— Originally written November 2008 —
The summer of 2006 saw a brutal conflict break out between Israel and the Lebanon-based militant Shia organisation, Hizballah. Like many conflicts in the Middle East it ended with no clear winner, but it left Lebanon devastated. After 34 days of fighting, there were 1,200 Lebanese dead, many of whom were civilians. It also had a hugely damaging impact on the country’s domestic politics. Lebanon’s internal politics are rife with sectarian rivalry and this most recent conflict only made this worse. In order to understand how this occurred it is important to understand the history of sectarianism in the Lebanese context.
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon during the summer of 2006 was the most recent in a long line of clashes going back to 1968, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) started launching raiding parties into Israel from Lebanese soil. The proximate cause of the 2006 conflict was the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hizballah, in a cross-border attack on July 12. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s leader, declared that the attack was designed to draw Israel’s fire away from the Gaza Strip, which had been subjected to intermittent Israeli bombing ever since the Palestinian Islamist organisation Hamas took power.
Israel invaded Lebanon in order to retrieve the kidnapped troops and secure their northern border, but their main aim was to destroy Hizballah because, as Amir Taheri writes, “Israel suspected that much of Hamas’s fighting capability, and part of the cash that kept it alive, came from Tehran via the Hizbullah movement,”. This Iranian connection is also important in understanding the causes of the conflict at the international level. Lebanon has often been the battleground for regional conflicts and this time it was caught between the US and Iran, who are both vying for regional dominance. This conflict has contributed to the internal power struggle in Lebanon that has been raging since 2005, while exacerbating the underlying sectarian animosity that often characterises Lebanon’s domestic politics.
Lebanon’s recent internal power struggle has its roots in the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Fingers immediately pointed at Syria, which had maintained a hegemony over Lebanon since the 1989 Taif Accord. This provoked anti-Syrian demonstrations that forced the pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar Karami, and his government to resign. On the 8th March, Hizballah and its allies organised a march “thanking” the Syrians for their support. Six days later an even larger demonstration organised by the late Hariri’s Future movement declared “Syria out!”.
Syria withdrew its troops ending 29 years of military occupation; Lebanon held free parliamentary elections and an international commission to investigate Hariri’s assassination was set up. This became known as the Cedar Revolution. The March 14th movement (as the anti-Syrian forces became known) went on to win a majority in Lebanon’s parliament (although they did include some Hizballah members in their administration). This produced a period of relative calm and optimism. However, this was only temporary and the renewed conflict with Israel demonstrated how fragile the political situation was, and how Lebanon had not overcome its sectarian divisions.
Despite the inconclusive end to the summer war of 2006, Hizballah claimed it as a “divine victory”. Buoyed by this victory, Hizballah led what Hassan Mneimneh called the “project of defiance”, which was about being ideologically and militarily prepared to take on the Israelis. This put them at direct loggerheads with the ruling March 14th coalition and their “project of peace”, who were critical of Hizballah for provoking Israel in the first place. Hizballah then pulled its ministers from the coalition cabinet and demanded more political power.
They followed this up by calling on their allies in the March 8th coalition to start demonstrating and topple Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and his March 14th coalition government. The government held its ground but political disputes with the opposition continued with both sides becoming more entrenched in their positions. The political conflicts became increasingly violent, including an assassination campaign against anti-Syrian MPs and those journalists who openly supported them. The conflict between the March 14th coalition and the Hizballah-led March 8th coalition only became worse once the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term expired in November 2007, and there was no agreement on the terms surrounding the election of his replacement.
At the core of these disagreements though, were Hizballah’s demands for control of one-third plus one of the cabinet seats, which would give it veto power on all policies that require a two-thirds cabinet approval. The conflict is primarily a political dispute, but underpinning it there are the sectarian forces that have often come into play in Lebanon’s domestic politics.
According to one observer, Lebanon was “born schizophrenic”. Founded by France in 1920, Greater Lebanon was supposed to be a Maronite Christian homeland. However, the inclusion of several Muslim areas reduced the Maronites to about 30 percent of the population. Both communities had their own vision of where they wanted the country to go. The Maronites envisioned Lebanon becoming a Western enclave, with a Franco-Mediterranean cultural orientation, while the Muslims felt a part of Syria and the wider Arab world.
Religious and cultural affiliations were not the only sources of sectarian tension. Lebanon’s various religious communities have never lived in clearly defined geographical blocks (with the exception of the Maronites and the Druze), while the local notables, who were at the centre of political culture, came from all of the different religious communities. This lack of homogeneity has been a serious obstacle to developing a coherent national culture.
However, despite what some Western Orientalists claim, the sectarian nature of Lebanese national life must not be seen as an inevitable product of an age-old conflict between Christians and Muslims, and a reaction against modernity. Rather, it should be viewed as a phenomenon stemming directly from modernity itself. Ussama Makdisi identifies sectarianism in Lebanon as something that “emerged out of a 19th-century intersection of Ottoman reformation and Western intervention,”. Before the 1860 conflict between the Christians and the Druze, politics in Lebanon was defined by social status rather than religion. The main social and political distinction was between “knowledgeable” elites and “ignorant” commoners. Religious affiliation began to come to the fore once the European nations began to intervene. As Makdisi writes,
In the mid-19th century, European powers intervened in the region on an explicitly sectarian basis, with the French championing the Maronites and the British protecting the Druze. The European powers also insisted, despite Ottoman protests, on a religious partition of Mount Lebanon along separate Christian and Druze lines in 1842. They downplayed the fact that in many areas Druze and Maronites either lived in the same villages or in the same districts.
In an attempt to resist European influence within the empire, the Ottoman authorities set about trying to form a secularised Ottoman subject-citizen by guaranteeing political representation and taxation to Muslims and non-Muslims.
The main problem for Istanbul, the Europeans, and the local elites was how to transform these religious communities into political communities while maintaining the hierarchical social order. They did not get their way. The new identification of communal groups with political communities democratised politics opening the way to non-elite participation, but it also marked the beginning of sectarian politics in Lebanon. Makdisi again,
The foundation of coexistence in modern Lebanon, therefore, depends on a notion that religious communities must be represented as political communities. Diversity makes Lebanon possible; it also immediately and effectively impedes any sense of a secular Lebanese citizenship.
The post-1860 period saw the formation of the religiously divided Administrative Council. The French mandatory powers maintained these sectarian distinctions during the 1920s and 1930s. Then, in 1943, the National Pact was reached. This was supposed to address any imbalance by dividing power on a proportional basis amongst the various communities. All the Pact achieved though was the reification of sectarianism in Lebanon preventing the country from achieving some form of national stability. As Mackey writes, “Ironically, the National Pact, the covenant of the political system, which was meant to dilute rather than entrench sectarian divisions, played the largest part in preventing Lebanon from developing a strong central government.“.
The Taif Accord of 1989, that signalled the end of Lebanon’s brutal civil war, merely continued the countries sectarian status quo, by reasserting the confessional formula while changing parliamentary representation to a 50:50 Muslim/Christian ratio. Sectarianism, once entrenched is very hard to break, and by its nature tends to encourage and perpetuate conflict. Evidence of this process in Lebanon can be observed in the recent standoff between the March 8th movement and the March 14th coalition.
We have looked at the political sources of the divide and how the 2006 war with Israel helped increase the chasm between the parties involved and we have also looked at the history of Lebanon’s sectarianism, but now it is time to look at how these two elements have combined to create the divisions present today. The March 8th movement is made up of a variety of different actors crossing the traditional Christian-Muslim divide, but Hizballah, a Shia-based Islamist organisation, leads it. Hizballah supporters who are predominantly Shia Muslims also dominate it. Hizballah enjoys a lot of support in the south, which is the Shia heartland of Lebanon and runs a variety of social, economic and military institutions there. They have successfully mobilised Lebanon’s Shias, who have been traditionally isolated from the mainstream of their countries political life.
At the same time, their main external backers are Iran, which helped set up the organisation in 1982 to, as Augustus Richard Norton puts it, “serve as a cat’s paw for their interests.”. These interests relate to competing with Israel for regional dominance, and creating what Jordan’s King Abdullah has called a Shia “crescent”. These factors – Hizballah’s clear sectarian make-up and its link to Iran’s sectarian regional aims – show that the March 8th movement is, despite the Christian elements, a sectarian movement. Sectarian politics is not just being played on one side of Lebanon’s recent conflict. The March 14th movement is, essentially, a Sunni movement.
As with the March 8th coalition, it has Christian and Druze elements, but it is Sunni-dominated. The Hariri family has always cultivated Sunni support, particularly from the House of Saud. At the same time the Hariris have often looked to Sunni clerics to give them religio-political legitimacy. On top of this, it is important to take into account the existence in Lebanon of anti-Shia Sunni Wahhabi doctrine that emanates from Saudi Arabia. This has turned many Sunnis away from the Shia dominated March 8th movement and helped to reinforce Lebanon’s sectarian divisions.
The Sunni-Shia conflict is a new development in Lebanon (traditionally the fault line in Lebanon’s internal politics has been between the Christians, Muslims and Druze), but the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics and the sectarian nature of Lebanon’s political system lends itself to these divisions. The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit describes sectarianism as “the tendency to inflate a minor disagreement over beliefs or practices into the impossibility of living together.” It is difficult to see the recent Sunni-Shia divisions in Lebanon as “minor” but the overall truth of this statement emerges when Lebanon’s history of division and conflict is considered.
The development of a coherent national identity is constantly being thwarted, partly because the institutional arrangement is intrinsically confessional, but also because every moment of instability causes sectarian divisions to re-emerge, leading to conflict. This conflict is sometimes played out in the political arena but it has also led to brutal civil war, an experience that has unfortunately not immunised the country against further sectarian divisions. As Elias Khoury has put it, “The most tragic thing about the Lebanese civil war is that it is not a tragedy in the consciousness of the Lebanese.”. The aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel has confirmed this. While the make-up of the main division in the country has changed it is still essentially consistent with traditional Lebanese sectarian politics, and while the 2006 war certainly exacerbated these animosities, it did not create them.