What are the root causes of tension in Lebanon today?

There is no single root cause to the current political discord that has affetcted all of Lebanon, but the mistrust that fuelled the 1975-1990 civil war that left 100,000 Lebanese dead and nearly a million displaced, a fifth of the country's pre-war population, arguably remains.

There are 18 officially recognised religious communities in the country, from Shia and Sunni Muslims to Druze Muslims, Maronite Christians to Greek Orthodox and the Lebanese constitution ensures official representation for these groups.

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A series of reports on the Middle East one year after the war in Lebanon

Accordingly, political power is distributed along religious lines, with parliamentary seats divided between Muslims and Christians and p
rior to the war, the ratio of Christian seats to Muslim seats favoured the country’s Christian population 6 to 5, proportionate to Lebanon’s last census in 1932.

Furthermore, the presidency was reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister's office for a Sunni Muslim and the post of house speaker was occupied by a Shia Muslim.

However, over time, shifting demographics led to demands from Shia and Sunni groups that the ratio of seats be changed to reflect the rising Muslim population, especially in the south of Lebanon.

A peace agreement in Taif reassessed the balance of parliamentary seats to a 50:50 ratio, while the powers of the two senior Muslim-reserved posts (prime minister and house speaker) were boosted, as a check on the power of the Maronite president.

That are the demands of the political parties in the current standoff?

The parliamentary majority bloc, called the March 14 Forces, led by Saad al-Hariri is being strongly opposed by an alliance domianted by Hezbollah, and its Shia and Christian partners.

The political opposition has sought greater representation in cabinet, to the extent that it can possess an effective veto on key cabinet issues.

Who's who in Lebanese politics


The March 14 alliance refuses to give way to this demand, saying it has a clear majority and that giving a veto to the opposition would result in a political deadlock.

The opposition pulled their ministers out of the cabinet led by prime minister Fouad Siniora in November 2006, calling for a new government of national unity or fresh elections. Lebanese politics has been in an effective state of paralysis since then.

Supporters of both sides have taken to the streets in the past months in mass shows of support and on occasion things have turned violent. An oppostion encampent set up in December last year in Martyrs Square in central Beirut is still being manned by supporters who say they will not leve until Siniora's government steps down.

Why is the veto so important to the opposition?

The opposition says the veto is important because without it the March 14 alliance would be able to pass any decision with their majority members in government.

That essentially leaves the opposition’s participation meaningless as their point of view would never be considered.

Moreover, the opposition says a veto would ensure near consensus on national issues.

The opposition is also of the view that with the establishment of the international tribunal decided via a UN Security Council decision, there is no more reason to fear a deadlock arising out of that issue.

The March 14 alliance believes that the opposition is looking to limit moves to secure a prosecution for the February 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.

Saad al-Hariri, Rafiq's son, leads the Future movement, which is a key party within March 14. 

Interim reports from a special UN investigation into al-Hariri’s killing have suggested that Syria has been unwilling to cooperare with the inquiry.

The March 14 alliance's desire to fully investigate al-Hariri's death via an international tribunal is at odds with Hezbollah, who want any official investigation to be done by Lebanese authorities.

It is widely assumed Hezbollah receives substantial funding from Shia allies in Iran, but also some support from Damascus.

The movement and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, were angered by the UN Security Council's agreement in May 2007 to set up an international tribunal to try those suspected of involvement in the al-Hariri assassination.

Could it be said the political factions are respectively opposed to the US and Syria?

Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah
want greater political representation
 [AFP]
It is not quite as simple as that. While it is true that key figures in the March 14 Forces, such as Saad al-Hariri and Fouad Siniora, the prime minister, are supported by Western powers, those governments are just as keen to form diplomatic relations with Syria, mindful of maintaining Lebanon's character and sense of brotherhood with its Arab neighbours.

As for Lebanon's political opposition, Hezbollah is certainly no friend of the West – a feeling reciprocated by the US, which has the Shia organisation on its list of terrorist groups.

However, although Hezbollah receives substantial support from Tehran and Damascus, two regimes currently maintaining far from warm relations with the US, the group says its decisions are made independently.

Meanwhile, the Free Patriotic Movement, the key Christian party in the opposition, is led by Michel Aoun, a man who is certainly no friend of Syria.

It is therefore not possible to characterise the two sides of the Lebanese political divide as simply being allied to the US or Syria, or as proxies of larger international powers.

Source: Al Jazeera