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Middle East

Lebanon's fragile inner peace

After the deadly attack on Lebanese security chief al-Hassan it was mostly Sunni Muslims who took to the streets in Beirut. What is behind the tensions? Why is the country repeatedly rocked by violence?

Omar Deeb is not surprised. According to him it's only logical, that again and again violence flares up in his country. "All Lebanese know exactly that our political system, which is based on religious denomination, is the root of all those problems."

Omar Deeb teaches physics at a high school in Allay, a small town east of Beirut. The 20-year-old is part of a left-wing organization, fighting for a secular Lebanon. The mixing of religion and politics is the country's biggest problem, he thinks. It's what causes the enduring mistrust and the tensions between the different religious denominations.

Religion is politics

In Lebanon, being Sunni, Shia or Christian does not only mean being part of a certain religious group, but also part of a certain political and economic network. Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy with strong religious elements. The parliamentary seats and the highest posts in the country are allocated along religious lines based on a quota system. This system guarantees that each religious group gets to participate in the political process, but it also gives religion a highly significant role in the political system.

Jawad Adra (photo: Mona Naggar)

Adra warns that the country's leaders kindle fear among religious groups

Jawad Adra, founder and director of the polling institute Information International in Beirut, is critical of the political system in Lebanon. "This denominational leads to religious-political leaders becoming the most powerful men in the country." As an example he quotes Hassan Nasrallah: The leader of Hezbollah is also considered to be the leader of the Shiites in Lebanon. Other examples he puts forward are Saad Al-Hariri, head of the Sunnis, or Michel Aoun, who leads a large part of the Christian community.

What they all have in common, says Adra, is that they can kindle fear among the people. "When a Shiite or Sunni leader is calling for a demonstration and says that his religious community is being threatened, then he can mobilize thousands." In each election, the people are asking - 'if I don't vote for my religious leader, who will then protect me from the others?'"

Sunnis feel excluded

Women mourning for Wissam Al-Hassan (photo: Mona Naggar)

The death of Wissam Al-Hassan triggered widespread demonstrations

Protests last weekend also revolved around the fear of many Sunnis after the murder of the intelligence chief of the Internal Security Forces, Wissam al-Hassan. It's a fear that opposition politicians are fueling. Al-Hassan was Sunni and he led a security apparatus that was independent of the Shiite Hezbollah.

The anger of the people on the street was directed mostly against the Lebanese governemnt, in power since June 2011. It consists of Shiite, Christian and Muslim politicians. At the helm is Najib Mikati, who, although a Sunni, only represents a small part of that community. The majority still feel excluded because much of the political power is in the hands of the Shiite Amal and Hezbollah movements.

Stability has priority

It's not only the tensions between the religious communities that are causing trouble in Lebanon, but also the relationship the different political forces have with the regime in Syria. The strongest ally of Damascus is Hezbollah. The opposition however, with the Sunni Future Movement, is critical of Syria. Last Friday's attack (19.10.2012) is seen by many Lebanese as part of the conflict between the pro and anti Syrian forces in Lebanon. Al-Hassan was critical of Syria and two months before his death led the operation that ended in the arrest of former Lebanese Minister Michel Damaha. Samaha was accused of having planned bomb attacks in Lebanon, acting on orders from Damascus.

The Lebanese opposition continues to demand the resignation of the government. But it is unlikely that Prime Minister Najib Mikati will follow those demands. At the moment, the focus is on getting the country back to stability. Thatis also what the international community seeks: recently, there have been a number of western countries - among them, the US and Britain - which have all signaled that they would rather have a Lebanese government with Mikati than none at all.

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