Last week's violence in Lebanon, after two months of opposition protests, were a sign of how hostile the atmosphere has become. A new group is calling for more reasoned dialogue between the opposition and the government, but analysts say the crisis will not really end until the problems that led to it are solved. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.
Lebanon's political crisis is a maze of competing political symbols and voices. Every group seems to have a signature color - sky blue for the Hariri Future Movement, orange for the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, green and yellow for the Shi'ite parties, and so on.
Each side has its own television stations, radio stations and newspapers, telling its own version of the truth. At times, reports on competing TV stations do no even seem to be about the same country.
Each side also has sponsored massive media campaigns, blanketing the capital, Beirut, and the countryside with posters and billboards.
The anti-Syrian bloc, known as March 14th, has put up pictures of slain politicians, including former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, bearing the slogan, "We Will Not Forget." After the war with Israel in June and July, Hezbollah erected hundreds of billboards and posters touting what it called its "Divine Victory."
As the opposition protests started, new billboards appeared in English, French and Arabic saying, "I Love Life." That was March 14, taking a swipe at what they considered Hezbollah's culture of death and martyrdom. The opposition countered by turning that slogan around; their new posters read, "I Love Life - With Dignity, or I Love Life - Undictated."
The latest entry in the poster war is calling itself the March 11 movement. The name refers to Lebanon's date-themed political divide. The opposition are called March 8th, and the government side is known as March 14th. March 11 is halfway in between.
One of the new group's slogans is, "One Plus One Equals Lebanon." Its posters are all white. The group says Lebanon has enough political colors. Group leaders say they are neutral, and they are urging Lebanon's feuding parties to come together.
March 11 is trying so hard not to personalize its campaign, that its spokesman asked to be identified only by his first name, Fadi. He says the point is not to criticize the two sides, but to encourage them to find common ground.
"We think that this (one) party has done a very good thing for the country, and this (the other) party has done also a very good thing for the country. But the way they are communicating is very bad. We're saying that, 'hey people, there is another way. Find another way to communicate.' It's about communication, it's not about doing good and doing bad.... The way they're communicating, in the street and on TV, that's taking the country to a place where no one wants to be, you know?," he said.
The group's billboards and posters have gotten people's attention, but many are skeptical about whether the group is really neutral, or whether it can make a difference.
The editor-in-chief of the Daily Star newspaper, Jamil Mroue, says he believes there is a silent majority in Lebanon, but that it lacks organization and traction. "If anything, by adopting this slogan, [it] suggests a level of desperation. Here we are just finding -- desperately trying to find a way to say, there is a middle ground, and sort of divide your dates, so to speak," he said.
But he acknowledges that the level of political debate has degenerated to alarming levels. "We have degenerated from soundbite to mind-bite, if you like, and from mind-bite to nose-bite, and from nose-bite to eye-poke. Basically, that's where we are. When the original flow of soundbites did not serve, it degenerated all the way to eye-poke," he said.
Lebanon's entire modern history has been a delicate and often unsuccessful balancing act among its complex web of religious and ethnic groups. No system of government has really ever worked well; the failings of the old system led to a 15-year civil war, and the failings of the deal that ended the war have resulted in this current crisis.
Political analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center says Lebanon must resolve the structural weaknesses that have made it what she calls a battleground for foreign interests. "Any solution to the current crisis has to address its underlying causes. The events we're witnessing today are merely byproducts, reactions and so on, of a much deeper political malaise, which is essentially that there is no state," she said.
She says Lebanon's entire political culture has to change. "It isn't simply an issue of this entire sectarian spoil-sharing system has to be done away with. I don't think that's the main problem. I think the main problem is the basis upon which people vote, for example, and the extent to which current political leaders, who all represent their sects, hold so much sway over their communities.... and because of the electoral system we have, it's basically a winner-take-all system, which does not leave any room for alternative political groups to emerge. That has to change," she said.
At this stage, the political debate in Lebanon is focused on the composition of the government, rather than on its powers or role. Little of the public dialogue deals with core issues like the electoral law, service delivery, tax reform or the balance of powers between branches of government.
Jamil Mroue of the Daily Star says the current system has constitutional chasms that can lead, and have led, to unresolvable deadlock. "All of these things require a lot of deliberation, and a lot of vertical specialization. You need constitutionalists, not amateurs and orators to do that. At this stage, it's all being done by soundbite. Again, soundbite intensifies the vacuum, which will be filled by further adrenaline, until a certain stage where this adrenaline spills into blood, which is where we are now," he said.
Last week, several people were killed in street fighting that erupted between government supporters and opposition members. The clashes shocked some, at least in their ferocity, but, for many, the violence was not entirely unexpected, given the growing levels of hostility.
Both sides seem to have stepped back from the brink, at least for a while, but there are serious concerns about what could happen on February 14th, the anniversary of Rafik Hariri's murder. Last year, government supporters staged a huge rally to mark the anniversary next to Hariri's grave in Martyr's Square. But that is right next to the opposition protesters' tent camp, and there is clear potential for more trouble. A flurry of diplomatic activity is now aimed at reaching some kind of deal before that date.
But it is also clear that whatever deal finally ends this crisis will only be the beginning of the journey toward a much more elusive solution to Lebanon's deeper systemic troubles.