- - Monday, May 14, 2012

BEIRUT — Syria’s conflict is increasing instability in Lebanon, which already is grappling with sectarian tensions, a crumbling economy and a weak, divided government, even as it has so far avoided the popular uprisings of its Middle East neighbors.

“The entire region is destabilized,” said Bassem Chit, a Lebanese activist in Beirut.

Two rival neighborhoods in the tense northern city of Tripoli were on lockdown amid new sectarian clashes spilling over from the conflict in Syria. The violence broke out over the weekend after Lebanese security forces tried to arrest a leading Sunni Islamist on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.

Sunni Lebanese say they are being targeted for the help they have been giving co-religionists fleeing the oppression in Syria. Their neighborhood abuts a district heavily populated with Alawites, the sect to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs.

With two more deaths reported in Tripoli Monday, the toll from the recent fighting now has reached five dead and nearly 50 wounded, with shops, schools and businesses shuttered, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

Balancing act

Politics in Lebanon have long been a delicate balancing act. The Lebanese are divided into 18 different religious-ethnic groups who frequently shift alliances but hold tight to their power in a system designed to maintain the status quo.

These disparate groups break down into two factions depending on their feelings toward Mr. Assad.

The current government, controlled by the March 8th coalition, led by the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, has studiously avoided any conflict with Syria.

Last month, for example, Lebanese officials said they seized shipments of heavy arms intended for the Syrian opposition in an attempt to comply with the Syrian regime’s request for tighter border controls.

Parts of the country, in particular the north, which includes the port city of Tripoli near the Syrian border, is predominantly populated by Sunni Muslims firmly opposed to Mr. Assad.

The Sunni Future Party is the backbone of the opposition March 14th coalition, formed in 2005 to push for the removal of the Syrian military, which at the time had occupied the country for more than 20 years.

Since the violence in Syria escalated late last year, the Lebanese Sunni Muslim groups in the border region have been helping the 10,000 officially registered Syrian refugees as well as the opposition in their attempt to oust Mr. Assad.

There also have been regular protests against the Syrian regime there.

Many Lebanese worry that if the conflict in Syria breaks down on sectarian lines of Sunni versus Shia, the violence could spread into Lebanon, where such tensions are always just beneath the surface.

So far, little violence has crossed the border into Lebanon or erupted between supporters and opponents of Mr. Assad.

However, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel recently warned of deteriorating security inside the country, which he attributed mainly to the crisis next door.

“I pray that the situation in Syria gets solved, so we know where we are going,” he told the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. “Right now, we do not know.”

The Lebanese government is also coming under pressure from U.S. officials to be more supportive of the Syrian opposition.

Last week, Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, met with Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament and leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, a partner in the ruling coalition government.

Mr. Jumblatt has vocally supported the Syrian uprising. If he switched sides from the ruling coalition to the Sunni-backed March 14 movement, the current government would lack a majority and collapse.

That could drive Hezbollah supporters out to the streets and reignite sectarian conflict, analysts say.

Sectarianism and fear

With daily reminders of the 1975-1990 civil war in the form of posters and monuments on the streets of Beirut and elsewhere, the current situation has local residents on edge.

“A lot of people in Lebanon are afraid of violence,” said Mr. Chit, who is a member of the Socialist Forum. “They have good reason to be. We had a civil war.”

Mr. Chit said that sectarianism and fear are the biggest barriers to mobilizing Lebanese, even as they suffer from inflation, stagnant wages and poor utility services.

“The people have lost complete hope in the government or in politicians to do anything concrete or significant to improve the quality of life for citizens,” said Nassib Ghobril, the head of research for Byblos Bank. “But they care because they see their bank accounts depleted and the cost of living increased.”

There is no shortage of Lebanese willing to complain about the long list of ills in the country, the corruption of politicians and fears of a return to civil war.

On television and in conversation, Lebanese often repeat an expression, “al-balad akak afrit,” roughly translated “the country is unstable.”

“Whenever [the Lebanese] are confronted with a problem, they find personal solutions to it. They don’t find collective solutions to it,” said Khilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

“People don’t create a force to confront the government. That’s why we are an easy people to govern.”

But the increasingly unstable situation has local residents and U.N. officials worried.

“What we see around the region is a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war,” said Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East, after briefing the U.N. Security Council last week.

“If you look at the situation in Syria, which is maybe the most likely to spill over, then in a way it is reminiscent of the situation in Lebanon and its neighbors in the 1970s.

“This is what I fear.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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