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Lebanon’s Power Politics

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
May 11, 2006


Protests in Beirut this week underscored lingering frustration with Lebanon's ruling elite one year after the so-called Cedar Revolution ousted a pro-Syrian prime minister and brought a nationalist coalition to power. News reports said 250,000 Lebanese protested (UPI) a government plan to revise the contracts of civil servants. The protests, backed by some pro-Syria groups, were seen as a "show of force" by Damascus (FT), which seems to have stymied efforts by Lebanon's parliament to remove the country's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. The parliamentary coalition argues that a three-year extension of Lahoud's term, in 2004, was unconstitutional. But a resurgence by Syria's allies, including the fundamentalist group Hezbollah, has weakened Lebanon's parliament, and Michel Aoun, a prominent secular Christian leader who broke away from the coalition, has called for the government's overthrow.

Experts say discontent has festered over Lebanon's corrupt and inefficient power structure, which the Cedar Revolution reshuffling didn't effectively resolve. Karim Makdisi, a professor at the American University of Beirut, says in an interview with's Esther Pan that "there's no system for resolving disputes in this country." Lebanon's government works under a "confessional" system, set up in 1943 by withdrawing French authorities, in which power is divided among religious groups, supposedly based on population proportion. But Lebanon hasn't conducted a census since 1932, and according to a 2005 EU report (PDF), the system is in need of urgent reform. In accordance with the 1989 Taif Accords, seats in Lebanon's parliament are divided evenly between Christians and Muslims. There is no official data, but experts say Muslims now represent at least 60 percent of Lebanon's population.

Syria's role remains unclear. In February 2005 there was political upheaval in Beirut when Syrian officials were implicated in the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from the country, where they had been stationed since 1976. Syria has accused Lebanese parliamentarians of working with U.S. officials (LAT) to undermine Syria's government, though Lebanon's foreign minister dismissed these allegations (Daily Star). Now accusations are flying the other way, with Lebanese nationalists saying Syria is inciting protests to weaken parliament's mandate and keep Lahoud in power.

Syria is just one of two borders on which Lebanon has problems. Ever looming is "the Israel question"—and with it the presence of Hezbollah, the Shiite group most famous for bombing the American embassy in Beirut in 1983. Hezbollah continues to launch attacks against Israelis in the disputed Shebaa Farms border area in the Golan Heights region (BBC). Lebanon claims rights to the territory, though the United Nations considers it Syrian land under Israeli occupation. The United States has denounced Hezbollah, and designates it a terrorist group. But the group has gained political legitimacy in Lebanon, holding twenty-three seats in parliament, and has made progress toward disarmament under political pressure from other domestic factions. The fine line between terrorism and political legitimacy is examined in this recent CFR Background Q&A, with reference made to Hezbollah's evolving role in Lebanese politics.

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