One of the most unstable countries in the Middle East is Lebanon. Officially known as the Lebanese Republic, Lebanon is a parliamentary republic located in the Mediterranean region of the Middle East. Lebanon is bordered by countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, has an area of approximately 10,400 square kilometers and a population of around 4 Million (not counting 1.9 Million refugees mostly from Syria and Palestine). Lebanon plays a significant role in contemporary Middle Eastern politics due to its ongoing territorial disputes with Israel, lack of a strong central government, and the continued influence of neighboring countries such as Syria within its internal and external affairs.
The people of Lebanon (much like the Palestinian people) are descendants of the Canaanites, who first settled in the Meditteranean region of the Middle East around 3000 BCE. Historically, the territory of Lebanon was controlled by foreign powers such as the Phoenicians, the Persians (under the Achaemenid Empire), the Greeks, Romans, the Arabs (under both the Rashidun and Abbasid Caliphates), and the Christian Crusaders during the 12th Century. Most recently, Lebanon was annexed by the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1516 and soon became an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, linking the Empire with parts of Southern Europe such as Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French named the region Lebanon in 1920 and granted this area independence in 1943. Since 1943, Lebanon has been marked by periods of political turmoil interspersed with prosperity built on its position as a regional center for finance and trade. The Lebanese Civil War (lasting from April of 1975 to November of 1989 and resulting in the deaths of some 120,000 people) was followed by years of social and political instability. Neighboring countries such as Syria have historically influenced Lebanon’s foreign policy and internal policies, and its military occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2005. The Shi’a Muslim Hezbollah political group and Israel continued attacks and counterattacks against each other after Syria’s withdrawal and fought a brief war in 2006.
The current Lebanese constitution was adopted on May 23, 1926, and most recently amended in October of 1989. The constitution stipulates that Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy that includes confessionalism, in which high-ranking offices are reserved for members of specific religious groups. The President, for example, has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a Muslim, and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Greek Orthodox Christians. This system is intended to deter sectarian conflict and attempts to represent fairly the demographic distribution of the 18 recognized religious groups in government. The confessional system is based on 1932 census data, which showed the Maronite Christians as making up nearly 70% of the countries total population. The Government of Lebanon continues to refuse to undertake a new consensus, for fear that a change in the political system would further destabilize the country.
The executive branch of Lebanon is headed by the President and the Prime Minister. The President of Lebanon is elected by Parliament for a six-year term and cannot be reelected again until six years have passed from the end of the first term. The current President of Lebanon is Michel Aoun, who assumed office on October 31, 2016. Aoun is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, a political party that is aligned with both the Maronite Christians and the Shi’a Muslims of Lebanon. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are appointed by the President in consultation with the Parliament. The Prime Minister of Lebanon is Saad Hariri, who has been in power since December 8, 2016. Hariri is a member of the Future Movement, a political party aligned with the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon.
Lebanon’s national legislature is called the Assembly of Representatives (Majlis al-Nuwab in Arabic). Since the elections of 1992, the Parliament has had 128 seats. The term for the legislature was recently extended to five years. The parliament is elected by universal adult suffrage based on a system of majority or “winner-take-all” for the various confessional groups. There has been a recent effort to switch to proportional representation which many argue will provide a more accurate assessment of the size of political groups and allow minorities to have their voices heard. Most deputies do not represent political parties as they are known in the West, and rarely form Western-style groups in the assembly. Political blocs are usually based on confessional and local interests or on personal/family allegiance rather than on political affinities. Lebanon’s judicial system is based on the Napoleonic Code. The Lebanese court system has three levels:
- courts of first instance,
- courts of appeal, and the
- court of cassation.
There also is a system of religious courts having jurisdiction over personal status matters within their own communities.
Lebanese political institutions often play a secondary role to highly confessionalized, personality-based politics. Powerful families still play a role in mobilizing votes for both local and parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, a lively panoply of domestic political parties, some even predating independence, exists. The largest are all confessional based. The Free Patriotic Movement, The Kataeb Party, the National Bloc, National Liberal Party, Lebanese Forces and the Guardians of the Cedars each have their own base among Christians. Amal and Hezbollah are the main rivals for the organized Shi’a vote, and the PSP (Progressive Socialist Party) is the leading Druze party. While Shi’a and Druze parties command loyalty to their leadership, there is more factional infighting among many of the Christian parties. Sunni parties have not been the standard vehicle for launching political candidates, and tend to focus across Lebanon’s borders on issues that are important to the community at large. Lebanon’s Sunni parties include Hizb ut-Tahrir, Future Movement, Independent Nasserist Organization, the Al-Tawhid, and Ahbash. In addition to the traditional confessional parties, new secular parties have emerged, representing a new trend in Lebanese politics towards secularism. In addition to domestic parties, there are branches of pan-Arab secular parties (Ba’ath parties, socialist, and communist parties) that were active in the 1960s and throughout the period of civil war.
Overall, the political system can be described as a “flawed” and an “unstable” democracy. Even though Lebanon has numerous democratic political isnstitutions, a free press system, and is generally on par with international standards regarding human rights, the government itself remains relatively weak and formal governmental institutions are ineffective at best. The lack of strong political institutions within Lebanon is considered to be one of the lingering effects of the Lebanese Civil War, ongoing Middle East conflicts such as the War against ISIS and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the continued influence of foreign powers such as Syria, Iran, Russia, and Israel within Lebanese domestic politics.
In terms of religion, Lebanon is estimated to be 55% Muslims, 40% Christian, and 5% other. An overwhelming majority (~75%) of Lebanese Muslims are Shi’a, whereas only 25% are Sunni. Twelvers are the predominant Shi’a group, followed by Alawites and Ismailis. The Shi’a Muslims of Lebanon are largely concentrated in northern and western Beqaa, Southern Lebanon, Southern Beirut, Tripoli, and Akkar. Most Lebanese Sunni Muslims identify with the ideology of Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative sect of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia during the 18th Century. A majority of Lebanese Christians are members of the Maronite Catholic Church, though a number of Greek Orthodox and Protestant communities exist as well. Other religious groups within Lebanon include the Druze, a small Jewish population, Baha’i, and several indigenous religions unconnected to any of the three Abrahamic faiths. Arabs are the largest ethnic group in Lebanon and Arabic, French, English, and Armenian are the official languages. Lebanon has a 94% literacy rate (the only country in the Middle East with a higher literacy rate is Iran) and an average life expectancy of 78 years, comparable to countries such as the US.
Lebanon has a GDP of around $50 billion and Human Development score of 0.763 as of 2015. The economy of Lebanon is primarily service-based (73.3%) Agriculture and Industry make up 21% and 5.7% of the Lebanese economy respectively. The unemployment rate in Lebanon is estimated to be at least 10% and the country has a GDP per capita of $19,100. The 1975-89 civil war damaged Lebanon’s economic infrastructure, cut national output by half, and derailed Lebanon’s position as the economic hub of the Middle East. Following the civil war, Lebanon rebuilt much of its war-torn physical and financial infrastructure by borrowing heavily, mostly from domestic banks, which saddled the government with a huge debt burden. Spillover from the Syrian conflict, including the influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees, has increased internal tension and slowed economic growth to the 1-2% range for the past five years.
In terms of international politics, Lebanon is a member of a number of international organizations such as the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations and has diplomatic relations with a majority of countries. Some of the countries that Lebanon has close ties with are Iran, Syria, Russia, Palestine, and Pakistan, Additionally, Lebanon has a stable relationship with many Western countries such as the US, UK, Germany, Italy, and France. Lebanon’s main enemy in the Middle East is Israel. The animosity between Lebanon and Israel can be traced back to the creation of Israel in 1948. Lebanon was an active participant in the 1948, 1967, and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars and considers the Shebaa farms area in Northern Israel as part of Lebanon. Additionally, Israel intervened in the Lebanese Civil War in 1976 and began an occupation of Southern Lebanon in 1985, which lasted until 2000. During their occupation of Southern Lebanon, the Israeli government committed numerous human rights abuses such as the killing of unarmed civilians, denying the Shi’a Muslims of Southern Lebanon the freedom to practice their faith, and clamped down on numerous rights such as press freedom, political participation, and freedom of expression. These actions only served to further expand the already tense relationship between the Lebanese people and Israel and made any potential reconciliation between both countries next to impossible.
In conclusion, Lebanon continues to be beset with numerous social, political, and economic issues despite having the potential to be one of the most progressive and stable countries in the entire Middle East. The root of most political issues in Lebanon can be traced back to its confessional system of government, which makes representation in government highly unequal and discourages citizen involvement in the political system. A possible solution would be to move towards a system based on proportional representation an to not restrict offices such as the Presidency and the Prime Minister to members of certain religions. Such a system would reduce the strong levels of political tension within Lebanon and allow it to become a beacon of stability in one of the most unstable regions of the world.