This post began as an attempt to explain the environment from which Lebanese Hezbollah, today a major Islamist movement, emerged. Given that the stated purpose of this blog has been to explore the genesis and development of political Islam and its relationship to the west, it seemed initially wise to limit my focus to Hezbollah as much as possible. I have encountered two problems with this approach however. Firstly, it seems impossible to explain this background without basically going back to 1975 and explaining the whole saga of the Lebanese civil war. Any truncated version which begins, say, with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon or the presence of the multinational forces in the country in 1982, will just decontextualise the story, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve here. Secondly, the whole labyrinthine story of the Lebanese civil war is just too damn interesting (and little understood) not to tell. Something that has struck me quite forcefully since I started writing this is that it is impossible, and for that matter undesirable, to try and isolate religion and ‘political Islam’ from other factors such as economics, politics, nationalism, environment etc. which, until the 1980s at least, played a far greater role in driving the conflicts that have come to define the Middle East today.
Religious rhetoric has played a prominent role in the last two posts, because the Iranian revolution was under the spotlight, a self-consciously religious event (at least for those of its participants who won out), but when we examine other conflicts like the Arab-Israeli war, we find that it is only relatively recently that these have come to be viewed through the prism of religious conflict. Lebanon is a perfect example of this. For all the facile characterisations in the western media of it as an incomprehensible sectarian conflict between fanatical religious groups, there is far more to the Lebanese civil war than this. Certainly religion as a marker of ethnicity is there in the mix, a prominent factor which fed into and exacerbated the conflict, but the war had little or nothing to do with any purported wider conflict between Islam and the west. Hezbollah, for example, will not emerge in this story as a significant actor until almost a decade after the war’s beginning.
So I am going to try and tell the story of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) in a couple of posts, a conflict which only tangentially fits into a story of political Islam. In recognition of this, and the fact that much else written on this blog concerns developments beyond political Islam, I have changed its title to the more general ‘A contemporary history of the Muslim world’…which will have to do for now.
To understand the roots of the Lebanese war, we must once again return to the secret arrangements made by the British and French after World War I to carve up the former Ottoman possessions in the region, the Sykes-Picot agreement. It might be remembered (see part 1) that the Arabs helped the British and French fight the Turks in the expectation that they would be rewarded with independence after the war. It might also be remembered that this isn’t how it panned out. I didn’t mention Lebanon in the first post, but it found itself (along with Syria) under French control when the dust had cleared, while the British were handed the ‘mandate’ to run Palestine, Jordan and what would become Iraq. The Syrians, who claimed jurisdiction of an area today containing Lebanon, fought against French rule, but their revolt was quickly crushed by the French in 1920 and the latter took control of the region, dividing it up into six states, one of which was called ‘Greater Lebanon’ and would form the basis of the country of Lebanon (marked in yellow below) when it later achieved independence.
Pretty much the only group of people who were happy to see the French take over here were the Maronite Christians, who were concerned at the implications of Arab independence and their status as a minority in any Muslim-dominated future state. The Maronites (named after a 4th-century Syrian monk) are closely related to the Catholic church and (as far as I can understand) do not really differ from the latter in beliefs, but rather forms of worship and administrative structure. In 1920, they saw the French as their saviour, and the French in return saw them as a useful ally in the region and a potential spanner to throw in the works of Arab nationalism. Here is the flag of ‘Greater Lebanon’ under French rule. You can see the French really took into account local sensitivities and were not at all attempting to evoke any similarity with the French tricolour:
Indeed, this Lebanese state was far larger than the Lebanon that had existed under Ottoman rule, hence the name ‘Greater’ Lebanon. Robert Fisk has described it (and therefore the modern Lebanon based on it) as a ‘totally artificial, French-created entity’, whose borders were designed to weaken the surrounding Muslim lands. Hence, the future state of Syria was deprived of its best ports (Tyre, Sidon and Tripoli), which were handed to Lebanon, as the French attempted to create a state as large as possible in which the Christians could exert a controlling influence. We can observe, at the very same time, the British applying the same strategy viz-a-viz the Unionists in drawing the borders of Northern Ireland. The downside of this arrangement for the Maronites was that instead of being an overwhelming majority dominating a smaller Lebanon, they ‘only’ comprised about 28% of the population. They still made them the largest religious minority in a land of religious minorities, along with other Christians sects (Greek Orthodox and Catholics) the Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as the Druze (I’ll get to them).
Another legacy of this was that it left a large number of Muslims in Lebanon feeling, at the very least, ambiguous about their membership of this new nation when Lebanon finally achieved independence from France during the Second World War. Significant numbers of Muslims did not even want Lebanese independence, hoping the country would be annexed by their newly-independent Syrian neighbour, something their Christian ‘compatriots’ feared more than anything. As seen in part one, the aspiration towards Arab unity was a major political theme in the Middle East in this postwar period, and Lebanon was not immune to this temptation. The exact extent of Muslim discontent is disputed, however. There were no doubt a willingness among some Muslims in some periods to make it work, and a sense of Lebanese national identity cannot be written off as a complete fantasy.
At the same time, while there was much talk of this common national identity transcending the ethnic and religious divide, there was no getting away from the fact that many Maronites saw the country from the start as a kind of Christian bulwark in the Middle East. Their attitude can be best summed up by a quip by one of their most prominent politicians in the mandate period, Emile Iddi, who remarked that those Muslims who didn’t want to live in a Christian-dominated Lebanon could emigrate to Mecca. At the time of independence in 1943, the leading Lebanese politicians therefore attempted to address these tensions in a verbal understanding which was to form the ground-rules for constitutional politics in the decades to come. It was called the National Pact, and sought to balance the conflicting aspirations and assuage the fears of the various ethno-religious groups in the country. Briefly, the Christians agreed to give up French protection in return for the Muslims giving up their aspirations to unite with their neighbours. The top positions in government were apportioned to the various communities according to their preponderance in the population: the President would always be a Christian, the Prime Minister always a Sunni, and the Speaker of the parliament always a Shi’a Muslim. Seats in parliament were likewise allocated along ethnic lines, with a 6:5 ratio of Christian to Muslim guaranteed.
If all this sounds like a perfect recipe for entrenching ethnic divisions in a country, yes, in a way it was, but it also worked for a surprisingly long time…in a way. Despite being the tinderbox of sectarian tension which the world would come to identify it as, Lebanon, in the first two decades after independence stood out as an economic success story in the Middle East, at least on the surface. The country was turned into a mercantile and financial hub, an apparent oasis of stability in an instable region. Everything else was subordinated to the interests of business, so ‘light touch’ regulation, low taxes and duties were the order of the day. If peace and stability were good for business, it was believed, then prosperity could only beget more peace and stability. In the late 1940s for example, 30% of the world’s gold passed through Beirut, as the rulers of Arabia’s new oil-rich states exchanged their petrodollars for the stuff. Capital likewise fled other, left-leaning Arab nations which were busy nationalising sectors of their economies, and settled in Lebanese banks. The country began to market itself as the ‘Switzerland of The East’, a business-friendly entrepôt, banking, cedar forests, skiing, you name it. Here is a short film advertising the country to potential tourists in the 1960s, which is kind of eerie to watch when you think of how Beirut became synonymous with war and destruction later on.
The effect of all this glitz and glamour was to hide the symptoms of Lebanon’s underlying sickness for quite some time, but skiing and financial hocus-pocus will only get a country so far. In many ways, prosperity merely papered over the cracks in the country’s political system, allowing people to lapse into complacency and the belief that these cracks were not there. This boom created social tensions of its own. With an economy geared towards middlemen and the service sectors such as banking and tourism, manufacturing and agriculture suffered a relative decline. While a few became immensely rich, the poorest sections of society just got poorer as the growing wealth of the few stoked inflation and the ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics was as nonsensical then as it is now. The rural poor, ruined by the downturn in agriculture, poured into Beirut and other cities (but mainly Beirut) where they joined the burgeoning population of Palestinian refugees (see below).
Speaking of these wealthy few, another feature of Lebanese political life must be mentioned which is central to this story, which is clientism or, as the Lebanese call it, the Za’im system. A Za’im is the head of an established powerful family or clan, who used their wealth and influence to control the outcome of elections, basically monopolising power in the years prior to the outbreak of war. They have been compared to organised crime syndicates or feudal lords in their stranglehold over Lebanese political life, and once war came, they formed armed militias and formed shaky alliances which were as often about dynastic rivalries as ideological differences. Politics was (and is) a family business, sons often inheriting their father’s electoral seats. Almost a quarter of the members of the 1960 parliament were kin to those who had been appointed under French rule. A group of about thirty families dominated the country in this way. This must be borne in mind if we are tempted to imagine that the liberalised, western-style economy described above was in any way ‘free’ or open to enterprise or men of ability (let alone women). It wasn’t. It was in fact a largely closed shop, opportunities being open only to the already-rich and influential. The traditional system of patronage, kinship and loyalty, feudal in character, which had its roots in rural areas, was merely transfered over to the the cities when Lebanon became more urbanised. By the way, lest we kid ourselves into thinking that this kind of clientist system is something that doesn’t happen in Europe, just take a look at Irish politics.
The figures who ran Lebanon in these years emerged from this background. Bechara El Khoury, who ruled from 1943 to 1952, was so blatantly corrupt that he eventually provoked massive protests against his rule. He requested the head of the army, Fuad Chehab, to use force against the protesters, but the latter refused and El Khoury resigned, making way for Camille Chamoun, who ruled until 1958. Chamoun was an authoritarian figure, pushing forward with economic liberalisation (but not any other kind) and working actively against Arab nationalism and the drive towards a pan-Arab state which, as seen in part one, led to the short-lived union of neighbouring Syria and Egypt in 1958. While all these presidents were Christians (remember the National Pact) Pan-Arab nationalism was not without considerable support among the Muslims of Lebanon and Chamoun was fighting against a groundswell of support for Nasser’s vision. He nailed his colours to the mast during the Suez Crisis, refusing to cut off diplomatic relations with France and Britain and pissing off Nasser. The following year, Chamoun aligned Lebanon to the United States by formally accepting the Eisenhower doctrine, by which the Americans promised to ‘assist’ any nation in the region to fight ‘Communist aggression’, which was very loosely interpreted as meaning the Egyptians and Syrians, who were supported by the Soviet Union at the time.
Much of this looked to Muslims like a betrayal of the National Pact, which had promised that the country’s foreign policy would be Arab-orientated in return for their acceptance of a Christian President. Protests against Chamoun increased, not only over the issue of Arab political union, but also due to the inevitable corruption in which Chamoun’s regime was neck-deep. Scarcely any attempt was even made to hide it. In many cases what would now be (and was then) described as corruption was simply legalised, and elections in 1957 were widely believed to have been rigged, depriving many popular opposition figures of their seats. In response to this, protests escalated, exacerbating sectarian tensions. It should be remembered in all that follows-much of which will take a sectarian and religious form-that it was social tensions resulting from building a state skewed towards the interests of banks and traders which played a huge role in creating the conditions for war.
In 1958, things came to a head. In May, with rumours rife that Chamoun would (illegally) seek another term of office, and the murder of a prominent journalist by the security services, a general strike was called and the people rose up in arms against the authorities. The leaders of this opposition (left to right below) were Saeb Salam, Rashid Karami (two Sunni politicians who would between them serve fourteen terms as Prime Minister) and Kamal Jumblatt, a Druze leader who had founded the left-wing Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) which will come to play a vital part in the early stages of the civil war:
By July 1958, much of the country was controlled by this opposition. Chehab, who was still head of the army, once again refused to allow it to be used by an overreaching politician, and positioned his forces in a largely neutral role, preventing either side from securing strategically important positions and refusing to take sides in the conflict. In panic, Chamoun asked for help from the United States marines to save his regime. At first the Americans were reluctant, but after a coup in Iraq that July toppled the pro-western government there, Eisenhower sent the marines in, whose presence was enough to pressurise the various sides into making a deal. While expecting they would prop up Chamoun’s regime, the Americans instead lent their support to his replacement by Chehab, and a government of reconciliation formed with Karami as Prime Minister. Despite his military background, Chehab actually stands out as one of the few responsible, statesmanlike figure in this story. His government’s motto was ‘no victor, no vanquished,’ and while many accounts romanticise the apparent harmony which he restored, he generally succeeded in keeping a lid on the conflict in the following years, so much so that many wanted him to amend the constitution to allow him to run for another term in 1964. But he refused, and placed a follower of his, Charles Helou, in the office instead.
Helou remained in office until 1970. This is a crucial year for our story, and specifically the month of September, Black September. Back in part 2, I discussed the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, in which the West Bank was annexed by the Israelis. The Palestinian leadership and many refugees fled into Jordan, only to come into conflict with the government there and be expelled, to Lebanon. The Palestinians had in fact been present in Lebanon for some years, launching attacks on Israel and fighting intermittently with the Lebanese army. The exodus after Black September brought a whole new dimension to their presence in Lebanon however. Before this, the Palestinian refugee camps had been largely run by the Lebanese security services under martial law, but then the PLO took control themselves and they became basically independent, outside of the Lebanese state’s control.
This situation was, to some extent, given official sanction by an agreement between the PLO and Lebanese army in Cairo in 1969. In the long term, however, this solved nothing. From the Palestinians’ point of view, it legitimised their presence in Lebanon and freed them up from fighting the Lebanese so they could focus on raiding Israel. This they did, and their actions brought the inevitable retaliation from the Israelis. It quickly became clear that the Lebanese state was unable to protect its territory or citizens against Israeli attacks. In December 1968, for example, they attacked Beirut airport and destroyed 13 Middle East Airlines planes in retaliation for the Palestinian hijacking of an Israeli airplane in Athens. In 1973 a Israeli army unit was able to kill three leaders of the PLO in the middle of Beirut. During the Yom Kippur war which took place the same year (see part two), in which Lebanon wasn’t even a combatant, Israeli used the Beqaa valley as an air corridor to attack Syria. This might be the right moment for a map of Lebanon:
All of this begs the question: why was the Lebanese state so weak that it was unable to defend itself, not only against the Israelis (admittedly one of the most powerful armies in the world), but against the Palestinians and other militias which formed in the war? The Lebanese armed forces had always been weak in comparison to other Arab nations, many of which, like Syria and Iraq, were basically military dictatorships. Lebanon was different, ruled with the interests of its financial and merchant elite at heart-an elite that didn’t particularly want a large, expensive army and security apparatus that would only cost money and raise their taxes, provoke Israel and create a class of military rulers who would probably end up taking over. Nonetheless, Chehab had in the 1960s created a security service that functioned efficiently enough to provoke complaints of an encroaching police state. This ‘Deuxième Bureau’, as it was known, became associated with the Chehabist programme. Its unpopularity is part of the reason for the other important event which occurred in September 1970, which is the unexpected defeat in the presidential election of the appointed Chehabist successor to Helou, and the success of this man, Suleiman Frangieh:
Like many prominent Lebanese politicians, Frangieh inhabited the grey area between politician and mafia boss. He had, some years earlier, helped gun down a rival mob and was forced to flee to Syria while the heat died down. He enjoyed close relations with the Syrian president Assad, and his promise of increasingly close relations with Syria was probably one of the reasons he won this controversial election, which was conducted by the parliament rather than the general populace. Jumblatt and his bloc of leftwing delegates had been expected to support the Chehabist candidate, Elias Sarkis, but he was persuaded to switch his vote to Frangieh at the last minute and the latter won by one vote. It remains unclear why Jumblatt (who later said he regretted his decision) voted for Frangieh. The aforementioned closer ties with Syria were no doubt a lure, as were promises to scale down the Deuxième Bureau. In addition to this, Frangieh appears to have promised continued leniency towards the Palestinians, Jumblatt’s allies. Another, more conspiratorial explanation, is that he was ordered to by the Soviet Union, as revenge for the previous Chehabist government foiling a plot of theirs to steal an American-manufactured plane to examine it.
Whatever the reasons, Frangieh was as good as his word with the Deuxième Bureau. The security apparatus of the Lebanese state was considerably reduced and a number of leading figures put on trial. Many have subsequently blamed the anarchy that prevailed during the civil war, the free rein given to independent militias and the inability of the state to exert control, to Frangieh’s actions in this period. All of this played into the hands of the Palestinians of course, and by 1973 they were once again fighting the Lebanese army. In this, they were now joined by a coalition of left-wing Lebanese groups, led by Jumblatt, which would come to be known as the Lebanese National Movement (LNM). We are getting to the point where the various factions in the civil war begin to coalesce and the LNM are one of those. There is no point at this stage in pretending that the Lebanese Civil War was anything other than insanely complicated, and I will try to clarify it as much as possible, but there is no getting around the fact that the following will contain a confusing array of militias, leaders and constellations of alliance, but what can you do except try and come to grips with it?
So, the LNM was composed of, besides Jumblatt’s PSP, the Lebanese Communist party, a number of small Nasserite groups campaigning for pan-Arab unity, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), who wanted to unite Lebanon with Syria and were also (broadly-speaking) left-wing in their socio-economic outlook. This block of parties were, at this stage, backed by Syria (remember Assad’s ‘Corrective Movement’ had brought him to power in 1970) and the Soviet Union, and with the help of the latter, as well as the experienced Palestinian guerillas, built a powerful military organisation which, by the mid-1970s, had grown to rival the state’s security forces. The LNM was officially secular, but in practice overwhelmingly Muslim. The PSP was in fact associated with the Druze, a religious minority in Lebanon to which Jumblatt belonged. The Druze are a religious group native to the Levant. Related to Islam but (usually) not considered Muslims, they combine a monotheistic faith similar to the other Abrahamic religions with a belief in reincarnation. Being a minority everywhere they exist, they have suffered a great deal of persecution over the centuries and, not surprisingly, this has made them a tight-knit, coherent community, proud of their distinctive traditions and culture.
Their role as a minority, sandwiched in between the Christians and Muslims, also left the Druze in dire need of allies. It was partly the skill of Jumblatt that made the LNM such an effective alliance, and prepared to support the Palestinian refugees in their country. The really pertinent question here is: why were these Lebanese groups increasingly taking up arms against their compatriots and making cause with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel? For starters, pan-Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause cannot be entirely discounted. In the early 1970s, the Palestinians were still welcomed by many Lebanese. It was only after their presence had provoked such ferocious Israeli attacks that they came to be resented by much of the population. But this is far from a satisfactory explanation on its own. Far more relevant is the element of class conflict in Lebanon, and the dovetailing of interests between these left-wing groups, who wanted to see radical social change, and the Palestinians, whose movement had become more revolutionary since the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, in which the older generation of Arab leaders such as Nasser, had been somewhat discredited, and the Palestinians had begun to take the initiative in their struggle themselves. As much as religion, therefore, the Lebanese civil war was rooted in the growing inequality between the classes in Lebanon, which came to be articulated in sectarian terms. It was perceived to be perpetuated by the National Pact, and one of the LNM’s princial aims was an end to the 6:5 ratio of parliament seats in favour of Christians.
In the first period of the civil war, the LNM’s opponents would be the LF (really helpful-all these acronyms!), which stood for ‘Lebanese Front’ or ‘Lebanese Forces’, and was almost exclusively composed of Christian political factions and their militias. The largest of these was the Kataeb or, as they are usually known in English, the Phalanges Party. If the word ‘Phalangist’ sounds vaguely familiar, it should. This was the name of a Fascist movement in 1930s Europe which became the ruling ideology of Spain under the Franco dictatorship. How Phalangism became a major ideology in Lebanese politics is down to one man, Pierre Gemayel, who was impressed by the discipline of the Hitler youth on a visit to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and founded the party shortly afterwards. The Phalangists advocated a strong authoritarian state and the maintenance of the social hierarchy as it was, with the wealthy elite and the Christians maintaining their privileges. Anti-trade-unionist, anti-communist, they wouldn’t openly admit to being fascists, but then again, who does? Here is Gemayel on the left, along with his two sons, Bashir and Amine, who will also play key roles in the war:
The Phalangists stressed the separateness of the Lebanese nation from its Arab neighbours. This differentiated it from the Marada movement, which was dominated by President Frangieh, and had close ties to Syria. The Marada first attracted attention when they were led, armed, into the parliament chamber to ‘support’ the election of Frangieh. They were led on that occasion by his son Tony, who was the Sonny Corleone to Suleiman’s Vito. As will be seen, however, the Frangiehs were not alone in resembling mobsters. The Marada were mainly active in the northern city of Tripoli and the surrounding area. The Tigers were the military arm of the National Liberal Party, founded and initially financed by former president Chamoun. Like the Phalangists, it laid great stress on Lebanon’s independence, but differed ideologically from the latter in adherence to free trade and American-style liberalism. The ‘Guardians of the Cedars’ took the separateness of Lebanon even further, claiming that the Lebanese were not Arab at all but ‘Phoenician’, descended from the trading people of classical times, and a ‘western’ rather than ‘eastern’ country.
This is where the Christian militias’ ideology shaded into outright racism. Etienne Saqr, the ‘Father of the Guardians’ was described by Robert Fisk as ‘one of the more psychopathic of the minor Christian militia leaders’ which is really saying something when you consider the stiff competition. The ‘Guardians’ were even more fiercely hostile to the Palestinians in Lebanon, often attacking indiscriminately and torturing their victims to death. Al-Tanzim (meaning ‘The Organisation’) was ideologically similar to the ‘Guardians’. Formed by Phalangists years earlier who had believed their party was not militant enough, they had close links to elements within the Lebanese army who opposed the Cairo agreement with the Palestinians. They would come to fracture into pro- and anti-Syrian camps in the summer of 1976, but we’ll get to that.
Some of the more militant among these factions were arming and training from 1970 onwards, foreseeing the struggle ahead with the Palestinians. There is good evidence that the Lebanese army helped them import weapons. Rather than pinpointing the start of the war to a particular date, it would be truer to say that Lebanon gradually descended into anarchy, as the state forces lost control and the two Lebanese factions, along with the Palestinians, engaged in a series of tit-for-tat killings that eventually drifted into outright war. A major flashpoint occured on February 26, 1975 in Sidon, when fishermen demonstrated against the attempts of a deep-sea fishing company (founded and chaired by Chamoun) to establish operations in their fishing grounds which threatened their livelihoods. A leader of the Sunni community and leftwing activist, Maaruf Saad, was killed by the army and the protesters fought back. More civilians and army personnel were killed in the following weeks, and the unrest spread to other parts of the country, as the right-wing groups held demonstrations in support of the army.
Featured image above: First hand-drawn flag by members of parliament during the declaration of independence in 1943.