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Lebanon's political season kicks off

A polarized electorate will determine Lebanon’s future in a volatile region.


On the opposing side is March 14, led by parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. March 14 enjoys the political support of Lebanon’s Sunnis, Druze and the other half of the country’s Christians. The coalition came to power in Lebanon’s last round of parliamentary elections in 2005, after the assassination of Hariri’s father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

“March 14 wants a country with an open market, a liberal economy, where they’d really be able to bring back Lebanon as the jewel of the Middle East, as a tourist destination, with an open banking sector, that’s friendly to the west. A non-aligned country,” Safa said. “That is the fundamental clash with the conservative quasi-religious paramilitary view of Lebanon being a resistance citadel.”

The two coalitions are representative of the wide ideological polarization in the Middle East. But they only came into their present-day form after the assassination of Hariri in 2005. Many blamed the assassination on Hezbollah’s ally, Syria, who had maintained troops in Lebanon and de-facto control of its tiny neighbor since 1990.

Syria denied any involvement. But international and domestic outrage at the assassination forced Syria to withdraw its troops. The March 14 coalition, named for a massive rally calling for Syria to leave Lebanon, rode the coattails of the anger, and swept to power with U.S. and European support.

Hezbollah and other parties had staged their own demonstration in support of Syria a few days before the March 14 rally, on March 8, 2005. When Hariri’s coalition won the elections, Hezbollah took part in the government. But the two years that followed Lebanon’s new-found independence were punctuated by war, bombings, political assassinations and instability that led the country to the brink of another civil war.

The 33-day 2006 war, fought largely between Hezbollah and Israel, caused some $3 billion in damage. Many in March 14 accused Hezbollah of starting the war at Syria and Iran’s behest.

When then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited March 14 politicians in the middle of the war, Hezbollah accused the governing majority of being Israeli and American spies. March 14 accused March 8 of being Iranian and Syrian stooges.

Not long after the war ended, the March 8 coalition’s ministers resigned from the cabinet. They demanded they be given veto power over the March 14-controlled cabinet to protect Hezbollah’s military activities against what the group said was an American and Israeli plan to disarm it. March 14 refused to budge. For 18 months the parliament didn’t meet, delaying a parliamentary vote to elect a president.