To Fully Understand what is happening in Lebanon today we have to delve, to some extent at least, into the history of Lebanon. Lebanon lies on the eastern born of the Mediterranean Sea and has some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world like Beirut, Sidon, Tyre and Byblos. It finds mention in the Old Testament as a place from where goods were imported to Spain and ships returned with Gold, Silver, Ivory, Apes and Peacocks – the land of the Canaanites and, later, the Phoenicians. Bordering Syria, parts of Lebanon have historically been parts of Syria and vice versa.
The city states of Lebanon later became part of the Persian Empire. Alexander conquered Lebanon in the fourth century BCE from where it passed into the Seleucid Empire. Christianity came to Lebanon in the 1st century CE and it was an important centre of Christianity as was the rest of Syria and most of Anatolia. Lebanon became a part of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century and was divided into two diocese which included large parts of Syria also.
In the 3rd to 4th century, an ascetic living in the region of Mount Lebanon formed a new sect within Christianity. He was Saint Maron and his followers came to be known as Maronite Christians. Though he preached a certain mysticism and asceticism, the Maronite church was always considered to be in complete communion with the Church of Rome.
In the beginning of the 7th Century, as a result of the Roman – Persian wars Lebanon again came under the Sassanid Persians. In the 7th Century itself, Muslim Arabs conquered Syria. Though the official language became Arabic and the official religion was Islam, much of the populace was slow to convert. The maronite Christians retained their religion and culture as also their Aramaic language to some extent and, to avoid persecution from Muslims, moved into the region around Mount Lebanon.
In the 11th Century the Druze faith emerged from a branch of Islam. The Druze do not consider themselves Muslims. They are an Abrahamic religion who profess that all the Gods therein are one. They only allowed proselytising between 1017 when Hamza ibn Ali ibn Muhammad was allowed by the Fattimid Caliph to preach his creed to 1043 when the Druze faith stopped accepting new converts. The Druze faith spread in Southern Lebanon.
Towards the end of the 11th century crusader knights from Europe had invaded this area. Responding to the call of the Byzantine Christians these knights set out on the crusades to “free the holy land” from the Arabs. Frankish nobles (from what is now France) established kingdoms in what is now Lebanon, such as the Kingdom of Jerusalem (founded in 1099 by Godfrey of Bouillon) and the County of Tripol (founded in1109 by Bertrand of Toulouse). These crusader kingdoms lasted for almost 200 years.
In the end of the 13th century Lebanon was conquered by the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt. Lebanon later passed between various Muslim rulers till the Ottomans consolidated their rule in the region. During the wars between the Mamluks and the Ottomans, the Amirs of Lebanon linked with Salim I of Syria who granted them semiautonomous status as long as they acted as his tax farmers. The Ottomans then ruled Lebanon through two main families, the Ma’an who were Druze and the Shihabs who were sunni muslims converted to Maronite Christian. The Ma’ans ruled Lebanon from 1517 to 1697. The main ruler was Fekhreddine II who can, in a sense be said to be the founder of Lebanon. He dreamt and fought for full freedom for Lebanon in vain and was finally executed for his troubles. He built close trade links with Venice and the Medici’s and modernised Lebanon in line with the renaissance. The Ma’ans were followed by the Shihabs. They ruled also as vassals of the Ottomans but the conflict with the Druze who found themselves being marginalised during the Maronite rule continued. The internecine warfare in Lebanon continued into the nineteenth century with the French backing the Maronites and the English backing the Druze and the Ottomans using both. Finally, in 1860 Napoleon III sent a large contingent of troops to Beirut to impose a partition. Druze control on the ground was recognised and the Maronites were confined to a hilly region cut off from Beirut and the fertile Beqa valley. Resentments grew in this period. This arrangement was ratified by the Concert of Europe. (The Concert of Europe may be said to be the precursor of the League of Nations formed by the Germans after the revolutions of 1848.)
We have had this peek into Lebanese history only to understand the demography. The Druze and the Maronites were always the ruling class but there were other sects, mainly of Muslims, both Sunni and Shia. The Maronites and Druze were always at daggers drawn and mostly always controlled by foreign powers who played them out one against the other.
During the 1st World War, contemplaing the defeat of the Ottomans and the collapse of their empire, the English and the French had already signed the Sykes Picot agreement about how to divide “spheres of influence” in the future independent states to be carved out of the Ottoman empire. However, after the war, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the San Remo treaty of 1920 made the final arrangements which were finally ratified by the League of Nations in 1921. By the mandate of the League of Nations the French were given the authority to rule over all of what was called Syria which included the five districts that now form Lebanon. In the 1919 Paris Peace Conference a Lebanese delegation led by a Maronite Christian claimed a large amount of territory to the east which would otherwise have been in Syria. This was accepted in San Remo. Due to this the demographics changed. Now the Christians (all types – not only Maronite) formed just a bare majority of 52%. The Sunni Muslim population increased by eight-fold and the Shia population by four-fold. In 1926 the modern Lebanese Constitution was drawn up. It was said to be an attempt to balance power between the sects but the French made sure that their Christian allies would dominate. The President, by the Constitution, is required to be a Christian (in practise, a Maronite). The Prime Minister had to be a Sunni Muslim. The proportion of representation in parliament at that time was fixed at 6 Christians to 5 Muslims. The President had veto power over any legislation that parliament passed. In time, the proportion of Muslims grew as did the unrest.
During the 2nd World War the rule of Lebanon passed to the puppet Vichy Government of France which was controlled by the Nazis. They allowed Lebanon and Syria to be used as a transport route for the Nazis to Baghdad. The British fought to get control of Lebanon and Syria. On 26th November 1941 General Catroux of France announced that Lebanon would be free under the Free French Government2 in 1943 elections were held in Lebanon and Parliament abolished the mandate. At that time an unwritten national pact was adopted. The main points were:
Maronite Christians not seek Western intervention, and accept an Arab-affiliated Lebanon, instead of a Western one
a Muslims abandon their aspirations to unite with Syria.
a The President of the Republic and the Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces always be Maronite Catholic.
a The Prime Minister of the Republic always be a Sunni Muslim.
a The Speaker of the Parliament always be a Shia Muslim.
a The Deputy Speaker of the Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister always be Greek Orthodox Christian.
a The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces always be a Druze.
a There always be a ratio of 6:5 in favour of Christians to Muslims in the Lebanese Parliament
Besides this, the national pact also made a division of the seats among the various religions. Five muslim sects were recognised (including the Druze) and 12 Christian sects (including the Maronites) and the Jews were recognised as a separate sect. There was a further sub-division of power among these sects.
Though Lebanon went through a period of relative peace and prosperity till the 1970s, history was posing a new challenge in its Southern sector.
In 1948 Zionist mobs massacred and occupied Palestine. 110000 Palestinians are said to have crossed the northern border of Palestine into southern Lebanon. Many more also came in during and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. Lebanon became a base for the Palestinians wanting to fight for their homeland. Due to this it also became the target of US and Israeli troops and bombings. Opinion was divided and sharply polarized in Lebanon about the Palestinians with the Muslims mainly supporting the Palestinians and the Maronite Christians mainly opposing.
Many other nuances of the situation need not detain us now. Tensions in Lebanon grew in the internal population till 1975 when they exploded into open civil war in Lebanon. There was a tangled network of sectarian militias operating throughout the country. Added to these were Palestinian armed groups, the Israeli army and their proxies, the Syrian armed forces and forces of other foreign powers including two peace keeping forces – one by the UN and another by a group of countries after the 82-83 peace accord. All of Lebanon was a military camp with travel even within Beirut becoming impossible without special permits from myriad forces who controlled portions of the city. The civil war ended in 1990 largely due to the Taif Agreement of November 1989. The main points of this agreement were that the Muslims would not try and merge Lebanon with Syria or some other Arab nation and the Christians would not look to the West while reducing the power of the Christians by making the proportion in Parliament as 1:1 between Muslims and Christians and removing the veto and overriding powers of the President (except in National Emergencies). All the militias (except Hezbollah) were disarmed and gave up control of their respective areas to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Hezbollah was allowed to remain as a defensive force (in part in recognition of the attacks coming from across the Israeli border).
In the end after the Taif Agreement the Lebanese parliament consists of a complex calculus. Lebanon is divided into 26 constituencies that are then grouped into five regions: Beirut, Beka, Mount Lebanon, North Lebanon, and South Lebanon. Each district has a certain number of parliamentary seats determined by district population. Of these districts, Beirut is the largest and elects 19 deputies while Minié is the smallest and elects only one. What makes Lebanon’s system unique is that each district reserves seats for different religious groups, ensuring representation of all minorities. Taking Beirut as an example, of the 19 total seats, 9 are reserved for Muslims and 10 for Christians (further divisions are made among the groups ensuring that the proportion of seats allocated to Sunni, Druze, Shi’a, Greek Orthodox, Maronite candidates represents the districts demographic reality). The final result ensuring a 64-64 split among Christians and Muslims looks like this (Other sects, though recognised are small and included in other larger sects, eg. Ismailis are included among the Shias).
Nor is this confined only too Parliament. The system was self propagating and therefore ensured that the seats in Civil Services (down to even what we would call class IV) and other important allocations like recruitment into the armed forces are all made in this proportion.
This is the sectarian system which rules Lebanon. Some may say that it resembles the reservation system in India. There is a crucial difference. The system of reservation in India has been made to aid an oppressed section of the people. In Lebanon it is all pervading. It has nothing to do with ending oppression only with preserving religious power.
We have to see the present turmoil in Lebanon in this context. Lebanese politics has never been simple to follow. For instance, lets start with Rafik Hariri, supposedly one of the main architects of the Taif agreement. He was a billionaire builder and the first post civil war Prime Minister of Lebanon from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 to October 2004 when he resigned. He was assassinated in early 2005. The Hezbollah was strongly suspected of having a hand in his assassination. In fact, only in August 2020 the Special Tribunal on Lebanon has found the 4 accused Hezbollah members not guilty. In the 2018 elections, the Future Party of Rafik Hariri, now headed by his son Saad Hariri suffered a setback and the Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal had big gains. In sptie of this, after the 2018 elections Saad Hariri became Prime Minister with the backing of the Hezbollah till October 2019. (Rafik Hariri’s personal fortune is said to have increased from $ 1 billion when he became Prime Minister to over $ 16 billion when he died.)
In October 2019 massive protests broke out in response to the Government’s new tax on various items like petrol, tobacco and VOIP (including whatsapp calls). All this was in response to the deteriorating economic condition of Lebanon due to corruption and flawed fiscal policies. Also the western powers were not in a mood to help Lebanon since the 2018 elections where the Hezbollah had emerged as one of the main forces. In this situation the economy was falling. In response to the protests, Saad Hariri resigned as the Prime Minister in November 2019. In December President Michel Aoun invited a former finance minister, Hassan Diab to form the cabinet and his cabinet was installed in January 2020.
Covid has worsened the economic situation. There is uncertainty and chaos everywhere. Hassan Diab made attempts to appeal to the IMF but this is controlled by the US. The US and the Western powers seem to have imposed an undeclared blockade on Lebanon due to the influence of the Hezbollah. In April the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a statement that if the western powers were unwilling to help China would help.
China is known to have a keen interest in Lebanon. It would be a vital part of its One Belt One Road initiative, situated as it is at a strategic point on the Mediterranean and being a perfect point for trade links between Asia and Europe. Israel and the US are, of course, against this Chinese initiative. China has been giving extensive aid to Lebanon and has been the largest exporter to Lebanon since the past few years. Some reports say that in this year (after Covid and the western undeclared blockade), 40% of Lebanon’s imports are from China. In May the Chinese delegation met the leaders of Lebanon and promised help in Lebanon’s failing electricity system (It is normal in Lebanon to have eight hours of power cuts every day), in building a coastal railway and in building a tunnel to directly connect the Bekaa valley. In the end of July the US embassy issued a statement accusing China of pulling Lebanon into a Debt trap. The Chinese responded with a statement saying that their aid is always without any political strings attached.
At present though there is a lot of different forces in the demonstrations ranging from sectarian forces to forces backed by foreign powers, there is large trend within the movement which wants an end to the whole sectarian system and the introduction of a proper democratic system. They suggest the immediate formation of an independent government of experts which will oversee the formation of a sort of constituent assembly to discuss and make appropriate changes in the Constitution ultimately leading to a properly democratic and non-sectarian parliament. The Lebanese Communist Party is a part of this this trend. The ICOR has also issued a statement in support of this trend. It will be the duty of all democratic forces all over the world to protect the independence of the Lebanese, to see that no foreign powers are allowed to intervene at this crucial moment and to back the non-sectarian trend in the movement of which the Lebanese Communist Party is a part.