The Middle East has never been known for linear politics or easy to predict coalitions. In a region that is dominated by absolute monarchies and one-man/one-party-rule, the tiny Levantine nation of Lebanon is the rare outlier in a part of the world where autocracy, religious militancy, and militarism rule.
Befitting a nation that is made up of nearly every major religious, sectarian, and ethnic group in the Near East, Lebanon’s history over the last half-century has been characterised by a litany of petty squabbles and crippling feuds between its rival political power-brokers and near-apocalyptic decades of war and violence that was rarely matched until neighbouring Syria descended into an ever-more macabre level of savage bloodletting that continues to this day.
The area now known as Lebanon has had a long history as one of the most bitterly contested pieces of prime real estate in the Eastern Mediterranean – a fact not lost on Alexander the Great who laid siege to the Phoenician city of Tyre in the fourth century BCE as he expanded his burgeoning empire beyond Greece and Asia Minor and into the heartland of ancient Judaea, Babylon, and Egypt.
Alexander’s conquest was followed by the Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Mongols, Turks, and the French over the next two millennia – all of whom left an indelible mark on the political and cultural basis for what would later form modern Lebanon.
When Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, which ended more than a century of French presence in the region, the country entered into a gentlemen’s agreement that laid the foundations of an independent Lebanon as a multi-confessional state known as the National Pact.
The agreement stated that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite. Parliamentary seats were to be divided equally among Muslims and Christians, then further subdivided among the smaller sects, with the influential Druze playing the role of “first-among-equals” for the second tier of society in the hope that none of the sectarian groups would ever be in a position to dominate the other.
There was a certain degree of understandable logic behind the Pact, but owing to the close cultural and political alliance that the nationalist Phalange party of the Maronites had with Paris – which dominates and continues to inform their the militantly francophone political culture – it became obvious that Maronites would emerge as the main power in Lebanon, with the overt political backing of a Western ally,
France helped craft the National Pact after basing it on a 1932 census that not only showed the wealthy, often Western-educated Eastern Rite Catholic Maronites as the majority in Lebanon’s patchwork society – but also the ones who could assume hegemonic power over key sectors of society.
That 1932 was the last national census carried out in Lebanon. Both the historically weak Lebanese central government and the Maronites have refused to conduct a new headcount, fearing that it would upset the very delicate confessional equilibrium in the country.
The country’s Muslim Arab populations – both Shiite and Sunni, with their high birth rates and early marriages – have long outpaced their Catholic and Orthodox Christian counterparts. They began to form a majority of the Lebanese population as recently as the early 1970s. That delicate balance was irrevocably altered with the influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) terrorist organisation following their ouster from nearby Jordan in 1973.
Arafat’s habit of harbouring openly hostile attitudes towards his often reluctant hosts– as he had done with Jordan’s King Hussein, whom Arafat and the PLO tried to overthrow and assassinate in 1970 during an operation that became known as Black September – helped facilitate further irreconcilable rifts in Lebanon’s society once thousands of his PLO fighters, heavily armed with Soviet-made equipment, appeared on the cosmopolitan streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut.
When civil war broke out in 1975, Lebanon’s main sectarian and ethnic groups – the Maronites, Sunni, Druze, Shiite, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Palestinian (including the PLO) – had each formed militias fully capable of carrying out the same savage urban warfare that we now see in Syria.
Despite obvious warnings that Lebanon was heading over the precipice, all of the armed groups – whose allegiances shifted on numerous occasions – set out on a course that would, over the next 14 years, see the country descend into hell and leave Beirut, once the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, reduced to rubble.
As Lebanese Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Palestinians fought and killed each other in murderous numbers, two entities ended up playing a major role in shaping Lebanon’s most recent history – Israel and the radical, Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah.
After learning that the Christians were faring badly against their Muslim and PLO foes, Israel entered into a strategic alliance with the Christians. Tel Aviv launched a major incursion into the south of Lebanon in 1978 after a bus full of students was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists, which left 13 Israeli children dead.
Though successful, the raid did little to calm the situation on Israel’s northern border. After the PLO attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to the UK in 1982, Tel Aviv launched a major invasion of Lebanon to once and for all destroy Arafat and the PLO. The IDF’s ensuing invasion was one of the largest in Israel’s history and the only time it laid siege to an Arab capital.
In close cooperation with their Maronite allies, the Israeli military spent more than three months in close combat with PLO, Syrian, Soviet-backed Marxist, Sunni, and Shiite forces. The Israelis successfully dislodged and permanently weakening Arafat’s PLO and temporarily diminished Damascus’ influence over Lebanon, but things took a dark turn after the Maronites’ merciless Phalangist militias carried out an act of vicious revenge for the assassination of their youthful commander and just-elected-president, Bachir Gemayel, and massacred hundreds of Palestinians and Shiites who had sought shelter in south Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Israel’s role in assisting the Maronites with the massacre and the loss of their close ally Gemayel left their position untenable and hardline Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin‘s international image severely tarnished.
When Tel Aviv opted to disengage from the active phase of Lebanon’s war, they and the large contingent of international peacekeepers came under an increasing number of coordinated attacks from a well-funded and highly organised Shiite militia with close ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Calling themselves “the Party of God”, or Hezbollah in Arabic, the group was formed by agents sent from Tehran, via Syria, to create a highly trained Shiite insurgency during the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Their operations were based in the Shiite strongholds of south Beirut and Baalbek – in the eastern Bekaa Valley on the border with Syria – as well as in the once proud coastal kingdom captured by Alexander the Great nearly twenty-five-centuries earlier, the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre.
Dubbed a terrorist organisation by the US, EU, and the UK years ago, Hezbollah has been responsible for some of the most brazen acts of terror in the world over the course of the last 30 years, including the kidnapping of dozens of Western journalists in Lebanon, the bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires, and the killing of more than 300 US Marines in Beirut during a car bomb attack in 1983.
Despite their early origins as a small, ruthless underground movement, Hezbollah has become the main political, military, and social organisation in the country and has vowed to rid Lebanon of all foreign influence that it deems a threat to the group’s own existence.
Hezbollah’s emergence began more than a decade ago after Syria, which had dominated Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war nearly 30 years ago, withdrew its occupying forces from Lebanon.
After essentially fighting the Israeli military to a draw in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah’s ascendency to the top of the political food chain in the country has been swift and steady as the other, historically more powerful Lebanese factions have been plagued by infighting between and mired in a series of never-ending power grabs by former warlords that include former Maronite militia leader and convicted human rights violator, Samir Geagea.
These squabbles and bids to exert even minimal influence in a highly fractured society has led to surprising shifts of allegiance – none more so than that of Maronite leader, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and current President Michel Aoun. Once a bitter enemy of Hezbollah, he now finds himself one of Hezbollah’s key allies
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared Lebanon’s May 6 election a major victory for his party and its Shiite political and ideological ally, Amal, who say they have made enough gains to effectively take control of the country. A close look at the results from the poll, Lebanon’s first since 2009 after years of political haggling and a concerted, if often debilitatingly misguided, effort by all to avoid another bloody civil war, shows that the Western and Saudi-backed Sunni Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, and his anti-Iranian Future Movement lost more than a third of its seats in parliament to Hezbollah-aligned parties.
Hariri, whose own father – former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – was assassinated by Syrian-backed Hezbollah operatives in 2005, will to be asked to form a new unity government, but will be a much-diminished figure utterly incapable of exerting any influence over an emboldened Hezbollah.
The radical Shiite group has seen its coffers swell with both Iranian money and arms as Tehran hopes to out a sphere of influence that would start from the Iranian borders and travel through the Mesopotamian heartland in Iraq, before extending to the Mediterranean Sea, via Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah returned the favour by deploying thousands of its elite troops to Syria to fight on the side of that country’s Iranian and Russian-backed dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
The knock-on effect, however, for Nasrallah’s own goodwill towards his patrons in Tehran has come at a heavy price for the Lebanese people. Lebanon remains in a perpetual state of paralysis while it hosts more than one million Syrian war refugees, its public debt stands at €66.1 billion – equal to 150% of its gross domestic product.
Hezbollah has successfully catered to the deep discontent that most of the Lebanese public feels for its almost comically ineffectual central government, while continuing to play to its sectarian base by accusing most none-Shiites of being agents of the West or Saudi Arabia.
The silver lining for those who remain in opposition to Hezbollah is the fact that the turn-out for the recent election was low – only 49% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Though Hezbollah walked away with a slight majority in the 128-member national parliament, what’s paramount in the fact that it will now be subject to a potentially transformative new electoral law that replaced the winner-take-all system that had been in place since the French withdrew their last troops in 1946 with proportional representation.
It is entirely possible that challenges to Hezbollah’s new dominance may emerge in future elections as smaller independent groups now have a chance to succeed at the ballot box – a prospect that simply did not exist in decades past.
With Lebanon’s history of ever-changing alliances and with a new proportional electoral system in place, a new political faction could appear and guide the country of 4.5 million away from the dominance of radical armed militia groups and towards a more predictable and peaceful democratic existence.