 2013.

Lebanese politicians serve their sect before serving a broader constituency. Constitutional sectarianism coupled with inefficiency and corruption rampant in both the police force and political elite means that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is the only functioning non-sectarian institution capable of preventing Lebanon’s internal security situation from deteriorating.

Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war the Lebanese Armed Forces has been the only institution that the majority of Lebanese respect and support, it’s logo prominently displayed on seemingly every other car in Beirut. Its flag is often times so widely used by civilians as a symbol of promoting unity and support for the LAF, that the LAF has requested people to stop using it.


LAF sticker in a car window

The LAF is now trying to clean up the mess that the government and the sectarian system have perpetuated. Soldiers are sent to Tripoli to disengage warring pro and anti-Assad neighborhoods. It is sent to the Bekaa to restrict the movement of pro and anti-Assad fighters and arms shipments to Syria. It is sent to Sidon to calm unrest during repeated sectarian battles between pro-Free Syrian Army Salafists and pro-Assad Hizb’allah.

The army is suffering both in terms of casualties and image. Not only has the army lost 16 soldiers in the two-day Sidon clashes alone but is also now itself being accused of sectarianism by whomever it acts against. Lebanon’s final bastion of unity is being torn apart by the very people it is intended to protect. Once the non-sectarian image of the army is lost Lebanon could very soon follow.

While Beirut has so far been largely spared from the sectarian battles witnessed in the rest of the country, if the current perpetuation of established sectarianism and regional trends continue they will no doubt reach the capital and the army may become unable or unwilling to further intervene.

In such an abundance of flags the national flag is the only one in short supply. The country’s prospects for stability continue to dwindle as few associate themselves with national unity. In light of the sectarian source of domestic tensions it is surprising that Hizb’allah has been the only party to actively promote moving beyond the confessional system. The Syrian civil war is spilling into Lebanon and drawing Beirut’s schizophrenic sectarian identity to the surface. Once the LAF is no longer perceived as an impartial broker, Beirut will be left with a myriad of flags of different colors.


Photos: All pictures were taken in Beirut by Arthur Bernhoff in June 2013 except Figure 2 taken by Jeff Newman and Figure 16 taken by Hasan Shaaban.

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