Country Listing

Lebanon Table of Contents



Figure 1. Administrative Divisions

BY THE LATE 1980S, a new term had entered the vocabulary of the popular press--"Lebanonization," a term used to refer to a wide range of political, social, and economic situations whose resolution appeared intractable. Because of Lebanon's deeply complicated ills, which included political factionalization, societal chaos, and economic fragmentation, the term could reasonably be applied to almost any problematic condition anywhere in the world.

What "Lebanonization" failed to denote adequately, however, was the tragedy and suffering of the Lebanese people. As of late 1987, estimates indicated that as many as 130,000 people had lost their lives during civil turmoil, which probably had inflicted at least twice that number of casualties and forced thousands of individuals from their homes. Figures could not show the impact these problems had on the national psyche. By the spring of 1988, Lebanon had experienced nearly continuous warfare of varying levels of intensity for thirteen years, and an entire generation had yet to know peace.

Beginning in the darkest days of the Civil War in 1975 and 1976, tragic events followed almost without interruption. The litany of misfortune includes the Israeli thrust into southern Lebanon in search of Palestinian guerrillas in 1978, the intra- Christian battles of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the deeper Israeli invasion in 1982, the massacres by Christian militiamen of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982, the intra-Palestinian clashes of 1983, the fighting in the Shuf Mountains between the Lebanese Army and Druze (see Glossary) militia in 1983 and 1984, the suicide bombings of installations belonging to Western governments in 1983-84, the Amal siege of Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut from 1985 to 1988, and the internecine Shia (see Glossary) Muslim battles of 1988.

In spite of this turmoil, anarchy was a fairly recent phenomenon in Lebanon. Before the Civil War the nation was often regarded as one of only a few truly modernizing Middle Eastern states, and its government was considered a model of pluralism. Some observers regarded Beirut as the jewel of the Arab world, a cosmopolitan city in which Christian and Muslim communities peacefully coexisted. These positive appearances notwithstanding, there were deep--and ominous--divisions in society. Many observers claim that these divisive forces have origins at least centuries old; others believe that the sources of these forces can be traced back even further, perhaps as long ago as ancient times.

As in much of the contemporary Middle East, the area occupied by present-day Lebanon has changed hands frequently (see fig. 1). The Phoenicians, the region's first known inhabitants, were a seafaring people with a penchant for commerce, a cultural trait that has continued through the centuries. But Lebanon's location on the Mediterranean Sea and its bountiful resources, although assets to the Phoenicians, also proved to be liabilities, as they were coveted by a succession of expansionary empires. Before the Christian era, Lebanon was conquered by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, although it enjoyed brief periods of independence (see Ancient Times , ch. 1).

In addition to the sea, Lebanon's mountainous terrain has figured prominently in its history. The land's mountains, hills, and valleys provided isolated sanctuaries for a variety of people; some sought escape from repression, while others sought the unfettered practice of their religions. Over the centuries the mountains' geographic remoteness has allowed groups such as Druzes and Maronites (see Glossary) to maintain age-old customs and practices.

From ancient times through the Ottoman era to the colonial era, the present-day states of Lebanon and Syria, along with parts of other states, often have been regarded as one area termed Greater Syria (see Glossary). And, as this name suggests, Syria has played an influential role in the history of the area. Lebanon and Syria have been linked socially and economically, but especially politically. For example, following the Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century A.D., the Arab caliph Muawiyah ruled the entire area from his capital at Damascus. Later, under the Ottoman Empire, the pasha, or governor, of Damascus controlled Lebanon through a number of amirs, or princes. After World War I and the defeat of the Ottomans, the Allies granted France mandate authority over both Lebanon and Syria. In the 1980s, Syrian influence in Lebanon persisted because Syria had taken on the role of power broker and was viewed by some observers as the one actor that could bring about peace.

Unlike the populations of many Third World nations that have experienced strife because of racial or ethnic divisions, Lebanon's population is ethnically homogeneous. It is overwhelmingly Arab, and its people speak a common language--Arabic. Lebanon's many conflicts have been the result of sectarianism and political differences. Disputes based on sectarianism were evident as long ago as the 1840s, when Druzes and Maronites clashed in Mount Lebanon (see Glossary). Over the years, confessionalism (see Glossary) has become more firmly entrenched, as individuals have come to identify with sect and clan rather than with national interest. Modernization and urbanization, which weakened traditional social systems and increased social alienation, contributed to the rise of sectarianism (see Sectarianism , ch. 2). Moreover, the confessional system became legitimated by the National Pact of 1943, which allocated political offices according to sect (see The National Pact , ch. 4). In the 1970s and 1980s, the consequences of the fragmentation of society became clear, as a multitude of groups clashed. But in Lebanon's ever-changing social milieu, today's opponent might become tomorrow's ally.

Before the 1975 Civil War, Lebanon enjoyed a flourishing economy (see Recent Economic History , ch. 3). Tourism, commerce, and other service sectors were all booming. Beirut's banks held large balances of foreign capital, mostly in the form of remittances from expatriates and deposits from West European and Persian Gulf states. As a transshipment point for goods coming from or going to a variety of Arab countries, the government reaped considerable revenues from import and export duties.

Lebanon's wealth, however, was inequitably distributed, much of it concentrated in the hands of a small, predominantly Christian, elite in Beirut. In the opinion of some observers, this maldistribution of wealth contributed significantly to the outbreak of civil strife and the subsequent devastation of the economy.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, armed conflict and geographic fragmentation kept the economy in ruins. The government, although not bankrupt, was unable to collect sufficient revenues to maintain services and thus was forced to incur huge deficits. Rampant inflation spawned a large-scale black market, industry was almost moribund, and the once-thriving tourism sector was dead. Banks were still functioning, but at greatly diminished levels. Agricultural production, although reduced, continued in areas unaffected by the violence; in some cases, food crops were replaced by hashish and opium. Finally, reconstruction efforts, involving funding by Arab institutions and Western donors, had little impact because calm could not be maintained long enough to allow the implementation of programs.

Lebanon's political structure often was cited by analysts as contributing to hostilities. Political participation was not only circumscribed for all segments of society by the traditional power- broker system, called zuama (sing., zaim--see Glossary) clientelism, but this system also awarded undue power to Maronites (see Zuama Clientelism, ch. 4). The allocation of seats in the legislature, called the Chamber of Deputies, was based on the 1932 census, which counted Christians to Muslims in a six- to-five ratio, and by custom the presidency was set aside for a Maronite, the prime ministry for a Sunni (see Glossary) Muslim, and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies for a Shia. But as the population makeup changed, Muslims--especially Shias--clamored for greater representation and for reform to reduce the powers of the president; some groups advocated the wholesale restructuring of the political system. After the events of the mid-1970s, the system collapsed, and those parts that continued to function no longer resembled the prewar form. Political power was usurped by sectarian militias or external actors, especially Syria and, after 1982, Israel (see Sectarian Groups ; Syria ; Israel , ch. 4). In mid-1988 the executive controlled only a small area around the Presidential Palace, the Council of Ministers seldom convened (and, in any case, did not cooperate with the president), and a new Chamber of Deputies had not been elected since 1972. Although reform of the system had been discussed over the years, the multitude of power centers espousing opposing ideologies prevented any meaningful change.

By the late 1970s, the term national security, in the commonly understood sense of providing internal security and national defense, could no longer be applied to the Lebanese Armed Forces. In the prewar years, efforts were made to keep the armed forces out of politics, and, for the most part, those efforts succeeded. But during the violence of the mid-1970s, the armed forces fragmented along sectarian lines. In the late 1980s, as only the sixth or seventh most powerful military organization in the country, the armed forces were unable to fulfill their stated missions. In areas where security did exist, it was often the result of a sectarian militia imposing its authority.

The fragment of the state continued in September 1988 when, after several failed attempts at convening, the Chamber of Deputies announced that it was unable to elect an new president. Before leaving office, however, President Amin Jumayyil (also spelled Gemayel) appointed the commander of the Lebanese Army, Major General Michel Awn (also spelled Aoun), to head an interim military government. Although he attempted to incorporate non-Christian sects into his cabinet, Muslims quickly renounced the move, and Salim al Huss (also spelled Hoss), the acting prime minister under Jumayyil, formed his own cabinet. Thus, with separate Christian and Muslims governments in place, and with intersectarian and intrasectarian disputes as common and as fierce as ever, prospects for peace seemed remote in early 1989.

February 17, 1989
Thomas Collelo

Data as of December 1987

Country Listing

Lebanon Table of Contents