New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen


18 October 2010



The crisis that has gripped Lebanon since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 has taken a new and dangerous turn, as the international tribunal charged with investigating the assassination comes close to issuing indictments. The expected implication of Hizbollah members has turned the political landscape into a brutal battleground. Inter-communal relations, the legitimacy of the resistance embodied by Hizbollah, the credibility of the tribunal, the survival of the current national unity government, the future of the recent Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and the fragile stability of the country are all at stake. International support for the tribunal, Hizbollah’s categorical rejection of it and the difficulty Saad Hariri, the current prime minister and Rafic’s son, would have to disavow it, risk leading rapidly to a political impasse whose effects would reverberate in the streets.

Many politicians and commentators evoke the possibility of an impending coup d’état or even a new civil war. But the more probable short-term scenario is repetition of a recurring Lebanese cycle: a political stalemate that triggers popular tensions which, in turn, political actors manipulate in order to bolster their leverage. As a result, instability is most likely to occur in Lebanon’s under-developed peripheral areas, whose populations are deeply divided by current events, harbour painful memories of the civil war and are largely left to their own devices until escalating violence brings them into the political game. Such is the case of the Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods of Tripoli, which recently have witnessed both verbal and military escalation, including the firing into the latter neighborhood of a rocket that injured two.

Much as Lebanon, despite its small size, reflects the tensions of the region in its entirety, these two neighborhoods replicate, on a miniature scale, broader challenges to the stability of the country as a whole. Over the last few years, deadly incidents in these geographically and socially remote areas have been linked to disputes far beyond their horizon. This microcosm, largely hidden to those who focus on the spectacle of the capital’s political scene and the secret power games played on the regional stage, offers a key to understanding the interaction between the local, national and regional levels and thus deciphering the crisis currently brewing in Lebanon.

Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh are virtual metaphors for the country at large. Founded as a single unit, they were separated during the civil war along the boundary that now divides the fractured community. Once interwoven, the Sunni majority in Bab-Tebbaneh and the Allawite majority in Jabal Mohsen parted ways in the 1970s and 1980s. Around that time, Tripoli experienced intense political mobilisation under the impact of the Palestinian cause, rising Arab nationalism and Islamism, and, partly as a result, Syria’s expanding influence. Factional street battles caused many deaths, culminating in the 1986 massacre in Bab-Tebbaneh. As elsewhere in Lebanon, those wounds have yet to heal. Memories are fresh; identities are defined primarily by victimisation, yesterday’s suffering, persistent threats and the prospect of revenge; the present is viewed through the prism of the past; and both sides share an intense sense of vulnerability.

The resurgence of the old demons in Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh is of a piece with the country’s chronic instability. Since the end of the civil war, nothing has been done to solve underlying problems; rather, post-war Lebanon has been built upon a flimsy equilibrium whose perpetuation has become an end in itself. Tellingly, violent outbreaks in 2007 and 2008 were followed, at best, by efforts to contain the situation until the next flare-up. The few agreed so-called reconciliation measures still await implementation.

But these two neighborhoods also have served as the arena for proxy wars. External actors transferred their conflicts there, backing local fighters in a struggle that was less costly, and more easily managed, than would be open warfare in the capital. It is hardly coincidental that tensions between Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh exploded just as opposing sides came to realise the limits of what violence in the capital could achieve and decided to back down out of fear that it might spin entirely out of control. Such was the case both when the opposition-led January 2007 general strike threatened to devolve into fighting and when Hizbollah occupied parts of the city centre in May 2008.

These neighbourhoods, marginalised and neglected by the state, illustrate a development model centred on Beirut’s wealthy quarters. Basic public services are reduced to an absolute minimum. Victims of a decrepit education system, young people expect little more than menial work or unemployment. The security apparatus, absent in normal times and all the more so in times of crisis, makes fleeting appearances whenever a truce is concluded, as if to symbolically endorse the reestablishment of “order”, without in fact asserting state authority. A feeling of abandonment and economic precariousness feed a militia culture inherited from the civil war in two conflicting areas which in fact have much in common.

For many Sunni youngsters in Bab-Tebbaneh, joining one of the many Islamist groups which have spread relatively freely since Syria’s military withdrawal provides an attractive alternative to idleness and social failure. Jabal Mohsen’s Allawite majority has rallied behind a single political party, not necessarily out of shared ideals or conviction, but rather because it is the only actor able to protect it in some fashion.

The external sponsors that prop up local actors do little more than maintain them in a client relationship. That was the case when Syria, then Lebanon’s dominant power, favoured the Allawites politically while failing to ensure Jabal Mohsen’s development. It is true, too, of Bab-Tebbaneh’s various sponsors, whether Saad Hariri’s Future Current movement, Saudi Arabia or members of Tripoli’s wealthy Sunni class. Besides, just as external actors use local conflicts to pursue their own confrontation by other means, local fighters use their struggles as a way to attract important outside support. This economy of violence is replicated at all levels of Lebanese politics.

The ebbs and flows in the antagonism between Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen serve as a reliable barometer for tracking two fundamental issues facing Lebanon: tensions between Sunnis and Shiites on the one hand; and relations between Lebanon and Syria on the other. Notwithstanding a period of relative calm in both regards thanks to the Damascus-Riyadh rapprochement – exemplified by Hariri’s reconciliation efforts – popular resentment is very much alive, if not rising. What is happening at the ground level illustrates the scepticism and suspicion with which, so far, ordinary Lebanese have greeted agreements reached at the top, and how little such agreements have altered underlying dynamics. The international tribunal easily could bring the temperature on the street back to boiling point. Should that occur, Tripoli’s barometer could take another plunge.


The full briefing will shortly be available in English.
International Crisis Group
Middle East Briefing – 14 Oct 10
The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental
organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working
through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

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A pipeline to fuel Mid-East energy security

Editor’s Choice

25 August 2010
A pipeline to fuel Mid-East energy security
By Mary E. Stonaker
NOT many people outside the energy industry know much of it, but the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) is quietly shaping up to be an important player in regional and even global energy security.
This is a submarine and overland pipeline that carries natural gas throughout the Middle East. There are plans to connect the pipeline to Europe, a move that will make Middle East gas resources more accessible to European countries.
The AGP began as a Memorandum of Understanding between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in 2001. This outlined the route of the AGP network through Al-Arish and Taba in Egypt; Aqaba, Amman and Damascus in Jordan; and Hims in Syria.
The pipeline exports mainly Egyptian natural gas. Egypt possesses the third highest estimated natural gas reserves in Africa at 58.5 Tcf (trillion cubic feet), after Nigeria (185 Tcf) and Algeria (159 Tcf).
It is a net exporter of natural gas, producing approximately 1.9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) while consuming 1.1 Tcf in 2008. In 2009, Egypt exported 646 billion cubic feet (bcf), 30 per cent of this through pipelines, 70 per cent as Liquefied Natural Gas).
The AGP thus helps Egypt secure markets for its natural gas exports in the Middle East and possibly Europe. At the same time, Egypt like other Middle Eastern countries, face increasing domestic demand for gas resources and continually monitors export volume to ensure the domestic markets are sufficiently supplied.
There is still excess capacity in the AGP, with the current volume of gas flowing through the AGP standing at 4 billion cubic metres per year (bcm/y) while its capacity is 10 bcm/y.
This provides tremendous opportunities for the expanding AGP to spur exports to other Middle Eastern countries. This is important in a region known for its conflicts and helps secure regional energy security by offering Egypt’s natural gas resources to its neighbours in a stable and relatively low-cost and manner. Experts have said that it is shared energy insecurity that “provides an incentive for regional collaboration on renewable energy”.
Despite having 40% of the world’s remaining natural gas reserves, Middle Eastern countries are struggling to become exporters. This is due to growing domestic demand, as well as obstacles in developing the export market due to low prices, poor bill collection systems, and uneven distribution. Only with improved and increased infrastructure will the Middle East be able to reverse this trend, meet domestic demand and become net exporters of natural gas.
As the AGP expands its footprint, countries currently tied to it for natural gas resources will need to develop domestic infrastructure in order to reap the greatest benefits from participation in the AGP project. This has the salutary effect of spurring the development of regional energy infrastructure, which allows the whole region to be well-positioned for eventual integration into European markets.
Global gas demands are predicted to grow by about 2% per year for the next several decades. Natural gas demand is set to rise from the present 3.1 trillion cubic metres (tcm) to 4.5 tcm by 2030, a rise of nearly 50 per cent. Most of that demand will come from electricity, as it is a clean (low CO2 emissions), affordable way to power the region and the world. The Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) will play a pivotal role in securing access to natural gas in the region and beyond.
Already, the signs are good that the AGP will see additional extensions of its pipeline into Turkey, Iran, Iraq and possibly the European Union. It will do so by linking into existing or planned natural gas pipelines in these areas. If fully successful, the AGP would carry a total volume of gas of 14,000 million cubic metres per years (MCM/y).
Examples of extension: In 2006, the original signees (Egypt, Jordan and Syria and Lebanon) agreed with Turkey to build an extension from Hims, Syria across the Turkish border. They also agreed to allow Iraq’s natural gas access to the Arab Gas Pipeline and, in turn, access to the EU market if plans to tap into the Nabucco pipeline succeed. This pipeline is currently under construction and will run from Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria to Turkey.
The AGP is by no means the only regional gas pipeline of significance. Middle Eastern nations have been accessing collective and individual energy security policies to create regional cooperation and, ensure greater regional stability. There have been other natural gas pipeline projects in the region, most notably the pipelines connecting Algeria with European markets.
Algeria is the fourth-largest supplier to the EU after Russia, Norway and the Netherlands. There are now two main natural gas pipelines  from Algeria, with a third expected to be From Algeria, there are two main natural gas pipelines: the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) and the Maghreb-Europe Gas (MEG). A third major line, Medgaz, will connect Beni Saf, Algeria to Almería, Spain and is expected to be with a third expected to be fully operational mid-2010. Connectors to French and other European natural gas transmission networks are expected to be completed no earlier than 2013-2015.
Other pipelines are also being planned for the Middle East region.
The AGP is a commendable effort of four nations (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) to streamline exports and allow greater ease of access for Arabs to natural gas. It acts as a spur to regional development of gas infrastructure. It is also far-sighted in foreseeing the export potential of extending the AGP into Israel and Turkey, as well connecting to other regional pipelines, such as lines originating in Iraq and Iran.
Plugging itself into this network of pipelines, the AGP will play an important role to stabilize the region’s energy security, at least in regards to natural gas.
The writer is with the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She may be contacted at

The Straits Times, August 25, 2010

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The Future of Hezbollah: Hemmed in on All Sides

Editor’s Choice

10 August 2010
The Future of Hezbollah
Hemmed in on All Sides

Given rising tension with Israel and possible indictments of its operatives by the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, Lebanon’s powerful Shia political and paramilitary organization has never looked more uncertain.
By Paul Salem

The most immediate question concerns the possibility of another Israel-Hezbollah war, fears of which have mounted throughout this year, fuelled by reports of new missile transfers to Hezbollah and intermittent threats from Israel. Those who foresee war argue that Israel is unwilling to tolerate a heavily armed Iranian proxy on its border while tensions with Iran over the nuclear issue remain unresolved.

Although war is unlikely in the coming months, if sanctions on Iran don’t bear fruit by early 2011, Israel might feel the need to act. If it launched military strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations, Hezbollah would likely join the fray and Israel would have to engage Hezbollah at the same time. Alternatively, Israel might launch a pre-emptive war against Hezbollah in order to rob Iran of a nearby retaliatory capacity.

Arab-Israeli peace as a distinct possibility?

Hezbollah is preparing intensively for such scenarios, building defenses, digging tunnels, and assembling a powerful missile arsenal. But, although Hezbollah’s preparations are likely to ensure its survival, it would be hard-pressed to justify to the Lebanese public a strategy that led to two ruinous wars in the span of five years. In the end game of such a war, Syria might be asked by the Arab countries and the international community to take greater responsibility in Lebanon, in order to contain Hezbollah and its military profile.

Moreover, if peace prevents a slide into war, Hezbollah has another problem. Although a real breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process appears unlikely, United States envoy George Mitchell is still talking of Arab-Israeli peace as a distinct possibility in 2011. Sources within the US administration hint that President Barack Obama might announce the outlines of an Arab-Israeli settlement sometime later this year.

Security of “all states in the region”

An accord between Syria and Israel is a key element of all proposed scenarios for Arab-Israeli peace. In exchange for giving back the occupied Golan Heights, Israel and the US will insist on the disarmament of Hezbollah. Indeed, within the context of the Arab Peace Plan, announced in Beirut in 2002, the Arab states take it upon themselves to ensure the security of “all states in the region” – code words for dealing with the threats from Hezbollah and Hamas – since the region includes Israel.

Although both Hezbollah and Iran still argue, perhaps correctly, that Israel will not give back the Golan Heights or allow the emergence of a Palestinian state, the possibility of peace cannot be ruled out. If it does occur, Syria will push Lebanon into a peace treaty with Israel and lean on Hezbollah heavily to adjust to the new realities.

Given its popularity among Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah could continue as an influential political party, but it would have to abandon its role as a major proxy force for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Nevertheless, Hezbollah faces severe political trouble, too. Although no official announcement has been made, there are reports that Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, might conclude his investigation and issue indictments in the fall.

An Israeli plot to undermine the Islamic resistance?

In a speech on July 16, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged rumours that the Tribunal might indict members of his party, but charged that the Tribunal was part of an Israeli plot to undermine the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and has no credibility. He argued that the indictments would probably be based on cell-phone records, and that Israeli agents had penetrated the Lebanese cell-phone network. Indeed, the Lebanese authorities recently arrested a high-level official at one of the country’s two cell-phone companies, alleging that he was an Israeli agent.

In describing the tribunal as part of an Israeli plot, Nasrallah warned the government and other parties in Lebanon against cooperating with it, or accepting its verdicts. He reminded his audience of the street fighting in Beirut in May 2008, and made clear that Hezbollah would not shy away from another fight if necessary.

While Hezbollah has tried to convince other Lebanese that its presence helps maintain the country’s security and stability, regional and international developments suggest that it faces mounting challenges. And, although the future does not look bright for Hezbollah, it is not likely to relinquish its power without a fight.
Paul Salem is Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut., Germany – 6 August 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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