Location: Eastern Mediterranean, 10,400 sq km in area
Population: 3.5 million (est. 1986)
Racial/religious groups: (est.) Christian: Maronite 900,000, Orthodox 250,000, Greek Catholic 150,000, other 50,000; Muslim: Sunni 750,000, Shi’ite 1,100,000, Druze 200,000; also Armenians 175,000, Palestinians 325,000, Syrians/Kurds 100,000
% of population: Christian: Maronite 25%, Orthodox 7.1%, Greek Catholic 4.3%, others 1.4%; Muslim: Sunni 21.4%, Shi’ite 31.4%, Druze 5.7%; Armenians 5%; Palestinians 9.2%; Syrians/Kurds
Language: Arabic

Lebanon is a country wholly composed of minorities, all strongly bound by ties of loyalty based on religious confession and kinship, and since 1975 divided by civil war. The most prominent of the various groups are the Maronites, Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Druzes.

The Maronites follow the monothelete doc-trine of the Maronite Church. As a result of persecution by the Byzantine Church its members retreated from Syria into the remoter part of Lebanon in the seventh century. In the thirteenth century the Maronites established relations with Rome and from the seventeenth century onward they developed an affinity for

Europe and particularly France, with the result that many Maronites still use French as their first language.

The Sunnis are believers in the Quran supplemented by the traditions of the Prophet as the sole repository of the faith. Sunni Islam has traditionally been the majority faith and the faith of government in Islamic countries, including the former Ottoman Empire.

The Shi’ites (also known as Shias and in Lebanon as Mutawila) are followers of the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law ’Ali. They believe in a succession of infallible Imams or religious leaders who were all members of the Prophet’s family and who interpreted the law and doctrine. It is believed that the Imams died out in the ninth century but the last Imam, the twelfth, will one day return to rule the world. Shi’ism is the established faith in Iran, and Lebanese Shi’ites have a continuing interest in events in that country.

The Druzes broke away from mainstream Shi’ism in the eleventh century. They believe that God is composed of several principles such as universal soul, universal intelligence and God in his unity, which all become incarnate in man. They are the followers of disciples of the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt who claimed to be the emanation of God in his unity. The Druzes also believe in supernatural hierarchies and the transmigration of the soul. They form a tight-knit community which maintains strict moral standards.

Until 1920 the term Lebanon was used to designate only the mountain range inhabited mainly by Maronites in the north and centre and by Druzes in the Shuf region. The country lay within the Ottoman empire, and until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries power within Lebanon was vested in the Druze nobility. Later the Maronite community came to the fore, largely as a result of inter-faction fighting among the Druzes. Relations between the two dominant communities were good until the 1930s when the region was briefly occupied by Egypt and then divided into separate areas. During the mid-nineteenth century notables in both groups were displaced by a Christian middle class which came to monopolize trade and had ties with Europe, especially France.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 Syria and Mount Lebanon were annexed by France despite earlier assurances by the Allies that Arab independence would be guaranteed. Syrian districts such as the ports of Tyre and Sidon, Tripoli and Beirut, which had previously been under Ottoman provincial administration, were annexed and became part of the Republic of Greater Lebanon. This act greatly increased the proportion of Muslims living in the Lebanon, both Sunni and Shi’ite, and antagonized all but the Maronite community.

The National Pact

In 1943 Lebanon gained independence from France and the Maronite President and Sunni Prime Minister reached a formal understanding which became known as the National Pact. This stipulated that power would be divided between the various groups as follows: The President would always be Maronite, the Prime Minister Sunni, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Shi’ite and the Deputy Speaker Greek Orthodox. The Greek Catholics and Druzes were to be represented in the Cabinet and seats in the Chamber were to be allotted proportionately to the sects, on the basis of six Christians to five Muslims, as were posts in the army and civil service. The Christian communities agreed not to seek protection agreements with the European powers, thereby threatening Lebanon’s independence, and the Muslims undertook to respect the religious and cultural links between the Christians and the West and not to attempt a merger with Lebanon’s Islamic neighbours. Although the National Pact was drawn up in an effort to divide power fairly between the minorities it had the effect of concentrating the real power within the two major communities. It also formalized the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics. The various factions depended almost entirely on respected families and individuals, and only the Maronite Kata’ib or Phalange party, founded by Pierre Gemayel, had a central organization and philosophy.

During the 1950s the effects of the revolution in Egypt and the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser were felt throughout the Middle East and brought about a surge of Arab nationalism. In 1958 Muslim leaders suspected President Camille Chamoun of manipulating the system in order to be re-elected. This led to demonstrations and riots by Muslims and Druzes, in some cases clearly Nasserist in tone. President Chamoun attempted to retain control with the help of US military intervention in 1958 but Christians and Muslims alike called for his resignation and he was replaced by General Shihab who as commander of the army had refused to become militarily involved in internal power struggles.

The 1960s saw the meteoric rise of Beirut as the banking centre of the Arab world, with the major part of the city’s wealth being created by Christian, Palestinian, Druze and Armenian entrepreneurs. Industry was undeveloped however, and agriculture was in decline; there was a great contrast between the prosperous regions and the more remote areas, where the economy stagnated. In stark contrast to the wealth of Beirut, the belt surrounding the city was a slum area inhabited largely by immigrant groups for whom the death rate and unemployment were two or three times higher than the national average; nevertheless Shi’ites from the south and Sunnis from the north flooded into the belt during the 1970s, compounding the problem of poverty and unemployment.

A further factor which contributed to the discontent in Lebanon was the influx of Palestinians, who arrived in three waves: the original refugees of 1948, those who fled the West Bank after the 1967 war, and those who arrived after the suppression of the Palestinian movement in the camps in Jordan in 1970-71. Of the 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, over 200,000 were registered with the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees); many of the remainder were illegal immigrants. Hostility towards the Palestinians was fuelled by the growing number of PLO raids across the border into Israel, especially after the 1967 war. Lebanese fears were justified as Israel began retaliatory attacks into Lebanon; there was however support for the PLO actions from many of the poorer members of the Shi’ite community in the suburbs of Beirut.

Civil war 1975-77

The civil war started in April 1975 with an attack on Palestinians by Kata’ib militia in the suburbs of Beirut and quickly developed into open conflict between rival militias, each fighting to ensure control of strategic points in Beirut. The main groups involved in the fighting were: (i) the Lebanese Front, three Maronite groups each led by a prominent Maronite family: The Kata’ib (Phalange), led by the Gemayel family; the National Liberation Party (Ahrar) led by the Chamoun family: the Zghorta Liberation Army, led by the Franjieh family; and (ii) the National Movement, largely made up of Muslim groups: the Progressive Socialist Party, a Druze organization led by Kemal Jumblat; the Syrian National Socialist Party, an Orthodox and Muslim group led by In’am Ra’d; the Murabitun (independent Nasserists), a Sunni group led by Ibrahim Qulaylat; the Lebanese Communist Party, a non-sectarian group led by George Hawi; the Ba’ath Socialist Party (Syria) led by Asim Qansuh; the Ba’ath Socialist Party (Iraq) led by Abd al Majid Rafi’i, and the Amal, a Shi’ite group led by Musa al Sadr.

Although many people — Muslim and Christian — did not hold extremist views and were not otherwise alienated by poverty, they were nevertheless unavoidably caught up in the conflict and were forced to align themselves to one group or the other; others left the country to escape the situation. With the entry of the PLO into the conflict in December 1975 the war assumed even more savage proportions, with both sides eliminating potentially hostile enclaves within their zone of control. Shi’ites, Syrians, Armenians, Kurds and Palestinians were all killed indiscriminately: it has been estimated that some 50,000 people died in the fighting, most of them non-combatants.

The Syrian government was determined to keep Lebanon within its sphere of influence, afraid of either a victory by the Christian Lebanese Front which would be friendly towards Israel or the radicals with Palestinian involvement, which would undoubtedly cause Israeli intervention. At the request of the Lebanese Front Syria intervened in April 1976 and then remained to enforce the peace at the request of the Arab League. It soon became apparent that there was no unity within the two sides and the various factions were now fighting each other. Gradually the situation developed into a struggle between three groups: the Lebanese Forces (LF), the National Movement incorporating the Palestinians, and the Syrians.

Israeli invasion, 1982

On June 6,1982 Lebanon was invaded by Israel. Within a few days the Israeli army had reached Beirut, and over 10,000 people, most of them civilians, had died. Syria was defeated and the Israelis faced the PLO and Nasserist Murabitun in Beirut. Here they were forced to a stop as a result of heavy casualties inflicted by the PLO. On August 19, the PLO also withdrew, with US guarantees for the safety of the Palestinian refugee camps and an Israeli undertaking not to enter West Beirut; these guarantees were not met however and US troops of the UNMNF withdrew as soon as the PLO had left West Beirut, leaving the city unprotected and open to the Israelis, who moved into the city a few days later. The Israeli government was determined to destroy the PLO and, it was believed, facilitate their annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the co-operation of the Lebanese Forces and the Kata’ib. The commander of the Lebanese Forces, Bashir Gemayel, was elected President of the Republic but was assassinated on September 14, within days of his election. Israeli troops moved into West Beirut and a company of Lebanese Forces entered Sabra and Shatila camps where they are reported to have killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people, half of them Lebanese.

The shock and outrage that followed the massacres, both within Israel and internationally, led to the signing of a Withdrawal Agreement by Lebanon and Israel on May 17, 1983, and an Israeli retreat to the Awali river. The US, which had supported the Lebanese Army, although always emphasizing US neutrality, was widely mistrusted by the Muslim population and a series of suicide truck bombs directed against US targets caused nearly 300 deaths and led to the withdrawal of the American presence in Lebanon. The Israelis were replaced in Beirut by the mainly Christian-controlled Lebanese Army which began to round up and arrest members of the Palestinian community and others who lived in the shanty areas. This action fuelled Muslim anger and by July the army was engaged in armed conflict with the Shi’ites, soon compounded by battles with the Amal and Sunni Murabitun following a visit to Beirut by the Israeli Defence Minister.

The Israeli Army now began a series of retreats southward. They withdrew abruptly from the Gharb and the Shuf areas without any warning to the Lebanese Army. This sudden action threw the region into chaos. Israel had allowed the Christian Kata’ib and Lebanese Forces into the Shuf, traditional homeland of the Druzes, in the previous year, and the Kata’ib had separated the Jumblat and Yazbak factions of the Druze population and had reportedly committed atrocities in Kfar Matta. The Israeli withdrawal left the Druzes free to drive the Kata’ib out of the region which they did with an overall loss of some 600 lives, and a further 75,000 Christians who were not connected with the Kata’ib fled the Shuf. The Druzes drove the Maronite forces from all but a narrow coastal strip in Iqlim and by February 1984 the Lebanese army had also been driven out of West Beirut and Gemayel’s predominantly Maronite government had resigned.

As the Israeli army retreated it rounded up hundreds of suspects in the Palestinian camps around Tyre and Sidon, moving many to a camp at Ansar. Attacks on the Israeli troops became more frequent, and popular demonstrations against the Israeli occupation were put down. Leaders suspected of encouraging armed resistance were imprisoned or killed and homes of resistance suspects were destroyed. In the face of growing opposition from the Muslims Israel coerced members of the various communities into collaborating, and also organized the formation of the South Lebanese Army (SLA) which soon gained a reputation for the brutal harassment of Palestinians and other opponents of Israel. In February 1985 the Israeli army withdrew from Sidon and at the same time launched its “Iron Fist operation”, a sweeping attack on Lebanese villages between the Ajrani and Litani rivers, in which many died. Having then withdrawn the bulk of its troops Israel left 1,000 men inside Lebanese territory as support for the South Lebanese Army.

Syrian influence

The Syrian government, which had rejected the Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal Agreement of May 1983, quickly took advantage of the overthrow of the Maronite-dominated government by the Druzes and the Shi’ites to assemble its allies. Syria pressured Gemayel into forming a new government incorporating these allies, who included Sulayman Franjieh, the Maronite with closest relations with Syria; Walid Jumblat of the Druzes; Rashid Karami of the Sunni Tripoli and Nabih Berri of Amal. With the ousting of the Lebanese forces from the Shuf and the Lebanese Army from West Beirut the Muslims were in a strong position to negotiate with the Christians. Gemayel’s government collapsed and a meeting of the Lebanese factional leaders in Geneva resulted in a significant rewording of the 1943 National Pact. Rather than “An Arab country with a Western aspect” Lebanon was now described as an Arab country and founding member of the Arab League, with all the obligations that such membership entails. The participants also agreed to the ratio of Christian and Muslim representation in parliament being altered to 1:1 rather than the 6:5 stipulated in the National Pact. Little more was decided however, and talks in Lausanne did not result in a peace agreement.

By now tension was mounting within both sides. The Druzes attacked the Sunni Murabitun in West Beirut, driving them out of key positions. In this they were probably encouraged by Syria, as both feared that the Murabitun were assisting the PLO to rebuild a power base in the refugee camps. Disagreements within the Shi’ite community were also becoming evident, with Husain Musawi’s Islamic Amal — a splinter group of Berri’s Amal — and an Iranian Shi’ite faction becoming mutually hostile. In May 1985 Amal, encouraged by Syria, moved against the Palestinian camps in Beirut and a savage battle ensued in which Amal and the Shi’ite sixth Brigade committed atrocities similar to those carried out in the same camps by the Lebanese Forces in 1982. The Palestinians held on to Burj al Barajneh but lost most of Sabra/Shatila. The Shi’ites of south Lebanon condemned Bern’s action as did the Hizballah and Iran, and Berri lost his strong position within the Shi’ite community. Tension was high too within the Christian communities, between those who accepted Syria’s strength in Lebanon and hoped to hold the Christian militias and the office of President together, and those who wished to cantonize the country and minimize Syrian influence. Since Fuad Abi Nader, a relative of Gemayel, had taken command of the Lebanese Forces in October 1984, they had been more amenable to Syria, but this displeased many within the forces and a revolt led by Samia Geagea resulted in an attack on Sunni Sidon and the Christian refugee camps. After three weeks Druze, Sunni, Palestinian and Sh’ia forces with Syrian backing counter-attacked seizing much of the region and causing its almost total abandonment by the Christian population which numbered about 70,000.

Samia Geagea was replaced by Elie Hobeiqa who had commanded the Lebanese Forces in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Hobeiqa publicly acknowledged Syria’s prime role in the conflict and on December 28, 1985 he joined Berri and Jumblat in signing an agreement calling for the secularization of Lebanon’s political life, the passing of considerable powers from the President to the Prime Minister and the dis-bandment of the militias. This agreement, signed in Damascus, was to have formed the basis for a new constitution but it was immediately rejected by other groups which had not been consulted and Hobeiqa was ousted by Samia Geagea with the support of President Gemayel, thus ending any possibility for its implementation.

Violence increases 1986-88

After the collapse of the Damascus Agreement the situation in Lebanon deteriorated still further. There was a festering power struggle within the Maronite camp between Gemayel and Geagea and the Sunni community was in a weak position having lost Beirut which until recently was a quintessentially Sunni city. The Shi’ites were potentially very powerful but they were riven by disunity and in many southern areas Berri’s Amal had been displaced by fundamentalist Hizballahis and others who drew inspiration from Iran, and whose visionary ideology represented a real threat to less idealistic rivals and to all other factions. Only the Druzes were well placed; Jumblat remains unchallenged although he continues to call for a secular democratic state in which the Druzes, with only 7% of the population, would lose power. The Druzes have established a “United Investment Enterprise” for Druze-controlled areas, to support investment in productive enterprise. The purpose of this is partly to find employment for militiamen before they turn to crime.

In May and June 1986 there were clashes between the Amal and Druze militias on the one hand and the Palestinians in the refugee camps of south Beirut. These developed into the “battle of the camps” in which hundreds died, although it also revived world sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Although there was some relaxation of restrictions earlier, Amal’s siege did not end until January 1988. By mid-1986 there was a new outburst of violence in Beirut with car bombings taking a toll of over 200 dead and 600 wounded in two weeks, while President Gemayel began to lose support among the military. The cabinet of “National Unity” had failed to meet since January but Gemayel indicated that he would consider a new formula for dividing power by calling a special parliamentary session, although nothing eventuated from this initiative.

Violence continued throughout 1987 which was also noted for the dramatic decline in the Lebanese economy when inflation reached over 700%. The two Shi’ite rivals Amal and Hizballah continued to fight their proxy war for control of the Shia population on behalf of their respective backers — Syria and Iran — not only by military means but by the provision of social services and community support. Although Hizballah was rich, Amal controlled a much larger area. From February 1988 there was a new attempt by Amal to reassert control in the south and there was fighting in April in southern Lebanon, only ended by intervention by Shi’ite clerics from both sides. Fighting between the two groups broke out again in the Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut in May and by the end of the month over 260 people had been killed and 1,100 wounded while half the population of half-a-million who had lived in the 40 square kilometre enclave had fled. There was also continuing fighting between Christian groups.

By May also Israeli troops had returned to Lebanon in greater numbers than at any time since 1985, and carried out “Operation Law and Order” with the SLA in south Lebanon, searching, raiding and sometimes destroying villages. Israeli air raids also took place over various areas of Lebanon. Israeli actions have continued in the SLA dominated areas for over two years, including an international crisis precipitated by the kidnapping of a Hizballah cleric in August 1989. Although not widely covered by the international media, there were steady and reliable reports of forced conscription of villagers into the SLA army, financed by the Israelis. For ordinary Shia villagers life became a nightmare as they were torn between fears of collaborating with any of the factions — and yet most were prevented from leaving the area while others were forcibly expelled. UN UNIFIL troops were unable to stop such violations taking place.

Military rule and the bombardment of Beirut

Gemayel’s six year term as President expired on September 23, 1988, but since the Lebanese parliament failed to elect a successor, a military government took control, led by the Maronite Christian general Michel Aoun and comprising Christian and Muslim senior officers. Amid fears of a new civil war and imminent partition, Muslim factions refused to accept the Aoun government and the Geagea (LF) quietly swallowed the Phalange of ex-President Gemayel. In effect Lebanon was without a central government, partitioned into Christian and Muslim mini-states, a position that was confirmed in October when the Parliament failed to elect a new Speaker.

At first General Aoun gained a measure of support from all communities by his stated intention of disbanding all militias. He engaged in a war with the LF of Geagea and attempted to end the LF mini-state north of Beirut. His apparent success in this on February 24, 1989 brought him cautious support from West Beirut’s Muslim communities, the Green Line crossings began to re-open and the Lebanese pound gained in value. But Aoun’s intentions to disband the Muslim militias and his declaration of a “War of Liberation” against occupying Syrian forces soon alienated Muslims and the Syrians, whom the Muslims had seen mainly in the role of protectors. On March 8,1989 Aoun began shelling and rocketing Syrian strongholds, treatment which was soon returned in kind by the Syrians and their allies, the Muslims and the Druzes. The continued bombing turned an already battered Beirut into a ghost city — within three weeks there were 156 killed and 700 injured; by early August the figures were 530 dead and 2,000 injured. Beirut had been reduced to rubble and over 1.3 million Beirutis of all religious persuasions had fled to safety elsewhere in Lebanon or to neighbouring countries; less than 15% of the population remained. Murderous nightly bombings continued with neither side showing a willingness to either cease fire, surrender or compromise.

The future of Lebanon

By August 1989 Lebanon appeared not only to be in the process of disbandment but of depopulation and physical ruin. International mediation efforts to find a workable solution had failed. The Arab League had from late 1988 opened talks to prevent the formal partition of the country and to bring together warring communities but these failed. Another effort was made in May 1989 but this also failed and on July 31 the Arab League admitted that they had reached a “dead end”. Mediation and humanitarian efforts by western powers such as France were seen as partisan towards the Christian community, but the UN Secretary-General fared no better. It was not until September that an Arab League Peace Plan was accepted by both sides. The bombardment of Beirut ceased and the population began to return.

Various proposals have been put forward for the future of Lebanon; a unitary state, a federal system, a Swiss canton-type federation on religious lines, a break-up into a series of new states, dismemberment and rule by the surrounding countries. Many wealthy or professional Lebanese have left, probably for good, but for the poor this is unlikely to be an option. Lebanon has many advantages of location and resources; whether it is now too late to regain these remains to be seen.

(See also Palestinians)