Grenades & Goals: Lebanon's World Cup run despite political turmoil

Photo: Mohammad Azakir

By Justin Salhani in Beirut, Lebanon

As the referee’s final whistle ended the World Cup Qualifier, reality set back in for Lebanon. Not just for the montakhab (national team) but for the entire country of 4.5 million people.

The one all draw with Uzbekistan occurred over a welcome 90 minute distraction where the small Mediterranean country focused on football instead of roads blocks, burning tires, armed clashes and kidnappings.

In Lebanon, football is trumped by constant tumultuous local and regional events. Football is just a distraction. In Lebanon, the real national sport is politics.

The bloody uprising in Syria has begun to trickle in to Lebanon over the past couple months. Armed clashes in the northern city of Tripoli (Lebanon’s second largest) and the capital Beirut as well as the killing of a prominent Islamic religious figure in Akkar (also in the north) has threatened the delicate balance of peace, or the delicate absence of war. Tension is the highest it’s been since 2008, when civil war was only prevented by a forced mediation of Lebanese political figures in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

Having experienced a 15 year conflict (1975-1990) divided along sectarian lines, Lebanon lives with painful memories of civil war. The war took the lives of as many as 200,000 people (or one-quarter of the population).

In Lebanon, the real national sport is politics.

My father, a journalist, covered the war from its outbreak in ‘75 until ‘84; when he couldn’t take anymore. After documenting the destruction of his city and numerous massacres (often in the name of “religion”), the complete absence of humanity led him to swear never to return to Lebanon (a promise he kept for 17 years). Though the war officially concluded six years later the country’s peace remained fragile; incidents occurring between Lebanon and Israel (1996, 2006) and internally (2008).

Conflict chases Lebanon as though it is in a nightmare. Every time Lebanon feels as though it has outrun Conflict’s shadow, a glance backward shows Conflict in Lebanon’s peripheral vision. On Sunday night, as 40,000+ fans at Camille Chamoun Stadium in Beirut file out after a disappointing loss, Conflict follows behind at a measured distance.

April 4-The Traitor Released

“Former military officer and Free Patriotic Movement official Fayez Karam was released from prison Tuesday after spending a year and eight months behind bars for contacting Israel.” Lebanon’s The Daily Star newspaper, April 4, 2012

On days remembered solely by the print in books, people living in Jerusalem would travel north to spend holidays in the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, while residents of Beirut would journey south with their families to Haifa and Yaffa. A few wars paired with Israeli political interference and the less subtle invasion of Lebanon has since forced families to look elsewhere for weekend getaways.

As with any nation ruling an area in a foreign land, Israel’s 18 year occupation of southern Lebanon (1982-2000), including the massive aerial, naval and ground bombardment of West Beirut, left relations soured. The 1996 bombing of Qana (a tiny village in south Lebanon where some believe that Jesus Christ performed his first miracle –turning water into wine–) that killed 106 civilians and The July War of 2006, (which saw 1,300 mostly civilians killed as well as severe infrastructural damage in Lebanon and 165 mostly soldiers killed in Israel) further entrenched divisions between the two nations.

Today, Lebanese law forbids any Lebanese citizen from visiting Israel (a visa found on your passport will result in arrest) or speaking to a person with an Israeli passport (even via the internet). Needless to say, having contact with the Israeli government is a little more than a cultural taboo.

Fayez Karam was a high ranking military officer and a member of the primarily Christian, pro-Syrian party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). In 2010, despite maintaining his innocence, Karam was arrested and later found guilty of providing the Mossad (Israeli intelligence) with information on FPM and their political ally Hezbollah. Less than two years later though, Karam was back on the streets. Where as many other Lebanese are serving life-sentences in prison for the same charges, a man with political connections spent just 20 months incarcerated.

Karam’s arrival to his residence in Kaslik (north of Beirut) was a spectacle of joy and relief for his family; his supporters even breaking into applause. At the same time, an hour north in Tripoli, Sunni Islamists experienced an entirely different set of emotions.

May 12-The Arrest/The Syrian Spillover

“According to a statement released by the office, Shadi Mawlawi was lured Saturday to the Center for Social Services owned by Safadi in Nour Square in Tripoli, north Lebanon, by security agents on the pretext that he would be granted health care. Minutes after Mawlawi’s arrival, security forces stormed the center and arrested him.” The Daily Star, May 12, 2012

The arrest in Tripoli sparked outrage among the Islamists. Many had set up tents in one of the main public squares about a week before to continue their earlier peaceful protests. Now they were beginning to get angry.

Many in the Sunni community believed that Mawlawi was arrested by security forces due to his efforts assisting the Syrian uprising.

As an Islamist had mentioned to me three weeks before, “The government gave Fayez Karam [under] two years. He [had contact] with the Israelis. We have Islamic prisoners, and there’s no justice for them.”

While the Lebanese government has said they will maintain a “disassociation policy” towards the uprising in Syria (as opposed to other Arab countries supporting the uprising), the Lebanese security forces are believed by some to maintain a pro-Syrian regime slant. Mawlawi’s arrest pushed Sunni Islamists in Tripoli past their threshold.

I visited Tripoli on an assignment to write a tourism story a couple weeks before the events unfolded. While there, I asked local residents about the security situation.

“There’s still fighting in Bab al Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen. It might slow down but it won’t stop.”

They informed me that there was a long standing feud between families in Bab al Tabbeneh (mainly Sunni Islamist) and Jabal Mohsen (mainly Alawite, the same sect of Islam as Syrian President Bashar Assad). Fighting has transpired between the two groups for decades, sort of like a Lebanese version of the Hatfield and McCoy feuds known to Americans.

Many political analysts believe that Bashar Assad has made efforts towards causing instability in Tripoli, due to its proximity to the Lebanese-Syrian border. The situation during the time of my visit was as peaceful as it would remain in the northern city for the next six weeks.

Clashes between residents of Bab al Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen were renewed after Mawlawi’s arrest. They continued over the next few days, with the army deployed to calm tensions. With the army in place tension temporarily subsided but that wouldn’t last long.


May 20-The Sheikhs Death/Clashes Close to Home

“Fears grew over the stability of north Lebanon Sunday after soldiers shot dead a prominent anti-Assad Muslim preacher and a companion at a Lebanese Army checkpoint in Akkar, triggering a wave of anger in several parts of the country.” The Daily Star, May 21, 2012

Only eight days after Mawlawi’s arrest, anti-Assad figure Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Wahed was killed after failing to stop at a checkpoint in Akkar (north of Tripoli). Feeling targeted, Sunni Muslim’s fear grew and anger boiled.

Tension in the country had begun to peak and some people were genuinely beginning to worry. Others went on with business as usual.

That evening I sat at my laptop in my home located on the Ain al Mraisse Corniche in Ras Beirut, watching Twitter as the following events unfolded.

Clashes began a little over an hour before midnight in the Tareek al Jadideh neighborhood only a five minute drive from my apartment. The story goes that supporters from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement (primarily Sunni Muslim party supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States) attacked the pro-Assad Arab Movement Party’s headquarters (also primarily Sunni). The Future Movement later denied they had been involved.

From Twitter: “Loud explosion followed by a bass drop”

The two groups fought with automatic assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades.

As the fighting went on, many foreign journalists and political analysts from Doha to Washington DC were spouting off the tired analogies of “smelling civil war.” While some local residents were certainly worried, many Lebanese maintained calm.

A picture of an “explosion” in the Verdun neighborhood of Beirut circulated on Twitter. Two friends of mine in Verdun said they smelt burnt tires but didn’t hear any explosion.

“It’ll blow over by tomorrow,” another friend told me.

A prominent local blogger tweeted that he was on a rooftop nearby listening to loud electro- music and having drinks while snapping photos of the clashes with his iPhone.

“Loud explosion followed by a bass drop,” the blogger tweeted.

The next morning things had cooled down and it looked as though fighting in Beirut was down for the time being. The final score was three killed and ten wounded (after five hours of fighting=bad aim). Again foreign journalists and analysts spoke of the danger to come in Lebanon. Local journalists called for calm and perspective.

Photo: Marwan Tahtah

A journalist friend of mine who lives near where the clashes took place wrote on Facebook that morning, “If my neighborhood can deal with hours of RPG fire then they damn well should accept me throwing a raucous house party. Double standards.”

May 22-The Curious Case of the Shiite Hostages

“Hezbollah and the Lebanese government said Tuesday they were hopeful that 13 Lebanese men who had been abducted by rebels in Syria while returning from a pilgrimage in Iran would be freed soon.” The Daily Star, May 23, 2012

After a week where the news was filled with various neighborhoods burning tires over different grievances, the nation received reports that 13 Lebanese men had been abducted on their way back from a pilgrimage to either Iraq or Iran depending on which reports you believe. The kidnappers were members of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria.

The FSA is largely made up of Sunni Muslims. Sunnis in Lebanon often have a higher level of affinity with Syrian Sunnis than they do with Lebanese Shiites. As Lebanese waited to see what would happen next the nation’s people held their breath in fear that sectarian tensions would spiral out of control.

Some Shiite neighborhoods took to the streets, blocking roads and burning tires, as Hezbollah’s (primarily Shiite, pro-Assad party) powerful leader Sayid Hassan Nasrallah prepared a speech. Nasrallah called for calm and his influence over the Shiite population of Lebanon made his calls effective.

In a rare act not seen in years, the Lebanese political parties seemed willing to cooperate for the benefit of freeing these hostages. The Lebanese Forces (a pro Western, Christian party linked with the Future Movement) held demonstrations in solidarity with the Shiites hostages. Former PM Saad Hariri (Hezbollah’s biggest opponent in Lebanon) agreed to send his personal jet to collect the hostages and bring them back to Lebanon.

As quick as it had begun it had ended.

The women and elderly arrived hastily while the 11 remaining men were expected at Rafik Hariri International Airport that evening.

It all seemed so simple. Except it wasn’t.

The hostages didn’t arrive that evening. Or the next day. Or the next.

“A previously unknown armed group calling itself the "Syrian Revolutionaries – Aleppo Province” said that it is holding a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who went missing last week.” The Daily Star, June 1, 2012

Further players emerged including groups not before known by experts. The group demanded apologies from Nasrallah for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nasrallah responded by asking the kidnappers to separate politics from humanitarian issues.

At the time of writing, the issue of hostages has fallen from headline news, while the hostages are still being negotiated over.

May 23-Conflicting Reports of Clashes in Beirut

“A soldier and two policemen were wounded Wednesday evening in what media reports said was a personal dispute in the Beirut neighborhood of Caracas. The National News Agency blamed a “drunken” man in the neighborhood for shooting an unspecified weapon near the headquarters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, while several rounds of RPG fire were reported by residents afterward.” The Daily Star, May 24, 2012

“A gunman with ties to Al-Qaeda was arrested Thursday in the Beirut neighborhood of Caracas after a standoff with army troops, which claimed the life of another gunman, security sources said.” The Daily Star, May 25, 2012

Three days after the latest clashes I was sitting in a café in the Hamra district of Beirut with a few friends around 11pm. We were all enjoying drinks when word popped up on Twitter that gunfire had been heard nearby. Having heard nothing, we waited for developments.

The news came in that the gunfire had been heard in the area of Karakas, only a couple minutes walking from the café we were currently in. People were now reporting that the army had responded and the fire was coming from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) headquarters, at the end of the street where I had resided the year before and in the exact building where one friend (who happened to be sitting next to me) had lived at the same time.

Hearing that the event was unfolding nearby my friend and I decided to head toward the scene by car. The usual vibrant streets of the Hamra area, lined with shops, pubs and restaurants were deserted. As we came close to Karakas, we found the roads to be blocked. I asked to jump out as my friend went to park his vehicle.

I proceeded cautiously on foot, a little more than a block away from the SSNP headquarters. Despite Karakas being only a few blocks from the nightlife hub of Hamra it is a quiet, slow-moving neighborhood where many people in the second half of their lives reside.

As I moved forward, three men in plain, street clothes came towards me. They ran past me behind the Laundromat, signaling me to join them. After an exchange of words (in Arabic) I found out they are military intelligence. Shortly after they were joined by two soldiers. After one of the intelligence officers in plain clothes snapped some photos of my press card they told me to get lost.

Reports initially said a drunken man had a dispute with his girlfriend and opened fire towards SSNP members before the army got involved (as I found out first hand).

But how had this “drunken man” injured one army soldier and two members of the internal security force on his own? After all, he was a drunken citizen and the three injured people are professionals trained to use automatic weapons.

Reports followed the next day claiming the man was named Hani Shanti and linked to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. The conflict began when Shanti’s accomplice, Yamman Suleiman, killed a man. The man had been accompanying Suleiman’s girlfriend in order to collect her things from his apartment when the army and ISF got involved.

Rumors of conspiracies spread around Lebanon fast. My friend with me from the pub the night before said she thought one possibility was that the army wanted to reassert its image of being a neutral force. Whereas recent events in Lebanon (Mawlawi’s arrest, the killing of the Sheikh at the checkpoint) were against Sunnis (most of whom are anti-Assad), the latest clashes were in an area ran by the SSNP (a pro-Assad party).

While the weeks since have been quiet in Beirut, Tripoli continues with sporadic clashes. Gunfire, grenades, mortars and more weapons are being utilized between the pro and anti-Assad groups.

As a friend from Tripoli told me, “There’s still fighting in Bab al Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen. It might slow down but it won’t stop.”

June 3-8: Tripoli Death Toll Rises/Montakhab Inspires Hope

“Lebanese security forces imposed Sunday a tenuous calm in Tripoli after deadly armed clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad over the weekend claimed the lives of 14 people and wounded scores of others. Sporadic gunfire was heard in Lebanon’s second city during the day but the guns fell silent in late afternoon. Hours later, a grenade was thrown from a car at a shop in Azmi Street, setting it ablaze. A boy, Mazen Mustafa Mustafa, died of his wounds Sunday, raising the death toll from the fighting to 14. At least 52 people were also wounded in the clashes which erupted at dawn Saturday.” The Daily Star, June 4, 2012

As the montakhab entered the stadium in Beirut, Friday, June 8, clashes were on-going in Tripoli. While some players were rolling up their socks and getting some pre-game touches in before the match against Uzbekistan, rocket propelled grenades were being shot across town.

As the players took the pitch the country watched, welcoming any kind of distraction from the events of the past couple months.

Five days earlier as Lebanon lined up against Qatar, expectations had been high considering Lebanon had never made it to the 4th round of World Cup Qualifying before. A one goal loss changed that as the 40,000 crowd that showed up to watch Lebanon play Qatar dwindled to only 20,000 against the Uzbeks.

An early goal from Djasur Khasanov of Uzbekistan dampened Lebanese hopes even further as the Lebanese seemed unable to keep up with the speed of Uzbekistan’s play.

Looking fatigued and bereft of ideas, a free kick was awarded to Lebanon 30 yards from goal. A low, driven free kick from Ali al Saadi somehow caught the Uzbek keeper off guard, bringing the score to 1-1.

Photo: Mohammad Azakir

The match ended with Lebanon fortunately picking up a draw.

As the Lebanese players departed the field, Lebanon’s focus returned to the events in Tripoli. However with al Saadi’s goal, hope sprang eternal.

The fate of the Shiite hostages in Syria (or Turkey), the armed clashes in Tripoli, renewed reports of kidnappings on a daily basis and the spillover from a neighbor on the brink of civil war all currently threaten Lebanon.

While these events continue to play out the montakhab has their own schedule, with a match against South Korea on Tuesday in Seoul.

Football is simply a distraction for Lebanese. This Tuesday though, it is welcomed.

Justin Salhani is a journalist & Vintage Futbol’s correspondent in Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSalhani.