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Arabic & Islamic Studies essay – Lebanon

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What are the characteristics of society and politics and the evolution of political institutions in one of the following countries or regions in the Middle East?


Lebanon is almost unique among the nations of the Middle East, as it is one of the only nations established as a result of lobbying and politicking by an indigenous group – the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon – rather than by colonial decree. However, despite their strength on Mount Lebanon, the Maronites did not constitute a majority in the country that was eventually formed throughout its own supposed historical and cultural extensions. Instead, the Maronites were merely the largest minority among several others in a new nation markedly divided by ethnicity and religion. Despite early attempts to nullify this sectarian division, the Civil War revealed the extent to which they remained, and today Lebanon faces many of the same issues as other middle eastern nations; namely sectarian divisions, uncertainty as to their position in the world, and of course, the Israel question.

Lebanon’s past must be examined through the policy of confessionalism, the system of proportional representation for the major religious sects in parliament, the civil service, the judiciary and the military. Initially it was designed (at the instigation of the French) to give the non-Maronite Muslims some share in the government of Lebanon. However, the terms agreed to in the National Pact of 1943 constitutionally guaranteed the continued supremacy of the Maronites, according representation on a proportional scale, based on the 1932 Census. As a result, the Maronites were accorded 30 seats out of the parliament’s 90, with Sunnis receiving 20 seats; Shia 19; Greek Orthodox 11; Greek Catholic 6; Druze 6; Armenian Orthodox 4; and other minorities 4.
However, far from bridging sectarian divides, the National Pact constitutionally reinforced them. Although it did preclude bitter sectarian battles over each and every parliamentary seat, it entrenched the notion that one’s religious affiliation was the primary marker of one’s identity rather than, for example, their Lebanese nationalism. A further problem created by this conciliatory system was that people were given positions based on their religious sect, not necessarily on the basis of their ability. The ensuing administrative inefficiency is impossible to quantify, but potentially very high. The greatest problem with this system, however, is that it forever tied representation to the information gleaned from a national Census. And, as a result, all the Maronite presidents of Lebanon had to do to ensure their continued supremacy was simply to fail to conduct a census. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been no official Census since 1932.

This unresponsiveness to demographic shifts proved to be a huge problem for Lebanon’s government, and indeed one of the major catalysts of the civil war. The main demand of the coalition of Muslim opposition groups known as the Lebanese National Movement was the taking of a new Census and a more representative structure for the nation’s civil institutions. Ironically, the Lebanese military was unable to prevent war as the army was recruited on sectarian proportions, and proved incapable of operating once religious sects began forming their own militia.
The civil war itself, in reality a succession of wars over nearly thirty years, ending only in 1991, was a microcosm of the complexity of Lebanon, not only internally but externally as well. The conflict began as a dispute over sectarian representation in government, a very Lebanese issue, but various stages of the fighting saw Iraqi and Libyan support for Sunni militia groups, Syrian and Israeli support for Christian militia, UN Security Council Resolutions and significant involvement by the United States and the PLO. Nothing so explicitly shows the many influences and stakeholders in Lebanon as does this catalogue of the major players during the civil war years.

Despite the hundreds of thousands killed, crippled and displaced, perhaps the most significant outcome of the civil war was the establishment of Hizballah as a major force both within Lebanon and in the context of the Israeli question. Inspired by Khomeini’s Islamic resurgence in Iran, Hizballah has been both a blessing and a curse for Lebanon, but both good and ill stem from the fact that Hizballah has become stronger than the Lebanese government in almost all conceivable areas.
Firstly, Hizballah is far better positioned to attack and expel Israel from Lebanon, largely due to the fact that its military wing, Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic Resistance”) is not a national army, and furthermore is armed with long-range missiles, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and surface-to-air missiles. It has also been estimated that Hizballah has a standing army of one thousand full-time soldiers, with perhaps as many as six to ten thousand volunteers. As such, it is possible for Hizballah to attack Israel without incurring sanctions from the UN, NATO or EU, and is largely able to operate without fear of military retribution from these bodies. If any of these bodies were to attack Hizballah, or Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, it would be seen as a gross violation of Lebanon’s national sovereignty and as proof of anti-Arab sentiment in Europe and the US. Furthermore, it is impossible for any body or nation to attempt to wipe Hizballah out, as the civilian casualties could be enormous. It is estimated that during the 2006 war, one thousand of the 1,200 Lebanese killed were civilians, not Hizballah fighters.
Secondly, Hizballah is not just a military power. According to the UN Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs report Lebanon: The many hands and faces of Hezbollah, it boasts an extensive social development program including four hospitals, twelve clinics, twelve schools, two agricultural centres, an environmental department and a welfare office. These social and health programs are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year, money that Hizballah claims comes from donations from Lebanese people. However, both Syria and Iran are suspected of significant financial support to Hizballah
Furthermore, Hizballah are rapidly becoming a significant political party in their own right. Since 1989 there has been a noticeable adoption of a “political jihad” that resulted in their winning eight seats in the 1992 elections, fourteen in the 2005 elections, and gaining control of 21% of all municipalities in the municipal elections in 2004. Currently, following the most recent clashes and the Doha agreement, the opposition parties have been granted a “blocking third” in the Lebanese cabinet, making it possible for Hizballah members to veto any government decisions.

Arguably the most important issue facing Lebanon today is the position and influence of Hizballah. That Israel, the US, UK, Canada and Australia all officially consider Hizballah a terrorist organisation, having them play a greater and greater role in Lebanese parliament could be a step in the wrong direction. However, if Hizballah do devote their energies to Lebanese government, and begin to behave like actors within the system rather than separate from it, it could be greatly beneficial. There is no question that they are an imposing military force, especially given the weak, factitious nature of the Lebanese army, and they are undoubtedly a social force, often more able than the Lebanese government to respond to crises. However, if Hizballah are to truly become a part of the system, there is no way that they can continue to receive funding from Iran and Syria, and their military will become a great deal more accountable. Despite the continued conflict over proportional representation, Lebanon’s internal situation, as well as its position in the Arab world, the Middle East and the international community could well be resting on the shoulders of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

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