Sectarian and Clan Consciousness

Lebanon Table of Contents

Lebanon's somewhat peculiar political system has reinforced sectarian identification and consciousness. The tendency of the individual to identify with his sect as the major political unit has characterized the sectarian composition of political parties. That most militias in the 1980s were organized along purely sectarian lines, or that the army's brigades were also divided among the sects, indicates the primacy of sectarian consciousness.

In the mid-1980s there were other associational affiliations in Lebanon. Shia families in the Biqa were organized into clans (ashair) that have existed for centuries. The politics of the region entailed typical clan feuds, alliances, and themes of revenge, which local politicians exploited. The rise in sectarian consciousness among Lebanese generally did not necessarily conflict with clan solidarity. Another pervasive primordial tie that characterized the Lebanese was their fealty to a group of traditional leaders (zuama; sing., zaim). The system of fealty involves utmost allegiance and loyalty (including support in election times) by a certain family to a certain zaim, in return for services and access to powerbrokers. The relationship between the two parties is maintained by a system of obligations and political commitment. This system, a vestige of feudal Lebanon, fostered a bond of fidelity between peasants and the feudal lord. Zaim clientelism provides the individual zaim with undisputed leadership of a local community, which sometimes encompasses a whole sect (such as the zuama of Al Assad in southern Lebanon in the first half of the twentieth century). In the 1980s the zuama were in many cases the direct descendants of the great feudal families of the past.

A new development in Lebanon after 1975 was the rise of an elite that included a new stratum of emerging street leaders who enjoyed power by virtue of sheer military force, individual charisma, or even direct descent from zuama families. All three characteristics applied to the late Bashir Jumayyil (also seen as Gemayel). This stratum typically included young and dynamic sons of zuama, street thugs, and a rising elite of Muslim religious clerics.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress