05/23/2012 05:23 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Good Guys and Bad Guys in Lebanon

It is still not evident if the fighting that erupted in Lebanon Sunday night comes as a result of the ongoing violence in neighboring Syria.

This latest spat of violence comes on the heels of clashes in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli between Sunni and Alawites and was sparked after Lebanese Army soldiers shot and killed a prominent Sunni religious leader in the remote region of the Akkar.

Trying to explain the intricacies of the Lebanese quagmire is never a simple matter, especially to someone not well-versed in politics. And politics here tends to be so convoluted that it is often confusing even to those who should know but are at times in the dark, while those without a clue pontificate ad nuseam.

For example, at the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 France dispatched a high-ranking envoy to help mediate between the warring factions. The Lebanese had pinned all their hopes on this envoy, receiving him with honors typically reserved for a visiting head of state. The country was expecting nothing short of a miracle. The French envoy asked a journalist he had worked with previously to stop by his hotel later that evening. Thinking he would get an insider's story the reporter dropped by the French diplomat's room only to be asked for a briefing from the special envoy.

"I know nothing about this mess," he admitted. "Could you be so kind as to enlighten me?" Yet any Beirut taxi driver will offer unsolicited advise on how to solve the crisis and its associated issues.

Perhaps it would be easier to explain Lebanon's political problems in very simple terms along the lines favored by former U.S. Pres. George W. Bush: "There are good guys and then there are bad guys."

As you might expect the first question is, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Well, there really is no straightforward answer. Its all relative. Who the good or bad guys are depends entirely on which side of the political-religious-ethnic-sectarian-tribal clan or family group you happen to find yourself. For the most part in Lebanon one does not choose which party-religion-ethnicity-sectarian-tribal-etc., one belongs to. One is born into that political/religious unit, and for the most part remains there most of one's life.

If you are born Shiite, for example, there are very good chances you will remain as such all of your life. There are also very good chances that the person you marry will be from that same denomination and that your children will be raised accordingly. You will be represented by members of parliament who share the same religion as you. Indeed, there are very little chances that if you are born a Shiite in Lebanon that you would convert to another religion or sect or marry outside your faith.

The same holds true for the other 17 religions and sects that make up the cultural mosaic that is Lebanon. That is not to say there are no marriages across those lines; they do happen but they are few and most of the time frowned upon by the families concerned.

So when a friend asked me to explain what was going on in Lebanon I explained it as follows:

There are good guys and there are bad guys. The good guys are fighting to defend their interests, fearful of the bad guys who want to take the entire cake. They don't want to share and are afraid of the other side.

"So," asked my friend, a Sunni Muslim, "that means the Shiites, Hezbollah are the bad guys, right?"

"No, not right. To you they may be the bad guys but to the Shia, they would be the good guys." I added: "You see, they are both good guys and they are all bad guys at the same time. Furthermore the clashes in Beirut was between Sunnis and did not involve Hezbollah, or the Shia."

"But the fighting in Tripoli was between Sunni and Shia. Correct?"

"No, it was between Sunni and Alawites (who are an off-shoot of Shiism)."

Confused? You should be. Heck, even the fighters are confused and most of them probably have no clear idea what they are fighting for, other than the defense of their political-religious-ethnic-sectarian-tribal-clan-or family group. Or simply because their leaders told them to do so.

Here is another explanation. Lebanon, and what is transpiring here today is tied to what is going on in Syria and in the rest of the region. Lebanon has always been a battleground for diverging philosophies and ideas. Going as far back as the days of Alexander the Great, Lebanon has been a transit point to where foreign armies converged.

What is happening here today is an extension of the Syrian conflict, but at the same time the country is also seeing the effects of the emergence of a new form of Islamist militancy that is seeing the day in Lebanon and throughout the region. Some of it has taken root in the dozen Palestinian refugee camps where a political void was created when the Palestine Liberation Organization left.

At the same time each community is fighting to retain what it believes is its rightful place in the social-economic-political power base. As long as Lebanon continues to recognize its citizens according to their various affiliations rather than simply as Lebanese, these sorts of problems will continue to emerge and haunt the country and its people. And as long as the people continued to identify themselves according to their religious and political affiliations first, such problems will remain.

In a nutshell this is the problem affecting Lebanon today. And if you are still confused let me leave you with this very wise advice given by the French ambassador to Lebanon: "If you think you have understood the Lebanese problem it means that it was badly explained to you."

Claude Salhani is a journalist and political analyst focusing on Middle East Issues and terrorism. He is the author of several books, including Islam Without a Veil. He tweets @claudesalhani.