Ten years have passed since the end of the war in Lebanon. Although the political process has been reactivated—three parliamentary elections have been held, two presidents elected, and eight cabinets formed—and a large scale reconstruction plan was launched, Lebanon has not fully recovered from fifteen years of warfare, from 1975 to 1990. Instead, political crises have aggravated the situation, while reconstruction efforts have increased Lebanon's debt (from nearly $2 billion in 1992 to over $22 billion in 2000).
Something has been missing—what might be called "communal reconstruction," or national reconciliation among Lebanon's communities while attending to the grievances and concerns of each group. The Christian communities have been most concerned, not only because they lost power as a result of the war, but more because of developments occurring since the ending of the war in 1990.
The Fifteen-Year War
Lebanon's fifteen-year war was unprecedented in the country's modern history. Never before was there such a long violent conflict, involving so many protagonists, both internal and external, and such massive human and material losses. The two major violent conflicts in modern Lebanon—the 1860 war in the Ottoman period and the 1958 crisis—did not exceed one year and did not lead to large scale dislocations of civilians from virtually all parts of the country. Unlike the recent war, the 1860 and 1958 conflicts were quickly ended by a political settlement, backed by the major powers and accepted by most Lebanese. More important, the settlements worked. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Mount Lebanon enjoyed a "long peace";1 and in the aftermath of the 1958 crisis the country was not only stabilized, but it also witnessed an unprecedented era of state building launched by President Fouad Chehab.
The 1975-90 war, by contrast, neither ended with a peace conference nor with a negotiated settlement accepted by most Lebanese. Rather, it ended with another act of war, when Syrian forces joined units of the Lebanese army to oust an interim premier, General Michel Aoun, from office. 2 The impact of the 1975-90 war shook Lebanese society deeply. It also crippled government institutions, factionalized the army, and widened the sectarian divide.3 Unlike the ending of previous conflicts, when military confrontations ended in 1990, several thousand foreign troops were present on Lebanese soil: over 25,000 Syrian troops in various parts of the country and Israeli troops in the south until May 2000. Clearly, Lebanon today is more difficult to govern than before the war. Not only was the constitutional power equation altered, Lebanon's communal politics differed from the pre-war period. One notable development was the political mobilization and radicalization of the Shi`a community.4
The Ta'if Agreement
Another development was the political settlement embodied in the Document of National Understanding, commonly called the Ta'if agreement, signed on October 22, 1989, by Lebanese deputies in the Saudi city of Ta'if. One component of the Ta'if agreement dealt with political reforms; the other addressed Lebanon's external relations, notably with Syria, and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the south in accordance with United Nations Resolutions 425 and 426 of 1978. Other items in Ta'if such as Lebanon's Arab identity, the finality of the homeland, administrative reforms, and socio-economic policies were issues on which there was consensus among Lebanese groups prior to the Ta'if agreement.
Distribution of power. Stability in Lebanon has historically rested upon balance among confessional groups. Power was not allocated in Lebanon's recent history in a majority-rules system. Demography has always played a critical but not decisive role in Lebanese society. Maronites traditionally exercised power in excess of their numbers. Likewise, before 1920, the Druze community numbered about 10 percent of Mount Lebanon's population, but exercised power disproportionate to the community's size. Today, the Shi`a are most likely the largest community in Lebanon, numbering approximately 30 percent of the total population, but their numerical edge over the Maronite Christian and Sunni communities is slight.5 Although the Ta'if agreement preserved the custom of the Maronite presidency, the Sunni premiership, and the Shi`a speakership, it greatly diminished the power of the president and enhanced that of the prime minister, the council of ministers, and the speaker. 6
Relations with Syria. The notion of Lebanon's privileged relations (‘alaqat mumayyaza) with Syria was first established in the 1985 Syrian-sponsored tripartite agreement between the three main militias in wartime Lebanon: the Lebanese Forces, Amal, and the Progressive Socialist Party. Rejected by President Amin Gemayel, Samir Geagea, and other Christian leaders, the tripartite agreement collapsed. So did Syria's attempts to dominate the country. But then, four years later, Ta'if reinstated the notion of privileged relations with Syria. As a result, Syrian-Lebanese relations underwent a drastic change. Beginning in May 1991, the two countries signed a series of bilateral agreements which tied Lebanese affairs ever closer to Syria in the political, security, economic, cultural, and commercial arenas.
The political decision-making process in Beirut remains very much in Syrian hands. Damascus has influenced the adoption of problematic election laws and supported the prolongation of Elias Hrawi's term, and the 1998 election of General Emile Lahud to the presidency. The Syrian government has also kept Lebanon's foreign policy in line with Syria's priorities and objectives both in regional politics and in relations with other countries, notably the United States. In the assessment of key architects of Ta'if, notably former speaker Husayn al-Husayni, Ta'if has been fundamentally derailed. Husayni saw little resemblance between the original text of Ta'if and the reality that emerged a few years later.7 A former defense minister in the first cabinet formed after Ta'if, Albert Mansur, called government actions since 1990 a "coup against Ta'if." 8
Ta'if's new balancing act is inherently off-balance. With its limited room for maneuver, Lebanon is little able to redress the post-Ta'if imbalance and reinstate a new equilibrium. For example, the Ta'if agreement calls for the redeployment of Syrian troops to specific areas two years after the incorporation of Ta'if's provisions into the constitution; this was done in September 1990 but Syrian troops did not redeploy. What Lebanon gained on one front in Ta'if's agenda of reforms, it lost on another in Lebanon's restrained decision-making process. As a recent communiqué issued by the Council of Maronite bishops stated:
Now that Israel has withdrawn, is it not time for Syrian troops to consider relocating in preparation for a final withdrawal in conformity with the Ta'if agreement . . . This would preserve the historic and geographic links between the two countries and the ties of friendship and common interests between the two peoples.9
Rather than broaden the base of Christian support for Ta'if, Lebanese government authorities opted for the opposite course of action: no national unity governments were formed, administrative decentralization stalled, many displaced persons did not return, and elections were neither free nor fair. As a result, some Christian leaders who once supported Ta'if are now critical of it and question its utility. Indeed, in 1990, Lebanon's Christians were divided on the Ta'if settlement. One group, led by General Michel Aoun, opposed Ta'if, particularly because it did not set a timetable for the withdrawal of Syrian troops. The other group, represented by Maronite patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the Lebanese Forces, and the Kata'ib Party, supported Ta'if.
Lebanon today is not a reassuring place for Christians.10 While disenchantment is widespread across all of Lebanese society, the most affected, and thus most vocal in expressing dissatisfaction, are the Christians. What are the causes and elements that constitute the disenchantment? What are its political implications on communal relations as well as on the political process?
Loss of power. Government policies since 1990 have confirmed the Christians' worst fears, all the more so since for Lebanese Christians, fears are existential, while those preoccupying Lebanon's Muslims have to do with grievances of political and non-political nature.11 The former feel that Syria, through government action in Lebanon, has targeted the Christians, particularly the Maronites', role in Lebanon, a historically very significant one: Christians played a determining role in the formation of the modern state in the 1920s, in its independence in the 1940s, and in its renewal following the 1958 crisis. Measures against Christian parties and leaders have created a sense of insecurity within the Christian communities. Supporters of General Aoun, who has been living in exile in France since 1991, have been detained; many of them are university students. Likewise, the Lebanese Forces were dissolved, and their former commander, Samir Geagea, has languished in detention since 1994. Indeed, he was the only militia leader accused of crimes committed during the war, while other militia leaders are now leading figures in government. Since the mid-1990s, members of the Lebanese Forces, the pro-Aoun movement and Dory Chamoun's National Liberal Party have been detained and accused of plotting against national security.12 In contrast, Amal and particularly Hizbullah, the two armed Shi‘a parties, continue to enjoy a special status because of the armed conflict with Israel in south Lebanon. Even Palestinian groups are still armed, and some Palestinian camps remain inaccessible to Lebanese authorities.13 Some of these camps, particularly in south Lebanon (‘Ayn al-Hilwa near Sidon and Rashidiya near Tyre) house a large number of armed groups, some backed by Syria, others by Arafat, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The Christian problem also concerns changes in political practice. Although the 1926 constitution gave Maronites significant power via the office of the president, in practice, many constraints existed.14 For example, while the president led in time of tranquillity, during crises emanating from regional politics, particularly those linked to Arab nationalism, the prime minister gained an effective veto power, for no Christian president could run roughshod over Muslim sensibilities enshrined in the premiership. Accordingly, during the 1958 crisis, leading Muslim (and Christian) pro-Nasser politicians could limit President Chamoun's shift to the pro-Western camp. Likewise, the decision-making process was paralyzed in crises provoked by the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon following the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Such built-in equilibrium leading to political paralysis in crisis situations prevented one communal group from dominating Lebanese politics. Communities in pre-war Lebanon could both oppose government policies and (when issues divided along confessional lines) cripple the decision-making process. By contrast, Christians today are not in a position to veto government decisions, nor alter policies detrimental to their political and communal interests.
In the past, particularly since the late 1950s, reform within the executive branch and the government bureaucracy always went in the direction of greater Muslim representation and power. And while those reforms fell short of satisfying all demands, notably those of the Shi‘a, they did try to accommodate the community's interests. This has changed since the end of the war in 1990; Muslim politicians, unlike their Christian counterparts, have an effective veto power over policies detrimental to communal interests ranging from political power to material concerns such as allocation of funds to development projects.
Legal decline. Before 1975, some communities exercised more power than others, but no community could target another by legal means in pursuit of political objectives. Even when politicians abused legal means, such as in the elections of the 1950s, the targets were particular politicians from all communities rather than one particular group. Now, however, Christians feel targeted, for the law is selectively enforced to the benefit of Muslim groups and to the disadvantage of Christian groups.
For example, the founder and former leader of Hizbullah, Sheikh Subhi at-Tufayli, who is closely-affiliated with Syria, called in July 1997 for the "revolt of the hungry" and announced a campaign of civil disobedience in the Bekaa. He then declared the area inaccessible to government authorities and attacked cabinet ministers and local deputies in several publicized speeches. In January 1998, following the forcible takeover of a religious school near Ba'albak by Tufayli and several of his supporters, the Lebanese Army intervened to put an end to the conflict. Several people were killed in the clash, including one former Hizbullah deputy and one army officer. However, the warrant for Tufayli's arrest was never enforced, and his supporters remain active. Not only that, but Tufayli openly backed candidates running for the recent parliamentary elections last summer. Quite revealing is a similar case, that of Abu Muhjin, a Palestinian military commander from the ‘Ayn al-Hilwa camp accused of assassinating the leader of a Sunni Islamist movement in November 1995. Government authorities issued a warrant to arrest Abu Muhjin in 1996, but never moved to enforce it.
Electoral grievances. Lebanon's Christians have also been marginalized through changes in the electoral law. In 1992, only four weeks prior to elections to the first parliament in twenty years, government officials adopted a new electoral law. Christians and Muslims alike called for the election's postponement. On election day in 1992, only 30 percent of voters came to the polls. Boycotts were widespread but more severe in Christian areas. For example, in the predominantly Christian constituency of Jbeil, the two elected Maronite deputies received 171 votes out of a total of 63,878 in the constituency.
In the 1996 elections, the problem was the electoral law and the conduct of the elections. The 1996 electoral law was declared unconstitutional by Lebanon's Constitutional Council established in 1993. Electoral districts were gerrymandered to suit the sectarian electoral interests of all parties except the Christians. For example, Speaker Nabih Berri demanded and received the combination of two southern provinces into one constituency, as in 1992. Likewise, Beirut was one constituency to the benefit of Sunni leaders like Prime Minister Hariri. Mount Lebanon hosted six constituencies to cater to the interests of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and preserve his traditional Druze power base. Only in Mount Lebanon could Christian voters influence the outcome of elections.
In reality, the electoral laws of 1992 and 1996 have marginalized the impact of Christian voters upon the election of Christian deputies. In Lebanon's confessional system, parliamentary seats are allocated on a sectarian basis, but electors vote for candidates irrespective of the their sect. In a simple plurality electoral system like Lebanon's, the decisive factor in influencing the outcome of elections is the size of the electoral district, that is, the number of Christian and Muslim voters in each constituency. In regions with a Muslim majority, large districts (19 to 28 seats) were adopted, while small constituencies were adopted (3 to 8 seats) where Christians are a majority. In effect, Muslims elected Christian deputies in far greater proportions than Christians affecting the outcome of Muslim districts so that the elected Christian leadership often did not represent the view of a majority of Christians. In 1992, non-Christians elected 35 percent of Christian deputies.15 None of the fourteen deputies representing the Greek Orthodox community was actually elected by decisive Greek Orthodox vote. Similarly, in 1996, neither the Greek Orthodox nor Greek Catholic voters had decisive influence in choosing their eight deputies.16 This was not the case with most Muslim deputies whose elections were decided by voters from their respective sects.
The elections in 2000 differed little from the two previous elections. Electoral constituencies were designed to dilute the impact of Christian voters in particular constituencies. Although government conduct on election day was better than in 1992 and 1996, the Lebanese and Syrian authorities were deeply involved in the making and unmaking of electoral alliances before election day, thereby influencing most of the electoral outcomes. With the exception of a few deputies, the 2000 parliament is solidly pro-Syrian, just as were those of 1992 and 1996.
Many displaced. Seventy percent of Lebanon's nearly half million displaced persons are Christians, further skewing the vote.17 The problem of displaced Christians has yet to be fully rectified. Between 1993 and 1998, budgets for the displaced and the Council of the South, which handles funds for development in the south and is controlled by Nabih Berri, were allocated similar funds. However, the 1998 budget disbursed no funds to the displaced even while maintaining funding for the Council of the South. The Lebanese government has spent more than $600,000 on the displaced persons since the establishment in 1993 of a special fund attached to the office of the prime minister and administered by Walid Jumblatt, the Minister of the Displaced.18 The operation has involved large waste and led to a fiery exchange of accusations about the squandering of funds between Hariri and Jumblatt.19 More recently, however, the Huss government has given more attention to the displaced and funds were made available for their return.
Weak Christian representation. Muslim communities are represented by established figures with a large popular base and a significant credibility in the eyes of their supporters. Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, for example, is the leading Sunni figure in the country. So is Speaker Nabih Berri, who is also the head of the former militia-turned-political party Amal, and is one of the most influential figures in the Shi`a community. Walid Jumblatt is by far the strongest Druze leader. By contrast, Christian leaders who have credibility and popular support either remain outside government or in exile. The Christians are represented by politicians who either lack a power base or who have no mainstream legitimacy. Christian politicians in power in postwar Lebanon are, with few exceptions, restricted to those with close ties to Syria. President Elias Hrawi's political and popular standing with the Christian community, particularly the Maronite, is not comparable to that of leading Muslim politicians in their respective communities.20 Under different circumstances, some of the most visible Christian politicians would not be in office.
Naturalization of Muslims en masse. The most alarming recent impediment for Lebanon's Christian community has been the naturalization decree passed by the Hariri government on June 20, 1994, in violation of the Ta'if agreement, which increased the Lebanese population by nearly 10 percent, although 80 percent of the newly naturalized citizens were Muslims. 21 Approximately 40 percent of the newly naturalized22 were Syrian nationals, though between 25,000 and 40,000 Palestinians also became Lebanese citizens.23 The process of the naturalization decree was especially problematic. The government did not follow legal procedure, which mandates investigation of each individual case.24 Instead, naturalization occurred en masse, with little if any scrutiny. The impact of the naturalization decree tipped the demographic balance in some localities and reinforced electoral support for certain officials.25 It is one thing to have uneven birth rates between Lebanon's different communities, but it is another to alter the demographic structure by improper means challenged on legal grounds.
Compromise and Pluralism in Retreat
The shrinking margins in Lebanese politics go beyond the "power-sharing" of political and non-political rewards to reach the bases of the political system, the nature of communal relations, and by extension, the political role of the Christians in postwar Lebanon.
A root cause of the decline of the balance of communal power has been the gradual erosion of the two tenets upon which Lebanon's political system had long rested: compromise and pluralism. Both the 1943 National Pact26 and the Ta'if agreement were based upon compromise. This was embodied in the principle of communal coexistence (al-‘aysh al-mushtarak), as stated in the newly-introduced preamble of the 1990 constitution. Concomitant with compromise is political pluralism and, by extension, a functioning democratic political process. Lebanon's last line of defense against the decline of pluralism and democracy is its still-vibrant civil society.27 More than any other Middle Eastern country, society in Lebanon preceded the formation of the modern state. Pre-1920 Ottoman Lebanon had a functioning de facto "state," known as the Mutasarrifiyya. A robust civil society bestowed a liberal character, political diversity, and democracy on pre-1975 Lebanon. The outcome was a lively press, an impressive private educational system, functioning political parties, solid communal institutions, and active labor unions. In the war years, institutions of civil society, rather than the fragmented political institutions, kept Lebanon afloat. Civil society continues to distinguish Lebanon from other Arabic-speaking countries. But however impressive, Lebanon's civil society is now under increasing pressure.
Lebanon's pre-war state was not a Western-type democracy but (unlike its Arab neighbors) it enjoyed something close to it. Lebanese society was the freest in the Arab world. For freedom to flourish, both diversity and sovereignty had to be maintained in an atmosphere of tolerance and openness.
Lebanon today lacks those attributes of a free society, a sovereign state, and a functioning democracy. While historically such attributes were partly a function of the active role of the Christian community in the country's political and social life,28 today they are the concern and the responsibility of all Lebanese communities.29 Lebanon's delicate communal balance means that the political neutralization of one segment of society will undermine its very raison-d'être in a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes and religious radicalism and intolerance.
The politicization of Islam by state and society in all Arab countries is a departure from whatever liberalism existed in the past.30 While this is a challenge facing Christians and Muslims alike, Christians in Lebanon (and in other Arab countries) feel more threatened by the widening gulf between mounting radicalism and declining liberalism because Lebanon, as historically the freest Arab state, has the most to lose. This makes the Christian population even more important as a buffer between Lebanon's Sunni and Shi‘a communities. Should the Christians lose their demographic, political, or social presence, Lebanon will have to deal with the far more intractable problem of devising a functional political arrangement between the Sunni and Shi‘a communities.
Lebanon's malaise at present goes beyond the calculus of communal power politics since ultimate power is neither in Christian nor Muslim hands. The greatest challenge today is to reestablish balance in a state whose political fortunes are increasingly dependent on another state where pluralism and compromise are in short supply and whose stability depends on the suppression of the very tenets that account for Lebanon's survival as a plural and free polity. As Albert Hourani put it: "While for other [Middle Eastern] states political freedom is a condition of the good life, for Lebanon it is a necessary condition of life itself."31
Farid el Khazen is professor and chair of the department of political studies and public administration at the American University of Beirut and author of The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon, 1967-1976 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) and of several works on Lebanon and the Middle East.
Engin Akarli, (dotless "I")The Long Peace: Ottoman Lebanon, 1861-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 6-81.
William Harris, Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars and Global Extensions (Princeton: Marcus Wiener, 1997), pp. 243-278.
Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (London: I.B. Tauris, 1993).
Waddah Sharara, Dawlat Hizbullah. Lubnan Mujtama'an Islamiyan (Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 1996), pp. 253-388; Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shi‘a of Lebanon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 123-222.
Unpublished report submitted to the Special Synod on Lebanon held in the Vatican, 1996.
Joseph Maila, The Document of National Understanding: A Commentary (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1992), pp. 1-62.
An-Nahar, Nov. 7, 1994. For al-Husayni, "What is being implemented is neither the Taif agreement nor the constitution".
Albert Mansur, Al-Inqilab 'ala atl-Ta'if (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 1993), pp. 143-219.
An-Nahar, Sept. 21, 2000.
Elizabeth Picard, "The Dynamics of the Lebanese Christians: From the Paradigm of the 'Ammiyyat to the Paradigm of Hwayyek," Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East. The Challenge of the Future, ed. Andrea Pacini (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 200-221.
Habib C. Malik, Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and Middle East Peace (Washington D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1997), pp. 7-19.
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996 (Washington, D.C.: Department of State, 1997), pp. 1325-1336.
An-Nahar, Oct. 27, 1998.
Michael C. Hudson, The Precarious Republic: Modernization in Lebanon (New York: Random House, 1968), pp. 262-335.
Farid el Khazen, Lebanon's First Postwar Parliamentary Election: An Imposed Choice (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1998), p. 27.
Khazen, Lebanon's First, p. 27; Farid el Khazen, "Intikhabat 1996: Tamdid al-Khalal ‘Abr al-Intikhab," Al-Intikhabat al-Niyabiya 1996 wa Azmat ad-Dimuqratiya fi Lubnan (Beirut: Al-Markaz al-Lubnani li'd-Dirasat, 1998), pp. 269-306.
Kamal Fighali, At-Tahjir fi Lubnan: Istratijiyat al-‘Awda wa al-Inma' (Beirut: Al-Markaz al-Lubnani li'd-Dirasat, 1998). Boutros Labaki and Khalil Abou Rjeily in Bilan de Guerres du Liban, 1975-1990 (Paris: Editions l'Harmattan, 1993), p. 82, put the total number of the displaced between 1975 and 1989 at 827, 000, of them 670,000 Christian and 157,000 Muslim.
An-Nahar, July 10, 1998.
Al-Wasat, July 6, 1998; pp.22-23;; Nqula Nassif, "Al-Hariri-Jumblatt: al-Mal Awalan", An-Nahar, July 7, 1998.
On two occasions, candidates supported by President Hrawi in his hometown Zahleh were defeated at the polls: in the 1992 parliamentary elections, when his son lost to his cousin, who was then on bad terms with Hrawi; and in the 1998 municipal elections when most members of the list backed by Hrawi lost.
Al-Jarida ar-Rasmiya,Official Gazette, June 30, 1994; Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Nov. 11, 1998.
Al-Jarida ar-Rasmiya, June 30, 1994.
An-Nahar, Nov. 13, 1998.
An-Nahar, Sept. 27, 1995.
Tony George Atallah, "Al-Mujannasun fi Lubnan ma ba‘d al-Harb: Haqa'iq wa Arqam," Al-Abhath, 45 (1997): 97-111.
Farid el Khazen, The Communal Pact of National Identities: The Making and Politics of the 1943 National Pact (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1991), pp. 3-23.
Malik, Between Damascus and Jerusalem, pp. 65-78.
K. S. Salibi, "The Personality of Lebanon in Relation to The Modern World," Politics in Lebanon, ed., Leonard Binder (New York: John Wiley, 1966), pp. 263-270.
‘Abbas Baydun, "Al-‘Aqaliyat dudd al-‘Aqaliyat," Mulhaq an-Nahar, Jan. 10, 1998.
Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), pp. 193-252.
Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 322.