Lebanon is 'rotting fast from inside'
Lebanese activists remove trash from between the barbed wire barriers around the Lebanese government building, where the anti-government protesters hold their daily demonstrations.
Beirut - Sectarian distribution of key posts perpetuates corruption, nepotism.
To the casual visitor, Lebanon may seem like a tiny slice of Mediterranean modernity and coexistence in a turbulent region plagued by violence and extremism.
But for many Lebanese, it's a rotting state eaten away by a political class that has long used the country's sectarian power-sharing system to perpetuate corruption and nepotism. And while recent protests over uncollected trash have challenged an arrangement almost universally denounced by Lebanese, they also can't seem to shake it. Many argue that system is what has allowed the country of 4.5 million people from 18 recognised and often rival sects to survive. "You Stink," the main activist group behind the protest movement, has called for a massive demonstration on Saturday. Its campaign started over the fetid piles of trash mounting in Beirut's streets after the government closed the country's main landfill, but it has mushroomed into a movement against the entire political structure.
At the heart of Lebanon's problems, some say, is an unwritten arrangement since Lebanon's 1943 independence which stipulates that the country's president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia - the three largest communities.
The agreement was further enshrined in the Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, and requires that the parliament and Cabinet must be half Muslim and half Christian.
The sectarianism trickles down to other posts, including the army commander and central bank governor, who are traditionally Christians, and the deputy prime minister, who has to be Greek Orthodox.
Critics contend it's a recipe for a weak central government. Politicians largely act as the voices of their sect and engage in cronyism and patronage for their communities.
"What we have in Lebanon is a consortium of sectarian networks operating as social welfare providers in various regions under religion auspices, with sectarian and local leadership substituting almost everything that the government should be providing," said Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University.
At the same time, the system creates a delicate balance of power that no side is prepared to disrupt as the key to Lebanon's tenuous stability. The Hezbollah movement is a prime example.
By far the strongest political force in Lebanon, it's on the US State Department's list of terrorist organisations, has engaged in several devastating wars with Israel and has sent thousands of fighters to shore up President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria - all controversial moves in Lebanon. Its guerrilla army is at least as well-armed and trained as the Lebanese military, and for Shias it provides an elaborate social welfare network that includes schools, hospitals and clinics. It dominates local politics and came close to carrying out a coup in 2008.
But it has also been meticulously mindful not to go too far and spark a backlash from other sects that would wreck a status quo it benefits from.
That balance has an impact beyond politics. Hezbollah has a Shia ideology and Lebanon has plenty of Sunni conservatives, but no faction is strong enough to try to impose strict Islamic mores on Lebanon's freewheeling society. With no one force totally in charge, Lebanon has perhaps the freest media in the region.
That, along with its Mediterranean beaches, bars and a renovated downtown in Beirut, gives the country an air of liberal modernity.
Others say the problem lies not in the governing system, but in the political class itself, which never rose above the warlord-style governance of the civil war.
Key decisions remain in the hands of political dynasties.
For example, former president Amin Gemayel passed on leadership of the Christian Phalange party to his son, Sami. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze sect, has been gradually handing over the reins to his son, Taymour.
Former army commander Michel Aoun this week passed on leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement to his son-in-law, the current foreign minister, Gibran Bassil. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who leads the Shia Amal militia, has been in his post for 23 years.
Lebanese activists chant slogans during a march against the trash crisis and government corruption in Beirut streets.