Lebanon has always been a country of many contradictions.
It's the only country in the Arab world with a functioning parliamentary system not dependent on, and which does not answer to, the executive. That, however is true only when the country has a sitting president and when the parliament actually functions.
The country has been without a president since November 2007 and the parliament's 128 members have been incapable of coming to an agreement regarding the election of the next president.
Lebanon is also the only country in the Arab world where the president is elected through a democratic process; well, sort of. That is when the members of parliament can fill two requirements.
First, fill the required quorum to hold an election (which is not as obvious as it might seem) and second, to vote on the preselected candidate. There is usually only one candidate and the blessings from Damascus are a prerequisite before any election may proceed.
The other anomaly of this tiny country the size of Rhode Island is that it has been the undoing of more than one invading army, as history will attest.
A few miles to the north of Beirut just before the town of Jounieh is the Dog River, or Nahr el-Kalb in Arabic. The 19-mile river thats runs from the famous Jeita Grottos to the Mediterranean Sea served as the demarcation line between Egypt and the Hittites in the 14th century B.C. At the mouth of the river where the coastal highway crosses the tiny river are a number of plaques, steles and monuments erected by past conquerors; they include Ramses II, Nebuchadnezzar and Marcus Aurelius, as well as mementos left by more recent visitors, modern-day armies of France and Great Britain.
Lebanon has been a land of contradictions because of its unique composition — 18 different religious confessions and with Christians holding much of the power in a region of the world overwhelmingly dominated by Islam.
Lebanon is also a country of contradictions where age-old myths are deconstructed in a manner similar in which one would debunk a child's fairy tale — except in Lebanon that construction is usually carried out in a manner involving utmost violence.
That was the case last week when clashes broke out in Beirut, leaving a trail of 34 dead and many more wounded and widening even more the political gap between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
The violence was between Sunni forces loyal to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora — backed by the United States, its Arab allies and France — as they face off against the powerful Shi'ite Hezbollah organization that receives financial, military, logistics, weapons and munitions and technical advisers from Iran and Syria.
In resorting to violence against their fellow Lebanese, something Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah publicly said he would never do, not only did Hezbollah renege on a promise, but shattered the age-old belief that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Last week's violence served to widen even more the political chasm already separating the various Lebanese parties has sadly proved that the sword, or more precisely in this case the AK47 assault rifle, accompanied by the odd rocket propelled grenade and a wild mob, can be mightier than the pen. At least for now, the final word is far from having been said in this latest dispute.
Indeed, the drastic events in the Lebanese capital last week amount to little more than strong-armed tactics to enforce censorship by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah and to silence a more liberal press opposed to their way of thinking.
The Shi'ite militias' very first action was to neutralize all media outlets belonging to the Future Movement, the political gathering loyal to Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
The targets included Future TV, al-Mustaqbal newspaper and other media outlets belonging to the Hariri group. Typical targets in any conventional coup d'etat. And if for the moment neither the Syrians nor the Iranians have left their footprint at the Dog River, Damascus and Tehran are aiming for far greater rewards than a plaque, a stele or an obscure monument to join other relics of the past.
Their aim is to leave their imprint on far more real estate than a stopover for tourists. Let us not be fooled by what is transpiring in Lebanon; the stakes are high, far higher than many people realize. At stake is democracy's only foothold in the Arab world.
It is imperative for the sake of the Free World that Lebanon regains its independence and becomes neither an Iranian or a Syrian colony.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.