x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Optimism prevails for peace despite Beirut bombing

A survey shows discrepancies between how international media handled the recent bombing in Beirut and the reality on the ground.

On October 19, Sassine Square, a busy residential area in the Achrafieh neighbourhood of Beirut, was rocked by a massive car bomb that killed eight people, including the Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam Al Hassan. It was the deadliest attack in Beirut since the 2005 car bomb that killed the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, sending the country into chaos and prompting Lebanon to call an end to Syria's 29-year military presence.

Naturally, the bombing brought to life fears that instability would unfold in its aftermath, pulling Lebanon into the ongoing sectarian violence in neighbouring Syria. In the days following the bombing, tensions were high, as clashes broke out in Tripoli, and protesters burnt tyres and blocked roads.

The protests have cleared and an eerie calm has descended on Beirut. Residents, determined to restore normality, have long returned to work and school.

Meanwhile, the March 14 Coalition opposition party continues to demand the resignation of the prime minister Najib Mikati and his government; security officials continue to comb the debris for evidence; an FBI probe has come and gone; and YouGov has asked those living across the region for their thoughts on the situation.

Within minutes of the explosion, local news sources and politicians were quick to implicate Syria. While the Lebanese government has yet to accuse anyone, a YouGov survey, conducted across the Mena region, found that just over half of respondents asked who was most responsible for the bombing named Syria. When asked the same question but allowed more than one option, respondents were closely divided, with 38 per cent blaming Syria, 32 per cent Israel, and 31 per cent Hizbollah. The findings are not surprising, given growing concern that the violence in Syria will spill into Lebanon. In fact, 67 per cent of respondents believe that Lebanon is being dragged into the conflict in Syria.

Syrian and Lebanese politics have long been intertwined. However, only 35 per cent of respondents think that Syrian influence in Lebanon has decreased following the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, while 25 per cent believe it has increased and 20 per cent believe it has remained the same. In fact, 58 per cent of respondents believe that the regime in Syria is using Lebanon as a distraction from the conflict in its own country. While 14 per cent remained neutral on this issue, only 15 per cent disagreed. With a similar dose of scepticism, nearly half of interviewees believe 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 organise grassroots efforts to provide food, shelter and blood to those affected by the violence. Many others took to the streets in protest. At times, clashes broke out between pro- and anti-Syrian groups.

Half the survey respondents said international media reports were exaggerating the violence. Most respondents thought the protests were fuelled by sectarian tensions, with 81 per cent saying they believed such tensions played a role. While 47 per cent of respondents indicated that they supported the protest, many disapproved of their disruptive nature. Sixty six per cent of those interviewed said that they did not support the blocking of major roads, 77 per cent said that they did not support burning tyres, and 78 per cent said they did not support violence against security forces. While many of the protesters demanded the resignation of Mr Mikati, only 43 per cent of survey respondents said he should step down.

Generally, respondents felt that the protests would have a negative overall effect 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 effect on Lebanon specifically. When asked separately if they believed that the protests would have a positive or negative effect on Hizbollah, which supports the Assad regime in Syria, 41 per cent of respondents believed they would have a negative effect.

A cautious optimism has taken over as the people of Lebanon are eager to maintain a sense of calm and stability. Many people across the region remain concerned for the future, as 80 per cent of respondents believe that the country will witness further attacks. However, most believe that the future of Lebanon should remain a domestic issue, with 58 per cent of interviewees asserting that foreign intervention is not required to ensure peace. 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 Mr Hariri, which remains unsolved, 61 per cent 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 a degree of cynicism is warranted. However, most respondents across the region are hopeful regarding Lebanon's future, with 59 per cent agreeing 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 October 24 and November 3. The results are based on a 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.


Karima Berkani is research manager at YouGov in Dubai.