Lebanon's social context remained fragile in 2013. The political and sectarian polarization of the conflict in Syria has had tremendous consequences on its neighbour, as Lebanon itself comprises Shi'a, Sunni, Alawite, Christian and Druze communities. However, while the civil war that tore apart the country from 1975 to 1990 has created lasting inter-communal tensions, it has also left painful memories that serve as a deterrent.
The first major destabilizing factor for the country of 4.5 million was the influx of refugees from neighbouring Syria, rising from 130,000 people in January to more than 800,000 in December. The influence played by the Syrian government in Lebanon over the past decade, and the profound divide within the country over Syria and its regime, makes this influx especially disruptive.
The open military involvement of the Hezbollah, the powerful Shi'a militia, alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops is another source of instability. While the Lebanese government had made efforts to follow a policy of 'dissociation' since 2011, officially abstaining from taking sides in the conflict in order to avoid being drawn into a new civil war, this policy became increasingly fraught when Hezbollah issued a public announcement of support for Assad's regime. All these developments have paved the way for increasing political polarization and outbursts of sectarian violence, at times encouraged by clerics such as Salafi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who in April called for jihad against Hezbollah in Syria.
The northern city of Tripoli, while serving as the stronghold of the Lebanese Salafi movement, also hosts a significant presence of Lebanese Alawites. Historically marked by recurrent tensions between members of the Alawite and Sunni communities, the city has experienced a resurgence in violent attacks. Sectarian tensions date back to the civil war but have worsened due to the conflict in Syria. Abductions of civilians, attacks targeting clerics and sporadic armed clashes between Alawite and Sunni groups in the city had already been escalating since early 2013. In May, however, the violence in Tripoli escalated, resulting in dozens dead and hundreds wounded. In August, the bombing of two Sunni mosques in the city killed dozens of civilians on the same day. From the summer, sectarian violence also occurred in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Predominantly Shi'a areas were subjected to indiscriminate bombings by militant groups, resulting in civilian casualties.
However, faced with the risks of Syria's civil conflict spreading into Lebanon, some steps have been taken to counter the sectarian narrative between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. For example, in March, Hezbollah and Shi'a party leaders condemned the attacks of four Sunni sheikhs on the outskirts of Beirut, describing it as an attempt to fan religious tensions, while Sunni muftis called for calm and warned against incitement to division on both sides. Sunni and Shi'a clerics joined in condemning the aggression and called for calm. Christian bishops and patriarchs also denounced acts of violence.
Counter hate speech initiatives also emerged from civil society in 2013. In May, reacting to the profusion of hate speech on social media in the wake of the attacks on the Sunni sheikhs, informal groups of young activists formed an 'anti-confessional police' to monitor and report incitement to hatred in social media. More generally, an inter-religious movement, advocating a less sectarian society, vocally opposed a proposal to revise the electoral law that could reinforce the sectarian divide in the voting process and stated their support for non-religious civil marriages.
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