Shedding Light on Lebanon

An examination of the historical roots of a conflict that Americans are peculiarly ill suited to understand

The French, as mandataries, naturally chose to perpetuate the system that they had inspired. Had they done only that, the Lebanese Republic, whose independence, under French protection, was proclaimed in 1926, might flourish yet. Unfortunately, the French decided to reward their Lebanese friends and supporters—both those who wanted a Greater Lebanon for its own sake and those propertied families whose holdings extended beyond the Mountain into the purely Moslem lands of the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere. It was a decision that also suited French purposes, since it further set back the demands of the nationalists of historic Syria—who included Christians as well as Moslems—that the region should form a single state under mandated rule. Such a state would have been impossible for the French to control over the long term. The result of French gerrymandering and Lebanese ambition was to turn the Mount Lebanon of two communities, Christian and Druze, into a Greater Lebanon (effectively the present state) of three, Christian, Druze, and Sunni Moslem, with a growing Shia Moslem element threatening to make a fourth.

Thence the making of the Lebanese problem of today. The French understandably chose to rule through their historic allies, the Maronites, and the Maronites too often chose to run the government as if the other communities were their inferiors. Their attitude was bound to make for trouble, and trouble came before the outbreak of the Second World War. But the war also presented the opportunity for a new beginning, and it is to that new beginning that many Lebanese today look back with the nostalgia felt for a lost golden age.

Lebanon and Syria (into which the Alawite and Druze entities had been absorbed), along with the rest of the French overseas territories, remained under French rule after the fall of France, in 1940. But the British in Palestine, mistrusting Vichy's resolve to keep the two free of German influence, decided to invade the territories in April of 1941. De Gaulle, as leader of the Free French, associated himself with the decision and simultaneously proclaimed the full independence of the two territories. His delegates subsequently backslid, but the British—who had had a long (and, to French eyes, not entirely disinterested) relationship with the Druze—held them to their word, and under Britain's tutelage a new Lebanese constitution was worked out.

Known as the National Covenant, this 1943 agreement provided for what was seen at the time to be a fair, though not equal, division of power among the communities. The Christians, who had been the largest community when the last census was taken, in 1932, were to enjoy a six-to--five majority in the distribution of parliamentary seats and to hold the presidency. The Sunni were to hold the prime ministry, and other posts were to be divided among the other communities. The Shia, for example, have come to hold the speakership of the parliament, and the Druze the post of chief of staff (but not commander) of the army. The princi-ple underlying the covenant was that none should hold a monopoly of power, so that policy would be determined by consensus.

In theory, the covenant operates to this day. Since in practice it manifestly does not, the question asked by the puzzled—and they include most Lebanese—is "What went wrong?" Or, as I put it to a journalist long resident in the country; "Who is to blame?" "A third, a third, and a third," was his answer. "A third the Lebanese themselves; a third the other Arab states, for interfering; a third the Israelis, for invading." An analysis so crude can scarcely do justice to the intricacies of recent Lebanese history. But since it has the merit of concentrating on essentials, it is worth pursuing.

FIRST, THE LEBANESE. LEBANESE POLITICS, SO kaleidoscopic in character that the patterns shift under the eye of even the most unblinking observer, nevertheless rotate around a number of fixed points. Religion, as we have seen, is one. Regionalism is another. Wealth or poverty is a third. A fourth is the importance of community leaders, whose standing may derive from membership in one of the ancient feudal families, or from control of a political organization, or from religious charisma, or—increasingly in recent years—from command of an armed force. A fifth, the most recent factor in Lebanese domestic politics, is the presence of the Palestinians, who began to arrive in the country after the Israeli war of independence, in 1949.

Among other fixed points that are keys to understanding the Lebanese crisis are the events crucial to its development over the past twenty-five years. The first was the short civil war, between the old Christian Lebanese establishment and the rising force of Moslem dissidents, that was ended by United States intervention, in 1958: it warned that the basis of the National Covenant was breaking up. The second was the Cairo Accord, in 1969, by which the Lebanese government agreed with its interested Arab neighbors to concede virtual autonomy over the seventeen Palestinian settlements in the country to the Palestinians, and to desist from restraining the cross-border terrorism of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The third was the intervention, despite the Cairo Accord, of the Lebanese army against the Palestinians, in 1973. The fourth was the outbreak of a civil war in April of 1975, triggered by a round of local murders subsequently to become typical of Lebanese communal relations, which devastated central Beirut, killed thousands, and left the country divided. The fifth was the arrival of the Arab Deterrent Force, largely Syrian, in June of 1976, which was designed to bring the war to an end. The sixth was the first Israeli intervention, in March of 1978. The seventh was the second Israeli intervention, in June of 1982, which culminated in the siege of Beirut and the evacuation of the PLO.

In recent years, the number of effective actors on the Lebanese stage has been reduced, and there has been a significant shift and concentration of force. Ideological positions have been robbed of much of their meaning; terrible rancor has been caused by the killings; destruction and displacement of populations overlie all policies. Effectively, the Christians are now in the hands of the Maronites, among whom the Phalange party—founded in 1936 in imitation of the authoritarian parties then dominant in Europe, though now Byzantine rather than fascist in its policies—has extinguished, in many cases by murder, the importance of its competitors and the families that led them. The Sunni Moslems, long established and comparatively prosperous, have lost much of their traditional influence, which was based upon a civilized understanding with the Christian leadership. The Druze, politically both a community and a party (the Progressive Socialist Party), have, under the leadership of the feudal Jumblat family; become allies of the left-wing groups in the country. Those groups, forming the National Salvation Front, are socialist and pan-Arabist; besides Syrian arms, they derive their strength from the poor Shia Moslems and, increasingly, the Palestinians.

Communities and parties are geographically concentrated, and the fighting since 1975 has made them more so. The Christian heartland has always been in East Beirut and in the mountains to its north (Marounistan). The north, particularly Tripoli, has always been largely Sunni, and there, through the deployment of a local militia, the Sunnis retain political importance. The south, now under Israeli occupation, has long had a Shia majority, increasingly large because of the group's high birthrate. Emigrants and refugees from that region populate the so-called "belt of misery" around Beirut, a chain of ramshackle suburbs inhabited by the poor. It is also heavily populated by Palestinians, who have some additional settlements in the north, outside Tripoli, in the Bekaa, and in the south. Until quite recently, West Beirut, traditionally Sunni, remained the one region where Moslems and members of other communities still lived in amity. Finally, the Shouf Mountains above Beirut are the heartland of the Druze, who have recently depopulated the region of most of its Christian inhabitants. The Druze in the Shouf can link up with the Shia and Palestinians in the "belt of misery."

Observers of Lebanese affairs now often argue that the making of the current lamentable situation can be dated to the American intervention of 1958, which inhibited a necessary redistribution of power from the Christians to the Moslems in the country. It did not seem like that at the time. The United States, whose missionaries and teachers had been a major influence in the country since the early nineteenth century; regarded Lebanon as an oasis of stability in the troubled Middle East and its political system as something to be preserved at all costs. The landing of the United States Army and Marines, during a war that cost 2,000 lives, undoubtedly preserved the system. But it left the Christian presidency of the country as dependent as ever upon Moslem acceptance of the status quo, at a time when Moslem sympathies were increasingly exercised by pan-Arabism and the plight of the Palestinians.

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