The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) the National on Thursday highlighted efforts of Lebanese Christians to cope with social, political, and sectarian fallout from the massive explosion in Beirut.
To the surprise of few, but the dismay of many, the catastrophe has inflamed religious tensions that are never far from the surface in Lebanon.
The National highlighted resentment towards Lebanese Christians for observing that Christian neighborhoods in Beirut were hit especially hard by the blast. According to the report:
Some Christian leaders quickly tried to claim the tragedy as their own. “The pain we feel is first a Christian pain. Then, it’s Beirut’s pain. And finally, it’s Lebanon’s pain,” Christian leader Nadim Gemayel told the Sky News Arabia TV channel.
But his words were met with anger by activists who accused him of attempting to spur sectarian sentiment.
“What age do they live in, what is this logic! People’s blood has still not dried up!” tweeted activist Adham Hassanieh. “They divide us to kill us!”
Gemayel later clarified that he was attempting to explain why Christian politicians were so quick to offer their resignations after the explosion. Gemayel himself was one of three lawmakers from the majority-Christian Kataeb Party who resigned within a few days of the explosion, which killed the secretary-general of the party, Nizar Najarian.
“I also said that the explosion showed that there was solidarity between the Lebanese, and that no region had been spared pain,” Gemayel said.
The biggest political problem facing Lebanese Christians, in a time of widespread anger and disgust at the government, is that the head of state is a Maronite Christian. President Michel Aoun has not taken responsibility for the explosion or resigned, even though his entire cabinet had done so by the beginning of this week.
Aoun has promised a thorough probe of the explosion, but refused calls for an independent international investigation. Very few Lebanese believe their government is capable of mounting an unbiased, transparent, and exhaustive investigation of itself.
The president’s resignation is frequently demanded by angry Lebanese protesters, but this furious push for reform has a factional and religious dimension, as the New York Times observed while reporting on an anti-government demonstration on Friday:
Mr. Abu Muhammad, a devoted supporter of Hezbollah, pointed to a picture on his phone. It showed gallows erected by the protesters the night before, hanging cardboard cutouts of Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, and Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament and leader of the allied Amal party.
“They hung the nooses for the Shiites,” he said, “only the Shiites.”
That was not true. A third noose, not visible in the picture on his phone, held a cutout of President Michel Aoun, a Christian, next to the two Shiite leaders.
That scene, in a nutshell, describes Lebanon’s problem.
As the NYT put it, Beirut’s Shiite Muslims “like the idea of change, but like Hezbollah more.” The Iran-backed terrorist gang/political party has made it very clear that it will not accept any responsibility for the explosion, even as the bulk of public outrage focuses on Hezbollah’s corruption, its tendency to put foreign adventures on behalf of Iran over the well-being of Lebanon, and its numberless stashes of weapons, one of which might well have been involved in the Port of Beirut explosion.
Hezbollah will clearly fight – and not just in the political spin-wars sense – to retain its influence over Lebanese politics and protect its interests. Many of the country’s Shiite Muslims are inclined to support Hezbollah because they feel no other party or organization would represent them as aggressively, and because Hezbollah charities are sometimes better than the sclerotic government in Beirut at getting assistance to Shiites in need.
“No matter what happens, I will side with my sect,” one Shiite told the NYT. After admitting Hezbollah had its problems, he added, “Lebanon is a country of sects. Put me in another country, and I’ll be a different citizen.”
This, in turn, makes Christians nervous. The Lebanese government is literally parceled into fiefdoms and offices for individual sects. The current arrangement calls for the president to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Everything else is divided between numerous sects. Lebanon’s population is roughly evenly divided between Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites.
The fragility of Aoun’s position was highlighted on Thursday when the opposition thwarted his effort to stage a political comeback for his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. Every political interest in Lebanon says it wants to create a reform and national unity government, but they all have lists of who cannot be in charge of it.
The National quoted Auon’s irritated response when asked if he should shoulder some of the blame for the ammonium nitrate stockpile that purportedly blew up the Port of Beirut: “I am not responsible! I don’t know where it was put and I didn’t know how dangerous it was. I have no authority to deal with the port directly. There is a hierarchy and all those who knew should have known their duties to do the necessary.”
Aoun’s relationship with the Maronite patriarch Bechara Boutros Al Rai has become strained, as the patriarch blames Aoun for allowing Hezbollah to block Western aid to Lebanon, which sorely needed help even before the explosion. There has been some infighting between Christian political groups, but they generally seem to hold much the same view as the Shiites have of Hezbollah: every sect is terrified of losing its influence over the state.
Some Lebanese Christians complain that efforts are being made to push them out of their blast-damaged neighborhoods in Beirut so their property can be bought up at discount prices. Independent Catholic News reported on Friday that “Church leaders had worked with politicians to frustrate land-grabbers by passing legislation preventing the faithful from selling their homes.”