Fire in Beirut


Protestors today burned the Danish embassy building here in Beirut, in the latest response to the ballooning Danish cartoon fiasco. One aspect of the protests was particularly disturbing: the embassy is in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh, and groups of protestors–most of whom were Sunni Muslims, not Shiites–ransacked properties and threw rocks at a Maronite Christian church nearby, provoking the predictably angry reaction from Christian youths. Below my building, in the center of Ashrafieh, the army and security forces had to intervene to prevent the situation from getting out of hand as Muslims driving or walking to the protest were taken to task by some youths. The fact that the demonstrators were traveling through Ashrafieh in the first place, assuming they wouldn't be molested, confirmed they had no idea of what was going on and that there was no general intention to provoke Christians.

Then who threw stones at the church? The official version is that "external groups" did so, which conveniently meant individuals manipulated by Syria. It's difficult to say. Certainly, there were Islamist groups involved in the demonstration that answer to Syrian intelligence, for example the Ahbash, and they may well have had something to do with church attack. On the other hand, what we saw today was the true extent to which Lebanon's Sunni community has a large number of Islamist groups, particularly in the North, that subscribe to an increasingly militant agenda; and that the main Sunni leadership, represented by the Hariri family, really only has nominal influence over many of them.

The dunce of the day was Interior Minister Hassan al-Sabaa, a Hariri appointee. He initially deployed far fewer anti-riot police than required, supposedly to avoid increasing tension. Sabaa's striking incompetence has been on display before, but this situation may speak to something more complex: My theory, and it's only a theory at this stage, is that the Hariri camp may have tried to ride the Sunni groups' anger (presuming the demonstration would remain peaceful), to show its sectarian political clout, but then had to watch helplessly as the whole thing spun out of control. One of those groups organizing the demonstration, the Jamaa Islamiyya (Lebanon's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), is not under the Hariris' thumb, but it does answer to Saudi Arabia, and in last year's parliamentary elections the Saudis paid the group a hefty sum of money to avoid its voting against the Hariri candidate list in the North.

My theory would also explain why a leading Christian politician, Samir Geagea, who happens to be a very close ally of the Hariri camp, harshly criticized the security forces (meaning Sabaa, meaning the Hariri camp) for having allowed the demonstration to get out of hand, when it was amply clear in the past day or so that something big was about to happen. (Addendum: Geagea is now asking for Sabaa's resignation.)