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31.8.2016

Lebanon – History and Politics

Lebanon’s history and politics have been shaped by inner-state conflicts, often further stirred by the strategic interests of external actors. Since 2006 the country has been divided into two rivaling political camps. Political institutions have hardly been able to act since then. The armed conflict in neighboring Syria has contributed to a worsening of the situation.

A church and a mosque in Hamra, a part of Beirut. The very heterogeneous population of the Lebanon includes 18 recognized religious groups. (© picture-alliance/dpa, Rainer Jensen)


Lebanon is located on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, bordering Israel to the South and Syria to the East and North. It has nearly six million inhabitants. Its highly heterogeneous population includes 18 acknowledged religious groups, the largest being the Shiites and Sunnites, (nearly 30 percent each), followed by the Maronites (about 20 percent), Greek-Orthodox (a little under ten percent), Protestant and Armenian Christians (a little over five percent altogether) as well as the Druzes (about five percent). Up to the end of World War I, Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, the League of Nations issued France a mandate over Syria and Lebanon. Twenty-three years later, Lebanon gained independence.

Since 2006, the country has been politically divided into two almost equally strong camps defining themselves both politically and denominationally. The Sunni-dominated "March 14 Alliance" is oriented towards Saudi Arabia and its regional and Western allies, supports the revolution in Syria, is opposed to alleged Iranian expansion efforts and views Hezbollah as the greatest threat for democracy in Lebanon. The "March 8 Alliance" led by the Shiite Hezbollah (both alliances were named after their rivaling large-scale demonstrations in spring 2005) in turn sides with both Iran and the supposed "secular" regime of Baschar al-Assad in Syria. It is opposed to the putative US-strategy of reorganizing the region based on American and Israeli interests with the help of the regional powers Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The power conflict inside Lebanon is therefore directly linked to a hegemonic struggle of regional- and world-political importance, which cannot be solved autonomously by the Lebanese actors.

Since the conflicts began in neighboring Syria, more than a million Syrian refugees have been registered in Lebanon. Refugees probably account for over one quarter of the entire population of almost six million people living in Lebanon. On the other hand, after a century and a half of constant emigration caused essentially by internal conflicts and blocked transformation processes, the number of Lebanese or individuals of Lebanese origin living in diaspora has roughly tripled in comparison to the total of their compatriots in their homeland. The internal strife in Lebanon is mostly based on social and economic conflicts of interest and distribution, linked with denominational and religious differences, often further stirred up by strategic interests of external actors.

During the 19th century, Muslim Druze feudal lords responded to the emancipation efforts of Christian peasants by mobilizing Druze clan and denominational solidarity, resulting in an outbreak of violence in the year of 1860 that affected large parts of Lebanon and even reached Damascus, the capital of today's Syria. The majority of the overall 20,000 casualties were Christians.

This massacre alerted the European powers that had been acting increasingly as external patrons of the Middle Eastern (oriental) Christians in the 19th century. A military intervention led by France and backed up by England, Prussia, Austria and Russia put an end to the violence. This first "humanitarian intervention" in modern history was followed by lengthy negotiations. The European powers involved acted as advocates for the various denominational groups, yet at the same time they were mostly looking to secure their own interests in the unfolding dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The result was a statute of autonomy for the central Mountain area, guaranteed by the five European powers. A non-Lebanese, Catholic subject of the Ottoman Sultan was appointed as regent and an advisory body was appointed that consisted of designated representatives of the various religious and denominational groups. Under pressure from representatives of the Catholic-Maronite population majority, advocated in particular by France, the initially applied parity was replaced in 1864 by the principle of demographic proportionality (four Maronites, three Druze, two Greek-Orthodox Christians and one Greek-Catholic Christian as well as one Sunni Muslim and one Shiite Muslim each).

This partial autonomy, known by the French term "Reglement Organique", is said to be the foundational element of Lebanese statehood. Its core principles have been applied until today: power is shared and political representation is organized primarily among religious and denominational groups. This is based on a highly contentious demographic key. Since offices, jobs and social benefits as well as public investments are assigned according to the principle of religious-denominational proportion, economic and social allocation battles are always also religious conflicts. Lebanese domestic policy is closely linked to the regional balance of power, with the consequence that substantial change would only be possible in the wake of a significant shift in this balance. In most instances, this has involved violence.

Many Christians view Lebanon as the only refuge in the region where they do not have to submit to an overwhelming majority of Muslims. Christians long dominated Lebanon's politics and economy. Their social rise had also been favored by their connections to European powers and markets. When France took control over Lebanon and Syria at the end of World War I, the Maronite elite saw their chance to achieve permanent independence. Today's capital Beirut as well as additional areas in the North, South and East were incorporated into the autonomous area of 1861, thereby almost doubling the original territory.

This however led to a crucial flaw: The state originally planned as a Christian refuge ended up having merely a scant Christian majority. Both the large majority of Lebanese Muslims and many members of other Christian denominations were opposed to the separation from the neighboring territories of Syria and Palestine. Cultural, familial and economic attachments as well as Arab-Nationalist ambitions played a role in this. In addition, the Muslim elites saw themselves reduced from their position as a part of the dominating power during the Ottoman Empire to the status of a junior partner in a polity dominated by Christians. With the settlement of approx. 30,000 survivors of the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Lebanon also became a host country for refugees for the first time. In 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel and the resulting first Middle East war led to a new influx of more than 100,000 Palestinians.

During World War II, the chance to wrest away complete independence from the weakened colonial power France prompted Christian and Muslim leaders to set aside their differences, at least temporarily: the former waived the protection by foreign powers, the latter renounced aspirations for a union with Syria or another larger Arab state. Power and offices were distributed by proportional quota, which confirmed Christian domination. Yet, this historical compromise known as the "National Pact" was quickly challenged again. Many Lebanese Muslims embraced the pan-Arabic nationalism pursued by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and rebelled against the country's pro-Western orientation. Further motives for this rebellion were the continuing Christian domination, widely viewed as the result of the pro-Western foreign policy orientation, as well as social inequality. During the summer of 1958, a short civil war broke out which was ended by a US-military intervention. Subsequently, technocratic governments supported by military and secret services tried to decrease internal differences with an active development policy. This policy was aimed at encouraging a Lebanese national identity that would transcend denominational and religious boundaries and would supposedly reduce the fatal nexus between regional and internal conflicts.

However, due to the persistent opposition by economic and political elites and the pressure of the increasingly aggravating Middle East conflict, this integration attempt from above proved unsuccessful. Instead, a part of the Christian political elite tried to secure their privileged positions by allying themselves with non-Arabic powers (France, USA, Israel), while the country's Muslim communities were eager to push back Christian political predominance s through stronger integration into the Arab-Muslim region. They therefore championed an alliance with armed Palestinian organizations in order to forcibly achieve their objectives. The consequence was a civil war which broke out in 1975 and would not end for 15 years. Through regional and national intervention, this war developed quickly into a proxy conflict, during which one of the last chapters of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was played out.

It was not until the reorganization of the power balance in the region after 1990 that the Lebanese civil war could be settled. By agreement between the USA and Saudi Arabia, Lebanon’s neighbor Syria which had been deeply involved in this conflict, was assigned to restore peace in Lebanon. The "Document of National Accord" from 1989 established a moderate change in the denominational power balance in favor of the Lebanese Muslims. These institutional reforms put an end to Christian political predominance, taking into account the fact that Muslims meanwhile constituted a clear majority of the population. The document also stipulated further reforms aimed at putting the political order on a foundation of trans-denominational citizenship, which however have not been implemented to this day. Instead, an increasingly authoritarian system dominated by the leaders of the former civil war militias developed under the control of the Syrian occupation.

The growing commitment of the United States in the region following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 challenged the Syrian predominance. In spring 2005, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik El-Hariri led to mass protests, which forced the Syrian Army to withdraw within one month. However, this development was met with increasing resistance by the Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal, which viewed the estrangement from Syria as an orientation toward the United States, which in the long run would also lead to reconciliation with Israel. In a military confrontation in 2006, Hezbollah inflicted unexpected losses on the Israeli Defense Forces, despite the latter’s clear military superiority. Bolstered by this success, Hezbollah took on an uncompromising position in terms of its domestic policy and used their weapons against the Lebanese government for the first time in May 2008.

The political division into two rival groups has grown deeper since the conflict in Syria began. The Sunni-dominated "March 14 Alliance" followed the course of its external protector Saudi Arabia and supported the uprising in Syria politically, and, according to some reports, at least initially also militarily. Hezbollah, following the lead of its external ally Iran, intervened in the conflict fighting on the side of the Assad regime, covertly by the end of 2012, then openly as of spring 2013. Nonetheless, so far there has been no spillover of the conflict into Lebanon. Instead, both groups – in a sort of minimum consensus over security policy –support the Lebanese Army’s efforts to prevent the infiltration of Jihadi groups into the Lebanese-Syrian border region.

Beyond that, however, no political cooperation whatsoever is possible. Although Prime Minister Tammam Salam succeeded in building a "government of national unity" in February 2014, in which both groups hold a third of the ministerial positions each, the government only meets in situations of immediate necessity, and is otherwise paralyzed by reciprocal boycotts. The post of the President of the Republic has been vacant since the end of May 2014, and parliamentary elections which are overdue since summer 2013 cannot be held.

These blockades have paralyzed the political institutions in all areas where active governance would be required. For example, the exploration of gas fields discovered off the coast (which could restore the ailing state budget and the deficits in the energy sector) is on hold, and in the summer of 2015, political paralysis led to the collapse of the waste disposal system. These indirect effects of the conflict are exacerbated by the loss of markets in neighboring Syria, the loss of transit routes for goods as well as the significant decline in the number of tourists. The World Bank estimates that due to the war in Syria about 200,000 Lebanese have slid below the poverty line, and another 220,000-320,000 mostly young and low-qualified Lebanese have become unemployed. Particularly Lebanese people with low vocational qualifications are forced to compete with Syrian refugees on the (informal) labor market.
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Heiko Wimmen

Heiko Wimmen

(born in 1966) worked as a journalist between 1996 and 2002 and as a program manager at the Heinrich-Boell Foundation in Beirut (Lebanon) between 2004 and 2009. Between 2009 and 2013 he was as a researcher and project coordinator at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP, in Berlin, for which he has been working as a fellow ever since. Since 2014 he has been living in Cairo (Egypt).


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