On October 19th, Sassine Square, a busy residential area in the Achrafieh neighborhood of Beirut was rocked by a massive car bomb that killed eight people, including Lebanese Intelligence Chief, Wissam Al-Hassan, and injured 78, according to state media, left a crater in the street, mangled nearby cars and caused significant damage to surrounding buildings. It was the most deadly attack in Beirut since the 2005 car bomb that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, sending the country into chaos and prompting Lebanon to call an end to Syria’s 29 year military presence. Naturally, the Achrafieh bombing brought to life fears that once again instability would unfold in its aftermath, this time pulling Lebanon into the ongoing sectarian violence in neighboring Syria. In the days following the bombing, tensions were high, as clashes broke out in Tripoli, and protestors burned tires and blocked major roads across the country.
In the two weeks following the bombing, the eruption of protests have cleared; and evermore distant fears of civil war have cast an eerie calm over Beirut. Residents, determined to restore normalcy, have long returned to work and school. Meanwhile, the March 14 Coalition opposition party continues to demand the resignation of current Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his government, security officials continue to comb the debris for evidence, an FBI probe has come and gone, and we have asked those living across the region for their thoughts on the current situation in Lebanon.
Within minutes of the explosion, local news sources and politicians were quick to implicate Syria in the bombing. While the Lebanese government has yet to officially accuse anyone of the bombing, a recent YouGov survey, conducted across the MENA region, found just over half of respondents when asked who was most responsible for the bombing named Syria.. However, when asked the same question but allowed more than one option, respondents were closely divided, with 38 percent blaming Syria, 32 percent Israel, and 31 percent Hezbollah. The findings are not surprising, given growing concern that the ongoing violence in Syria will spill into neighboring Lebanon. In fact, 67 percent of respondents believe that Lebanon is being dragged into the current conflict in Syria.
Syrian and Lebanese politics have long been intertwined, perhaps most directly during Syria’s twenty-nine year military presence in Lebanon, which ended officially in 2005. However, only 35 percent of respondents think that Syrian influence in Lebanon has decreased following the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, while 25 percent believe it has increased and 20 percent believe it remained the same. In fact, 58 percent of respondents believe that the current regime in Syria is using Lebanon as a distraction from the conflict in its own country, while 14 percent remained neutral, only 15 percent disagreed. With a similar dose of skepticism, nearly half of interviewees believe that it is convenient for some people in Lebanon to blame Syria for its problems.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, most Lebanese recoiled, choosing to stay home, while others rushed to organize grassroots efforts to provide food and shelter, and even blood to those affected by the violence. However, as was heavily publicized, many others chose to take to the streets in protest, often blocking roads and burning tires, and at times clashes broke out between pro- and anti-Syrian groups. Although the protests received considerable press, half of respondents believe that international media reports were exaggerating the violence. The majority of respondents indicated that they thought the protests were fuelled by sectarian tensions, with 81 percent saying they believed such tensions played a role. While 47 percent of respondents indicated that they supported the protests that followed the bombing, many seemed to disapprove of their disruptive nature. Sixty-six percent of those interviewed said that they do not support the blocking of major roads, 77 percent said that they do not support burning tires, and 78 percent said they do not support violence against security forces. While many of the protestors demanded the resignation of PM Najib Mikati, only 43 percent of respondents believe that he should step down.
Generally, respondents felt that the protests would have a negative overall impact on the region, with three-quarters saying that they were concerned that sectarian tension would increase in Lebanon following the protests, and nearly half of the respondents saying that they felt the protests would have a negative impact on Lebanon specifically. When asked separately if they believed that the protests would have a positive or negative impact on Hezbollah, which supports the Assad regime in Syria, 41 percent of respondents believed they would have a negative impact.
For the time being, a cautious optimism has taken over as the people of Lebanon are eager to maintain a sense of calm and stability following the blast. However, many across the region remain concerned for the future of Lebanon, as 80 percent of respondents believe that the country will witness further attacks. While many think that violence will continue, most believe that the future of Lebanon should remain a domestic issue, with 58 percent of interviewees asserting that foreign intervention is not required to ensure peace in Lebanon. This sentiment was even more apparent regarding the issue of US involvement, which three-quarters of respondents said they would not support. Perhaps drawing on similarities with the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which remains unsolved, 61 percent of respondents do not believe that the Lebanese government will hold anyone accountable for the bombing. In a country that has grown accustomed to political instability, perhaps such degree of cynicism is warranted. However, it should not be ignored that the majority of respondents across the region are hopeful regarding Lebanon’s future, as 59 percent of respondents agree that it is possible for the various groups in Lebanon to live peacefully together.
The survey was conducted using the YouGov Online Panel and all questionnaires were completed between the 24th October – 3rd November 2012. The results are based on a total sample of 1,999 respondents (1,026 GCC, 508 North Africa and 465 Levant). The YouGov panel is broadly representative of the online populations within the region.
An abridged version of this article first appeared in The National newspaper (Print and Online) on Monday the 12th of November 2012.