The heart of Lebanon's strife
Violence is rooted in the flawed 1943 power-sharing pact.
Huddled at home in front of their TVs during last week's fighting, the Lebanese relived one of their worst memories: masked gunmen setting up makeshift checkpoints and demanding people's identity cards. The image of gunmen stopping civilians at checkpoints to sort and often murder them on the basis of religion is perhaps the most enduring symbol of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.Skip to next paragraph
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During that war, the sectarian divide was between Muslims and Christians. This time, the conflict is mainly between Sunnis and Shiites. It is also an extension of the ongoing proxy war in Iraq – pitting Iran and Syria (which support the Shiite militia Hezbollah) against the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Arab regimes (which back Lebanon's Sunni- and Christian-dominated government).
Each Lebanese faction accuses the other of serving external masters. Hezbollah claims the US put the ruling coalition up to issuing two recent orders: one outlawing the militia's private communications network and another dismissing the security chief at the Beirut airport. In turn, the government accuses Hezbollah of carrying out a "coup" at the behest of Iran and Syria.
But while external players have a hand in the latest bloody confrontations, they don't deserve all the blame. For the most part, the Lebanese did this to themselves – and they need to find a political settlement of their own by modernizing an antiquated power-sharing system. Otherwise, the Sunni-Shiite rift in Lebanon will explode, especially since it has been fueled by years of sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. TV stations showing pictures of mutilated bodies, rumors of forced evacuations on both sides, and a gunman opening fire on a funeral – these sound like scenes from Iraq, but now they're taking place in Lebanon.
On May 9, Hezbollah dispatched hundreds of heavily armed fighters into West Beirut, and they quickly routed Sunni militiamen, took control of their political offices, and shut down media outlets owned by the Sunni leader Saad Hariri (son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, assassinated in 2005). The US-allied government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora appeared powerless, while the Lebanese Army stood on the sidelines. On May 15, the government rescinded its orders, Hezbollah pulled its fighters off the streets, and leaders of the two factions headed to Qatar to negotiate.