The upcoming Lebanese Presidential election scheduled for November 23rd will prove to be a very important step in the future of Lebanese politics. It could either solidify an agreement between the country’s opposing political groups (mainly pro vs anti-Syrian) or create further divisions which will plunge the country into stagnation and open to foreign intervention and continuing instability. The requested quorum originally set for September 24th was not met as many opposition MP’s boycotted the session. The last couple of months has seen numerous negotiations between the two sides, and important meetings between community leaders. Here is a VERY brief summary of the political forum in Lebanon.


When the mandate for Lebanon was being discussed in 1943, the Western powers were trying to establish a moderate ‘western’ Christian state in the volatile Middle East. When given the option of controlling Mount Lebanon or Greater Lebanon extending west to the coast of the Mediteranean and down to the Palestinian border, the Christian leadership took the whole pie. And who could blame them? After years of strife with their rival mountain neighbors, the Druze, the Christians sat with a comfortable majority and the confidence to rule the entire Lebanese state. Because of the large Muslim population, Lebanese leaders had to come to a compromise regading the state’s government and operations.

Lebanon’s political system is a democratic republic which operates as a parliament, and implements a system of confessionalism. Confessionalism is a system of government that proportionally allocates political power among a country’s communities (whether religious or ethnic) according to their percentage of the population. It is meant to represent all of Lebanon’s different ethnic communities-and attempts to equally distribute power- to minimize sectarian strife.


At the time of Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943, the National Pact, a gentlemen’s agreement between the country’s Maronite Christian President and his Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, consecrated this confessional formula. Religious communities were allocated specific political posts. Thus, it was agreed that the President of the Republic was to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim, and the deputy speaker of the Parliament has to always be a Greek Orthodox. Other lower political posts were also assigned according to this formula. Representation in parliament was set according to a ratio of 6:5 in favor of the Christians. In addition, the following requirements had to be satisfied:

1. The Maronites to not seek foreign intervention and accept Lebanon as an “Arab”

affiliated country, instead of a “Western” one.

2. The Muslims (Shi’a and Sunnis) to abandon their aspirations to unite with Syria.

3. Proportional allocation of political posts among communities according to their

numerical representation in the population;

4. A grand coalition between communities’ leaders on common policies that serve all;

5. Communal autonomy whereby each community is free to determine its own affairs

such as personal status laws; and

6. Mutual veto power, so that any decisions deemed detrimental by any community can

be voted down.

Note: (The Taif Accords of 1989, which officially ended the long-running civil war, reasserted the confessional formula but changed parliamentary representation to a 50:50 Christian/Muslim ratio.)


This seemed like it could work well, that it presented an equal opportunity for the different communities to share power. But like communism, this system of confessionalism, only sounds good in theory, but is almost impossible to implement in a real society. Over the following 6 decades, the country flipped 180 degrees. One of the most important aspects is that the Christians had closer ties to the west. You couple that with the fact that they controlled most of the power, and it became clear that an economic division between more affluent Christians, and the poorer Muslims would occur. In addition, more Christians emigrated from the land, and the poorer communities had more children and multiplied. This shift in the majority population (over 60% Muslim) has caused civil unrest among the poorer under-represented communities.

Years of underlying tension between rival communities created an animosity against those in power, and since the Christian party had the majority of control over the country, a religious divide was created between Muslims and Christians. In addition, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Israel resulted in a tremendous refugee population. The refugees were not given national status, and only had control over security and domestic issues inside of the refugee camps. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was booted from Jordan after years of using the country as a platform to stage attacks against Israel and terrorist attacks against foreigners. The Lebanese government, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, allowed the PLO to enter and base their new headquarters in Beirut. This would prove to be a grave mistake, and one that the country is still suffering consequences from today. The PLO slowly gained more autonomy and began being active in the Lebanese political system. Mainly Muslim, the Palestinian resistance forged relationships with it’s Muslim brothers, creating yet another threat to the Chrisitian stronghold. For three decades Lebanon was able to withstand the delicate balance of power and sectarian differences relatively well, with minimal confrontation and violence, until the spark that ignited a bloody 15-year civil war.


On April 13, 1975 gunmen killed 4 Phalangists on an attack in front of a Maronite church after services, on an attempted assassination of Phalange leader Pierre Gemayel. Believing the attackers were Palestinian, the Phalange militia retaliated hours later on a Palestinian work bus driving through a Christian neighborhood. In all, 26 Palestinians were slaughtered. Fighting erupted the next morning between the Phalange and Palestinian militias. Over the next few months, the situation got worse as the government became paralized and sectarian strife continued. As fighting spread across the entire country, civilians were forced to flee certain areas they lived in and move within the boundaries where their respective religions were dominant. This further divided the country, pitting Christians vs Sunnis vs Shiites vs Palestinians vs Druze. Divisions then arose within the religious communities as political vacuums were created, allowing different parties to seek control. Every political party and militia in Lebanon had at one time or another forged relationships and betrayed eachother at least once. To make matters worse, the PLO used Lebanon to stage attacks against Israel which led to Israeli involvement through a series of incursions into the country. Israel forged a relationship with the Phalange leadership and attacked PLO posts inside of Lebanon.

All in all the civil war which stymied economic growth, displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and left the leadership crumbled. An agreement was finally reached in late 1989 known as the Taif Accords. This took power away from the Presidency and installed an equally represented government. Parliament seats which favored the Christians 6:5 were now divided equally 5:5 between Christians and Muslims. In addition in absolved the warring militias and mandated the deployment of Syrian forced inside the country. Many were opposed to this, including Druze leaders who felt the Accords favored the Sunni minority and gave a green light for Syrian intervention. Nevertheless, the civil war did end and the long road to recovery began.


By 1976 there was still no end in sight to the civil war in Lebanon. The Lebanese government at the time requested assistance from Syria, and upon approval from the Arab League, an Arab peacekeeping force –made up primarily of Syrian troops – was sent into the country. The original task was to protect the Christians. The reason for this was that the PLO was seeking more power, and gaining more power, in Lebanon. The Syrian’s had always supported the PLO resistance, but slowly noticed the hunger for more power and a greater role in Lebanese politics. The PLO were not Lebanese, and were slowly losing their original sights on representing the Palestinian cause and working towards gaining a Palestinian homeland. Their attention turned to Lebanese affairs and their ties to the Sunni Muslims were strengthened. This also caused the Syrian’s to fear a Christian/Muslim partition of the Lebanese state. Therefore, the Syrian’s entered and began the impossible mission of disarming the various PLO and Muslim militias.

After about 2 years, the Syrian’s turned their attention to the Christians. As the Syrians were ‘cleaning house’ the Christians learned of more ambitious plans on the horizon by the Syrians. The Syrian regime – at the time under Hafiz al-Asad – sought to colonize the country, which in turn worried the Christian leadership and led to their demands for Syrian withdrawal. The Syrians did not take kindly to this, leading to 3 months of fighting in mid-1978 dubbed the “100 Days War.” During this time, Syrian forces bombed Eastern Beirut leading to the flight of about 300,000 residents. The Syrian presence expanded to the mountains, and by the end of the 1980’s the Syrian military occupied the entire country less the South, which was a security zone occupied by the Israeli Defense Forces.


Hezbollah did not exist until four years after Israel first invaded and occupied southern Lebanon in 1978. Israel had justified this occupation as a necessary buffer zone to protect its northern border. After years of occupying the largely Shia south, a civilian resistance movement was created to drive the foreigners out. Hezbollah initially recruited it’s fighters from relatives of those killed by Israeli intervention. Although an Islamic organization, it’s goal was not to turn Lebanon into an Islamic state, but rather resist the occupancy of Israeli forces.

The Lebanese armed forces have been historically weak, and unable to defend against foreign intervention. Hezbollah slowly gained arms and was devoted to protecting the Southern border. This reliance of civilians for protection allowed Hezbollah to gain popularity and become a mainstay in the political arena. Since the final Israeli withdrawal of forces from Lebanese territory in 2000, Hezbollah has been influential in the Lebanese parliament, holding seats and gaining autonomy over it’s Shia constituency.

PART II of this article will be posted in the days leading up to the Presidential vote and will detail the background and platforms of the rival political factions.

** Some information used in this article was taken with permission from the United States Institute Of Peace. Article – ‘Lebanon’s Confessionalism: Problems And Prospects’ by Imad Harb, March 2006. This can be found under
the section, USI Peace Briefings. **

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