Peace or War? Lebanon on the Brink

The atmosphere is oddly uneasy at the Music Hall in downtown Beirut: Most of the red velvet sofas are empty, few people hang around the long, well-stocked, high-tech bar, and waiters stand in line, uncalled.

"We had 300 reservations at the beginning of the week," said one of them. "Only 70 confirmed. People chose to stay at home."

Even the most talented artists of the evening -- the Palestinian Charlie Brothers -- cannot do much to cheer up their small, mainly 20-something audience.

Welcome to Beirut on edge. After a week that saw political opponents twice taking to the streets, with deadly consequences, Lebanon is poised between fear of civil war coming back and attempting to look at the future with hope.

Bitterness Among the Young

Leila Saad is bitter.

"When I was born, the country was like this -- and when I'll die it will be the same," the 25-year-old woman told ABC News.

Her words reflect the widespread pessimism among young people in a country where the 20 percent unemployment rate and $600 average salary push many of Lebanon's best and brightest to make a beeline overseas.

Still trying to recover from the 33-day-long war between Hezbollah and Israel last summer, which claimed 1,200 lives and caused $2 billion damage, Lebanon has been stuck in political deadlock since November.

Accusing the government of wanting Israel to destroy its guerrilla forces in line with U.S. wishes, five Shiite ministers -- from Hezbollah and the Amal group -- walked out of the cabinet, followed by the Christian representative belonging to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

Since then, the opposition has staged two months of peaceful sit-ins in front of the Parliament in a bid to topple Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He has refused the opposition's demand for a veto-wielding share of the cabinet and the call for new parliamentary elections.

The political confrontation has fallen along sectarian lines: Shiite Muslims -- including Hezbollah and the Amal group, whose leader, Berri, is speaker of the parliament -- support the opposition, while Sunni Muslims are mainly behind the prime minister.

The Christian parties are harshly divided between the two camps. The FPM, led by presidential contender Gen. Michel Aoun, is a key ally of the opposition front, while Samir Geagea, leader of the militia Lebanese Forces, backs Siniora.

The alliance between Hezbollah and the Christian Maronite of Aoun has been strongly controversial -- an unusual event for a country with a unique confessional-based political system where, according to the constitution, the president has to be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite.

Conflict Spreads

The political conflict spilled over into violence twice over the past week -- first with a general strike called by the opposition Tuesday, which paralyzed much of the country and led to clashes, and then in a further confrontation between government loyalists and opposition supporters in Beirut on Thursday. Both events escalated swiftly and claimed seven dead and hundreds of wounded.

Scenes across the capital were reminiscent of the country's brutal 1975-1990 civil war -- burning cars and tires, Molotov cocktails, roadblocks, reports of snipers on rooftops and a curfew for the first time in the country since 1996. Giving the wrong answer to the question, "Sunni or Shiite?" was enough to trigger an attack.

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