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Last Updated: Monday, 30 October 2006, 11:50 GMT
Shift in Lebanon's sectarian politics
By Alex Klaushofer
Lebanon analyst, Beirut

In the aftermath of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, new divisions are fracturing Lebanese society which cut across the usual sectarian boundaries.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanese Prime Minister
Hezbollah wants a unity government to replace Fouad Siniora's cabinet

On the one side is the "14th March group", an alliance representing the country's political elite which pushed for the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

The coalition, which takes its name from the date of last year's anti-Syrian demonstration, comprises Sunni Muslims and some Christian and Druze groups.

On the other side are Hezbollah and their allies, including the followers of the Christian leader, former general Michel Aoun, who has given the Shia party his political backing.

We need to build a state but I cannot foresee it happening in the near future, with this very strong polarisation - I fear that we may go to war now
Abdo Saad, Beirut Center for Research and Information
In the weeks since the ceasefire, political tensions have risen as politicians argue about the direction the country should now take.

The Hezbollah alliance has been calling for a national unity government to replace Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's cabinet, a move likely to usher in pro-Syrian groups and electoral reforms giving Shia Muslims more power.

They accuse their political opponents of emasculating Lebanon by forging relationships with Western powers instead of uniting with Arab countries against Israel.

New battle lines

"This isn't a conflict across sectarian lines," says Abdo Saad, a pollster who runs the Beirut Center for Research and Information.

"You have the axis of America and France, and you have the axis of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. There are deep divisions."'

The debate is running right through Lebanese society.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah
Critics accuse Hezbollah of plunging Lebanon into an unnecessary crisis

Hanadi Charaff Deen, a 20-year-old student from Tyre who fled her family home during the recent conflict, supports the Hezbollah alliance.

"We so appreciate them. Without Hezbollah, we would be killed by Israel in a very terrible way," she says.

Her sister Farah, 16, says that maintaining good relations with Syria is essential.

"Syria defended us. We cannot forget this. She's our neighbour, one of the Arab countries. The 14th March coalition want to end the relationship, but that's not good for Lebanon. Instead of one enemy, we would have a lot of enemies."

Plunged into war

But those from the opposing viewpoint blame Hezbollah for plunging the country back into war with Israel and putting defence at the top of the national agenda.

"They are so attached to the Arab-Israeli conflict," says Diana Bou Ghanem, a telecommunications expert from Beirut. "They are not focusing on the internal issues; they are focusing on the war with Israel."

They always fight about silly things; every one of them loves Lebanon, but in his way - they could meet and decide what is best for Lebanon
Hanadi Charaff Deen
She worries about the effects of conflict on the economy. "We have lost the trust of investors. They fear that in a few years we will have another war. What kind of market is that?"

Experts differ as to the implications of the new divide for Lebanon's internal stability.

"We need to build a state," says Mr Saad, the pollster. "But I cannot foresee it happening in the near future, with this very strong polarisation. I fear that we may go to war now."


But Ridwan al-Sayyid, professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University, denies that the split will lead to a Sunni-Shia conflict in Lebanon.

"The Sunnis are of the opinion that the Shia are making wars with Israel and putting the whole country at risk," he says.

"The Shia say the Sunnis are working with the US and France, even in some cases with Israel, against Islamic goals. Both views are exaggerated."

"The Shia in Lebanon are genuine Lebanese; no-one can have a suspicion about their integrity. On the other side, the Sunnis were in modern history the people who allied themselves to the Palestinian resistance against Israel. So I don't think it will come to a civil war."

Meanwhile, most ordinary Lebanese are fed up with the bickering from the politicians.

"They always fight about silly things," says Ms Deen.

"Every one of them loves Lebanon, but in his way. They could meet and decide what is best for Lebanon, not to say "Hezbollah is not good", or "the 14th March is not good". We all love Lebanon."

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