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Lebanon — June 2010

18 Jun 2010 Sociopolitical Situation

Lebanon is located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered to the north and east by Syria and to the south by Israel. The size of the population is estimated between 4 and 4.5 million. In addition, about 10 percent of its population is made up of refugees, including around 400,000 Palestinians and up to 60,000 Iraqis. Within this small population, there are 18 officially registered religious communities; the extensiveness of this has resulted in the existence of a special political system to distribute power as equitably as possible, making it the most complex state in the Middle East. Despite its size, Lebanon’s diversity baffles policy makers. Sectarian differences are at the root of the violent clashes that have impacted the country over the years — but the sources of conflict are not theological. Differences are exacerbated by deep political divisions regarding the representation of each factional group, who constantly jockey for power within the political system. As most have allegiances beyond the country’s borders, regional powers dominate internal dialogue and positioning.

The Lebanese civil war (1975-90) ended a relatively prosperous era in Lebanese history. Before 1975, Beirut was seen as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” and Lebanon as a country in which trade flourished and different religions could be professed. Nevertheless, Muslim discontent with the influence, power and wealth of the Christian community grew; tensions were mainly under the surface, but these became increasingly visible by 1975, particularly as the presence of around 300,000 Palestinians in refugee camps, most of them Sunni Muslims, became increasingly alarming.

The 15 years of intermittent violence and war destroyed Beirut, devastated much of the country’s infrastructure and drove hundreds of thousands of people into exile. The Taif Agreement, which was ratified in late 1989, ended this tragic chapter in Lebanon’s history and divided political power more evenly between Christians and Muslims. The lack of a strong central government, however, coupled with the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese territory and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon invited regional tensions to continue to play out in the fragile country.

Other factors continue to destabilize Lebanon: The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 led to political crisis dividing traditional allies and forging new ones; the Israeli-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006 devastated the southern half of the country and revealed further Lebanon’s frailty.

Despite a wave of optimism in mid-2008 — which saw the election of a new president and the formation of a national unity government — significant factors threatening Lebanon’s fragile existence remain: increased regional tensions; remote, but potential conflicts between Hezbollah and Israel; increased pressure within the Palestinian camps; possible targeting of international peacekeeping forces and militia attacks.

By Lebanese standards, 2009 was a quiet year. The chief development was the drawn out government formation process, which concluded in November with the election of Said el Hariri to the premiership.

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