The economic, Sectarian and Political factors that Led to the Lebanese Civil War

Examine the economic, sectarian and political factors leading to the Lebanese civil war.  To what extent was the crisis of Lebanese identity?

The Lebanese civil war occurred between 1975 and 1990. Lebanon is a country in the Middle East with an approximate population of 4 million people. Its history was characterized with a mutual coexistence between Muslims and Christians within the same environment. Religious diversity was vast and peaceful. It included 18 communities; the largest of which were the Sunni, Catholic, Orthodox, Maronite, Druze and Shiite. After the creation of Israel State in 1948, Palestinians migrated to other Arab nations including Lebanon (Azar and Mullet, p.737). The repression of Palestine at Jordan in 1971 also led to the flight of Palestinians. As a result, Lebanon received more than 150,000 Palestinian refugees. Disagreements occurred about the adoption of these refugees, leading to conflicts between Muslims and Christians which led to the civil war of 1975. The civil war was characterized by inhumane acts such as car bombings, violence, kidnappings and mass murders.

This essay comprehensively examines the economic, political and sectarian factors that led to the Lebanese civil war. It also seeks to determine whether the Lebanese civil war was a crisis of Lebanese identity. There are various schools of thought which attempt to explain the causes of the civil wars. Some people argue that the civil war was caused by weak political system; others blame the sectarian divisions while others consider Lebanese economy as the major cause of the war. This research essay argues that the major crisis of Lebanon that led to the civil war of 1975-1990 was multi-sectarian conflicts accelerated by political incitements, fight over resources, and interference from foreigners especially refugees from Palestine (Azar and Mullet, p.737). Therefore, the civil war was caused by internal and external conflicts that resulted from an interaction of various economic, political and sectarian problems experienced over time in Lebanon.

Various studies have focused on the civil war and attempted to explain factors that led to the civil wars. Most of those studies consider religious or sectarian conflicts as the main causes of the Lebanese war. The war was also a crisis of Lebanese identity as different conflicting groups fought to maintain their identities at the expense of Lebanese nation-state (Khalaf, p.88). The main sects that were in conflict with each other were Christians and Muslims. However, it is important to consider other factors of Lebanese political and economic systems which could be the possible factors leading to the war.

The political factors in Lebanon played a crucial role in promoting the Lebanese civil war. Historically, Lebanon has been divided over many centuries along vertical lines of villages, tribes, clans, ethnic groups and sects. The most common division in Lebanon is the sectarian division which divided the country into different sects. The political system of the country involved the control of the nation by elites. The agreement between Maronite and Sunni elites in 1943 led to Lebanese independence from the French domination. This agreement provided the basis for both domestic and international relations (Najem, p.6). It led to confessional political regime which entailed the sharing of power among various religious groups in such a way that communities with the largest population were given the most political power. The 1932 census showed that Christians had the largest percentage of 51.2% in the country while Muslims represented 48.8% of the total population (Najem, p.7). The Sunni was the largest Muslim populations (22.4%) while the Maronite (28.8%) represented the largest percentage of Christians. This indicates that in the 1943 agreement Christians were guaranteed the most political power. The Maronite received the most power among Christians while the Sunni received the most power among the Muslims.

In the 1943 National Pact, guaranteed Christians 6 parliamentary seats and gave Muslims 5 seats. The National Pact also resolved that there would be a neutral foreign policy in Lebanon whereby the Maronite elites would give up its political allegiance to the west and Sunnis would accept the independence of Lebanon from the Arab world. Therefore, the Maronites received the hegemonic control of Lebanon while the Sunni strengthened its position in the Muslim community. This National Pact led to a form of political system called consociational democracy which cemented the horizontal and vertical inequality in Lebanon; leading to internal conflicts which were heightened by external influences (Azar and Mullet, p.741). Instead of solving conflicts, power sharing in Lebanon fueled them.

Consociationalism was a political system which involved a democracy designed by an elite cartel to turn a fractured political culture into a stable democracy. This political system set clear boundaries between political and social subcultures in order to minimize contacts between groups and reduce hostilities. However, Najem (p.5) suggests that consociationalism increased instability in Lebanon instead of solving it. The consociational political system made the country to become vulnerable to outside sources of instability. In a consociational system, elites within each political and sectarian group worked closely together and maintained a strong control over followers. The failure of the consociational political system to adapt to the changing environment led to the collapse of Lebanon’s political system. Social mobilizations are usually common in developing countries, and it leads to several changes. The failure of the consociational system to accommodate these changes led to the conflicts that caused the Lebanese civil war (Najem, p.5). The static political system was unable to adjust to changing democratic, political, social and economic developments in Lebanon.

A major political cause of the civil war was also political pressure for redistribution of political power by some groups which felt that they were underrepresented in the country’s political system and decision making process. Some ethnic groups including the Shiites claimed that the Maronite were no longer the largest group numerically, so they had no more reason to continue dominating the political power as suggested by the National Pact of 1943 (Khalaf, p.65). The Shiites claimed for some share of political power which they believed they deserved but were denied. The Leftists started to oppose the status-quo that was enjoyed by the Rightists. They called for a change of the Lebanese political system and foreign policy to favor pro-Arab agendas. Most of the Lebanese elites affiliated to the Christian community resisted the political pressure from the Leftists and opposed the proposed radical changes of the status quo. Due to the two forces of political pressure and resistance, the political system became polarized and conflicts emerged; leading to the civil in 1975.

One of the schools of thought which support the influence of sectarian factors on Lebanese civil war was supported by some prominent observers including Kamal Salibi and Albert Hourani (Najem, p.11). These Lebanese observers argue that the Lebanese civil war was caused by sectarian divisions. The divisions included Muslim communities which supported pan-Arabism and Christian communities which advocated for pro-Western Lebanon (Salibi, p.78). The National Pact of 1943 caused a compromise between various sects in Lebanon and neutralized the country’s foreign policy. The supporters of sectarian factors as the main causes of Lebanese civil war argue that sectarian mistrust on the compromise between various sects was more powerful than interest of different classes as the cause of conflict in Lebanon. Arab socialism and nationalism were strong upheld by the pro-Arab sects who mainly comprised of Arab Muslims. These Muslims were also considered by Christians to be supporting pro-Palestinian and Arab nationalist’s pro-Arab agendas. Salibi (p.80) suggests that the Lebanese war crisis was a crisis of identity. This is because Christians did not see the opposition of the Left as an opposition of the privileges guaranteed by the political system to the wealthy; but as an opposition propagated by Muslims who were pushing for the eradication of the Westernized nature of Lebanon. Christians also perceived Muslims as a threat to the dominance of traditional Christian community in Lebanon.

The group of people opposing the proposition that sectarian factors caused the Lebanese war claim that the calls for radical change in Lebanon just prior to the civil war were not supported by the Sunnis, who were the Muslim majority in 1943 when the National Pact favored their suitability as the largest group to get the most political power among the Muslims. If the civil war was a purely sectarian affair, the Sunnis would have joined other Muslims to fight against the Maronite domination (Salameh, p.106). However, they chose to cling to their power just like other elites. This argument suggests that the conflicts that led to the civil war were primarily conflicts between political classes – the elites and the mass followers, rather than sectarian conflicts.

The civil war was also caused by the loss of Lebanese identity as different groups aligned themselves to some political and/or sectarian causes (Salameh, p.110). When the Sunni lost the support of their clients, they joined the pan-Arab activists. This led to further conflict with other elites, especially the Maronites. The conflict then turned to become sectarian-based because the Sunnis felt more comfortable supporting the pan-Arab causes than the Christian causes advocated by other elites (Kaufman, p.56). The increased demands from the Muslims, opposition from Sunni elites, and the presence of Palestinians in Lebanon hardened the attitudes of the Maronite sect elites. This indicates that there were political conflicts between elites and sectarian conflicts between different sects. The elites did not agree with each other as sectarian forces pulled them further apart from each other. The Muslim elites joined pan-Arab groups while the Christian elites supported western causes. Generally, this crisis was a crisis of identity because each group wanted to identify itself with a certain group of elites or sects and the Lebanese identity was lost completely.

Another school of thought supported the argument that the civil war was primarily caused by external forces, especially the conflict between Israel and Palestine. This group suggests that the external forces were motivated by both sectarian and political causes to join the conflict in Lebanon. Kaufman (p.67) suggests that the entry of Palestinian pro-Arab Muslims into Lebanon increased the disintegration of Lebanese identity. Israeli-Palestine conflict and the presence of armed Palestinians in Lebanon polarized the domestic political system of Lebanon. The Palestinians drew pan-Arab Lebanese into the Israeli-Palestine conflict and supported the Left group of Lebanon in their fight against the ruling Right Lebanese. As a result, this caused tension as the Maronites feared that that the presence of Palestinians in Lebanon would upset the balance of power in the country.

The entrance of Palestinian immigrants into Lebanon boosted the Muslim radicalism and the Leftists intensified their hostile tendencies in Lebanon. As a response to the increasing aggressive tendencies of Palestinians and Muslim Lebanese, Christians in Lebanon moved to the Christian Right in masses (Salloukh, p.17). This exacerbated tensions which finally sparked conflicts that led to the collapse of the Lebanese political system and the emergence of the Lebanese civil war. The Maronites intensified their aggressiveness and armed themselves to attack Palestinians. In 1975, military conflict began; leading to the civil war.

The economic causes of the civil war can be examined from a Marxist point of view which suggests that Lebanese economic problems led to the Lebanese civil war of 1975. Proponents of this view argue that Lebanon was a wealthy nation with a lot of gold and hard currency reserves but the wealth of the nation was not distributed equally among all the classes, sects and ethnic groups. Najem (p.11) suggests that the income or wealth of Lebanon was divided in two groups. First, the wealth was divided in terms of class. There were three classes, each of which received a different share of the country’s wealth. The dominant economic class consisted of 4% of the total population and received 32% of the total Lebanese GNP. The other two classes were weak middle class and large proletariat. 40% of the total GNP of the country is shared among the largest proletariat class which is made up of 82% of the total population (Sammān, p.102). Secondly, Lebanese economic wealth was distributed in terms of geographic location. The largest share of Lebanese wealth was concentrated in Beirut. By 1957, almost a third of Lebanese wealth was concentrated in Beirut. The agriculturalist geographic areas of Lebanon which absorbed nearly half of the country’s total population contributed only 15% of the total wealth of the country.

Economic inequalities in Lebanon also affected the traditional Lebanese patron-client system. The government’s attempt to assist rural areas through rural development projects met a lot of resistance from the Sunni elite group which feared that the government help would undermine its control over the patronage system (Najem, p.11). This increased poverty in the rural areas; hence causing migration from the rural areas to Beirut. This caused more problems to the Sunni elites because their control base rose beyond their control. The Sunni Zu’ama was also unable to control their patronage due to increasing migration of rural dwellers to urban centers. The population moving into urban centers also faced a lot of problems because the government was either unwilling or unable to support them; hence they became more aggressive and radical through their hardships. Under the Leftist leadership, the poor people classes of Lebanon rose to oppose the government and the wealthy people. The rich then used force to counteract such opposition from the poor. This resulted in the civil war.

Another economic cause of civil war in Lebanon was the greed that affected the exploitation of natural resources in Lebanon. According to Owen (1976), grievance and greed played a significant part in promoting economic problems that led to the civil war in Lebanon. The rich people exploited natural resources to accumulate wealth while the poor people showed their grievances. As the poor complained, the rich reacted with force. This angered the poor even more; causing them to become more aggressive. The grievance of the poor and the greed of the rich interacted with social factors to cause tensions in Lebanon which promoted the civil war.

Despite these views on the economic causes of the civil wars, some historians argue that economic factors did not play a significant role in the emergence of the civil war. The proponents of this argument suggest that Lebanon had a strong economy just before the civil war, and several years into the civil war (Salameh, p.116). The merchant class was also strong and per capita income was also high. The economy was growing in recommendable rates and employment rate was rising. Such a strong economy is usually associated with a peaceful environment with low chances of civil wars.

There are also arguments which suggest that the Lebanese civil war was caused by an interaction of all the three factors – economic, political and sectarian factors. Most studies actually converge at this argument because analysis of the three factors indicates that the factors are inseparable. For instance, political factors are influenced by sectarian factors because those who controlled political system in Lebanon had their own sectarian beliefs and ambitions to protect (Salibi, p.37). Similarly, those who did not have political power fought for political power in order to protect their sectarian causes. This indicates that political and sectarian causes of the civil war interplayed in an already compromised environment.

Economic and political factors also affected each other to cause the civil war. For instance, the economic inequality that caused tension between the rich and the poor was caused by the political motives of the ruling class to accumulate wealth for in order to maintain their political power and the political power of their sects. Members of each group or community used all the available tools to expand their power and control Lebanon; including political, economic and sectarian mechanisms. For example, Imam Sadr of the Shi’a community launched a movement in 1974 known as Amal Movement to mobilize political support in order to strengthen the political and economic status of his Shi’a community (Salibi, p.36). Another intention of the movement was to counteract the increasing force of the Palestinians in the South. The Movement grew to become one of the leading forces in the civil war. The intention of each community to gain political and economic power as well as maintain its sectarian position led to the loss of Lebanese identity as each group fought to sustain its identity over other groups. These groups were mainly sectarian and political. The Taif Agreement which ended the civil war comprised of solutions to all the three types of factors; hence they all contributed to the civil war.

The Lebanese Muslims regularly highlighted their political grievances and agitated for equal sharing of power and economic benefits with the Christians (Azar and Mullet, p.738). They wanted to gain political power in order to control private enterprises. The ruling Christians resisted these agitations and grievances for the same reasons of controlling economic enterprises and protecting their political and sectarian interests (Azar and Mullet, p.742). This shows that the political, sectarian and economic factors were all causes of the Lebanese war. Outside forces also interfered with the Lebanese conflicts for sectarian, political and economic reasons.

In conclusion, it is clear that the civil war of 1975-1990 in Lebanon was caused by economic, political and sectarian factors. In terms of economic factors, economic inequality in Lebanon led to the rise of the poor and rich classes which fought against each other over the control of Lebanese plenty resources. This led to conflicts that caused the civil war. Political factors caused the civil war because various political groups fought over political power. Pan-Arab idealists and Christian pro-Western idealists fought to put their regimes into power. In terms of sectarian factors, the Muslims wanted their pan-Arab causes to be upheld while the Christians wanted their Western ideals to control Lebanon. This led to inter-sectarian conflicts between Muslims and Christians. These economic, political and sectarian factors were fueled by external forces including Arab-Israeli conflict and the presence of Palestinian Muslims in Lebanon who supported Lebanese Muslims. An interaction of all these factors resulted in the loss of Lebanese identity as each group fought to maintain its status and power.


References list

Secondary Sources

Azar, Fabiola, and Etienne Mullet. 2002. “Muslims and Christians in Lebanon: Common Views    on Political Issues.” Journal of Peace Research 39 (6):735-746.

Kaufman, Asher. 2014. Reviving Phoenicia: The search for Identity in Lebanon. London: I.B.       Tauris & Co. Ltd.

Khalaf, Samir. 1987. Lebanon’s Predicament. New York: Columbia university press.

Najem, Tom. 1998. The collapse and reconstruction of Lebanon. Working Paper. University          of Durham, Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham.

Owen, Roger. 1976. Essays on the Crisis in Lebanon. London: Ithaca Press.

Salameh, Franck. 2010. Language, Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case of    Lebanon. Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Salibi. Kamal S. “The Lebanese Identity.” Journal of Contemporary History 6 (1): 76-81.

Salibi, Kamal S. 1976. Cross Roads to Civil War: Lebanon, 1958-1976. Delmar, N.Y: Caravan     Books.

Salibi, Kamal S. 1977. “Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon 1958-1976 by.” Middle East Studies     Association Bulletin, 11 (1): 35-37.

Salloukh, Bassel. 2005. “Syria and Lebanon: A Brotherhood Transformed.” Middle East Report, 236: 14-21

Primary Sources

Sammān, Ghādah. 1977. Beirut Nightmares. London: Quartet Books.

“I have not tasted the taste of meat for months […] human flesh in the streets, the skin flayed and beheaded often […] How can I eat meat? who can convinced me to eat a my friend’s arm, who was killed in front of my eyes?!”

The Taif Agreement.,

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