For a country associated with sectarian strife, Lebanon is showing unprecedented displays of interfaith solidarity, spurred by outrage at the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and resentment at Syria's continuing hegemony.
With Syria blamed for Mr. Hariri's death in a massive bomb blast on Feb. 14, Lebanese Muslims and Christians have taken to the streets of Beirut in unparalleled numbers to call for an end to Damascus's long domination of its tiny Mediterranean neighbor.
"This is the beginning of something important," says Gebran Tueni, editor of Lebanon's An-Nahar newspaper, speaking during a demonstration on Monday that brought tens of thousands of Lebanese to central Beirut. "It's the first time you have Christians, Muslims, and Druze asking for the same thing: a Syrian withdrawal and a democratic society in Lebanon."
For many Lebanese, however, the deadly bomb blast, in which Hariri and 15 others perished, and the resulting political turmoil, have stirred grim memories of the civil strife that beset the country from 1975 to 1990.
Some Lebanese instinctively fear that a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could return the country to violence. Syria has sent tentative signals that it is willing to stage further redeployments of its estimated 14,000 troops in Lebanon in accordance with the 1989 Taif Accord, which helped end the Lebanese civil war.
But Damascus has denied comments aired Monday by Amr Musa, secretary-general of the Arab League, who said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had told him Syria would "soon" stage a troop withdrawal from Lebanon.
Analysts say that Lebanese fears of a return to civil conflict are unfounded.
"The idea that we are preparing to kill each other again is absurd," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator. "The Syrians since the end of the war have prevented any coalition developing in Lebanon that could have turned against them."
Syria's policy of divide and rule, analysts say, has been eroded by a growing opposition movement and the emergence of cross-confessional alliances.
After the end of the civil war, the anti-Syrian opposition was led by the Maronite Christians. But in 2001, the Maronites held a formal reconciliation with the Druze, their traditional foe, ending more than 100 years of hostility and forging a key opposition coalition. Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze community, has emerged as the most ardent critic of Syria's presence here.
Although the Sunni Muslim community chafed under Syrian rule, it was too timid to defy Damascus openly and join the opposition, analysts say. But that changed with the murder of Hariri, the most influential Sunni in Lebanon.
A dormitory for Syrian workers was burned down last week in the northern Minnieh district and Syrian laborers have been attacked in the southern Sunni-dominated city of Sidon. Thousands of Syrians have fled Lebanon fearing further reprisals.
Even Tripoli in northern Lebanon, which has close ties to Syria, has witnessed a strong backlash to Hariri's assassination. Omar Karami, Lebanon's prime minister and scion of a noted Sunni family from Tripoli, is being ostracized by the city's Sunni community.
"No one is visiting his house," says Jabbour Douaihy, a professor of literature at the Lebanese University who lives in the north. "The Sunnis in the north have turned against Syria. They are fed up with the Syrian presence there."
Hariri's flower-covered grave in Beirut has become a shrine, lit at night by dozens of candles and surrounded by hundreds of Lebanese maintaining a vigil day and night.
1Muslims read tiny copies of the Koran while Christians say prayers and make the sign of the cross. That communal accord also was apparent at Monday's anti-Syrian demonstration, the largest in Lebanese history.
"Frankly, I haven't seen a demonstration where all the Lebanese faiths participated since 1952," says Dory Chamoun, a leading opposition member whose father, Camille, was president in the 1950s. "We hope this will open up a new era of an independent Lebanon rid of all foreign troops."
But the absence of the Shiites, Lebanon's largest sect, has left a yawning gap in the ranks of the opposition.
Although some Lebanese Shiites have joined, the two dominant parties representing Shiite interests - the secular nationalist Amal Movement and the Iran-supported pan-Islamic Hizbullah organization - remain loyal to Lebanon's Syrian-backed government.
Amal, under the leadership of Nabih Berri, the parliamentary Speaker, has been a staunch ally of Syria since the early 1980s. Hizbullah, which ideologically is at odds with the secular pan- Arabism of Syria's ruling Baath Party, accepted Syrian dominance in Lebanon in 1990 as the price for being allowed to continue with its anti-Israeli agenda.
"It's worrying that the Shiites are [lagging] behind, because they can't afford to be," says Chibli Mallat, a professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University. "There's no room for dithering on Syria leaving."
Still, confronted by a growing opposition to Syrian hegemony, Hizbullah has adopted a nuanced approach, professing loyalty to Syria but not burning bridges with the opposition. It has sent delegations to the Maronite patriarch and held talks with the followers of Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander who lives in Paris and supports the dismantling of Hizbullah's military wing.
On Saturday, Hizbullah marked Ashura with a customary huge military parade through its stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut. It was a potent symbol of the mass power wielded by the Shiites, which some commentators saw as a riposte to the strengthening opposition.
But in his speech, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, called for reconciliation and unity, and for learning the lessons of the civil war.
"We, as Lebanese, cannot resolve our crises and problems but by dialogue. We should not commit previous mistakes but learn from them," he said.
Although Hizbullah is unlikely to switch camps, analysts say that given its history of pragmatism and its robust political and social influence, it will adapt to the new realities in Lebanon if Syria were to withdraw.
"The good thing about Hizbullah is that their political discourse has been very moderate and they have won the respect and admiration of the opposition," says Abdo Saad, a Lebanese Shiite pollster. "Hizbullah has taken the initiative, which will be translated into dialogue with the opposition in the coming days. They want to find common ground."