Local supporters of both sides of the conflict weigh in on crisis in Lebanon
Demonstrators in favor of the Lebanese government’s ruling March 14 coalition on the steps of Dearborn City Hall protesting violence that has flared up after an 18-month standoff with the Hizbullah-led opposition.
The protestors were supporters of the Lebanese government’s ruling March 14 coalition, which has faced demands to step down from a Hizbullah-led opposition for the past 18 months.
Last week’s violence saw ?Hizbullah fighters take over west Beirut, overrunning Sunni supporters of the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
“We need Lebanon, not another Iraq,” said protestor Walid Nassif, Coordinator General of the Future Youth Association in the U.S. The Future Movement is the largest party in the March 14 coalition, Lebanon’s majority bloc in parliament.
“I hope that this will not result in a Shi’a-Sunni conflict,” Nassif said.
Fighting broke out in Beirut last Thursday after the cabinet announced plans to probe a private Hizbullah communications network and reassign the head of airport security over allegations he was close to the powerful Shi’a group. Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah called the moves a declaration of war and when they were not rescinded, opposition gunmen went on the offensive in Beirut. Fighting spread to north Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Druze areas south and east of Beirut.
Nassif said a cousin of his, a 26 year-old housewife, was killed in the Bekaa valley during one of the clashes.
“If this continues like this, we will not have Lebanon. It’s very simple,” he said.
Local college students who identified themselves as sympathizers of the opposition observed the demonstration from a distance.
“They have the right to freedom of speech. But the current government in Lebanon is illegitimate, and really, it’s time for change. It’s time that there’s equal representation,” said Rashid Baydoun, a Lebanese American pre-law student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Bilal Dabaja, another Lebanese UM-D student opposed to the Western-backed government, said he doesn’t believe the conflict is about sectarian strife, but political alignments.
“This conflict is purely political,” he said. “There’s no sectarian basis. All sects can be found on both sides. In any other country in the world, when there is such a strong opposition, you would see the prime minister resign and they would have elections.”
He said that U.S. influence and support for the Siniora government has been the only thing keeping it in power in the face of massive, paralyzing civil disobedience campaigns over the past year and a half.
But Nassif said support from the U.S. has been limited to words.
“These past few days shows who has support from who,” he said.
He said that if the U.S. had been deeply involved in the Lebanese government, there would have been more weapons to fight Hizbullah with.
“Where are the weapons from the U.S.? They have the weapons and we don’t. Iran is helping to destroy Lebanon. If Iran really cares about Lebanon, they will support Lebanon,” Nassif said. “We never want any other interference. We don’t want no United States, we don’t want Syria and we don’t want Iran. It will not happen.”
Dabaja said March 14 forces did have weapons, referring to reports that the Future Movement used a security firm to assemble a private force.
“They do have weapons. Weapons were found,” he said.
He said the government is illegitimate because supporters of Hizbullah and its Shi’a and Christian allies that oppose the government make up a majority in Lebanon.
“Trust me, the majority of the people are not with the opposition,” said Nassif in response.
“We respect Hizbullah when they fight Israel, but when they kill people in Lebanon, you know this is wrong,” he said. “That’s not the goal of a resistance. Because they disagree with their [opponents’] opinion, they want to kill them off.”
Dabaja said elections should be held immediately to show who does have more support among the people.
“If you claim you have the majority, let’s have elections,” he said.
Edward Moussawer, a protestor from Troy who identified himself as a U.S. representative of the pro-government Lebanese Forces party, said the opposition should play by the rules.
“They should go through the legal way, to take [the government] down by voting,” he said. “After two years, there’s elections. Just wait. You should not use force.”
Nassif said Lebanese people can no longer explain the existence of Hizbullah as a necessary entity to protect the county from Israel, now that the militia’s weapons have been used against fellow Lebanese.
“We can’t say that anymore. How are we going to explain this to our children, about what they did? How are we going to explain it to America, the officials? Shame on them. To kill their brothers and sisters. We live together. Shi’a and Sunni are brothers and sisters. If we disagree, we don’t need to kill each other. If they disagree, they should sit down and have a dialogue. We want Hizbullah to go to the south and protect us from Israel. If [Hassan Nasrallah] believes that the weapons are more important than people, he is wrong. I hope that he doesn’t mean that. I know that Hizbullah knows they made a mistake and are reflecting on what they did.”
Dabaja said the violence was low-intensity, describing the clashes as being carried out by “individuals who are saying enough is enough.”
Dearborn attorney and blogger Ihsan Al-Khatib, who demonstrated with the March 14 supporters, said he was glad the group could demonstrate peacefully in Dearborn with supporters of the opposing side looking on.
“They’re not angry. Even though ugly things are happening in Lebanon,” he said.
He said what troubled him most about the week of violence was the targeting of media outlets.
“It’s unacceptable what happened to Future TV,” he said.
Militants burned down the offices of Future TV, a television channel owned by parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri’s family, on May 9. The station began broadcasting again on Tuesday.
During the clashes, the Lebanese army refused to engage in the fighting in order to maintain its neutrality as a multi-sectarian institution that the rival camps both support.
Nassif said he was upset the army didn’t intervene.
“The role of the army is to protect the civilians,” he said. “I really don’t agree with the army staying neutral. By them not doing that, they really are taking sides.”
Baydoun said the actions of the militants and the neutrality of the army were justified.
“In the case of a legitimate crisis, there comes a time for change,” he said. “The current government have yet to prove themselves. They haven’t reached out to the opposition. The people of the south have been disenfranchised for decades. It’s time for us to come together as a country.”
Hizbullah officials said Thursday that it would return things to normal in Lebanon, reopening the airport and removing roadblocks, after the government reversed the decisions that triggered the bloodshed.
The announcement came after a high-powered Arab League delegation arrived in the country seeking a solution to the crisis, Lebanon’s worst since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.