While the eyes of the world are focused on the fading prospects of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the upcoming meeting in Annapolis, Md., an electoral deadlock in Lebanon grinds inexorably to a climax, threatening to upset an 18-year factional truce and ignite a new civil war that will add one more explosive ingredient to Middle East instability.
Lebanon’s problems are not new. They are rooted in the 1920s, when France’s colonial regime created the country out of Syrian territory and squeezed Christians, Druze and Muslims — Sunni and Shiite — into it. At that time, the Maronite Christians, whose close ties to France dated to the Middle Ages, were the colonial power’s political allies, so the constitution that France imparted required that Lebanon’s president, its most powerful official, be a Maronite. The prime minister, under the constitution, would be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament would be a Shiite. The system, a peculiar form of democracy, is called “confessionalism.”
For most of the ensuing years, confessionalism enabled the sects to coexist in a fragile balance. The enormous exception was the horrible civil war that raged from 1975 to 1989, killing 100,000 and leaving much of the country in ruins. None of the sects wants a repetition. [complete article]