Lebanon is a Country Divided

peacedemoBW.jpg Soldiers watch a peace demonstration in downtown Beirut on March 3rd. Demonstrators dipped their hands in white paint to show their desire for peace. Photo by Liam Maloney.

By Chris Brown

Lebanon is awash in political signs—those of the government saying “I love life” and those of the opposition, “I love life in color” - allusions to the intense political battle currently being waged for control of the country.

From the glaring cleavage between the super-rich and the superpoor, to the Green Line in Beirut that once separated warring religious factions during the 15-year civil war, to the regional and international powerbrokers that support one side or another in the firestorm of Lebanese politics, Lebanon is a country divided. Recently the conflict has intensified, and lives have been lost.

On Tuesday, February 13th, two minibuses exploded in the Lebanese town of Bikfaya, just north of Beirut, killing three people and wounding twenty. The explosions came just seconds apart. Pro-government demonstrators converged on downtown Beirut the next day to commemorate the second anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri’s assassination, raising fears of more bloodshed.

Lebanon is a consociational democracy with political representation based on declared religious affiliation. Religious affiliation is subdivided by the 18 different sects of the various religions contained within its tiny borders. A simplified formula is to separate the various alliances into two main groups. On the one hand is the ruling coalition known as the March 14th Movement, named in commemoration of the huge protests in 2005 in Beirut that eventually brought-down the pro-Syrian government. On the other hand is the opposition, also known as the March 8th Movement, currently occupying Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut to demand early elections, claiming the government is not operating within the bounds of its constitutionally mandated authority. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (Sunni) is affiliated to the March 14th movement, while Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nassrallah (Shi’a) is affiliated to the opposition. The Christians and the Druze are divided between the two.

In January the opposition organized a general strike that paralyzed all of Lebanon. Beirut was like a ghost town, and even those who wanted to go to work were prevented from doing so by a hermetic system of burning-tire blockades. Clashes erupted between government supporters and opposition activists, lasting for several days in certain parts of the country and ending up with a riot at the Beirut Arab University in which snipers shot at people from adjacent houses. Eight people were killed and hundreds wounded during three days of civil strife.

The strike was called to coincide with the “Paris Three” international donor conference for post-war reconstruction and economic stabilization in Lebanon. Lebanon received U.S. $7.6 billion in aid from donor countries. However, much of the aid comes with strings attached: the government of Fouad Siniora has agreed to slash subsidies and social spending, privatize industry, and increase Lebanon’s VAT (a regressive form of taxation on consumption) from 12 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2010. The opposition strategy has been to accept these neo-liberal reforms as inevitable, but to attack the government on the basis that the funds will be misappropriated.

As the political deadlock continues and tensions mount in the lead-up to the second anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Harriri, more and more groups are beginning to pop up that express the increasing frustration among ordinary Lebanese people toward both the government and the opposition.

As the conflict drags on, more and more Lebanese are simply throwing in the towel and choosing to leave the country. For the poor, however, this is not so easy; they’re stuck. And the truth is, things for them will likely get worse until an alternative economic and political model is adopted in Lebanon; that is, until the opposition shows itself as a real alternative to the neoliberal policies and corruption of the Siniora government.

- Chris Brown is a Montrealer currently studying in Lebanon.