Civil War on the Basketball Court

By Nir Boms | July 14, 2003

A few days ago, in the Fuad Shehab basketball stadium of suburban Beirut, the national basketball championship game was played between the two leading Lebanese teams: La Sagesse and Al Riyadi.  Unlike many other sports, basketball is of the few that has survived throughout the cruel and intense war history that tore this country Lebanon apart. At this event, the number of security personnel and their nervousness were mere indicators of the tension that was vibrating off the court and into the stands. Only a month before, the final game was cut short as violence broke out in the stadium. This time, security forces were preparing for the worst. In Lebanon, one must not take things at face value, a seemingly mundane event like a basketball game can actually highlight the fact that Lebanon is a barrel of explosives that can explode at any time. 

The fans took their seats across from one another, armed with green (La Sagesse) and yellow (Riyadi) flags, munchies and some clubs that escaped the eyes of the “watchful” guards. Basketball would not be the only name of the game.  In fact, Riyadi is a sports club owned, among other businesses, by Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Hariri is a Sunni Muslim with assets and businesses all over the world and a network of close friends and acquaintances in Syria, Saudi Arabia, France and pre U.S.-controlled Iraq. La Sagesse, on the other hand is affiliated with the Maronite Church. This sports club comes from the small town of Ghazeer and has become a symbol of hope and survival to the Lebanese Christians following their defeat during the civil war and their deficiency of leadership afterwards. 

Forty one seconds into the second quarter, with La Sagesse leading 29-14, Muhammad Hantas of Riyadi, aggressively blocked Bassem Bala (Sagesse) and drew a foul while fighting over the rebounding ball. Within seconds, the noise in the emotion-filled stadium grew louder while the captain of La Sagesse, Elie Mechantaf, punched Hantas after quarrelling with him in response to the foul. Had it not been for the large number of security personnel and their quick response, the furious crowd unable to hold its anger, would have rampaged the stadium and made a New York gang fist fight look like a game of tag.  Back in their seats, still armed with flags, the crowed went on cheering their respective teams. This however, was not the normal cheer one would expect at a basketball game. 

The Riyadi fans shouting “Syria, Syria” and “hurray to Bashar” expressed their loyalty to their, more than a decade old, patron.  On the other hand, Sagesse fans were cheering and hailing “USA, USA” and “Hakim Hakim,” the nickname of Samir Geagea the commander of the Lebanese Forces (a Christian representative party) which were outlawed and whom commander was jailed underground in 1994 and has seen the sun only a few days since. It took over an hour for the security forces to clear the raging fans from the court floor, but to no avail. When the Riyadi fans learned of the referee’s decision to send their team’s captain to the bench, they continued rioting and the Riyadi team retired of the game upon decision of their coach. A short time thereafter, the referee proclaimed the Christian La Sagesse team the technical winners of this most important game. The victory was a small consolation prize for a weakening minority in a land occupied by Syria for almost three decades. 

These events are more than just a sad story about a basketball game, or a “national tragedy” as described in the Lebanese media.  In fact, one can learn much from the events described here. The basketball game is a snapshot of contemporary Lebanon: divided and quite desperate. Salvation, it would seem, has been deposited in the hands of an outside savior. Syria and the United States appear to be the powers competing for this role. As a source in the Christian-Lebanese community said to me, “We have known for many years now, that the rescue of Lebanon will not come from within. Many of the different groups composing Lebanon’s social mosaic feel that the new circumstances in the Middle East have made the region ripe for change- but this change cannot materialize itself without the help of the US.” The Muslim camp appeared more divided as far as its Syrian sentiments are concerned, – but this has not changed its feelings for their long-time Christian adversaries. 

The shouting and cheering on the basketball court reflects the dynamics in Lebanon. It is a country that came to existence as an ethnic democracy but found itself marching on the long path of civil war and ethnic conflicts that still threaten its stability, even under the control of its neighbor to the east. This instability has served as the alibi for Syrian intervention in Lebanon since 1989, as a catalyst for the transformation of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley into the center of recruitment and training of terrorists as well as for drug trafficking in the region. 

But the true story of what is happening in Lebanon these days is not what is said but rather what is kept unsaid.  On the decibel waves carrying the cries “USA” and “Syria” from both sides of the stadium, the cry of those who used to cheer “Lebanon” seems to have been drowned out. The reality today is that between the Christian forces that have long been disarmed, and the fundamentalist Shiite Muslims represented by Hezbollah – a group who has no binding relationship with the land of Lebanon -remains. Lebanon again finds itself between the hammer and the nail. 

While the United States is working to free Lebanon from Syria’s grip, as seen in the congressional resolutions H.R.1828 and S. 982, it seems that the Lebanese street is reaching a boiling point.  Another battle over the future of Lebanon may soon begin. And before it does, we better make sure that the right group wins.

Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

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