Unprecedented protests in Lebanon call for secularism

Lebanese protestors demand secularism. Thai PM rejects protestors’ offer as counter-movements gain strength. Clashes in south Sudan kill 58. Al-Qaeda confirms death of top leaders. Iran tests new missiles in annual military manoeuvers. All this and more, in today's security update.
Laura Hilger
26 April 2010

Thousands of civil society activists marched on the Lebanese parliament on Sunday in an effort to end sectarianism in the country. The protesters, estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 in number, are calling for an end to the country's disruptive sectarian system and replacing it with secularism. Heightened security and police barricades prevented the protestors from reaching parliament, adding to public frustrations.

Kinda Hassan, one of the organisers, stated: "We cannot live in a country where they divide the chairs of the ministers according to their confessions, not their merits." Lebanon has eighteen religious sects within its multi-denominational system and is deeply divided along sectarian lines—permeating politics, employment and family status matters in the country. It was Lebanon's first demonstration in favour of secularism. 

openSecurity verdict: The 'Laique Pride' march is unprecedented in Lebanese history and could be indicative of a transformative shift in the country's politics. Though there is strong support for the current system, the protestors were predominantly young, educated individuals, who may hold greater influence in years to come.

Following the country’s fiteen-year civil war that divided Muslims and Christians, Lebanon developed a power-sharing system that gave Christians a majority in parliament and proscribed that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite Muslim. Though the peace accord also called for the eventual abolition of sectarianism, the system persists, with religion-based quotas observed in the bureaucracy, army and education. Though proportional representation was introduced to diminish the power of sectarian-based factions, Lebanese politics have consistently blocked attempts to reform the electoral system.

The persistence of sectarianism in the country has a profound effect on the lives of the Lebanese people. The civic rights of each of the country’s eighteen sects  are determined by their religious leaders rather than the government—meaning Lebanese do not have equal rights. Muslims cannot adopt children, Maronite Christians cannot get divorced, and it is impossible for members of different sects to marry each other. Civil marriage does not exist, meaning anyone wishing to marry someone from another religion must either convert or get married abroad. Only religious authorities can register marriages, births and deaths, or rule on matters of inheritance.

Supporters of the system claim it prevents the marginalisation of any religious community. Paul Salem, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that Lebanon's system does give all communities a share of power, a major achievement in such a divided country. "However, the system should also allow more competition, progress and evolution," he warns. To do so, Salem advocates electoral reform, decentralization and an end to sectarian quotas in parliament.

More and more young people point to the system’s failures, including chronic instability, weak central government and sectarian tension. Many of the banners epitomize the call for secularism, with slogans such as ‘civil marriage, not civil war’ and t-shirts reading ‘What’s your sect?’ on the front and ‘None of your business’ on the back. It is clear that, for many young people, the current system is overly restrictive and does not allow enough freedom of choice regarding civil liberties and personal decisions surround marriage and divorce. The quota system also inhibits their ability to influence politics, leaving many feeling frustrated and alienated. 

While the large-scale protest was unprecedented, this is not the first attempt to push for secularism in Lebanon. However, Elias Muhanna argues that “previous efforts by Lebanese civil society groups to push a secularist agenda have failed largely because of the ambiguity of their ideas.” Recent polls demonstrate significant public support for abolishing the confessional system in Lebanon. Unfortunately, most of the support stems from Lebanese Muslims, whose numbers relative to the Christian population have grown in recent years. Trying to impose sweeping changes on the country without the support the Christian community could have severe repercussions.

The road to secularism in Lebanon could be long. Resistance from many sects and the ruling elite could easily hinder this renewed attempt, as they have in previous instances. However, the strength of the movement in the younger generation could give it with long-term momentum. If the protestors are able to clarify the aims of their movement and clarify the meaning of secularism in the Lebanese context, the movement could gain considerable support from many areas of society. Younger generations, more open minded to integrative multiculturalism are likely to continue to revolt against the oppressive nature of the current system. As the generation matures, moving into higher positions and becoming the leaders of the county, the movement could gain considerable strength. 

Thai PM rejects protestors’ offer as counter-movements gain strength

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has rejected the latest offer of negotiation from red-shirt protestors, leading red-shirt supporters in the countryside to form blockades in an attempt to stop police from reaching the capital. Hundreds of red-shirts formed a roadblock in northeastern Udon Thani province, 500 km (310 miles) north of Bangkok, stopping a convoy of 150 police, while a second roadblock was formed in Pathum Thani, 50 km (30 miles) north of Bangkok, deterring around 200 policemen from reaching the city. The reinforcements have been ordered into the capital as security forces prepare to forcibly disperse the thousands of protesters occupying central areas of Bangkok. 

In a televised interview on Sunday, Abhisit rejected the red-shirts’ offer to end protest and violence if Abhisit calls elections in 30 days, followed by a vote 60 days later. He maintained his earlier offer to dissolve parliament and call elections in December, a year early. The televised interview was held with the army chief, in an attempt to show solidarity with the military. Observers have reported a ‘split’ in the military, characterized by the emergence of a ‘rogue military elements’ and confirmations by the army chief that some retired and active officers have joined the protest movement.

Last week’s violence and the new blockades have raised questions over Abhisit’s ability to control the violence. Abhisit's coalition government has come under intense pressure from upper class and royalist Thais, who are now threatening their own protests against the red-shirts within the week. Additionally, many Bangkok residents have formed a "multi-coloured" protest group against ongoing red-shirt violence, drawing thousands to its rival rallies in the capital. The growth of such counter-demonstrations has raised concerns about violent street clashes and escalating violence. 

Clashes in south Sudan kill 58

Clashes over the weekend in the south of Darfur left 58 people dead and at least 85 others injured. Though details of the clashes are still emerging, the Sudanese government has accused the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement of instigating the violence against the Rizeigat, a local Arab tribe. Suleiman Isaq, the secretary general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in southern Darfur, denied that the organization planned the fighting, arguing that the clashes escalated from recurring clahses between members of the  Sudan People's Liberation Movement and the tribe. The  Sudan People's Liberation Movement stated they were attacked by the northern army in a remote part of Western Bahr al-Ghazal state; the north Sudanese army has denied its involvement in the clashes but confirmed the Sudan People's Liberation Movement attack on the Rizeigat, labelling it "a clear violation of the (peace deal)."

South Sudan was allowed to maintain a separate army and form a semi-autonomous government in the 2005 peace deal. A plebiscite will be held in the South on 9 January 2011, to vote on the territory’s independence. Ahead of the referendum, the international community is concerned that issues like the demarcation of the north-south border, grazing rights of nomadic tribes and citizenship have not been agreed.

Results of the recent elections, the first democratic elections in Sudan in 25 years, are expected this week, having been marred by boycotts and accusations of fraud. The National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement are expected to form a coalition government and maintain their respective dominance in the north and the south. 

Al-Qaeda confirms death of top leaders

Officials from the Iraqi division of al-Qaeda confirmed the death of two of its two most senior leaders weeks after U.S. officials announced the deaths. Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed on 18 April in a joint Iraqi-U.S. operations near Tikrit. Al-Masri was the military leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and became the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. attack. Al-Baghdadi was leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Masri's assistant and al-Baghdadi's son, who also were involved in terrorist activities, were also killed.

US military officials have labelled the deaths a ‘potentially devastating blow’ to the terrorist organization. The commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, said in a statement that 'the death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.' Odierno added it would be ‘very difficult’ for al-Qaeda to replace the two men. The death of the two leaders could weaken the organization in the short term, as they work to replace the two men and regain their strength.

Iran tests new missiles in annual military manoeuvers

Iran confirmed Sunday that it had successfully tested five new types of locally-made coast-to-sea and sea-to-sea missiles as part of their annual 'Great Prophet 5' military manoeuvres in the Persian Gulf. The manoeuvres marked the 31st anniversary of the elite Revolutionary Guard. Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy chief of the Revolutionary Guard, told Iranian media that the exercises were aimed at demonstrating Iran's "strength, will and national resolve to defend independence and territorial integrity." Iran is intent on strengthening its gulf-facing weapons systems; its ability to disrupt the vital waterway is considered a key strategic advantage.

Iran's missile development programme is the centre of significant international debate and is being watched closely by the United States, which is pressing for tougher sanctions against Iran. However, Iranian leaders have recently condemned western powers for “hypocritical and dangerous policies” that inspired nuclear proliferation. Iran has stated that their Islamic faith prohibits the use of nuclear weapons and maintains that their nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

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