Beyond Beirut, Islamists Advance

Attacks on bars and alcohol vendors are threatening Lebanon’s vibrant nightlife.  - Mona Alami/IPS.
Attacks on bars and alcohol vendors are threatening Lebanon’s vibrant nightlife. - Mona Alami/IPS.
  • by Mona Alami (beirut)
  • Inter Press Service

Drinking in public does not raise many eyebrows in the capital, Beirut, where it is common to spot people dancing atop bars, downing shots of vodka or knocking back bottles of champagne.

But beyond the clubs, bars, boutiques and theatres of Beirut, the South of the country, known as the Shia heartland, and the North, a Sunni bastion, have become more conservative in recent years.

Alcohol is hard to come by in shops throughout Northern and Southern towns and villages, since it is forbidden in both Shia and Sunni Islam.

'A few weeks ago I received a threatening phone call. I was told that violence would be used against me if I did not close my alcohol business,' said Wassef Hussein, an alcohol vendor who lives in Houla, a majority Shia town that is also home to many leftists, in South Lebanon.

Together with nearby Christian villages, Houla is one of the few areas in the South that does not abide by the Hezbollah party’s regional alcohol ban.

Hussein said increasing pressure from conservatives is hurting his business. 'People are now either afraid or too embarrassed to buy liquor from my store,' he lamented.

Last year, several shops selling alcohol in the Southern market town of Nabatiyeh closed down after some store owners received threats from members of an unidentified local party.

Tyre, a fishing town a few kilometres away from Houla, is known to be relatively liberal, home to an assortment of bars and restaurants that serve the majority Shia community, as well as Christian and Sunni Muslim minorities. But a series of explosions in recent months — all targeting restaurants or bars that served alcohol - rocked the popular tourist destination.

The bombings, which began last November, seemed designed to avoid casualties. The first two blasts occurred on the same night - one struck a pub in the Queen Elissa Hotel, while the other ripped through a liquor store.

The Tyros restaurant was also victim of a bombing a few days before New Year's Eve. Then in April, a bomb hit the Nocean bar just after closing time, injuring five employees.

'They are using the excuse of alcohol to target the tourism sector. I do not have the means to reopen my restaurant, in which I invested 250,000 dollars,' said Zahi Zeidan, the owner of Nocean, in a phone interview with IPS. 'As usual in Lebanon, security forces offer no explanation while the perpetrators -- who were caught on camera -- still run free.'

These attacks bring Lebanon back to a painful past. Over a decade ago, alcohol venues in the city of Sidon were targeted in a series of violent attacks that were mostly blamed on Sunni Palestinian radicals from the nearby Ain el-Helweh refugee camp.

However, no one has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks; the police remain silent even though several victims reported threats from a mysterious group calling itself Amr Bil Maarouf wu Nahi al- Mounkar, or ‘Abide by Charity and Put an End to Deviance’.

'It is my right to sell whatever I want as long as it does not violate Lebanese laws. I have a licence from the government of Lebanon to sell alcohol, and I will not abide by any group or party’s orders or ‘laws’,' Hussein declared defiantly.

Meanwhile, in North Lebanon, alcohol vendors are facing a different kind of intimidation. In Mina, a Christian neighbourhood located in the city of Tripoli, a few bars that opened on what residents have dubbed Mino Street were quick to either close down or refrain from serving alcohol following threats.

'We used to enjoy going out for a drink, but with all the motorcyclists who pass by, vandalising bars or insulting customers to initiate brawls, we simply stopped,' said Tripoli resident Stephanie.

For journalist Kassem Kassir, the incidents -- whether in the South or North -- are symptomatic of the growing Islamisation of Lebanese society.

'There is a rise in religiosity among both Shias and Sunnis, which is expressed in different ways depending on the region. The attacks have very different signatures in the North and South and are not necessarily the acts of organised factions,' he said, though he acknowledged he has heard of the Amr Bil Maarouf wu Nahi al-Mounkar.

'These groups might be linked to Lebanese political factions or simply individuals implementing the fatwa of a religious figure,' he noted.

Regardless of who they are, the extremists seem to have gotten their point across. 'The city of Tyre is dead during a season that is usually booming,' said Zeidan. 'For it to thrive again, such acts need to stop.'

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service