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Dispatches From a Small Planet: Lebanon/Syria, April 2005

FRONTLINE/World dispatches: Lebanon/Syria

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Lebanon - Muslims and Christians share political power in Lebanon, according to a system called "confessional democracy."
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Syria - Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, was elected in a referendum in which he was the only candidate.
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Lebanon's Religious Mix
Hariri's assassination has united some sects and divided others.

By Kate Seelye

Recent events in Lebanon have helped to unify a country long fragmented by religion. There are 17 recognized religious sects in Lebanon, and historically the different groups (mostly Muslims and Christians) have rarely mixed socially outside of the intelligentsia. Middle-class Greek Orthodox Christians have complained about Muslim radicalism, and Muslims have sniped that Lebanese Christians were more French than the Parisians.

But in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, many Lebanese have been united by a shared sense of loss, and long-standing resentments have been at least temporarily erased.

Since World War II, Lebanon has operated under what is sometimes called a "confessional democracy," meaning that political power is divided between Christians and Muslims. Under this system, which was originally put into place to end years of religious conflict, the candidate for president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister always a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite Muslim.

Hariri's death was grieved by Muslims and Christians alike, because he was known for not playing the confessional card: He staffed his businesses with people from both religions, his foundation paid for the education of thousands of Sunnis, Shias, and Christians, and his political allies belonged to all sects.

But while many Lebanese seemed to genuinely mourn Hariri's death, not everyone has participated in what the opposition has dubbed the "independence uprising."

The Shia are the largest of Lebanon's sects, accounting for an estimated 40 percent of the population. Many secular Shia have joined opposition protests, but the bulk of Lebanon's Shia follow one of two major political parties - Amal and Hezbollah, both of which are closely linked to Syria. The two parties sat largely on the sidelines as demands grew for a Syrian withdrawal, despite multiple appeals from the opposition to join.

But following Syrian President Bashar al Assad's announcement of an impending troop pullback, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah came out firmly on Syria's side. He called for a massive protest to show support for Damascus and to denounce UN Resolution 1559, which demands that all foreign forces depart from Lebanon and that all Lebanese militias be disbanded.

Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed radical Shi'ite group that has long cooperated with Syria to maintain pressure on Lebanon's southern neighbor, Israel. Some have dubbed it Syria's proxy army in Lebanon. Although classified a terrorist organization by the United States, Hezbollah is viewed as a resistance movement in Lebanon, and it is now the single largest party in Lebanon's parliament. Its guerillas are largely credited with having driven Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon after a 22-year occupation. Today, members of its some 20,000-strong militia patrol the Lebanese-Israeli border. They occasionally engage in clashes with Israeli forces along a strip of land, the Shebaa farms, which Hezbollah claims is Israeli-occupied Lebanese land.

Given its huge following among Lebanon's Shia -- many of them poor -- Hezbollah's calls for a protest ensured a massive turnout to counter those of the anti-Syrian opposition. Hundreds of thousands of people were bused in from Beirut's slum southern suburbs. Others drove up from Shia villages in the south. The gathering was far larger than anti-Syrian demonstrations and underscored the country's stark ideological and class divisions. It also posed a challenge to opposition claims that most Lebanese want a Syrian withdrawal.

In a speech before a roaring crowd, Nasrallah denounced U.S. meddling in Lebanese affairs. Above all, he said, "We are united here to thank Syria, the Syrian people, and the Syrian army, which has stayed by our side for many long years and is still with us."

Many believe that Hezbollah is flexing its political muscles because of the clause in Resolution 1559 that required the disarming of all armed militias. Once that happens, political analysts say, Hezbollah will lose its regional power.

The challenge then for the Lebanese opposition is to dismantle Hezbollah's independent military structure but still include the organization in political dialogue.

NEXT: Lebanon's History of Occupation - In one form or another, Syria has exerted its influence over Lebanon for nearly a century.

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