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The Lebanon is a country, Arabic in language, but very diverse in religion and culture. There are Maronite Christians (affiliated to Rome), Greek orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi'ite Muslims, Druse (a group which has separated from mainstream Islam) and others.

From the time of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century it was the custom to leave each religious community to govern itself under its own leaders. Thus the invading Arab Muslims appointed the Christian bishops, of various sects, to be answerable to the Muslim government for the tax levied on non-Muslims.

The same system continued under the Ottoman Empire. The area of modern Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Vilayet (province) of Syria, ruled from Damascus (Esh Sham). During the 19th century persecution of Lebanese Christians by the Ottomans resulted in their appealing to France for protection.

The Lebanon in its present boundaries was created by the French who were granted a Mandate of Syria by the League of Nations at the end of the first world war. The French relationship to the area goes back to the Crusades, mainly led by French nobles and royalty.

In 1919 they set the borders larger than they had been as an Ottoman Sanjak (District) by including the towns of Tripoli, Sidon and the Bekaa valley. They did this to favor the Christian Maronites. The result was that, whereas under the Ottomans the Maronites had had a small enclave which was their own (though with some persecution from time to time), in the post-Ottoman Lebanon the Christians were a minority within the state as a whole. This may be considered the root of the civil war which has occurred during the 1970s and 80s, killing an estimated 130,000 people.

A constitution was agreed in 1926 during the French Mandate.

On independence in 1943 the communities came to an agreement by which the President was to be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, while the Speaker was to be a Shi'ite Muslim. In Parliament for every 11 seats there had to be 6 Christians and 5 Muslims. By this means the semblance of a parliamentary republic was maintained, though in reality the country was a multi-cultural entity with a coalition of forces. Every position in the public service had its communal quotas. The leaders were hereditary feudal barons rather than party leaders. We may note the hereditary leaders of the Druse community: the Jumblatts.

After 1947 with the establishment of Israel to the south another community joined the existing divisions when the displaced Palestinians came to live in the refugee camps, which became small towns.

It may have been the presence of the Palestinians which destabilized the agreement. But there were also outside forces: The Syrians who continued to wish for the reincorporation of Lebanon into the Syria of the Ottoman times (and Palestine as well); the Israelis who attacked the Palestinian refugees to try to prevent them attacking Israel. Moreover, the Muslim, and especially the Shi'ite, birth rate was higher than the Christians' so that the Muslims began to think they did not have the weight in the state appropriate to their increasing numbers.

The civil war began in 1975. Every community raised its own private army (and some have more than one army) which formed shifting alliances with the others. The organs of central government , including army, police, parliament and presidency became of symbolic value only.

At the close of the civil war large part of the country became occupied by a Syrian "peace-keeping force". Another part was under the control of the Israelis, whose invasion in 1982 caused immense destruction.

Different groups have held prisoners and hostages for periods of years. Some of these were foreigners. 150,000 people are said to have died.

Many illegal activities such as drug growing and production went on unhindered by any police force. Lebanon then was a living example of the warning of the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes (in Leviathan) of what can happen if there is no civil society: The life of man is nasty, brutish and short.

In October 1990, the Syrians began to assert control over an increasing amount of the territory and the militias at last came under control as they gave up control of Beirut. The leaders of the militias became ministers in the government. There was talk of devising a new constitution which would give the different communities weight in proportion to their actual numbers, with a president who will rule. But this did not deal with the forces of the Syrians and the Israelis, neither of whom seemed likely to leave their parts of the territory. The civil war may be over but Lebanon could not be considered an independent state. In the medium term it seems likely either to be re-absorbed into Syria or to exist as a Syrian satellite.

However, the Israelis did leave. The peace agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation led to the Israelis withdrawing from South Lebanon.

In 2005 the assassination of Rafiq Hariri the former anti-Syrian prime minister led to increased questioning of the role of the Syrians (were they responsible?). The Syrian forces withdrew leaving behind a more pro-western government. But the coalition government included representatives of Hizbullah, which annoyed the Israelis. Moreover, although there is a Lebanese army, in the south of the country Hizbullah is the only real military force.

An Israeli attack in 2006 led to huge destruction.

In 2008 civil war between Hezbullah and the others seems all too possible.



 Middle East for Dummies

David Hirst - Beware of Small States

Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East







Is there a political system? The institutions of the state were irrelevant to the situation while the power of the gun to carve out enclaves was the politics which affects ordinary people.

It was as though the viewpoint of Los Angeles street gangs had become the political reality.

Since the Taif accord which brought the civil war to an end state institutions have been re-established. But as this is being done under the protection of the Syrian military the outcome has been a state heavily influenced by Syria. At times the government seemed to be a subsidiary of the Rafiq Hariri the PM's property company. But at least he had the means to rebuild the city.

He left office, possibly in a dispute with Syria, and shortly afterwards was assassinated by a huge car bomb explosion (15 Feb 05). Syrian forces are suspected.

On 28 Feb 2005 the pro-Syrian government was forced to resign by crowds in the streets. There were increasing demands for Syrian troops to leave the country, as well as demands from the Shi'ite Hezbollah for the Syrians to remain. If they left, would the civil war resume? It didn't but the new government was a coalition that included members of Hizbullah, the Iranian funded organisation that dominated the Shi'ite area (the southern provinces nearest Israel, and the southern section of Beirut). This organisation retained its militia, capable of fighting the government army, and also Israel.

Hizbullah's capture of two Israeli soldiers sparked off a vicious war in July 2006. Presumably they acted against the wishes of the other ministers in the government, but Israel attacked the whole state, while Hizbullah fired rockets into Israel.

Although there is a parliament and elections, in practice the leaders of parties are hereditary feudal chiefs and the MPs are often elected unopposed. The result is a party system that is a formalisation of a permanent civil war. The President is always a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister always a Sunni, and the Speaker of the house always a Shia.

May 2008 saw Hezbollah occupy large areas of the Muslim part of Beirut. Is this the beginning of a renewed civil war?

How will the revolt in Syria in 2011 affect Lebanon? No-one knows. It depends on whether the Baath government of the Assads is replaced, and by what sort of people.

Interesting Reading

Robert Fisk - Conquest of the Middle East







Collapsed conventional economy. But vigorous illegal economy: drug growing and processing.

The late former PM's private company dominated the rebuilding of Beirut.

Following the 2006 war and aerial attacks by Israel the whole infrastructure and much of the housing stock has been destroyed and needs to be rebuilt - again.












Human Rights

There were no enforceable rights during the civil war. Since it ended it is not clear how well the organs of justice are effective.

Climate effects

One degree
Increasingly arid, as with southern Europe and Palestine

Two degrees
Serious problems supporting the agricultural population, lack of water.

Last revised 13/10/11

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