I could have posted an article headed "Lebanon in Crisis!" at any point over the last two years, and it would have been the same crisis. The country has been locked into a political conflict between pro- and anti- Syrian factions. Syrian hegemony was a tacit condition of the peace deal that ended the Lebanese civil war, but one that some Lebanese politicians increasingly chafed against as the years went by. The assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 crystalised opposition against Syria, and led to the emergence of government from which pro-Syrian parties have been excluded. These groups, and particularly the armed party Hezbollah, have objected to their exclusion from government, as another implicit feature of the deal that ended the war was that everyone would be in government all the time.
The current crisis has split Lebanon into two rival camps, but the cleavages are different to those of the civil war. In the 1970s, a collection of Maronite Christian militias squared off against a coalition of Muslim, Druze, and Palestinan groups. Now the Shia Muslim Hezbollah is in the pro-Syrian opposition, while the Druze party and various Sunni parties are in the anti-Syrian government. The Christians seem to be split. Christian politicians from the community's old political families are in the anti-Syrian camp, but the pro-Syrians have the charismatic former General Michel Aoun on their side.
Aoun's presence in the pro-Syrian camp is rather mysterious… in the early 1990s, he declared himself president of Lebanon and fought a quixotic war against the Syrians. His joining the pro-Syrian camp looks like naked political opportunism, but it is just possible that there is something else happening. The anti-Syrian government in Lebanon largely represents the elites who have dominated the country's politics for generations, while Hezbollah have a certain arriviste appeal and can credibly claim to be speaking for the long-marginalised Shia. My understanding is that Aoun, though a Maronite, is not from one of that community's old ruling families. He might therefore represent a revolt by Maronite have-nots against their betters.
Right now the situation seems very tense. The government are trying to shut down Hezbollah's private telecommunications network, something the party's leader views as a declaration of war. Roadblocks have sprung up across Beirut, and gun battles have broken out between Hezbollah fighters and people from Sunni parties. Lebanon's army commander, meanwhile, has warned that the army could disintegrate into its sectarian sub-units should the crisis continue.
So, is Lebanon at the beginning of a new civil war? It is hard to tell. In the rolling crisis since Hariri's murder, the country has seemed to be on the brink on a number of occasions. On each of these, however, the storm has not broken, even if the crisis has not been resolved. Perhaps on this occasion too, people will decide that they do not really have the stomach for a return to civil war, but it could also only be luck that has kept the country at relative peace for so long.
On a personal note, Lebanon is somewhere I spent a very pleasant holiday in 2002, and it is strange and depressing to see it descending into chaos. As with the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, it generates a cognitive dissonance to hear of people being killed in fighting on somewhere like Beirut's Corniche.
Five Killed in Beirut gun battles (BBC News article)
Robert Fisk: Lebanon descends into chaos as rival leaders order general strike (from The Independent)
Beirut Daily Star (Lebanon's English language newspaper)
Lebanese Political Journal (random English-language Lebanese blog; Irish readers should bear in mind that Beirut's Hamra Street is normally not unlike Dublin's Grafton Street)