Lebanon's 'old' and 'new' politics

Twenty-five years ago, journalist John McCarthy was taken hostage in Beirut and held for more than five years. Recently he returned to Lebanon and found a new generation challenging the country's traditional way of conducting politics.

Image caption John McCarthy among demonstrators supporting the Secularist Movement

An old lady stands on her balcony waving a Lebanese flag and showering the predominantly young crowd with handfuls of rice - a traditional sign of sharing a celebration.

The 30,000 marchers supporting what is now dubbed the Secularist Movement are greeted by cheers right across central Beirut.

This is nothing like the city I first experienced 25 years ago.

Then Beirut was filled with the fear and danger of civil war.

And in the weeks before I was taken hostage, I would scuttle through these downtown streets, aware that anyone around me might be armed and dangerous.

Desire for change

Today in Beirut, the atmosphere is one of spontaneity and noisy fun, and the march itself expresses the sense of freedom in the air.

A demonstration like this would be inconceivable, for example, in neighbouring Syria.

Like the "Facebook generation" across much of the Arab world, these young Lebanese have an urgent desire to generate change, and nobody is preventing them from saying so.

The people cheering the marchers on appear delighted with their demands for a new kind of government: a modern, open, secular democracy to replace the old sectarian system.

Nora Mourad sums up the aims of the movement: "We want a complete package - civil rights, an end to violence and an end to corruption and discrimination."

It is time, she says, for the Lebanese to be just that - Lebanese - and not to define themselves first and foremost by their religious sect.

Thirty-year-old Nora is one of the organisers of the movement, a loose affiliation of individual activists, groups and NGOs, rather than a concrete organisation.

The desire for a "complete package" is not backed up by a coherent political strategy. Yet getting so many supporters on the street showed that secularists are striking a chord. In fact virtually everyone I met - of all ages and persuasions - said the "old politics" had to go.

Old 'blame culture'

When Lebanon became independent in the 1940s, its new constitution gave a share of power to each of the country's many sects. This was intended to ensure peace and stability.

Image caption Portraits of assassinated Lebanese leaders tower over a March 14th Alliance rally

Obviously it has failed.

The country has been through a 15-year civil war and an endless series of major and minor clashes, bombings and assassinations.

But evidence of the continuing strength of the "old politics" came in another rally I witnessed.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered to cheer on leaders of the March 14th Alliance, a coalition comprising the major Sunni Muslim and Christian political parties.

This event was all about sectarianism.

The speakers, one after another, blamed the country's woes on the political groupings on the other side of the sectarian line, by which they meant the March 8th Alliance, led by Hezbollah, the dominant party of the Shia Muslims.

Eerily, many of the speakers were faces familiar from the civil war years, men like Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel, who had once been described as "warlords".

New generation

One face went beyond eerie. It was like seeing a ghost of another "warlord", Bachir Gemayel, who was assassinated in 1982.

Image caption Nadim Gemayel wants to move away from the 'old' politics of his father's generation

Then I realised that this was in fact Nadim Gemayel, Bachir's 29-year-old son.

Meeting Nadim a few days later, I was surprised how frankly he criticised the old system he had been groomed to be part of.

Despite being a member of one of the country's political dynasties, destined to lead his Maronite Christian community, he agreed that these warlords and their allies must go, so that sectarian divides would not resurface to bring "catastrophe to the next generation".

But as a young leader Nadim Gemayel faces a conundrum. He wants change, but he is worried that overthrowing the old system could jeopardise his people's security.

For all the vibrancy of Lebanon today, the underlying divisions and tensions are still simmering.

In stark contrast to the inclusiveness and openness of the secularist march, many young people are as deeply enmeshed in the sectarian divides as their parents ever were.

For the moment, the secularists and the "old" politicians are taking a breath and waiting to see how events outside the country develop - especially in Syria.

While there is hope of change, many still fear the inevitable return of conflict.

Lebanon: The Next Generation will be broadcast on Tuesday 3 May at 2000 BST on BBC Radio 4. It will also be available on the BBC iPlayer.

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites