Beirut's Center Cannot Hold

Lebanon Is On the Brink of Another Civil War

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters march during a religious procession November 7, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

Lebanon is again on the precipice of civil war. With the conflict in neighboring Syria spilling over its borders, Lebanese society finds itself bitterly divided between two distinct camps—one that backs the regional Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the West, another that supports the alliance between Iran and the Syrian government. Tensions between these two groups are worsening by the day in Lebanon, and as a result, the country is on the brink of destabilization.

The two sides are at such odds that it will be impossible in the short term to solve the country's crisis. But its most damaging effects can be mitigated by reminding all parties of the many advantages of Lebanon's traditional consensus-based style of politics.

Historically, Beirut has depended on power-sharing arrangements to maintain stability. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in the early 1990s with the so-called Taif agreement which forged a new social contract for the country: it codified the expectation that future national governments would comprise coalitions representing multiple factions from Lebanese society.

Since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, however, the country’s sectarian balance has become shakier. Religious cleavages have hardened and intensified, leading to the rapid rise of two extremist factions: the March 8 alliance and the March 14 alliance.

The March 8 alliance is composed of the Marada Brigades (a Maronite Christian party), the Free Patriotic Movement (the principal Christian party and the largest parliamentary faction), the Shiite Muslim parties Amal and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Democratic Party of the Druze Muslim sect, and the traditional leadership of Sunni Muslims. The March 14 coalition comprises the Future Party (led by Saad Hariri and enjoying the support of a respectable majority of Sunni Muslims), the Maronite Christians of the Lebanese Phalange Party and the Lebanese Forces Party, a Christian Orthodox party, and a small group of Shiite families. These camps are not clearly delineated by ideology, although the March 8 coalition tends to be more liberal on social policy, whereas

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