Demonstrations have taken over Beirut. Pundits say Lebanon may be on the brink of a new civil war. Regional issues and power struggles are being played out in this war-torn and war-weary Middle East country, experts insist.

With Lebanon’s politics being a complicated mix of religion, family loyalties, class and outside intervention, current U.S. policies in the region have only heightened tensions.

In the wake of the assassination of government minister Pierre Gemyal, hundreds of thousands took to the streets during his funeral. Many of the protesters were government supporters.

Then days after, hundreds of thousands, mainly Shiites from the poorer south of Lebanon, took to the streets to demand the government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora step down. One young protester was shot and killed during these demonstrations. Representatives of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, are in Lebanon trying to broker a deal between parties as well as representatives of Iran and Syria.

Lebanon, an ethnically Arab country, but religiously very diverse, has complex political rules, which include a “confessional” system. The government and its senior officials are divided among religious based parties. The president is required to be a Maronite Christian; the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim; and the speaker of the Parliament, a Shia Muslim. The Druze, an Islamic-based religion which incorporates some Christian and Judaic teachings, are not guaranteed an office. Besides Christian Maronites, Sunni, Shia and Druze, there are some 14 other religious sects in Lebanon.

The Lebanese Communist Party says this sect-based system is an underlying reason for the current crisis and is campaigning to replace it with a secular, democratic-based one to unify the country and confront U.S. imperialism’s designs on the region.

The Shiite political and military group Hezbollah, along with other parties formerly in the government, including the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, a right-wing political party led by Gen. Michel Aoun, make up the opposition coalition. Six ministers from these groups resigned from the cabinet last month. The government is now composed of Christian, Sunni Muslim and Druze parties.

The six resignations came at the same time the 24-member cabinet was deliberating on a United Nations plan to set up a tribunal on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Government supporters say the ministers resigned to block the tribunal. The opposition says that it supports the tribunal but wants more Shia representation in government. To which government supporters say Hezbollah wants veto power and to ease political pressure on it to disarm.

The Beirut newspaper The Daily Star editorialized on Dec. 2 that the missing element in the current standoff is a political agenda for the leaders on all sides.

In mid-November, labor and business leaders called on all politicians to end the “bickering” in order to rebuild the nation and people’s lives. In their jointly issued statement, Ghassan Ghosn, head of the 200,000-member General Confederation of Workers of Lebanon, and Adnane Kassar, president of the Economic Associations, said, “We are responsible for the fate of thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of workers. It is thanks to us the coffers of the state have been replenished. You have no other choice than to establish a climate of confidence so that the country … can heal its wounds.”

The statement urged the formation of a national unity government and for all politicians to put aside their narrow aims for the good of the country. “You have no right to drag the country into the abyss to satisfy your political aims,” the statement said.

However, U.S. policy in the region is fueling many tensions in Lebanon. Many in Lebanon see events through the prism of the U.S. and its allies versus Syria, Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah.

Many Lebanese, especially Shia and others from south Lebanon, are still angry with the Siniora government for its lack of action during the U.S.-backed Israeli military aggression last summer that killed some 1,000 Lebanese civilians and destroyed infrastructure to the tune of $3.5 billion.

The University of Maryland and Zogby International conducted a Lebanese public opinion poll, Nov. 11-16. Not surprisingly, all Lebanese held negative attitudes toward the U.S. and its policies. However, the poll also showed a divide between Lebanese Shia and other groups — Sunni, Druze and Christians — in their attitude toward who won the Israel-Lebanon war, and toward Hezbollah and Iran.

Interestingly, if the U.S. would broker a Mideast peace with “Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders and establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” all Lebanese agreed that would improve their opinion towards the U.S.

Lebanese poll participants selected the Mideast peace plan over five others, including withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, providing more economic assistance to the region or stopping economic and military aid to Israel.

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