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Lebanon's Challenge: Rebalancing Power

AT the core of Lebanon's 14-year-old civil conflict is the Muslim demand for more power. The unwritten National Pact adopted in 1943, when Lebanon achieved independence from France, divided up political power among Lebanon's 17-odd religious sects.

The distribution was based on a 1932 census which showed that members of Christian sects constituted a slight majority.

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The largest Christian group, the Maronites, hold such key posts as the presidency and the command of the Army and security forces.

The position of prime minister is the preserve of the Sunni Muslim community, while the speakership of the parliament - technically the second-ranking office behind the presidency - belongs to the Shiite Muslims. Other top jobs, including senior civil service posts, are also distributed along sectarian lines. Seats in parliament are allocated on a 6-to-5 ratio to the Christians.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue, no new census has been made. But it is widely believed that the Christians have lost their majority status, and that the Shiite Muslims have become the biggest single sect out of an estimated population of more than 3 million.

With their roots in the rural provinces, the Shiites are also the most underprivileged community, wielding little real political power in the traditional system. Only with the rise of Amal in the late 1970s and Hizbullah in the 1980s did they find vehicles for their political aspirations.

Most observers believe that a fairer deal for the Shiites in particular must be a key element in any new power-sharing accord.

Proposals for political reform have been agreed but never enacted, usually because of resistance from hard-line Christian elements. Most recently, a Syrian-sponsored accord was torpedoed in January 1986 on the grounds that it ate too deeply into Christian prerogatives and accorded Syria too much influence.

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