Last weekend, thousands of people gathered in Beirut to demand an end to Lebanon's sectarian system. The groups backing the campaign are poorly organised, their agendas diverge, but the greatest difficulty they face is more fundamental: most Lebanese, for better or worst, are used to functioning within a sectarian framework, and have always bestowed legitimacy on their sectarian leaders.
If you have any doubts, let me draw your attention to what is likely to be a very large rally this coming Sunday held at Martyrs Square by the March 14 coalition, whose leading figure is Saad Hariri, Lebanon's caretaker prime minister. The gathering will celebrate the sixth anniversary of a March 14, 2005 demonstration, when close to a million Lebanese protested against Syria's hegemony over Lebanon following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. If anything heralded what we are witnessing today in Arab streets, it was that peculiarly Lebanese moment when all fears and inhibitions fell.
So enthralling was that day that the subsequent governing majority in Beirut took March 14 for its name. Many idealistic Lebanese deemed the occasion revolutionary, the dawn of a new era of a unified Lebanon in which one's religion would be secondary. In retrospect, however, what happened was precisely the opposite. The idealists had mistakenly identified their laudable aspirations as what was really a quintessential manifestation of Lebanese sectarianism.
How so? After Hariri's killing, a majority in Lebanon's Sunni community turned against Syria, accusing it of being behind the crime. In that way they joined the substantial numbers of Christians who had long opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon, as well as the Druze community that had earlier followed its leader, Walid Jumblatt, into opposition against the pro-Syrian government in Beirut. While there were quite a few Lebanese, many from the educated middle class who supported the protest movement as individuals, a far larger number came out obeying the calls of political leaders or parties who played on their sectarian allegiances.
Something pragmatic also took place on March 14. While all those who participated had distinct political objectives and came from a multitude of political and religious backgrounds or rejected religious affiliations altogether, they found common ground in advocating a Syrian military withdrawal. Lebanon's sectarianism triggers such behaviour, deriving from a medley of separate interests - defined substantially, but not exclusively, through sectarian calculations. And when the dials are in alignment and a majority reaches accord over specific goals, sectarianism can pack a tremendous wallop.
At the same time, there is inherent antagonism and factionalism built into such a system, the consequences of which have exacted a heavy toll in terms of Lebanon's unity, hindering the emergence of a stable social contract. This was all too evident six years ago. A major reason why there were so many participants at the March 14 rally was the fact that a week earlier, Hizbollah had staged a massive show of force in defence of Syria. The party sought to intimidate Damascus's critics and discourage further anti-Syrian protests. Instead, Sunnis viewed Hizbollah's demonstration as a Shiite challenge, and this prompted them to assemble in much greater numbers days later.
This weekend, similar dynamics will kick in. In January, Saad Hariri's government collapsed when ministers close to Syria and Hizbollah resigned. The March 14 coalition has reacted to this by refusing to participate in a new government being formed by Najib Miqati, and has instead focused on advancing two aims: preserving Beirut's cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which seeks to identify the killers of Rafik Hariri, despite Hizbollah's intention to cut all Lebanese contacts with the institution; and drawing attention to Hizbollah's weapons as the principal source of national discord, because the party has directed these weapons against Lebanese.
As part of its strategy, March 14 hopes to use the upcoming demonstration (scheduled for March 13, to ensure a higher turnout on a Sunday) to push Hizbollah onto the defensive. While Christian political parties will be present in force, with perhaps a sizable number of Druze, despite the fact that Mr Jumblatt has shifted away politically from March 14, it is the Sunnis who will deliver the big crowds. And it's fair to say that the most compelling reason for them to head toward Martyrs Square is that they feel it is necessary, once more, to face down the Shiites, represented by Hizbollah.
This may not be commendable, but it is what the system invariably spawns: religious groups or coalitions of religious groups counter-balancing others considered a threat to Lebanon's equilibrium. And Hizbollah has played no less on sectarian solidarities in order to bring Shiites out into the streets on the party's behalf, strengthening its hold over the community. As March 14 continues denouncing Hizbollah's weapons, expect Hizbollah to darkly warn its coreligionists that disarmament would only result in Shiite marginalisation.
That's the dispiriting backdrop to the recent anti-sectarian manifestations. It may be the politically correct position to oppose sectarianism, but it is too ingrained in the Lebanese psyche to be abolished at the stroke of a pen. The sectarian order is deeply debilitating, but it also offers the only mechanism Lebanon has to enforce equilibrium, therefore preserving political and social pluralism. If sectarianism is to be eliminated, it first needs to be slowly dismantled from within, and only then can it be transcended.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle