Events in Lebanon took a dramatic turn for the worse this past week when the Lebanese Army fired on protesters angrily demonstrating over power and water cuts to Beirut’s southern suburbs. Eight civilians were killed by gunfire during the confrontation-all Shiite Muslims. One was an Amal official and the remainder supporters of Amal and Hezbollah, two of the main parties in opposition to the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The killings occurred in the Shiyah and Mar Mikhael neighborhoods of the dahiyah, a collective term referring to the impoverished Shia-majority suburbs of southern Beirut. Because it is also the location of Hezbollah’s headquarters, it was this area of the capital which suffered the heaviest damage during the July 2006 Israeli invasion. As satellite imagery clearly demonstrated, vast swathes of it were completely decimated during the war. If coping with that destruction was not enough, Prime Minister Siniora and the ruling March 14 Coalition apparently wished to inflict further hardship on its residents.
The clashes with the army erupted only after longstanding complaints of the dahiyah receiving limited electricity and water went unheeded. With as little as four hours of electricity provided in the days prior to the riots (in contrast to other sections of Beirut receiving up to 20), civil disturbance became inevitable.
Although the government claimed the blackouts were the result of people siphoning power off on their own, according to the latest National Human Development report by the United Nations Development Program, discrimination against the Shia in other parts of Lebanon is not uncommon. For example the southern Shia town of Nabatiyeh, where 11% of households are in need of basic services, received a meager 1% of total public investment spending between 1995 and 2005. Contrast this with Beirut, which was allocated 16% despite having a lower poverty rate.
The world has just witnessed the aftermath of a stifling Israeli embargo on Gaza, depriving its citizens of fuel, food and medical supplies. Fouad Siniora, Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, and Samir Geagea, all leaders of the current ruling alliance in Lebanon, are similarly guilty of a crime taken straight from the Israeli playbook: collective punishment.
Lebanon’s political institutions remain paralyzed after months without a president and the deadlock between the opposition and the government shows no sign of resolution. The primary impasse centers around demands by Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement for checks on the authority of the prime minister. Now we understand why.
It was indeed unsettling to see the quisling Siniora, in the midst of the 2006 war which the United States gave Israel the green light to wage, yet embrace Condoleezza Rice. And it was appalling to discover that the radicals of Fatah al-Islam were first brought into the country by Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority, in an attempt to curtail the influence of Hezbollah before the deal soured and the 2007 battle of Nahr al-Bared ensued. Cutting off water and electricity to ordinary civilians, then firing upon those who seek redress, however, is beyond the pale of human decency.
Should this practice continue, it will be the prelude to civil war.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. IRIN News. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Lebanon: Politicised power cuts behind the deadly riots?“.