By Tom Perry and Ahmed Fahmy
BEIRUT (Reuters) – The crisis sweeping Lebanon has taken a violent turn this week with three nights of skirmishes that have prompted warnings of bloodshed and revived memories of the 1975-90 civil war.
Trouble flared in several areas of Lebanon on Tuesday night, including the Beirut district of Ain el-Remmaneh, where the civil war began. The army deployed to prevent a confrontation between supporters of rival Christian and Shi’ite Muslim groups.
A senior Shi’ite cleric warned on Wednesday the street could spin out of control and push “our nation into a slide towards anarchy”. Sheikh Ali al-Khatib urged politicians to “remedy the situation and contain the deterioration”.
Lebanon has been sinking deeper into turmoil since protests erupted against its ruling elite on Oct. 17, fueled by anger at corruption that has led to the worst economic crisis in decades.
The economic crisis, which was long in the making, has now come to a head: dollars are scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound has slumped by more than 40%, and controls imposed by banks are preventing depositors from withdrawing their savings.
In parallel, a political crisis has left Lebanon without a government since Sunni Muslim politician Saad al-Hariri quit as prime minister on Oct. 29, bringing down a coalition that included the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
Though violence has been rare since the protests began, this week’s incidents included assaults by supporters of Hezbollah and its Shi’ite ally Amal on demonstrators in Beirut and the city of Tyre, where a protest camp set was set on fire.
Tuesday’s incident in Beirut began when a three-year-old video showing men insulting Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah began to circulate on social media, according to a security source.
Believing the men in the video to be supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces party from Ain el-Remmaneh, a group of from the neighboring Shi’ite district of Chiyah took to the streets. The army deployed as rocks began to fly.
With tension among party supporters running high, the security source warned that “playing with the street is very dangerous”. “All the while the political matters are not being resolved, the security pressures are getting more dangerous.”
Ali, the owner of a cafe on a road between Chiyah and Ain el-Remmeneh, said the situation had been “unbelievably tense”.
“The situation in the country is not okay and things like this should not be allowed to happen, because our country cannot bear it. As a Shi’ite, I cannot accept that the Shi’ite side does this to the Christian side, and I cannot accept the Christian side does this to the Shi’ite side.”
The area was a front line of the civil war which began as a conflict between Lebanese Christian groups on the one hand and Palestinian, Lebanese leftist and Sunni Muslim groups on the other, and fractured Lebanon into sectarian enclaves.
DANGER OF ARMED CLASHES
Jamileh al Jaroush, in her 50s, who lives on the street dividing Chiyah from Ain el-Remmaneh, said she had been praying for God to calm the situation. “Those who did not witness the previous civil war don’t know the meaning of war … it is impossible to repeat it.”
There was also trouble in the Christian town of Bikfaya when supporters of President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and Hezbollah ally, tried to drive a convoy through the area, a political bastion of the Kataeb party which opposes Hezbollah.
As people sought to block the road to prevent the Aoun supporters from passing, the army tried to open it, the security source said. A few people were lightly injured in clashes with sticks and stones.
There were also disturbances in the mainly Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli, where an office belonging to the political party founded by Aoun was attacked, along with a bank ATM. A hand grenade was thrown but did not explode, the source said.
The incidents have taken the crisis into a more dangerous phase, said Nabil Boumonsef, a columnist at an-Nahar newspaper. While the number of casualties had so far been limited, the violence would become harder to contain.
“If there is not a quick, political containment of the crisis, we are facing the danger of armed clashes,” he said.
He noted that while only Hezbollah has heavy weaponry, light arms are widely dispersed throughout Lebanon. “When you find problems of this type, you will find that weapons will spread in five seconds into the hands of everyone,” he said.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)