Lebanon at the Brink: Failures in the Arab World's Only Democracy

by Christopher Muth
February 7th, 2020

Lebanon's political system has been mired by mass protests in recent months, with demonstrators calling for the ousting of the country's political elite that have held power since the end of Lebanon's civil war. What does the country's history tell us about the country's current state of affairs?

The major political actors of Lebanon are products of the country’s unique demographics, reflecting two major social determinants: religion and ideology, with the former having a significant effect upon the latter. This piece will accomplish two tasks: provide an account of Lebanon’s political history, paying special attention to the 1975-90 civil war and will detail a number of the key political actors that continue to shape Lebanon’s politics and foreign relations post-civil war; theorize the causes of the weakness of Lebanon’s central government.

Lebanon’s pre-1990 political and economic system allowed long-term fissures to develop between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim populations. With significant privileges provided to only a section of the population, this division fostered the growth of nationalist and confessionalist ideologies and political groups. Contemporary political and economic currents within the region ensured that Lebanese and Palestinian Arab Muslims expressed a high degree of sympathy toward ideologically nationalist non-state actors present within the country seeking to change Lebanon’s political system in pursuit of nationalist political goals. The long-term employment of exclusive, nationalistic ideology by both Christian and Muslim groups heightened the risk of violent confrontation between the confessional groups. Furthermore, the Beirut government’s consistent failure to assert its authority over the proliferation of nationalist non-state actors allowed regional and international powers to influence political events within Lebanon by creating and supporting politically-aligned proxies to advance foreign interests in an already-volatile political climate, further weakening Beirut’s control over the country’s internal politics and governance. In short, nationalist political tensions, combined with unabated non-state actors’ activities as well as the influence of external actors on internal politics, greatly weakened the power of the Lebanese state and contributed to the outbreak of civil war and subsequent military occupation after the end of the war.


Independence and Civil Strife

Demographically, Lebanon is divided into three main religious groups: over half of the population practices Islam, roughly forty percent practice Christianity, and most of the remaining population practices the syncretic Druze faith. Significant demographic divisions exist within the major religious groups. The Muslim population is split roughly evenly between Sunni and Shia. Lebanon’s Christians mainly adhere to one of four major denominations: Maronite Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Melkite Catholicism, and Protestantism, with the Maronite comprising the greatest percentage of Lebanese Christians.

Lebanon’s pre-civil war political system was a holdover from the French colonial era. As much, this system afforded significant political privilege to the Maronite Christians. Written for the French Mandate of Greater Lebanon in 1922 and kept after Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the constitution allowed the president, a typically Maronite-held position, to personally appoint and oversee the affairs of the Prime Minister, a typically Sunni-held position. Accordingly, the National Pact was established to prevent sectarian infighting and nominally prevent the domination of the country by one particular ethnic group. Even to this day, the unwritten agreement requires that each significant position in the government be held by a member of Lebanon’s major ethnic and religious groups. In practice, however, Lebanon’s political structure granted the Maronite president nearly-unparalleled executive and legislative authority, allowing their position to be used to benefit their ethno-religious group. Specifically, the individual could direct investment from foreign and domestic interests to fellow ethnic group members and Maronite-dominated industries. On a regional scale, Lebanon’s political and economic elite positioned their country as the intermediary between the booming economies of the West and the entirety of the Arabian hinterland, enriching themselves even further in the process.

Tensions between the Maronite-dominated government and the country’s Muslim population escalated as Muslims began to find the political structure that privileged the Maronites increasingly unacceptable. The progression towards a staunchly pro-Western political position allowed the Lebanese government to form significant economic and political ties to the United States and its allies. As a result of the deepening Western interests in the country, nationalist ideologies spread among the country’s Muslims, who began to pressure the government to adopt a more pro-Arab economic and foreign policy. The Christians, conversely, pressed for continued alignment with the West. 

Most significantly, this period of Middle Eastern history saw the development and spread of Arab nationalism. By the late 1950s, the West-versus-Arab conflict extended into the upper levels of the government. Muslim Prime Minister Rashid Karami actively pushed for integration into the United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria. Maronite President Chamile Chamoun, meanwhile, remained open to the prospect of Lebanon joining the Baghdad Pact, an alliance of conservative, pro-Western Arab states intended to be a bulwark against nascent Arab nationalist ideology spreading across the region. Political parties with vehemently anti-Western, Arab nationalist ideologies began to ascend to prominence as Maronite parties doubled down on nationalist ideology of their own; by 1958, ethnic and political tensions between Christians and Muslims had grown to a fever pitch, threatening to plunge the country into civil war. 

The United States, believing a potential reversal in Lebanon’s political alignment to be contrary to their regional interests, opted to intervene in support of the Maronite-dominated government. Lebanese and American forces occupied several key infrastructure sites in and around Beirut to restore order to the country. Additionally, they sought to protect President Chamoun’s authority against internal opposition and perceived threats from Syria and Egypt. Nationalist sentiment and a decidedly anti-Western political bend continued to spread among the country’s Muslims in the wake of the American intervention. This threatened to further upend the increasingly weak, pro-Western, Maronite-controlled government and the delicate socio-politico-economic order of the country upon which the government and Maronite ruling classes relied for their privileged status.


Escalation and Conflict

With rising nationalist tensions established as one explanation for state weakness, perhaps the greatest shock to the Lebanese political system that provided the impetus for further degradation of state authority and eventual civil war came from the country’s south. Lebanon’s already-delicate political system was pushed to the brink of collapse beginning in 1948 with the influx of 120,000 Arab Muslim refugees into Lebanon following their flight and subsequent expulsion from Palestine after Israel’s foundation. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged as a major player in Lebanese politics; their popularity among Palestinian refugees (who by that point comprised 12% of Lebanon’s population) unnerved the conservative Maronite political establishment. At the same time, the Sunni Arab sectors of the population began to demonstrate nationalistic sympathy for the Palestinian cause in the wake of the Six Day War. Much to the Lebanese government’s dismay, the PLO would use Lebanon as a base for attacks on northern Israel which would in turn invite Israeli retaliatory attacks on the country’s south. As a result of the Beirut’s failure to effectively control the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the group would continue to gain political influence and military strength. Increasingly, Maronite political groups began to view Israel as a partner in their efforts to curb the growing power of the Palestinians and their militias, inviting their countermeasures against the PLO and further weakening Beirut’s control over the rapidly spiralling political and military situation. The extreme concentration of wealth and political power among the Maronite elite and growing strength of extragovernmental militias continued to inflame nationalist political sentiment among Lebanon’s Muslim population. Eventually, liberal politics would be abandoned in favor of a purely realist approach: the acquisition of power through strength. 

Beginning in 1975, armed conflict between right-wing Maronite militias and the PLO erupted after a series of Maronite protests against the presence of Palestinian refugees in the country turned violent. The protests were conducted with the assistance of a major Maronite-dominated political party: Kataeb, the Lebanese Phalangist Party. Despite its outwardly nonsectarian stance, Kataeb attracts much of its support from the Maronite population. It espouses an ideology known as Phoenician nationalism, which contends that the Lebanese nation is distinct from and superior to the majority Arab and Muslim populations of Lebanon’s neighboring states. As a result, the group’s is historically popular among non-Muslim Lebanese. The exclusivity of Kataeb’s ideology drove the group’s opposition to the presence of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, insisting that the status quo socio-political arrangements, which work to privilege the Maronite population, serve the whole Lebanese nation the best. The extensive use of exclusive nationalist ideology only heightened tensions to an irreparable point, ensuring that the conflict between primarily Muslim and primarily Christian political factions would concern the very makeup of the Lebanese nation.

Shortly after the outbreak of conflict between the Maronite and Palestinian camps, leftist, Arab nationalist, and Islamist political groups and their related militias formed an alliance with the PLO to counter the actions of the Maronite forces. A massacre of Palestinian civilians aboard a bus in central Beirut carried out by a Maronite militia spurred riots across the city. As such, the neighborhoods of Beirut divided along sectarian lines. Further Maronite atrocities against Palestinian civilians only begot further outbreaks of organized violence between the rapidly proliferating militia groups as the burgeoning conflict spiralled out of the government’s control. These events mark the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and would kill nearly 150,000 people by its end, displace over one million civilians, and led to the upending the country’s pre-existing political system.

Throughout the civil war, alliances shifted rapidly and unpredictably. Each actor experienced varying periods of strength and weakness as many remained dependent upon foreign backers for arms, funding, and political support. Significant alliances formed during the war between domestic and foreign powers. Israel and Syria separately invaded Lebanon in support of Christian and Shi’a militias, respectively. As well, global powers became directly involved in the civil war: the United States and France intervened in support of the fractured Lebanese government, while Iran intervened in support of the PLO as well as Iran’s future proxy Hezbollah. The involvement of external actors in the war serves not only as a testament to the nature of power politics in the region, but also as an indicator of how weak the Lebanese state had become. It had otherwise become effectively impossible for Beirut to control the country’s internal affairs.


Rebuilding Lebanon

The war came to an end in 1990 with the adoption of the Taif Agreement which confirmed a new co-confessional basis for the country’s political system and established the principle of cooperative coexistence between the various political organizations representing Lebanon’s multitude of faiths. The agreement overhauled much of Lebanon’s pre-existing political structure via constitutional amendment, transferring much of the power the Maronite population had held prior to the war to members of other faiths. Of the political reforms instituted by the Taif Agreement, the most significant was the reorientation of the responsibilities of the traditionally Sunni Prime Minister. Previously appointed by and responsible to the Maronite president, the Prime Minister would now be appointed by and responsible to a majority within the parliament, strengthening the power wielded by the Muslim parties represented therein. Also, a more equal system of representation replaced the previously unequal proportional one within the cabinet that had favored the Christians. A final aspect of Taif was how the agreement precluded further conflict by mandating the disarmament of the various militias and political organizations that had fought for influence during the civil war and their reformation into political parties. Most major militias disarmed as the Lebanese Armed Forces began to rebuild and the government in Beirut reasserted its authority over the country. The notable exception being Hezbollah, who Syria allowed to remain armed to maintain military pressure on Israel.

On a broader geopolitical scale, and partly as a result of  Syria’s substantial influence in the agreement’s negotiation, the agreement reoriented Lebanon from its traditionally pro-Western political stance to one decidedly more pro-Arab. As Taif sought to empower the many historically anti-establishment Muslim parties in parliament, such an outcome was all but inevitable. Syria’s extensive involvement in Taif’s development ensured the inclusion of a provision that codified Syria’s military presence in Lebanon; the occupation and its impact were to be felt for years hereafter.


Occupation Period

The involvement of Syria in the civil war is a particularly significant factor in Lebanon’s post-war political history because Syria continued to play a major role in Lebanon’s internal political affairs well after the conclusion of the civil war. Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976 to accomplish three goals: rein in the PLO’s terrorist activities, check the growing strength of leftist, Islamist, and Druze militias, and deter further Israeli military operations in the country’s south, the last of which Syria viewed as the paramount threat to its position as the premier military and political power in the Levant. Essentially, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad did not wish for the war’s outcome to benefit the regional pest that was the PLO or Syria's much-maligned enemy Israel.

Syria’s gradual involvement in Lebanon escalated to a full occupation of the country by the war’s end. By 1989, tensions rose between the Syrian-backed civilian government of Selim Hoss based in West Beirut and the military-dominated, Iraqi-backed government of Maronite General Michel Aoun based in East Beirut. The Syrians refused to recognize the General’s government, which sought to combat Syrian influence within the country. Aoun’s “War of Liberation” against the Syrians and their Lebanese allies lasted until Aoun’s expulsion from the country. Shortly after the Syrian camp’s victory over Aoun, the Taif Agreement was signed, ending the civil war and orienting Lebanon’s political institutions to a coconfessional basis. A subsequent treaty of “friendship and cooperation” between Beirut and Damascus was signed shortly thereafter which codified a formal Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, significantly diminishing the extent of control Beirut could possibly exert over the country’s politics. The treaty stipulated that Damascus would maintain a large military presence in the country in an effort to counter Israeli influence in the Levant and to ensure that Lebanon could never again be an origin for threats to Syria’s political interests and security, as well as giving Damascus near-complete control over Lebanon’s foreign policy.

Throughout the occupation, the Syrian Ba’athists made their presence felt in all aspects of Lebanese politics. Assassinations of political figures opposed to the occupation were common and targeted high-profile individuals: in 1982 Lebanese president Bashir Jamayel was assassinated as was Druze political leader Kamal Jumblatt in 1977. Both killings were later tied to figures involved with pro-Syrian political organizations and militias within Lebanon as well as figures within the upper echelons of the Damascus-based Ba’ath Party. In 2005, former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was killed via car bomb in central Beirut, with the Syrian government believed to have played a substantial role in planning, supplying, and even executing the bombing. As a result of Hariri’s assassination, mass protests against the Syrians known as the Cedar Revolution broke out. The subsequent adoption of a UN Security Council resolution brought an end to the occupation following the protests.


Lebanon’s Politics Today

Most of the militias active during the civil war eventually disarmed and reformed into political parties within the parliament, forming two major political factions: the March 8th alliance and the March 14th alliance. Neither parliamentary faction is differentiated exclusively by religion or ethnicity, as political groups representing each of the major religious denominations and ethnic groups exist within both factions. Rather, the alliances differ along the lines of ideology.

The March 8th alliance, the parliamentary coalition in power, constitutes a range of political organizations adhering to an incoherent motley of ideologies, ranging from democrats to Islamists to Ba’athists and nationalists. The alliance, however, remains united on one overarching ideological concern: an affinity for the Syrian government and an appreciation of its role in quelling the violence of the civil war. Members of the bloc tend to align politically with the Syrian government and generally consider Lebanon a wayward province of Syria, seeking greater political integration between Lebanon and Syria or perhaps Lebanon’s unification with its neighbor. Their belief that a “natural” fraternity exists between Syria and Lebanon stems primarily from the perception that Syria has historically functioned as a stabilizing influence on Lebanon. Furthermore, the March 8th alliance draws its support and membership from nearly all of Lebanon’s sectarian and ethnic groups.


As the opposition in parliament, members of the March 14th alliance generally come from liberal and democratic parties and tend to adhere to nationalist ideology. Therefore, they maintain strong opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon and espouse an anti-sectarian stance intended to curb religious and ethnic factionalism for the sake of unity and survival of the country. Although certainly not exclusively, the member parties of the March 14th alliance comprise of parties representing or attracting the most support from Lebanon’s non-Muslim religous groups and non-Arab ethnic minorities. These communities’ alignment with the alliance is sensible, as these populations are most likely to seek the preservation of the diversity of ethnicities included under the umbrella of Lebanese nationhood, thus opposing the March 8th alliance’s interest in integration with Arab and Muslim-majority Syria.


Lebanon’s political history gives insight into the problems the country faces today. The confessional framework of its government seemingly provided a solution to the pre-civil war tensions that plagued the country’s history, however its shortcomings have become apparent in recent years. The weakness of Lebanon’s central government have continued following the civil war’s conclusion, paralyzing Beirut’s ability to provide public services and ensure fiscal stability. In turn, sectarian political actors have continued to subvert centralized authority within the country. Hezbollah in particular has developed a network of non-state social services as well as a sophisticated, highly autonomous military command apparatus existing outside of Beirut’s control. This continued weakness cannot continue to compose the country’s status quo, lest the country risk another slide into civil strife and economic collapse. The spate of protests across Lebanon in late 2019 demonstrate the Lebanese peoples’ dissatisfaction with the country’s state of affairs as well as the political leadership deemed responsible for as much. A revamp of Lebanon’s governing framework, necessarily including a rejection of sectarian confessionalism, will theoretically provide ample satisfaction to the people’s grievances. Such an effort is likely to compel resistance from those actors with the greatest stake in the maintenance of the status quo; Hezbollah and its backer Iran, in particular, seek to direct the people’s anger away from systemic change to Lebanon and toward scapegoats of their own. Lebanon stands at the brink of another generation of internal conflict. How its leaders choose to proceed in coming years will test the very viability of this unique experiment in democratic rule in the Middle East.

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