There are no signs of an end to the week-long siege by Hizbollah-dominated opposition supporters outside the offices of prime minister Fouad Siniora in the Grand Serail, central Beirut. As the protestors vow to remain, and even escalate their efforts to force the government's resignation, many headlines continue to suggest that Lebanon may be on the brink of civil war. Across the world, breathless media reports and broadcasts convey the image of a god-forsaken country, comparable to other middle-east battlegrounds, about to explode in bloody, sectarian conflict.
At least some of the melodramatic language and atmosphere is fuelled by western stereotyping of a country (and region) portrayed as endemically unstable. In its accumulated effect, the coverage tends to mask the nuances and dynamics at work in what is an unusually complex, contradictory country.
Like so many other things in modern-day Lebanon, the spectre of civil war has two faces. First, its return is an ever-present possibility, an event that could arise out of the very real tensions which exist between the country's different communities, and which are exacerbated by the tendency of foreign governments to use Lebanon to pursue their own agendas.
Second, however, the very knowledge of this possibility is so deeply rooted in contemporary Lebanese consciousness that any imminent return to conflict is unlikely. Talk to ordinary Lebanese people from any sect in recent years and the same double-edged theme emerges, repeatedly and consistently: "X could lead to civil war", they say. "And we don't want that".
Alex Klaushofer's fortcoming book is Paradise Divided: A spiritual adventure in Lebanon (Signal, 2007)
Also by Alex Klaushofer in openDemocracy:
(19 October 2005)
"Lebanon: unity within diversity"
(17 July 2006)
In other words, the ghost of civil war is also a forceful reminder of the cost of conflict, giving rise to a determination that it must not happen again. This level of political maturity is well-developed even among Lebanese teenagers and 20-somethings. They are too young to remember the civil war of 1975-90, but they grew up on its tales and consequences. It was this anti-war reflex that manifested itself in the wake of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel on 21 November 2006, when crowds amassed to proclaim a commitment to peace, and the dead man's father declared that he was not looking for revenge.
Visions in competition
The new division fracturing Lebanese society has certainly sharpened since Gemayel's murder. But it also holds within it complexities that could herald a more peaceful time. Significantly, it does not run along the traditional Christian vs Muslim sectarian lines which characterised the civil war.
On one side, that of the pro-democracy, anti-Syrian March 14th forces, there are Sunni, Druze and some Christians. On the other, pro-Syrian bloc led by Hizbollah, are the Shi'a, some Christians and a few Druze. In political terms, this translates into a conflict between two blocs: the Siniora government and the opposition, currently locked in a stand-off about the latter's demands for a national unity government and a veto which would give them the power to prevent the establishment of an international tribunal to try the killers of Rafiq Hariri.
So the current stalemate is political rather than purely sectarian in nature, and it is about more than just "tribal" divisions. It concerns substantive issues which turn on competing visions for modern Lebanon. These relate mainly to the choice of Lebanon's priorities and policies (domestic and economic, or focused on defence and security?) and of its primary alliances and allegiances (with the democratic west or the anti-Israeli, pan-Arab countries of its region?). In terms of the country's governance, the split is about the power-sharing arrangements which determine how these sorts of questions are resolved - and who does the deciding.
In this respect, the stalemate is the legacy of long-standing issues that have beset Lebanon since its origins as an independent republic with a multi-confessional constitution in the first half of the last century. First, the Maronites were given a disproportionate share of power under the national pact (1943) that was a legacy of French rule, upsetting the Sunni. Eventually, with the Taif agreement that ended the 1975-90 civil war, the Sunni were mollified as they regained some power. Now, in the wake of Hizbollah's victory over Israel in the July-August 2006 war, the historically under-represented Shi'a feel their time has come to have a greater say in the country's future.
In this light, the latest crisis is a test for the mechanisms of accommodation at the heart of Lebanon's political and institutional life - but one of a kind that the country has passed before.
In this post-war political battle, there have been strong indications that Lebanon's leaders have no more appetite for another civil war than its population. They know that, if they are to retain the support of their constituencies, they must keep to the issues rather than allowing resentment to spill over into violence. Even as the Hizbollah-orchestrated supporters in Beirut call for his head, prime minister Siniora is repeating his invitation to opposition leaders to come back to the negotiating table.
He has asked the Shi'a ministers who resigned last month to return and is deliberately not appointing replacements. The opposition, having deferred its planned street protests following Pierre Gemayel's assassination, are ensuring their supporters keep the peace. Apart from the killing of Shi'a protestor Ahmed Ali Mahmoud on 3 December by an unknown gunman (and away from the site of the demonstrations), the crisis has been characterised by remarkable levels of restraint given the numbers and political passions involved.
Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Lebanon:
Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2005)
Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria"
(9 March 2005)
Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family"
(14 December 2005)
Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)
Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)
Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon on the brink but of what?" (8 December 2006)
It seems clear that for the time being, Lebanon has embarked on a period of continuing instability, which will doubtless feature more assassination attempts and further street clashes. In economic and existential terms, this will keep the country in a kind of paralysis rather than allowing it to enjoy the renaissance that seemed possible only six months ago. But in the longer term, it is possible to envisage another, rather more peaceful future than a descent into all-out conflict.
Some experienced observers of the Lebanese scene in October 2006 were already predicting the current turbulence while anticipating this other possibility. The leading Sunni scholar Ridwan al-Sayyid rejected the idea that the divergence between Sunni and Shi'a would lead to civil war. "I think there will be problems for the next two to three years", he said. "There could be military engagement again in the south with Israel and some internal clashes between the Sunni and the Shi'a. After that, perhaps in 2010, it will come to a new power-sharing so that the Shi'a have more weight in deciding the direction of the state. But the Sunni will stay as the main party in alliance with the Christians. It means good relations with the Arabs, with America, with the European Union."
Such an outcome partly depends on how the foreign powers with the capacity to exert pressure on Lebanon's sensitive points play their hand in the coming months and years. But former independent minister Adel Hamiyeh says that - provided Lebanon's tensions are not fomented by conflict between the United States and Syria-Iran - things in time will cool down and the country will return to the project which has come to define its sense of itself and which acts a unifying force: coexistence. "Everybody would think about Lebanon, and see that nobody can live alone and that we have to make compromises for each other", Hamiyeh told me.
The political crisis is far from over; indeed, the opposition's threat on Sunday 10 December of an increased pace and size of mass protest makes it hard to hold onto this optimistic, balancing thought. But an enduring lesson of Lebanon's history is that the people's ability to weather the storms and passions that rock it has always involved taking the longer view.
Get our weekly email