Lebanon is a mountainous country lying on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It borders Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east.
France established Greater Lebanon in 1920 when it acquired the League of Nations mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The heart was the Mount Lebanon range, inhabited primarily by Maronites and Druze, who had enjoyed special status within the Ottoman Empire on account of France’s protective interest in the Maronites and other Catholics. France added surrounding parts of Syria, hoping to create a viable but predominantly Catholic and Francophile entity: (1) on the central coast, Beirut, Syria’s most important port, which was predominantly Sunni; (2) in the north, Tripoli, Syria’s second port, also mainly Sunni and its hinterland, the Akkar, peopled by Sunnis and Alawis, and the Kura, mainly Orthodox; (3) in the east, the rich Biqa’a valley, inhabited by various Christian and Muslim communities; and (4) in the south, the ports of Sidon (Sunni) and Tyre (Shia) and the latter’s mainly Shia hinterland. The Greek Catholics tended to favour French tutelage, and during the mandate period their small but powerful merchant community grew in Beirut.
While Maronite Christians and Greek Catholics looked to France and the Mediterranean world, most Muslims and Orthodox Christians looked to the Arab hinterland as their political lodestar. A carefully balanced political system based on the confessional proportions of the 1932 population census aimed to bridge this fundamental divide. This arrangement continued following Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943, and came under increasing pressure from internal and external sources.
During the 1950s and 1960s Lebanon’s free trade economy developed rapidly, and the country transformed into a city state as rural migrants flocked to Beirut, where the wealthy city centre contrasted with shanty areas populated by the new migrants. With different traditions juxtaposed in alien urban and highly cosmopolitan surroundings, confessional identities took on an adversarial potency they had lacked in the village. There was also growing resentment at the corrupt nature of an electoral system operated by patronage, run by cross-confessional alliances of powerful political families. By the end of the 1960s it was well known that the confessional ratio was changing rapidly in favour of Muslims in general and the Shia in particular.
Lebanon was also exposed to intense external pressure. Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees arrived in 1948, amounting to 10 per cent of the country’s population. Palestine was the central issue of Arab nationalism, and in the 1950s Lebanon could not escape a domestic divide on the issue mirroring that in the wider Arab world between pro-Western and non-aligned Arab nationalist camps. In 1958 civil war was narrowly averted after brief fighting. The build-up of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrilla operations from south Lebanon after 1967 brought Israeli reprisals, called into question the government’s sovereignty, and heightened the internal conflict between the mainly Maronite camp, joined by most Greek Catholics, that wished to maintain the political status quo and avoid embroilment in the Palestine conflict, and the mainly Muslim camp that was interested in constitutional change, was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, believed in Arab nationalism and felt Lebanon should not evade its ‘Arab duty’. Most Greek Orthodox also responded to the Arab dimension of the Palestine question.
In 1975 these tensions exploded in civil war between two broad camps, the mainly Christian ‘rightist’ Lebanese Front and the mainly Muslim and Arab nationalist ‘leftist’ National Movement, also supported by Palestinian groups and many in the Greek Orthodox community. The war was characterized by the kidnap, rape and massacre of those caught in the wrong place as each side eliminated ‘enemy’ enclaves – mainly Christian or Muslim low-income areas. Syrian intervention in support of the Maronite government beginning in 1976 stabilized the military situation although many people argued that the Syrians manipulated the various factions in order to sustain their hegemony. In 1978 Israel invaded the south in order to deal with the PLO. Under US pressure, and under United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, Israel was required to withdraw completely and unconditionally later in 1978, but left advisers and a surrogate Maronite force in southern Lebanon. However, by the end of the 1970s, the Maronite Church and hitherto supportive Greek Catholic Patriarchate were increasingly uncomfortable with the Maronite political leadership’s alliances with Israel and the USA.
In 1982 Israel invaded again with the aim of destroying the PLO, which it besieged in West Beirut. It killed 19,000 people, of whom not more than 5,000 were combatants.
Israel was obliged to withdraw as a result of guerrilla attacks by Lebanese resistance forces, but occupied a portion of southern Lebanon, assisted by its local surrogate, the South Lebanon Army. At each phase of withdrawal Israel achieved further social fragmentation. The Druze drove the Maronites out of the Shuf mountains as soon as Israel withdrew in 1983, and from the villages near Sidon the following year. In both cases Israel had encouraged Maronite forces to provoke local Muslims.
Meanwhile, Syria drove the PLO from Lebanon, while Druze and Shias cooperated with Syrian policy: the Druze drove Sunni fighters off the streets of Beirut, while Shia forces ruthlessly attacked the Palestinian camps to prevent PLO recovery. Both the Maronite and Shia communities also fell victim to internal power struggles.
Having defeated Israel in the competition to dominate Lebanon, Syria made repeated attempts to reconstitute the country politically, to achieve stability while bringing Lebanon more closely under its control. For some Lebanese, this was a positive step forward, whilst for others, it meant the consolidation of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. In 1989, Syria prodded Lebanese parliamentarians into talks in Saudia Arabia that pledged to re-apportion confessional representation in government and eventually abolish it.
In 1990 Syrian forces defeated Christian opponents of Ta’if in a final round of fighting in Beirut. In the face of Syrian determination, the various militias stood down, allowing the Lebanese army to deploy throughout the country except for Hezbollah-controlled areas and Israeli-occupied south Lebanon. It seemed the civil war might be over, at an estimated cost of 150,000 lives. The Armenian community, which had generally avoided participation in the war, nonetheless experienced heavy emigration as a result of it because virtually every family had relatives well placed in more stable and prosperous countries.
Throughout the 1990s, with tacit international acceptance, Syria dominated Lebanese government, including the presidency, security forces and the judiciary. In May 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, rampant corruption exacted a heavy toll on the Lebanese economy.
In 2003 and 2004, amid growing domestic protests against Syria’s role in Lebanon, international acceptance of Syria’s broad control ended, with Washington, Paris, then other European governments calling for Syrian withdrawal. In September 2004 the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for Syria to pull out, new elections and the disarming of militias whilst that same month the Lebanese parliament voted to extend the term of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud by another three years. Opposition to Syrian dominance grew, and attracted the support of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a onetime ally of Damascus.
In February 2005 a massive car bomb killed Hariri and 22 others, sparking immediate suspicion of Syrian involvement. The assassination galvanized opposition to Syrian control in Lebanon, and Sunni, Druze and elements of the Christian community took to the streets. Meanwhile, in smaller numbers, Lebanese largely from the Shia and elements of the Maronite Christian communities, demonstrated in support of Syria. The March 2005 ‘Cedar Revolution’ culminated in Syria’s withdrawal of forces in April 2005 and an opposition takeover of parliament the following month.
In July 2006, Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon abducted two Israeli soldiers along the two countries’ border, sparking a fierce Israeli military assault on Lebanon. While the brunt of the attack came in the Hezbollah stronghold in the heavily Shia south, from where the organization had long fired rockets indiscriminately into Israel, it extended to most parts of Lebanon. Lebanon was cut off from the outside world through a naval blockade and the bombing of runways at Beirut airport, as well as strategic road infrastructure throughout the country. The bombings, and an Israeli ground invasion, continued into August 2006, as did Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel. The conflict killed over 1,000 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians, and displaced tens of thousands of Lebanese.
In the aftermath of the war, Lebanon’s recently booming tourist industry was left in tatters, and the country’s sharp economic decline contributed to resentment among non-Shia Muslims of Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, increasingly blamed for provoking the war.
Main minorities and indigenous peoples: Palestinians 250-300,000 (6.4-7.7%), Druze 234,000 (6%), Armenian 156,000 (4%), Kurds 25,000 (0.6%).
Main languages: Arabic (official), French, English, Armenian.
Main religions: Sunni Islam, (28%), Shia Islam (28%), Maronite Christian (22%), Greek Orthodox Christian (8%), Druze (6%), Greek Catholic (4%).
[Note: Percentages for Sunnis, Shias, Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Druze and Greek Catholic are all taken from the 2007 US CIRF report, which cites “the most recent” demographic study by a Beirut-based research firm. The percentage for Armenians comes from the CIA World Factbook 2007. The figures for Palestinians and Kurds come from the 2006 State Department human rights report on Lebanon.]
Lebanon is a country of minorities with no single dominant group. Demographics are controversial, and there has been no population census since 1932. Some minority groups are defined primarily by religion and others by ethnicity although most communities in Lebanon and throughout the region do not necessarily like to be described as ‘minorities’.
More than a million Shias live in three principal concentrations: their two traditional heartlands in the northern half of the Biqa’a and Jabal Amil, the region east of Tyre; and in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the country. A similar number of Sunnis are concentrated in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and in the countryside of the Akkar and the central Biqa’a. Lebanon is home to the Maronite Church, and a population of over 850,000 Maronites. The Druze are located mainly in the Matn, Gharb and Shuf, and smaller communities in Wadi al-Taym in southern Lebanon and in Beirut. Armenians are concentrated mainly in north Beirut, Tripoli and at Anjar in the Biqa’a, and Alawis in Tripoli and the Akkar.
There are over 300,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, almost all of them Arabs. From the seventh century the Greek Orthodox with the Sunnis formed the core population of coastal towns and plain, with Orthodox concentrations in Kura, south of Tripoli, and in several mixed villages of the Gharb and Shuf (the mountains immediately east and south of Beirut). Like Greek Catholics, the Orthodox were noted merchants and bankers, prominent in the marketing of manufactured goods. Until 1917 they enjoyed the ‘protection’ of Tsarist Russia, and discreet ties with Russia survived through the Soviet period. Tension between Orthodox and Catholic in Lebanon, based on different doctrine, politics and culture, also reflected Franco-Russian rivalry for pre-eminence in Greater Syria. From the late nineteenth century the Orthodox played a major role in the Arab nationalist, literary and cultural revival. Because of the sizeable community inland, many Orthodox supported Syrian Arab nationalism. The idea of Greater Syria appealed as a multi-confessional world in which the Orthodox could play a significant role, hopefully dominated neither by the Francophile Catholic dimension of Lebanon, nor by the Islamic tendency of the wider Arab world. The political vehicle of Syrian nationalism, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, became closely identified with the community in Lebanon, though some Orthodox joined secular leftist parties.
There are around 150,000 Greek Catholics in Lebanon, and they are renowned for business acumen. They left the Orthodox Church to acknowledge the supremacy of Rome in 1683 (formalized in 1724 when the Patriarchate of Antioch fell vacant and they elected their own patriarch). While this departure resulted from French missionary influence, it also reflected resentment of Greek management of an essentially Arab church. Many Greek Catholics left inland Syria for Lebanon to avoid Orthodox harassment and benefit from trade prospects. During the nineteenth century they became concentrated in, and outnumbered the Druze of, Zahleh in the Biqa’a. Zahleh was the scene of fierce conflict between Catholics and Druze in 1860. Smaller communities exist in Sidon and Tyre.
Palestinians live mainly in Beirut and the outskirts of Sidon, Tyre and Tripoli. Many of them still live in refugee camps, and some lack identification papers.
There are currently around 150,000 Armenians in Lebanon, concentrated mainly in north Beirut, Tripoli and at Anjar in the Biqa’a. The first Armenians to arrive were Cilician Catholics in the eighteenth century, escaping the harassment of the Armenian Orthodox Church from which they had split. Many more arrived in flight from massacre by the Turks in 1895-6 and the greater genocide of 1915. Yet more came when France failed to establish an Armenian entity in Cilicia in 1920-1921, and the final influx arrived from Alexandretta when France handed this to Turkey in 1939. The Armenians were welcomed by the Maronite leadership to enlarge the Christian population and were offered Lebanese citizenship. Lebanon became the principal focus of the Armenian diaspora, and Beirut or its environs became the seat of the Orthodox Catholics, the Catholic patriarch, and also the Armenian Evangelical Church.
There are small communities of Alawite Muslims in Tripoli and the Akkar, perhaps numbering 100,000. Some are indigenous to the region and others entered the country after the Syrian intervention in 1976.
Kurdish workers arrived in Lebanon from Syria in the 1950s and 1960s, and their population currently numbers about 25,000, mainly in Beirut. Unlike the Kurds in neighbouring countries, Kurds in Lebanon have not played any pivotal role in the political life of Lebanon, and like Palestinians, Kurds lack civil rights.
There are also very small Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish communities in Lebanon.
Under French rule, Lebanon’s informal political constitution was based on its unrepeated official census of 1932. Out of a then population of 785,543, Christians made up 52 per cent (Maronites 29 per cent, Greek Orthodox 10 per cent, Greek Catholics 6 per cent, Armenians 4 per cent, Latins, Protestants and others 3 per cent). Muslims made up 48 per cent (Sunnis 22 per cent, Shias 19 per cent, Druze 7 per cent).
At independence in 1943 a ‘National Pact’ confirmed existing practice that key posts be allocated on a confessional basis: the (executive) presidency, Maronite; the premiership, Sunni; and presidency of the Chamber of Deputies, Shia. The chamber itself was to be composed of deputies in a ratio of six Christians to five Muslims, thereby ensuring a slight Christian preponderance. It was a fragile basis for national consensus, even assuming that the birth rates of all communities would remain in parity.
Within the Muslim communities some desired to be more closely associated with the Arabism of Syria, but others accepted the idea of a multi-confessional Lebanese polity. Leading Sunni families tended to support the latter viewpoint and became part of a Maronite-Sunni establishment that dominated Lebanon. Within the Christian community, some viewed Lebanon as primarily a Christian homeland, for which continued French protection was crucial, while others sought a national Lebanese identity, to which all confessions could give assent.
Near the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1989, under Syrian pressure, a quorum of surviving Lebanese deputies from the 1972 parliament met in Ta’if (Saudi Arabia) and accepted a new formula to replace the National Pact. The Charter of National Reconstruction proposed to reduce the Maronite presidency to essentially titular powers; vest the cabinet (which would be half Muslim, half Christian) and Prime Minister with executive power; enlarge the Chamber of Deputies and ensure 50:50 Christian/Muslim participation; and eventually abolish confessionalism in political life. It also entrenched Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Southern Lebanon remains largely under the de facto governance of Shia organizations Hezbollah and Amal. Hezbollah maintains its militia, and both play a prime role in providing social services.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Centre for Lebanese Studies [multiconfessional and committed to pluralism]
Tel: 44 1865 58465
Middle East Council of Churches
Tel: 961 1 861 670
Sources and further reading
Abu-Izzeddin, N., The Druzes, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1984.
Ajami, F., The Vanished Imam: Musa Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon, London, Tauris, 1986.
Firro, K., A History of the Druzes, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1992.
Hourani, A., Political Society in Lebanon: A Historical Introduction, Oxford, Centre for Lebanese Studies, n.d.
International Crisis Group, Hizbollah and the Lebanese Crisis, October 2007.
McDowall, D., Lebanon: A Conflict of Minorities, London, MRG report, 1986, 1996.
Mallat, C., Shi’i Thought from the South of Lebanon, Oxford, Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1988.
Messara, A., Prospects for Lebanon: The Challenge to Co-existence, Oxford, Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1988.
Moosa, M., The Maronites in History, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1986.
Rougier, B., Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Miltant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon, Harvard University Press, 2007.
Salame, G., Lebanon’s Injured Identities: Who Represents Whom During a Civil War?, Oxford, Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1986.
Salibi, K., A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered, London, Tauris, 1988.
Sayigh, R., Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon, London, Zed, 1994.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in