Lebanon: Turning the Page on the Kuweikhat Incident

A boy stands next to a fire which residents of the town of al-Abdeh ignited to block the highway leading to the northern Lebanese area of Akkar after the funeral of Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Wahed in his hometown al-Bireh north of Beirut on 21 May 2012. (Photo: AFP - STR)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Thursday, September 13, 2012

March 14 forces tried to absorb the anger over the military court’s release of the the three army officers accused of killing Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Wahed and his companion, retired sergeant Hussein Merheb, on May 20 in the village of Kuweikhat in the Akkar region of North Lebanon.

A meeting that included Abdul-Wahed’s family, Akkar MPs and representatives of March 14 forces was held to calm tempers and prevent any trouble that might affect Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon next Saturday. At the end of the meeting, it was announced that escalation will be postponed, suggesting a return to the streets after the pontiff’s visit ends.

Between the officers’ release on Friday and the meeting of the March 14 General-Secretariat on Saturday, there were successive efforts to avoid a repeat of the July 5 events in al-Bireh – the birthplace of the two victims – and other towns in Akkar.

That day chaos and riots erupted when the officers were released for the first time after the 40-day commemoration of Abdul-Wahed’s death. Roads were blocked, tires were burned and the Lebanese army was prevented from deploying in Akkar.

There are indications that these recent efforts are part of an attempt to turn the page on the Kuweikhat incident.

Abdul-Wahed’s family was informed that blocking the roads again is not going to result in arresting the officers for a third time. They were detained the first time under the shock of the assassination. They were arrested a second time under pressure from the street and the riots and in an effort to avoid a confrontation with the army. However there will be no third time. A resolute decision was taken by the military leadership not to cave in to such threats again.

Abdul-Wahed’s family accepted this reality, especially since five of his brothers left to Australia where they work. One of the brothers was responsible for instigating the events that transpired on July 5, when he set up a tent in al-Bireh and incited residents against the Lebanese army. The other two brothers live in Lebanon. One of them is responsible for inflaming Sunni public opinion, but it does not seem that there will be a return to such conduct.

Former prime minister Saad Hariri, head of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, and Secretary General of the Future Movement Ahmad Hariri, as well as MPs Khaled Daher, Hadi Hobeich and Nouhad Machnouk contacted Abdul-Wahed’s family calling for calm and invited them to participate in the March 14 General-Secretariat. They promised that their son’s death will be considered a national cause and will remain at the top of March 14’s agenda.

Saad Hariri had informed the family of the need to be patient, keep tempers calm, and not engage in a negative reaction, insisting that the issue is in the hands of the March 14 alliance. Implied in this approach is the former prime minister’s rejection of any behavior that might lead to chaos, riots or attacks on the army.

The March 14 forces promised the families of Abdul-Wahed and his companion to take action after the pope’s visit is over but without taking to the streets and heightening tensions. Instead they promised to follow the case with the military and judicial authorities in accordance with proper legal procedures.

Leaders within March 14 also promised to exert pressure in order to refer the issue to the judicial council. They were determined not to repeat what happened in July. Also, the officers will not return to jail before the military court issues an indictment that either charges them or exonerates them.

It is normal for the military court to release the officers after spending three and a half months in jail. It is also not unusual that the military court would stand by the officers in a dispute with civilians.

Those calling for the officers’ imprisonment know that the person who fired at Abdul-Wahed is one of the three, while the other two – including the commander of the checkpoint – have nothing to do with the whole incident, though they were nevertheless arrested with him. The period of detention that lasted till last Friday seemed enough for the military court.

The first time, the three officers were detained for 40 days and the second time they were detained for two months. The 14 soldiers at the checkpoint were detained after the firing incident in May and were imprisoned for 40 days. Five of them were released a few days before the officers were set free.

It’s important to note that the three officers were imprisoned longer than the soldiers who were accused in 2007 of firing on Lebanese Shia protesters in Mar Mikhail, killing seven of them. In that incident, the people involved were only imprisoned for three months.

The March 14 General-Secretariat meeting held to absorb the shock of the officers’ release was set on Friday upon the announcement of their release. Nevertheless, the security operation and the raids conducted by the army in al-Ruwais in the southern suburb of Beirut Saturday morning looking for the kidnapped Syrians constituted a double-edged message to anyone threatening to return to rioting in Akkar.

The first message is that the army does not exercise its authority over one group and not another, but it will go after every person responsible for undermining stability. The second message is that the forces that conducted raids in the southern suburb can carry out similar measures anywhere else. Because the army entered an area that was always seen as a security zone closed to everyone except Hezbollah – which had no reservations about the raids – it will not hesitate to enter any other area.

The repercussions of the Kuweikhat incident are almost over and the potential clash between Sunni Akkaris and the army has been defused. But the problem of Akkar with the Syrian regime, which appears to be open for further escalation, has not been defused.

The Kuweikhat incident did not have a direct relationship to the support that the Future and Salafi movements in Akkar give to the armed Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which today has more freedom than ever to move around in the Sunni towns located along the northern border.

It is not hard to notice a fundamental change in the army’s behavior towards the activities of the FSA. Until a few months back, the army took strict measures to prevent the movement of armed syrian activists who fled the Syrian regime or those who have joined the FSA.

The Lebanese army checkpoints used to stop people carrying arms without hesitation. Today, these checkpoints have become more lax after the army was exhausted by the series of security and military operations in Tripoli, Akkar and the southern suburb.

The fact is that the military institution, as well the parties in Akkar that support the armed Syrian opposition, know well that the Lebanese army is unable to control the northern border and prevent the smuggling of arms and fighters, or to confront the attacks by the Syrian army and its shelling of the villages of Akkar.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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