A day after the worst sectarian violence in Beirut in more than a decade, a fraught calm hung over the city on Friday with streets largely empty and government offices closed as militia groups started to bury their dead.
Gunfire briefly resounded through areas that on Thursday were the scenes of intense fighting, but armed men were shooting into the air – a defiant precursor to funerals that were due to start.
Francia, Rusia, and other European and political leaders appealed for calm as shocked residents continued to reel from scenes reminiscent of the darkest days of the country’s civil war. The clashes – between Shia militiamen and gunmen who fired from homes in largely Christian areas – have raised the spectre of a return to Lebanon’s darkest days as a financial collapse and political stalemate continues.
The tension has focused around a judicial investigation into the massive 2020 explosion que destroyed much of Beirut port and nearby neighbourhoods. Hezbollah, the most dominant power in the country, has been demanding the removal of the presiding judge, Tarek Bitar. Amal, another Shia militia and Hezbollah ally, has joined the push. Both groups have accused Bitar of disproportionately focusing on Shia politicians, although he has also tried to question Sunni and Christian former ministers.
“The explosion destroyed Christian neighbourhoods,” said Suha Haddad, a resident of the Mar Mikhael area, which was decimated by the huge blast. “I had 95 stitches, my whole body was covered in scars," ella dijo. “We want justice for this. Why don’t they?"
All political blocs condemned the fighting, a pesar de que Hezbollah continued to insist that a Christian bloc, the Lebanese Forces, had mobilised its members before a rally joined by hundreds of Shia demonstrators.
Lebanese Forces, a prominent Christian militia during the civil war, which retains influence among part of the country’s Christians, denied it had given instructions and accused Hezbollah of provocations.
With many Lebanese demanding a reckoning over the port blast and an end to political impunity that has characterised the post-war years, the risk of further unrest remains high.
“The way this looks is it is Maronite [Christians] against Shias. There is a deadlock here,” said Sami Awad, a resident of central Lebanon. “It’s partly about the corruption that got us to this point, but also about the regional elements. It’s really dangerous.”
The violence erupted with a financial collapse that has plunged much of Lebanon into poverty and with the international community unwilling to offer aid unless widespread financial reforms are introduced.
How to do that – or whether to do it at all – remains another point of conflict. “There isn’t an MP in Lebanon who is not implicated in corruption,” said a Beirut resident, Hassan Mahmoud. “Everybody fears the consequences of a magnifying glass – at the parliament and in the port.