Despite the international commotion over last year's Cedar Revolution and withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the much vaunted Beirut Spring appears to have been a mirage. Neither the anti-Syrian protests (capped by the mammoth March 14, 2005 demonstration) nor the Syrian withdrawal ushered in an era of political reform. Rather, they have sparked widespread fears of a civil war between the Shiites and the Sunni–Druze–Christian “March 14” grouping. While these fears are for the most part unfounded, there is no denying the existence of a cold civil war, which is being played out in the political arena, on the streets, and in the media.

Underlying this communal polarization is a process of national identity construction that has degenerated into a fierce debate over the meaning of sovereignty, independence, and nationalism. At the core of this national polemic lies the identification of Lebanon's friends and foes. The March 14 camp regards Syria as its arch foe and views Iranian and Syrian support for Hezbollah as an infringement on Lebanon's sovereignty, while simultaneously seeking Western (primarily U.S. and French) support. On the other side of the divide the Shiites, represented by the Hezbollah-Amal political alliance, vehemently reject Western (especially U.S.) political intervention, which they construe as a new form of foreign tutelage. Hezbollah has strategically positioned itself in the Syria-Iran axis and many Shiites identify with this alliance.

The recent cabinet crisis, which paralyzed the government for seven weeks, demonstrated and exacerbated communal tensions. The five Shiite ministers representing Amal and Hezbollah suspended their participation in cabinet meetings in response to the government's alleged contravention of a gentleman's agreement reached during the 2005 parliamentary elections between Saad Hariri's Future Movement and Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party on the one hand and the Shiite alliance on the other. According to this agreement, all major decisions would be first debated outside of government in order to reach a consensus as recommended by the Constitution. The Shiite alliance accused the ruling majority of flouting this accord on December 12, 2005 by deciding on two crucial issues—expanding the UN probe into Rafiq Hariri's murder to incorporate all political assassinations committed thereafter and establishing an international tribunal to try the perpetrators of these killings—by majority vote without first exhausting attempts to reach consensus. The crisis was resolved on February 2 when Prime Minister Fouad Siniora partially satisfied the Shiite ministers' demands that the government adhere to the consensus rule and declare that Hezbollah's “Resistance” is not considered a militia.

The recent crisis made clear that political integration of the Shiite alliance has not served to bridge the gulf between the rival camps. Instead it has fueled the Shiite sense of communal victimization and exposed the cold cohabitation that governs inter-communal relations. The whole experience has shown that political inclusion, in and of itself, cannot ensure stability in a climate of ongoing foreign intervention and escalating communal tensions, given a political system that affords more power to sects than to state institutions.

Several developments in the past year have challenged the viability of the consociational democratic model in Lebanon,which is based on the twin principles of elite power-sharing and consensus. The Syrian departure raises the question of whether the Taif Accord of 1990, which ended the civil war and revised the consociational formula, is tenable without the supervision of Damascus, which sponsored the accord and oversaw its implementation. In addition, the inclusion in the governing coalition of a political minority—the Shiites—with a sharply different international and regional agenda has effectively stripped the system of the relative consensus it once enjoyed and beset it with bitter infighting. Yet the Shiites are the country's largest religious minority and cannot be excluded from the government, lest it collapse. The result is an unhappy marriage of expedience between a political majority crippled by its junior partner's veto power and a marginalized minority that resents its perceived subjection to a tyranny of the majority.

The Shiite alliance views the March 14 group as tyrannical partly because the latter gained power through an electoral alliance with Shiites, but then reneged on promises to protect Hezbollah's Resistance from internal and external pressures for disarmament. Hezbollah has since struck up a partnership with the predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun, a development that might weaken the March 14 alliance that had heretofore claimed a monopoly on cross-sectarian representation. Further enervating the majority alliance is a Christian-Sunni rift that has developed as a result of the recent anti-cartoon riots, in which Sunni protesters directed their wrath against Christians. But despite the appearance of change and new cross-confessional alliances, what remains the same in Lebanon is that sectarian interests are the principal motivators of political actions.

Amal Saad Ghorayeb is Assistant Professor at the Lebanese American University and author of Hizbullah: Politics and Religion (Pluto Press, 2002).