A civil war raged in Lebanon for fifteen years, between 1975 and 1990. It opposed different sectarian military factions and was the spectacle of many massacres, forced population movements and high political tension. It claimed an estimated 120,000 lives. The conflict took an international nature with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)’s presence in Lebanon and the interventions of Israel and Syria in the conflict. The civil war was concluded by the Taif Agreement in 1989, and in 1991 an amnesty law was passed. Lebanon’s current political class gathers many people who had an active role in the civil war, or descend from famous militia families. The political climate therefore perpetuates tensions and mistrust between sectarian groups, as the country tries to go through the current crisis in the Middle East without experiencing renewed sectarian fighting.
The civil war that started in Lebanon in 1975 was caused by a convergence of different factors, both internal and external. The political situation became very unstable in the 1970s, with the rise of economic and social inequalities and uneven regional development. The confessional system based on the 1943 National Pact, which attributed proportional power to the major sects in the country according to a 1932 census, also provoked contestation and dispute among the Lebanese political class. Adding to these domestic political tensions was the question of Palestinian refugeesand the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Lebanon.
The civil war was marked by numerous political assassinations and an intensification of sectarian divides between Christians, Sunnis, Shias, and Druze, as well as intra-confessional clashes. Israel and Syria intervened in the conflict supporting different factions according to their interests. In 1982 Israel managed to considerably weaken the Palestinian presence in Beirut and progressively retreated from the conflict-area. Syria on the other hand saw its influence reinforced at the end of the war as it re-entered between 1987 and 1990 the areas it had lost to Israeli forces.
The Taif Agreement, which initiated the end of hostilities, was a compromise among Lebanese political and military groups and leaders. It defined Lebanon as a parliamentary democracy and held that the goal of moving beyond political sectarianism would be achievedthrough a gradual scheme. However, as such, the Taif Agreement furthered the 1943 National Pact in emphasising confessional compromise. The modifications were that the Agreement reduced the power of the President of the Republic while enhancing that of the Council of Ministers and its head, the Prime Minister. It also extended the Speaker of Parliament’s mandate to four years. These adjustments were aimed as cancelling Maronite dominance in government and finding a more equitable balance with Sunnis and Shias.
The Lebanese Parliament passed an amnesty law in 1991 and a few months later the militias, apart from Hezbollah, were dissolved. The country was occupied by Syria until the Cedar Revolution in 2005, which was prompted by the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since then, the Lebanese political spectrum is divided between the March 14 and March 8 camps, respectively anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian. Each camp is comprised of several political parties, most of which are based on sectarian lines and come from the civil war. March 14 brings together Christian, Sunni and Druze parties and March 8 is formed of Shia parties and a few Christian parties. The Christians are therefore seen as the swing community in current Lebanese politics.
The sectarian divide
Since the National Pact of 1943, governmental power is split between the major confessions in Lebanon, that is, Christians (mainly Maronites), Sunnis and Shias. The National Pact established that the role of President of the Republic would correspond to a Christian, that of Prime Minister to a Sunni and that of Speaker of Parliament to a Shia. The Taif Agreement perpetuated this sectarian division of power, although it balanced out the relative power each position held.
There are 18 registered confessions in Lebanon, and the four main ones are Christians (divided into Maronites, Orthodoxes and Catholics), Sunnis, Shia and Druze. There has not been an official census carried out in Lebanon since 1932, which explains why the repartition of power is highly contested, as sectarian demographics have considerably changed since the time when Christians were a majority.
Political affiliation, as well as geographical delimitations, nowadays reflect divisions according to sectarian lines. Indeed, most regions hold a religious identity resulting from population movements and sectarian conflicts over landthat took place during the civil war.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) settled in Lebanon after its expulsion from Jordan in 1970. Lebanon gathered many Palestinian refugee camps, established since the formation of the state of Israel. The presence of great numbers of Palestinian refugees changed the demographic proportions in Lebanon in favour of Muslims, which Christians saw as a threat. This capacity to alter the religious demographic balance is one of the main reasons why the Lebanese state refuses to grant Lebanese citizenship to Palestinian refugees. The militarisation of Palestinian camps with the arrival of the PLO in Lebanon highly destabilised the country, and justified an arm race among different Lebanese factions, which ignited the civil war.
Nowadays, Palestinian camps remain a source of instability in Lebanon. The harsh living conditions inside the camps, the extent of poverty, unemployment and the lack of civic rights creates a context where conflicts are prone to arise. This was the case in the camp of Nahr el Bared in 2007, where fighting took place for five months between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
Syria has had a strong influential power on Lebanese domestic politics and events. There are strong historical ties between the two neighbouring countries, and some borders are still blurred, in geographical as well as political terms. Following Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese civil war, it maintained its presence in the country until it was forced out in 2005 during the Cedar Revolution. These events marked the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon; however, they did not mark the end of Syrian infiltration of Lebanese politics.
What sparked the Cedar Revolution was the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which triggered suspicions that the Syrian regime, together with Hezbollah, was involved in this political crime. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was set up to investigate the case. The Lebanese political spectrum is divided over the role Syria should have in Lebanon; this itself shows the importance Syria has maintained in Lebanese politics.
The current Syrian crisis has a strong impact on Lebanon, where the conflict has already been exported and fighting has arisen between supporters of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and supporters of the Syrian Liberation Army. This has been the case repeatedly in the northern city of Tripoli between the neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, which respectively host Sunni opponents and Alawi supporters of Bashar al-Assad.
Lebanese political parties and militias
The war started in the context of a political division between the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), formed of nationalist and leftist groups and lead by Kamal Jumblatt (Druze), which allied with the Palestinians, and the opposing conservative group, the Lebanese Front lead by the Kataeb Party (Christian). The sectarian tendency of this division was quickly intensified as communities backed their corresponding leaders. During the civil war, the two main alliances were the Christian Lebanese Front which opposed the Palestinians, and the pro-Palestinian LNM, which became the Lebanese National Resistance Front after the Israeli invasion of 1982.
It is possible to trace in the further divisions of the civil war, the roots of today’s political parties in Lebanon:
- The Phalange, the military wing of the right-wing Christian Kataeb Party, was dominated by Maronites. Some main Kataeb leaders during the civil war were William Hawi and BachirGemayel, who was assassinated in 1982 after being elected President. Current political parties that descend from this civil war affiliation include the Kataeb (March 14), lead by Amine Gemayel and the Lebanese Forces (March 14), lead by Samir Geagea.
- The People’s Liberation Army,was affiliated to the Druze Progressive Socialist Party based in the Choufregion, which was initially lead by Kamal Jumblatt, assassinated in 1977. Nowadays, the Progressive Socialist Party (centrist, left March 14 in 2009) is lead by WalidJumblatt.
- The Islamist Amal Movement was a Shia party, of which Hezbollah, the National Resistance, was later formed. Nowadays, Amal (March 8) is lead by NabihBerri, who is also Speaker of Parliament, and Hezbollah (March 8) is lead by Hassan Nasrallah.
- Sunnis organised over al-Murabitun in West-Beirut. Nowadays, the Sunni political party is the Future Movement (March 14) lead by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, Prime Minister assassinated in 2004.
- Another main political party nowadays is The Free Patriotic Movement (March 8), which was created in 1992, after the civil war. It is lead by General Michel Aoun and is predominantly Christian, although officially secular.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was implanted in Lebanon from 1970 to 1982, when it was forced out by Israeli intervention. PLO leader Yasser Arafat, from the political party Fatah, was based in Lebanon during that time.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 in response to PLO attacks. In this operation, Israel occupied most of South Lebanon. Israel intervened again in 1982 after an attempt by Fatah to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in the UK. This intervention succeeded in expelling the PLO from Lebanon.
Syria intervened in 1976 in support of the Maronite government of Lebanon. It received a mandate by the Arab League for its troops to represent the main strength of an Arab Deterrent Forced aimed at restoring peace, which became a diplomatic tool for Syria to legitimise its actions in Lebanon. At the end of the war, Syria occupied Lebanon until it was forced out by massive protests in 2005, following Rafik Hariri’s assassination.
The United Nations
The UNintervened through the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) as a response to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon in 1978, with the aim of establishing peace. It is still stationed in South Lebanon and monitors the blue line between Israel and Lebanon, and ensures calm at the border.
The Lebanese civil war claimed an estimated 120,000 lives and wounded 1 million people. It was characterised by extreme violence which materialised in fighting between militias and other armed forces as well as organised massacres of civilian populations. Among the earliest and most major massacres were the Karantina Massacre carried out by Maronites and the retaliatory Damour massacre by Palestinians.
Intense fighting took place in Beirut between the East and West sides of the city, which became separated respectively into Christian and Muslim areas. The city centre of Beirut, “Downtown Beirut”, known as the “green line” during the civil war, which separated the two sides of the town, was deserted and totally destroyed. During the civil war, political assassinations became commonplace, as well as terrorist attacks, especially car bombs.
Fighting lead to considerable displacements of people, and to areas increasingly becoming separated along sectarian lines. This was the case in different areas of Beirut, as well as in other regions. In particular, intense fighting took place in the Chouf area between Christians and Druze.
The legacies of the intensity of fighting, the threat to civilians, the geographical redefinition of certain areas, and the technique of political assassinations are strongly visible in today’s Lebanon. Not only do some destroyed buildings remain despite the enormous reconstruction efforts which have revived Beirut, but fears and mistrust remain among communities. The threat of political assassinations and terrorist violence is constantly present, and such events regularly take place during periods of political tension.
In recent years, Lebanon has gone through several crises. The car-bomb assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005 initiated a series of similar political assassinations, targeting journalists as well as politicians who expressed strong opposition to Syria. This tense situation carried on until 2008.
In July 2006 a ‘33 days war’took place between Israel and Hezbollah, which inevitably lead to political disturbances in Lebanon. This was followed by 18 months which hosted a score of clashes between government and opposition forces. Thislead the Lebanese government to impose a curfew.
In May 2007, a conflict broke out in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, close to the Northern city of Tripoli, between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army. There was a simultaneous peak in bomb explosions in Beirut. The conflict in Nahr al-Bared almost plunged the country into a new civil war, but finally ended in September 2007.
In 2008 renewed fighting began between Hezbollah and pro-government forces, after the government decided to disable Hezbollah’s communication network and dismissed the commander of security of the International Airport who was accused of sympathising with Hezbollah. For 13 days, violent street battles took place, killing 100 people and wounding 200. A deal was settled between Lebanese leaders in order to prevent, once again, the country from falling into a new civil war.
Despite a few years free of political assassinations, threats have re-emerged since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011. The car-bomb assassination, on 19th October 2012, of Wissam al-Hassan, Head of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch, was the first of such cases since the consequences of the Syrian crisis started affecting Lebanon. General al-Hassan had arrested deputee Michel Samaha, an ally of Bashar al-Assad, in August 2012 for participating in the planning of attacks against Lebanese politicians.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, sporadic fighting has emerged in certain areas of Beirut and other Lebanese cities, where several people have died. Clashes have been carried out in a stronger and more consistent way in the Northern city of Tripoli, where the neighbourhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tabbaneh, respectively Alawi pro-Assad and Sunni anti-Assad, have been engaged in severe continued fighting.
Nowadays, the strongest armed group in Lebanon is not the official Lebanese Army but the Hezbollah, which is the only civil war time militia not to have disarmed. The justification of Hezbollah’s arsenal lies in its resistance to Israel. However, there are increasing attempts to transfer Hezbollah’s weapons to the Lebanese Army, in order for this official and representative institution to defend the country in a centralised way.
A great part of the Lebanese population is armed, which leads to easy escalation during protests and other types of political gatherings and contestations. Certain groups, formed as family clans, have developed their own military wings, and rule over certain areas of the country. This came to light in the recent incidents in the Bekka valley, which borders Syria (East Lebanon), when the Meqdad clan kidnapped 20 Syrians in August 2012.
There is therefore a serious need to properly disarm Lebanon and to coordinate its forces under a representative official command.
Furthermore, the instability that plagues the country is often caused by perceptions and fears, which bring back to the traumas of the civil war period. As communities decimated each other, people learnt to mistrust certain groups. The geographical divisions along religious lines caused by the civil war also decreased the potential for people to cohabit, and rather lead to a situation where specific areas belong to specific groups, with limited interconnection.
Re-building confidence between communities is necessary in order for stability to be initiated by the population rather than weakly maintained by political deals and status quos.
A significant cause for the population’s distrust is the fact that almost all members of the current political class have ‘blood on their hands’. It is therefore necessary for the Lebanese population to build peace from within and eventually lead to a renewal of its political class.