Country Profile: Lebanon

Compiled by Jefferson Morley
Tuesday, December 20, 2005; 1:01 PM

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Lebanon is inhabited by approximately 3.8 million people in an area roughly the size of Connecticut. Its intermingling of Muslims and Christians make it a kind of microcosm of the encounter between the West and East. Beirut is Lebanon's largest and most cosmopolitan city.

Muslims comprise a majority of the population, though Christians are far more visible, politically and religiously, than in any other Middle Eastern country. Among the Muslims, Shiites are a majority. Sectarian lines are strong politically but not impermeable socially.

Among Muslims, the Shiite community is poorer and more devout than the Sunnis, who tend to be more middle-class and secular. Among Christians, the Maronites are most numerous, but there are also Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and Protestants.

The country is relatively prosperous. Lebanese businessmen have capitalized on Beirut's location, making the city a center of trade and finance for the Middle East. When calm prevails, Beirut is a popular tourist destination for Europeans, Westerners and Arabs.

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Lebanon has a sectarian political system and powerful neighbors. The combination has made the country an unstable and often dangerous place over the last 30 years.

In 1976, Christians, Muslims and Palestinian refugees became engaged in a civil war that lasted through the 1980s. In 1982, Israel attempted and failed to install a pro-Israeli government. The United States intervened in 1983 but withdrew within a year because of suicide bombing attacks on U.S. forces. In 1990, Syria imposed "peacekeeping" forces on the war-weary nation. Via military superiority, Syria became the dominant political force in Lebanon for the next 15 years.

Lebanon's sectarian political system reflects the country's religious divisions. By law, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian. The prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament must be a Shiite Muslim.

By 2005, the Syrians had overstayed their welcome. Lebanese leaders, including former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, began pushing for Syria's withdrawal. Hariri, who had once worked with the Syrians, was preparing to break with them when he was killed by a car bomb on Feb. 14, 2005. A wave of massive street demonstrations blaming Syria for Hariri's death ensued, forcing Syrian president Bashar Assad to withdraw his troops in May 2005. Since Hariri's death, three anti-Syrian journalists and one anti-Syrian political leader have been killed or wounded by car bombs. The United Nation is still investigating Hariri's assassination, focusing on senior officials of the Syrian government.

As Lebanon recovers its sovereignty, the country's factions must once again face the challenge of co-existing peacefully. Mutual suspicion, shifting alliances and backroom deals have long characterized Lebanese parliamentary politics.

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Lebanon has one of the most diverse English-language online media of any Middle Eastern country.

Naharnet is the Web site of Al Nahar, Beruit's leading daily newspaper, whose crusading editor/owner Gebran Tueni was killed by a car bomb on Dec. 12 2005. Tueni was among the first to denounce the Syrian occupation of the country.

Dar Al-Hayat, an influential pan-Arabic daily newspaper, is not exactly a Lebanese news site. The news operation has offices in Beirut and London and the print edition circulates throughout the region. Online, Dar Al Hayat commentators represent mainstream Arabic thinking. They are anti-Zionist and generally critical, though occasionally hopeful, about America's role in the world.

Another spirited Beirut news site is the Daily Star, which doggedly defends freedom of the press. The Daily Star has perhaps the strongest ties to American readers. Editor Rami Khoury writes frequently on Middle Eastern issues for The Washington Post and other U.S. publications and opinions editor Michael Young is a contributing writer at Slate. The editorial line is diversely liberal, anti-Syrian, often critical of Israel and disillusioned about U.S. policy in the region.

On the other side of the political spectrum is Al Manar, which presents a fundamentalist Muslim point of view. The site and partner TV station are run by Hezbollah, the Party of God, which is popular among Lebanon's Shiites. The editorial line is generally, but not always, pro-Syrian. The United States is portrayed negatively and the editors usually put "Israel" in quotes to underscore the view that they do not accept the legitimacy of the Jewish State. Al Manar provides close coverage of the sporadic battles between Hezbollah and Israeli forces along Lebanon's southern border.

Ya Libnan is a relatively new media voice in Lebanon. The site started as an online presence for the massive street demonstrations in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Since then, it has transformed itself into a daily news site with a cosmopolitan, liberal view toward politics.

Other news resources include Monday Morning, a political newsweekly focusing on Middle East political analysis, and As-Safir, a popular daily available only in Arabic.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Naharnet, Daily Star

© 2005 The Washington Post Company