Contemporary alliances -
“No country in the world has more political battles, military conflicts, and ethnic complexity per person and per square mile than does Lebanon” (Rubin, 2009). That is how the present-day situation in Lebanon is described in the 2010 book Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis. Torn by internecine religious and ethnic strife and pressured from outside by incursions from its neighbors, Lebanon is a society constantly in motion, always in turmoil and utterly prone to violence. Alliances are transitory and subject to shifts at any given moment, often with horrific results. The country’s main religious and political power groups include the Muslim Sunni and Shi’a sects, and the Christian Maronite segment of the population. The exigencies of political instability and pressures from the world’s most volatile region have, at various times, moved these groups in and out of power (though the Shi’a have had the hardest, longest road to follow).
Survival has been a matter of alliances, of joining with a rival in order to gain ascendancy over another, more threatening rival. This is the realpolitik of Lebanon. And it has made the Lebanese a constructionist people, more concerned with expediency and the demands of the moment, rather than with the lasting domination of ideology or even of religious doctrine. In recent years, when the situation has dictated, Christian has joined with Muslim because it was
politically savvy and profitable to do so. An article in Middle East Quarterly reviewed the machinations of Lebanese power politics, noting that Lebanon’s Christian Maronites have found common cause with the Shiites in an attempt to hold off growing Sunni power, not only in Lebanon but throughout the region. More recently, other Christians have swung into line behind the Sunni administration of Fouad Siniora, which took over after Rafiq Hariri was assassinated.
Six years ago, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah formalized an agreement with Maronite leader Michel Aoun, which was ostensibly aimed at establishing a transparent and representative democracy in Lebanon, yet which proved to be a veiled instrument of solidarity against the “Sunni leadership’s vast financial and entrepreneurial assets” (Khashan, 79). Khashan, having read the “fine print,” concluded that “Little of this had to do with Lebanon as a nation-state as much as with the attempt to preserve Shiite Maronite power against the perceived Sunni threat” (79-80). On its surface, this may have seemed a remarkable arrangement between historical antagonists, but seasoned observers of Lebanese politics understood that this was simply “business as usual” in a country where political adeptness is crucial. The “memorandum of understanding” signed by Nasrallah and Aoun outlined some notable developments, including the extension of voting rights to expatriates, mostly Maronite emigrants living in the United States, and the empowering of Shiite militancy, which the agreement basically equated with Lebanese national security (Khashan, 81).
In 2008, the Christian-Muslim dynamic became even more complex when the Siniora government, backed by Sunni, Maronite and Druse communities, attempted to close down a telecommunications and surveillance operation run by Shiite militant group Hezbollah. The fact
that the Siniora coalition was not strong enough to succeed offers proof that the Shi’a are still strong enough to force their position, and constructivist politics are prevalent in Lebanon. Ironically, the splintered political situation could force the sides to come to some accord given that neither appear to be strong enough to assert their will. As Georgetown University professor of Islamic History John Voll points out, “One of the challenges posed by thesituation in Lebanon is to find ways to use the new framework of Muslim-Christian cooperation to break with a history too often characterized by Muslim-Christian conflict” (2012).
Lebanon’s political roil, set on in part by external forces, has forced the country into a harsh constructivist reality. By definition, both ethnic and religious groups can be driven by constructivist needs/motivations. Both ethnicities and religions are “constructed for political and economic reasons. Modernity causes them to emerge, rise, then to fall” (Kauffman, 3). Then,
they are prone to being superseded by transnational or secular cultural forms as the political reality of their situation is altered (Kauffman, 3). In Lebanon, this reality is a manifestation of the politics of necessity, in which “the new-found Muslim-Christian cooperation is part of current conflict within Lebanon rather than involving efforts for increased stability and peace in the country” (Voll, 2012).
As Voll explains, the current Muslim-Christian alliance is part of a new political situation that is fundamentally different from that which characterized Lebanon in the 1970s. These broke down along religious lines and, as such, were relatively straightforward, very much in keeping with the kind of conflict that has long been typical of the Middle East. This phenomenon has been rendered superfluous in the current situation, with Christian factions joining forces along
both sides of the Sunni-Shiite Muslim divide. Voll posits a situation in which constructivist politics could be adapted to peaceful ends. Influential Lebanese religious leaders have used the interrelated webs of Christian-Muslim alliances in recent years to lobby for an end to violence and a renewed commitment to governmental and judicial processes (Voll, 2012).
It may have taken the new pan-religious political reality to edge conditions closer to a peaceful arrangement. In the 1970s, the Christian-Muslim divide precluded the possibility of serious peace talks. On its surface, the idea that Christians occupying both sides of the Shiite-Sunni power struggle could do anything but stimulate further conflict seems absurd. And yet the Maronites have long been the fulcrum of Lebanese history. In particular, the Maronites maintained an atmosphere of defiance toward the Syrians, who have frequently intruded on domestic Lebanese affairs. “Despite their political recession, lack of coherent leadership, and ‘frustration’ with Syrian domination, the Maronites remained Lebanon’s center of gravity” (Maddy-Weitzman, 387). The Shi’a and Druse leaders sought to take advantage of the Maronites unique position in the Lebanese political landscape by working to establish an alliance with the Maronites to drive a wedge through the Sunni-Maronite relationship.
The divergence not only of Sunni and Shi’a Muslim interests, but of Christian sympathies toward the country’s Muslim power bloc, showed that Lebanon could never be considered a primordialist society given the primacy of political leveraging that transcends religious and secular factors. The primordialist construct is defined by “Ethnic groups have a primordial origin, and are deeply rooted in human evolutionary psychology,” which is unlikely to be undermined (Kauffman, 3). The ethno-religious solidarity that is present in so much of the
Middle East is not present in Lebanon due to materialistic, rather than emotional or spiritual, elements. “Constructionists locate the motivation for ethnicity and nationalism primarily in material, i.e. political and economic, drivers” (Kauffman, 3).
Civil War -
The historical tendency toward ad hoc ethno-political arrangements can be traced to the civil war. The Maronites had been in control of the government since the country was formed specifically for them by the French. By 1975, pro-Arab forces, which represented the country’s majority, rose up against the Western-leaning Christian government with the backing of a large population of displaced Palestinians. The violence began as a conflict between Palestinians and Maronites, but quickly escalated as the Palestinians’ Sunni and Shiite allies entered the war. And yet this was no purely religious power struggle, but a cynical display of political jockeying in which treachery – between all combatants – was endemic. Over the course of the civil war’s 15 years, the struggle for power knew no permanent ethnic or religious solidarity. A materialistic striving for power predominated.
The initial alliance between Palestinians and Lebanese Arabs may have seemed to presage a bloody religious war, but instead proved to be more a matter of convenience, in which sides with similar political aims made common cause. As well, the struggle against a Western-backed regime may have appeared to motivate pan-Arabist allies, yet the truth was somewhat more cynical. Sensing the regime’s essential weakness, factions from within Lebanon and
outside its borders converged. The Lebanese model for political opportunism was set; 15 years of civil war made it a fact of life.
The census of 1932 was the last one taken in Lebanon for decades, ostensibly an indication of the volatility of majority influence and a general concern that violence might result over an “official” numerical superiority. The census had established a confessional, or religious, ratio of representation in government, with the Maronites originally holding power. Overall, Christians held a 6:5 edge in government prior to the civil war (Krayem, 2012). The offices of president, prime minister and speaker of the house were to be assigned to the Maronites, Sunni and Shi’a, respectively (Krayem, 2012). Ultimately, the census and the “National Pact” helped goad the various sides into conflict over the details of the established power structure. There arose a concern with the practical application of power rather than with an indirect, electoral pursuit that yielded delayed gratification. The power grab that ensued seemed at times like little more than mob violence, occasionally interspersed with serious attempts at establishing a serious coalition government. An attempt at conciliation resulted in the assassination of Prime Minister Rashid Karami in 1987 after three embattled years as head of a nascent national unity front (Lebanon – Civil War 1975-1991, 2012).
In 1988, another Maronite government was installed in violation of the unofficial National Pact, which called for a Sunni Muslim to be appointed as Prime Minister (Lebanon – Civil War 1975-1991, 2012). The result was a dual government, one Christian, one Muslim. When the Syrians became involved in the conflict, it injected a further complication into the conflict but did not alter the highly sectarian nature of the fighting. Ultimately, the war was a
protracted struggle for control, not a serious attempt to come to agreement or to instill a representative government.
The civil war was also marked by ongoing attempts by foreign players to influence events in Lebanon. Lebanon’s confessional parties had an extensive history of collusion with external powers in period attempts to gain a political advantage domestically. This dates to before the Second World War, to Turkish domination, followed by the influence of colonial powers, which created the Christian ascendancy and engendered internecine jealousies. The Maronites eventually became isolated and, at one point, were thought ready to break off and form their own Christian republic. Religious differences contributed to the lack of cohesion between Shiite and Sunni and helped solidify the politically materialistic orientation of the country’s primary ethnic groups.
This orientation has contributed to a diffuse modern-day political scenario. The ongoing struggle for power has led the Maronite Christian communities to ally with both Sunni and Shi’a in an attempt by both groups to gain a workable and actionable advantage. Even after the civil war ended, the political environment in Lebanon has remained predominantly fluid, marked by sectarian violence and foreign incursions. This ongoing struggle, with all of its historic antecedents, has created a clearly constructivist political dynamic which has come to typify the very character of Lebanese politics, and its relationships on the international stage.
Kauffman, Eric. “Primordialists and Constructionists” A Typology of Theories of Religion.”
Religion, Brain and Behavior, 2(2), 2012.
Khashan, Halil. “Lebanon’s Shiite-Maronite Alliance of Hypocrisy.” The Middle East
Quarterly, 19(3), Summer 2012, pp. 79-85.
Krayem, Hassan. “The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement.” Beirut: American Univ. of
“Lebanon – Civil War 1975-1991.” Global Security.org, 2012. Available from:
Maddy-Weitzman, Maddy. Middle East Contemporary Survey, Vol. 24. The Moshe Dayan
Rubin, Barry. Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis. New York: Palgrave MacMillan,
Voll, John O. “Muslim-Christian Relations in Lebanon: From Conflict to Dangerous Alliances.”
Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 2012.