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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 01:31 GMT
Lebanese Christians split over protests
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Beirut

Lebanese Christian ant-government protestors
Many - but not all - Lebanese Christians support the strike
Festooned on row after row of tents in central Beirut are posters of Michel Aoun - a Maronite Christian who heads the Free Patriotic Movement - and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

The protesters living in the makeshift camp are hoping to topple the Lebanese government which they accuse of being unrepresentative and corrupt.

Their two-month-long protest is a visible reminder of the political crisis roiling Lebanon.

But the presence of Michel Aoun supporters camping out in the heart of the city highlights another division - that among Lebanon's Christians. Some of them accuse Mr Aoun of splitting their community at a time when it is weak.

"You can't call a general strike (which paralysed the country for a day) this week and expect to endear yourself to the Christian community," said a prominent member of the Lebanese Christian community who did not want to be named.

Hezbollah alliance

A former Lebanese army general, the bespectacled Michel Aoun was staunchly opposed to Syrian control of the country and spent 15 years in exile.

Joseph Aoun
He was against the Syrian occupation and not the country
Joseph Aoun (no relation)

But after returning to the country when Syrian troops left in 2005, Mr Aoun formed alliances with parties and figures - including Hezbollah - with strong ties to Damascus. These same parties are now leading the opposition.

To his supporters, Mr Aoun is a Lebanese De Gaulle who wants to end the sectarian divisions in the country.

"He was against the Syrian occupation and not the country," says Joseph Aoun (no relation), 29, sipping coffee outside his tent in Beirut. "This is why it is no problem to work with Hezbollah now."

But to his critics, Mr Aoun's political manoeuvrings smack of personal ambition.

They say he is trying to position himself for a run for the Lebanese presidency - a position, in Lebanon's complex confessional political system, always held by a Christian.

The country's population is a mixture of Christian sects, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Druze and others.

'Serious doubts'

Mr Aoun's current political power stems from the Lebanese elections in 2005 when he performed spectacularly well.

Mr Aoun - sometimes referred to as "the general" - likes to boast that he has "70%" of the Christian community's support.

We used to be leaders but now we are followers. That will change but it will take time
Professor Khalil Karam

Whatever Mr Aoun's precise standing, he is the most influential leader in the community which is spilt between himself and two other Christian political parties who support the current government.

But some political analysts say that Mr Aoun's support is now slipping.

"I think the ones that are big supporters of Aoun will still be with him," says Khalil Karam, a professor of political science at St Joseph University in Beirut.

"But I think there will be others who are having serious doubts."

Michel Aoun, file photo
Mr Aoun performed well in the 2005 Lebanese elections
Within the Christian community there is concern that their influence in the country is waning.

Traditionally, Christian leaders in Lebanon sit at the top table of power because they hold the presidency.

But President Emile Lahoud has been a lame duck figure here following the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Now, the two major leaders in Lebanese politics are Hassan Nasrallah and Saad Hariri - the son of the assassinated former prime minister - who heads the Future political party.

"We used to be leaders but now we are followers," says Prof Karam. "That will change but it will take time."

Like many Lebanese, the Christians are deeply worried that the political crisis could spiral into civil war.

And the maverick political leadership of Michel Aoun, who promised more political "surprises" this week, is unlikely to calm their nerves.

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