Lebanon Table of Contents

IN LATE 1987, after more than a dozen years of civil strife during which as many as 130,000 people may have died, Lebanese politics had become synonymous with bloodshed, and political power had come to be equated with firepower. Within this context, it was sometimes difficult to recall that Lebanon was once considered by some to be a model of pluralistic democracy in the Arab world.

Despite the widespread erosion of law and order and the reduced effectiveness of the central authorities, in 1987 some vestiges of the traditional political system persisted. The president, as provided for in the Constitution, had been elected by the legislature, or Chamber of Deputies. He presided over a carefully selected cabinet, commanded the Lebanese Armed Forces, and supervised the civil service. But at this point, much of the resemblance between this framework and the pre-1975 Civil War national-level political structure ceased. In 1987 the president controlled only a small portion of the country. The members of the Chamber of Deputies had been elected in 1972--as of 1987 the latest election--and some of the deputies no longer even lived in Lebanon. Many of the traditional zuama (sing., zaim) of the various sects who had formerly participated in Lebanon's many cabinets were dead. The confessionally split Lebanese Armed Forces were only the sixth or seventh most powerful military organization in the nation. And the civil service, which still collected taxes and provided services to some parts of the country, did so at greatly diminished levels.

Lebanon's political traditions--including its internal contradictions--can be traced back several centuries. Under Ottoman rule (1516-1916) Lebanon's multisectarian character was already in evidence as powerful Druze, Muslim, and Maronite feudal lords extended their control over certain tracts of land in Mount Lebanon. They enjoyed a high degree of autonomy as long as taxes were paid to the Ottoman authorities. Likewise, under the short period of Egyptian control (1832-40), rule was relatively tolerant, both within the region and toward outside powers. It was during this era that European penetration helped Maronite Christians make gains against Druze landlords, and after the British and the Ottoman Turks drove out the Egyptians, Druze-Maronite antipathy turned violent. At the urging of the European powers, in 1842 the Ottoman Empire divided Mount Lebanon administratively, creating a christian district in the north and an area under Druze control in the south. But this system, called the Double Qaimaqamate, did not change the fact that portions of the various populations were still integrated. For example, Maronite peasants worked for Druze overlords. In 1860, in response to peasant revolts, Maronite-Druze animosities again boiled over. Although both sides suffered, about 10,000 Maronites were massacred at the hands of the Druzes. As a result, at the instigation of the European powers, the Ottomans reunited the two sections of Mount Lebanon, this time under a single, non-Lebanese, Christian mutasarrif (governor) appointed by the Ottoman Sultar, assisted by a multisectarian council.

After World War I and the defeat of the Ottomans by the Allied Powers, the League of Nations granted France mandate authority over Greater Syria, an area that included present-day Lebanon. As a result of Lebanon's years under the French Mandate (1920-43), the Constitution enacted in 1926 is fashioned after that of the French Third Republic. Article 95, however, is unique in that it provides for "balanced" confessional representation in government. In 1943 the provisions of this article were spelled out more clearly by unwritten agreements between Maronite and Sunni leaders. These agreements came to be known as the National Pact. The balancing advocated in the National Pact was meant to be provisional and was to be discarded as the nation moved away from confessionalism.

This movement, however, never occurred; in fact, in the years between the National Pact and the start of the 1975 Civil War, sectarianism became even more entrenched, and the principle of balancing, which created multiple power centers, frequently inhibited the political process. Basic philosophical differences on political outlook often separated the various parties. Bickering among elites was common, not only between Christians and Muslims but also among sects within each religious group. Also during this period, the political system of zuama clientelism, whereby powerful heads of families (similar to the feudal warlords of the Ottoman era) who wielded considerable political influence and dispensed patronage, became institutionalized. As a consequence, loyalty to subnational entities, such as family or sect, took precedence over allegiance to the state.

Other problems impeded the smooth operation of government. Chief among them was that the National Pact was based on the 1932 census, which enumerated Christians (including even those who had emigrated) to Muslims in a six-to-five ratio. Because this census was never updated officially, the growing number of Muslims, especially Shias, was not taken into account, thus giving Christians disproportionate political power. Many observers believe that it was the inability of Lebanon's leaders to agree on a new power-sharing formula in line with demographic realities that led to the 1975 Civil War.

Although it no longer monopolized the means of coercion, the government survived this conflict. The destruction and brutality wrought by both sides were catastrophic, but, except for a few small extremist groups, none of the armed militias demanded the abolition of the state or the abrogation of the Constitution; instead, many of them called for meaningful reform.

To some extent, the state and governmental institutions were able to survive through the direct intervention of external powers. In 1976 Ilyas Sarkis was elected president while much of the country was subject to Syrian presence. Then, in 1982 Bashir Jumayyil (also cited as Gemayel) was elected president largely under pressure from Israel, whose forces occupied most of southern Lebanon and Beirut. Because of the presence of a variety of armed militias throughout the country and the resulting "cantonization" of the state, in 1987 the term government had relevance only within the context of sectarian politics.


For more information about the government, see Facts about Lebanon.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress