Two months ago, Hamra was wracked with violence. This famed neighborhood in West Beirut, home to the American University of Beirut, several hospitals, countless clothing boutiques, cafes and restaurants was at the epicenter of the fighting between encroaching gunmen from the opposition, and supporters of Saad Hariri's Musteqbel movement who initially resisted the incursion. The opposition fighters, most of them members of the Shi'a groups Hizballah and Amal as well as the multi-sectarian Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) quickly gained control of the neighborhood. The pro government fighters either lacked the ability to drive the invading gunmen out, or the pro government leaders saw a political advantage in letting the world watch Hizballah turn their weapons inwards on other Lebanese. In all likelihood, it was a combination of the two. For several days Hamra was held hostage as inhabitants of the neighborhood watched gunmen patrol the streets. People looked out their windows as SSNP toughs spray painted there party emblem on apartment buildings, flew party flags, and erected posters of Syrian president Bashar al Asad. After several tense days, the opposition gunmen withdrew from Hamra, but wounds opened during the recent conflict are slow to heal.
Nearly two months after the cessation of violence, sectarian and political tensions continue to run high in Hamra. Charles Chuman, a media and political analysts working in Beirut feels that sectarian mistrust is currently at an all time high, exceeding the levels felt during Lebanon's lengthy civil war. "Sectarian strife and political strife are often indistinguishable given the current political climate in Lebanon." Said Chuman. "With the majority of Sunni's following the March 14th political movement, and the majority of Shi'a following the opposition, we are witnessing a scenario where political divides are heightening religious stereotypes. If a member of a given religious sect crosses political lines, they risk figurative excommunication from their religious community." Chuman also relayed the story of a young Lebanese woman he knows who attends Lebanese American University, located just south of Hamra in West Beirut. The woman, a Sunni, had been dating a young Shi'a man for several months. At the outset of violence, she fled Beirut for the relative safety of her parents home in the Bekaa valley. During the initial days of violence she tried to contact her boyfriend by telephone. After finally reaching him, she asked him where he'd been. "On the streets fighting." He replied. She was aghast, as she'd never known him to be politically active, and asked him why he was joining in the madness. "You wouldn't understand, you Sunni," was his answer.
I recently took a taxi ride from Hamra to the port town of Jounieh, north of Beirut. The driver, Hadi, is a Druze who lives in Hamra. He is a supporter of Walid Junblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, ally of Saad al Hariri and Prime Minister Fuad Seniora. Hadi couldn't stop talking about how "the Shi'a" are destroying the country. "The Shi'a invade our homes. Nasrhallah is even worse then Ehud Olmert. They (the Shi'a) follow him blindly without asking any questions." I asked him about Condoliza Rice's recent visit to Beirut in which she met with new President Michael Sleiman. "I wish I could marry Condi," sixty-year-old Hadi admitted. "It is not that she is so beautiful, but her intentions are very good." Hadi added that he wished the U.S. would supply weapons to Junblatt and Samir Geaga, a Maronite Christian and head of the pro-government Lebanese Forces. "If they were to receive weapons from the United States, then there would be a balance of power, and Hizballah couldn't invade West Beirut and the mountains. We Druze are a small community, and there is nowhere for us to run. If the state is weak, no one can protect us but ourselves."
Lebanese Shi'a are also quick to acknowledge that the events of recent months have left sectarian relations in shambles. Rana, a Shi'a woman, lives in Beirut's southern suburbs. She taught at a language center in Hamra for several years until recently opening her own institute in another part of the city. She describes herself as generally sympathetic to Hizballah's cause, and becomes visibly agitated when she hears them described as a terrorist organization. I asked her if Hizballah was justified in leading an occupation of primarily Sunni neighborhoods such as Hamra. "They made a mistake in using their weapons to get what they wanted, but the government made a mistake too." Said Rana, referring to the Lebanese Parliaments decision to declare Hizballah's communications network illegal, and fire head of airport security Wafiq Shuqair in light of allegations that Hizballah was conducting surveillance of the airport. "The government made a bad decision that pushed Hizballah to use their weapons against the Lebanese. Now, we have a president, but nothing is solved. The same problems remain, and sectarian tensions are inflamed."
Despite the fact that Hamra hasn't seen any fighting in the past several weeks, it is evident that the present peace is tenuous at best. I left a Hamra bar the other night around four in the morning, and got into my friends green Honda. As she turned the engine on, a burly young man barely out of his teens rapped on the window. He introduced himself as "amn al muntaqa" area security. My friend curtly introduced herself as "bint al muntaqa" girl of the neighborhood. He told us that someone had been ripping down SSNP flags, and defacing their posters. He suspected that the culprits were driving a green Honda. We truthfully denied any involvement. After warning us not to take his parties paraphernalia down from neighborhood buildings, he stalked off. Numerous other people in the neighborhood have reported similar harassment as opposition toughs try to maintain a visible presence in the neighborhood. As a foreigner, the incident with the "neighborhood security" didn't really bother me, some kind of, not my country not my fight, syndrome. However, my Lebanese friend was upset. She describes herself as a supporter of March 14th, but not in step with all of their political decisions. She was, in her words, "disappointed" that seven weeks after the violence in Hamra abated, non-uniformed men are still roaming the streets intimidating residents of the neighborhood.
Disturbingly, Hamra, while turbulent, is still markedly calmer then many other Beirut neighborhoods. Outside the capitol, other regions of Lebanon have seen sporadic violence over the past several weeks. Violence has flared recently in the Northern city of Tripoli between Sunni's and opposition aligned Allawis. The Bekaa valley has also seen intermittent fighting between pro-government Sunni's and opposition supporters in recent weeks. The Doha agreement brought a president but has yet to solve the underlying problems that plague Lebanon. Party leaders continue to battle over the formation of the cabinet. Latest reports indicate that the announcement of a new cabinet may be at hand, but the consensus is that the real concern is the 2009 parliamentary elections. The precedent that Hizballah set by turning their guns inwards continues to way heavily on the minds of Lebanese. Tariq, a Beirut shop owner told me that he feels the opposition is using bully tactics to try and force the government to capitulate to their demands. "They have used their weapons on their own country once, we are afraid that they will do so again." While the violence, for now, has abated, and the presidential vacuum has been filled, it is clear that Lebanon is still a long way from lasting and meaningful internal peace.