The energy of youth movements in the Arab world has spread to Lebanon as young activists are organising weekly protests calling for an end to the country's sectarian politics.
Movement organisers are using online social networks to plan their events, the most recent of which occurred Sunday (April 3rd) in Sidon. Another protest is scheduled for April 10th for Beirut.
Over the past five weeks, thousands of young activists participated in Sunday protests in a campaign titled "The Lebanese people want to drop the sectarian system", which is also the name of a Facebook page that includes 20,660 people and carries the slogan "Say 'no' to sectarianism, poverty, high prices, corruption, nepotism, unemployment, waste and exploitation."
The demonstration on March 20th in Beirut attracted about 20,000 people of different affiliations from various regions. Demonstration leaders said the groups highlight the religious and political diversity of the participants by taking a different route each time, while raising a picture depicting Lebanon's prominent political leaders with the slogan "No to the sectarian symbols of the regime."
Activist Bashar Zuaiter is stationed daily in a tent set up by his colleagues in front of the Ministry of Interior in Beirut, which has been transformed into a gathering place for popular movements.
"Our movement was launched on Facebook. We were influenced by events in Tunisia and Egypt. We called for a demonstration on February 27th that drew an overwhelming response. The second demonstration drew more participants, and at the third, the number exceeded 20,000," Zuaiter said.
He said they positioned the tent in front of the Ministry of Interior because the ministry is responsible for issues such as personal status, election law, and nationalization. A number of similar tents were set up in Sidon in the south and Aley in Mount Lebanon to explain the concept of non-sectarianism to the public.
According to Zuaiter, the tent is starting to receive visits from politicians, notably former Prime Minister Salim Hoss, who expressed support for the movement's demand to abolish sectarianism. Zuaiter hopes politicians do not exploit the activists' demands to serve their own personal interests.
After their protest on March 20th, a group of young campaigners with the "The Lebanese people want to drop the sectarian system" met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who asked them to provide him a draft amendment to the Personal Status Act that he could present to the House of Representatives for expedited consideration.
The Lebanese Constitution calls for elected officials to eliminate political sectarianism according to a phased plan and form a national body to oversee the change but such steps have not been adopted yet.
Some believe that the participation of thousands in demonstrations was not the result of social networking through web pages, but rather the result of partisan and sectarian manipulation by political parties who encouraged the movements.
Minister Michel Pharaon questioned the timing of the demonstrations and their origin. "I am not against the abolition of sectarianism, but [change] should be brought about in a gradual manner in an atmosphere of tranquillity and stability. The atmosphere is currently extremely charged with sectarianism," he said.
Journalist Jihad Bazzi said the timing of the demonstrations is expected given "the hope for change generated by the revolutions of the Arab youth, and the political impasse reached by the March 8 and March 14 forces. They (the demonstrators) were just waiting for the motivation to break the fear of failure to bring about change."
Fadi Madi, an organiser with the "National People's Campaign to drop the sectarian system", another movement that is active on Facebook and that holds activities in downtown Beirut, told Al-Shorfa, "The young people demonstrating in the street are entirely opposed to both March 8 and March 14, and those firing the accusations are individuals who could be adversely affected by the abolition of political sectarianism in the country."
Junaid Sariyudin, a director, actor and anti-sectarian activist, denied that political parties stood behind these movements. "If there were parties behind these movements, the crowds would have been several hundred thousand strong because the parties can mobilise large numbers of supporters," he said.
"If this movement is able to achieve a breakthrough in resolving problems such as the adoption of a unified history book, an election system based on proportionality, or the issue of civil marriage, the system's sectarian chain would begin to unravel," he said.
Ibrahim Murad, president of the Syriac Union Party, told Al-Shorfa, "We support the abolition of sectarianism on the condition that possession of arms is restricted to the Lebanese state, and citizenship is reinstated to those who are of Lebanese descent along with granting them the right to vote because most of them are Christians."
"Lebanon was built on a foundation of various spiritual sects, and sectarianism cannot be abolished without a comprehensive dialogue whereby all controversial issues are raised," he said, pointing out that Christians have become a minority. "Who would guarantee their rights if sectarianism is abolished?"
The new Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai has expressed support for the abolition of political sectarianism, but he wondered "What do we mean by sectarianism, and by abolishing it? And if abolition occurs, what is the alternative?"
He said he supported a secular state that respects religion, adding that Lebanon is a secular country that respects civil rights and all religions with no sect or denomination monopolising political or military power.