Sunnis are estimated at 28.7 per cent of the Lebanese population and are concentrated in Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and in the countryside of the Akkar and the central Biqa’a. Unlike Druze and Maronites, with their distinctive identity and solidarity, Sunnis have historically felt part of a larger and more amorphous community. They have been more loosely organized, through trade guilds, mosques and charitable institutions.
There was no Sunni leadership in 1920 when they were reluctantly coerced into the new republic. Sunnis wanted to retain their vital ties with the Syrian interior. The National Pact of 1943 assigned to the Sunnis a position only slightly subordinate to that of the Maronites. In reality, it was the merchant families of Beirut who supported the National Pact since they could share the Christian vision of a liberal merchant republic. In Tripoli and among lower class urban and rural Sunnis, there was little support.
The political leadership that emerged operated largely on patronage networks, but by 1960 these networks were decaying. While the masses responded to the appeal of Nasserism, Ba’athism and other currents of Arab nationalism, Sunni leaders seemed allied with the Maronite power brokers in spite of their Arab nationalist rhetoric. Many Sunnis began to look to Kemal Junblat, leader of Druze as their natural leader.
The Sunni elite took sides, through its official Dar il Ifta’, Prime Minister, and various forces with the PLO. In so doing, they hoped to instrumentalize the latter in its power struggle with the Maronites. The Sunni community, however, experienced a relative political decline in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion. Generally, Sunnis had long enjoyed high standards of socio-economic development and political clout, due in large part to the central roles played by their zu’ama (political bosses) in Lebanese politics. Yet key figures disappeared or were assassinated, while other factors also hastened Sunni decline in the early 1980s. The PLO, to whom the Sunni community was closely tied, were forced to withdraw at the hands of the Israelis.
With the exception of Palestinians, most, but not all, Sunnis have aligned politically with the pro-Western faction in Lebanon’s main political divide, and prominent anti-Syrian Sunnis have been assassinated in recent years – most notably former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A June 2007 blast killed Sunni politician and Syria critic Walid Eido. In May and June 2008, anti-government Alawites in Tripoli fought with pro-government Sunnis. Sunni civilians were killed in the crossfire, and deliberately targeted through the bombing of an apartment building. In October 2012, Wisam al-Hassan, head of intelligence in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) was assassinated as well. Al-Hassan, a Sunni, was close to the Hariri family and formerly served as the head of Rafik Hariri’s personal security force.
Grave implications for Lebanon’s Sunni community have arisen from the civil war in Syria. Many Lebanese Sunni fighters have joined the armed opposition in Syria against the Assad government, and as a result, the wider Sunni community in Lebanon has become dragged further into escalating tensions with the Lebanese Shi’a, who are generally supportive of Assad. In August 2013, two Sunni mosques were bombed in Tripoli, killing 47 people and injuring more than 500. Regarded as the biggest and deadliest attack since the Lebanese civil war, the Tripoli bombings were widely perceived by locals as targeting the Sunni community, and while responsibility was never claimed, Hezbollah and the Assad regime were considered to be responsible.
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