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Lebanese Crisis: A Case of Artificially Crafted Sectarianism

Sectarianism is a social construct whose roots in the region can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. The initial causes of the civil wars in Lebanon were inspired by external factors such as the Middle East Cold War. In Lebanon, such conflicts invariably took a religious turn and sectarianism swiftly overshadowed the primary cause. The elemental role played by external factors in consciously and proactively creating sectarian identities can be summed up by the prime example of the civil war of 1975 being a direct result of regional conflict that was from outside Lebanon. The cultural, political, and socio-economic conditions nurtured fundamentalism in the country. The paper seeks to argue that the Lebanon crisis is primarily a product of artificially created seemingly strong sectarian identities, and not a consequence of an amalgamation of vested economic interests and sectarianism- both being in equal proportion. These artificially created sectarian boundaries were used for advancing vested economic and political interests. The paper will examine the relevant historical, economic, and cultural dimensions, along with the role of fundamentalism and foreign players.


The year 2020 has been critical for the whole world, and it aggravated tensions in internal Lebanese politics. The crisis in Lebanon has been brewing for years. In 2019, a plan to tax WhatsApp calls spilt over into a massive protest. This was followed by the COVID-19 outbreak and then, on 4th August there was a devastating explosion in Beirut. The blast came at a time when the country was already fighting against COVID-19 and a deep economic crisis. The government had to resign owing to the growing public outrage. The current economic situation has pushed thousands into poverty and has led to an aggravation of the political crisis. Sectarianism in Lebanon can be interpreted in three ways; first, as a by-product of modernization in the late Ottoman period, secondly as a political paradigm invented in opposition to the ‘tanzimat’ reforms, and third as hybrid conjunction of parochial and imperial interests. Sectarianism is a social actor’s feeling of belonging, devotion, and allegiance to a sectarian community within a social context. The strongly felt belonging leads a social actor to exalt their community above others (Saloni, 2020). The economic crisis in Lebanon is a consequence of the confessional system of democracy. This paper will examine the reasons behind confessionalism to appear like the optimal political system in Lebanon and how internal and complex dynamics in Lebanese politics have perplexed the political system.

When this idea of sectarianism coupled with societal imbalances gets tied with the political belongings, such as national identity or political representations, it results in political mobilization.

Historical Context

There was a notable population increase in the Maronite community in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Druze community was supplanted as the largest religious community in Mount Lebanon. However, "what turned sectarian imbalance into sectarian hatred was a change in the nature of leadership and governance in Mount Lebanon beginning in the 1820s" (Fawaz, 1994: 19). Bashir II, one of the most powerful Shihab rulers, was instrumental in the transition towards sectarian hatred. In his ambition of absolute dominance over the region, he proactively took sides during conflicts to eliminate potential threats to his rule. His pursuit resulted in the complete annihilation of the Druze leadership. After the civil war of 1860 between Maronites and the Druzes in Lebanon, the Ottoman state bestowed upon the ‘mutasarrifiya’ (sub-division of a province) of Mount Lebanon a special status, wherein, a council of twelve members from six major sects aided a Christian governor in his administrative functions (Sharabi, 1962). This restored peace in the region for a long time.

It was then, the elites, especially the Maronites, who played an important role in moulding a Lebanon of several ‘taifas’ (sects) in 1926. The Maronites, who were traditionally pro-French, capitalized on their relations with the French to secure power in an independent Lebanon. The Sunnis, who, by then, were the largest Muslim sect in Greater Lebanon, repudiated the actions and claims of the Maronites and advocated for a nation inspired by Arab nationalism. Interestingly, in both these narratives of nationalism, the voice of the masses remains unexpressed and neglected. For it was a narrative for the people, but not of the people.

The propensity to promote elitist views is also seen in other acts of institutionalizing sectarianism. The National Pact of 1943 failed to secure a robust holding in the national masses. As Makdisi (1996, p. 25) notes, the National Pact was "a result of elite compromises," and it "essentially legitimated a system of patronage and a division of spoils among the elites of the new nation-state." This encouraged "sectarian nationalism and the politics of nationalist elitism," which affects the country even today.

The government bureaucracy and affairs were not unaffected by such institutionalization. The partial treatment of the bureaucrats based on grounds such as political loyalty, family influence and sects soon became proverbial in an independent Lebanon. Municipal activities and developmental works like construction and maintenance of roads and installing telephone lines, along with access to housing, electricity, education, and jobs were impacted to a large extent by the interests of the elites. The development trends of the country exemplify the elitist attitude, which is evident in the categorization of the years between 1958 and 1975 of Lebanese history as a “gilded age,” instead of a “golden age” (Khalaf, 2002). From 1950-74, there was an average annual rate of growth of about 7% and until 1971, the annual rate of inflation hovered around 2-3% (Makdisi & Sadaka, 2005). In a study, it was discovered that 54% of the Lebanese population could be labelled as poor or relatively poor, while 21% could be called as well-to-do and very rich, with the rest 25% as middle class, in 1973-74 (Schmeil, 1976). Further, in regions traditionally dominated by Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, like Beqa’ Valley and Akkar in the north, there was relatively less socio-economic growth, as compared to Christian dominated regions like Beirut. Moreover, Harik (1996) points out that the Shi'a-dominated towns were labelled as ‘absolutely underdeveloped’ owing to the lack of basic facilities like electricity in such towns. Khalaf (2002) has concluded that confessional loyalties “inspire local and personal initiative, and account for much of the resourcefulness and cultural diversity and vitality of the Lebanese.”


Over time, religion became “a form of ideological and communal mobilization” (Khalaf, 2002: 30). People who shared different characteristics began to be apprised of their differences, eventually resulting in the growth of fundamentalism. Deeb (1992) has presented few conditions for the rise of militant Islam, after studying five militant Islamic movements, including the one in Lebanon, which are the following:

  1. Political stagnation and the eroding of central authority;

  2. Economic stagnation and decline and/or a growing gap between the haves and have-nots;

  3. Deteriorating security situation that could be caused by external or internal factors or both;

  4. Insidious invasion of the region by Western culture and values;

  5. The government in power was perceived as encouraging this cultural change and as being themselves secular or paying only lip service to Islam.

All these conditions were present in Lebanon, which gave rise to Islamic militancy and fundamentalism, viz., Hezbollah. The central authority was unable to exert effective control and the situation ultimately spiralled into a breakdown of law and order in the country. The strong confessional touch to the socio-economic disparity existing simultaneously with robust economic growth would have only served to widen the chasm that existed between the rich and the poor. The crippling civil war, which threatened the security of all Lebanese people and forced many to emigrate, also saw foreign interventions – both overt and covert – such as the Israeli invasion in 1982 and the protracted involvement of Syria in Lebanon. Moreover, by the 1970s, Lebanon dominated the Western lifestyle and the top Lebanese universities were either Western or Christian. Finally, the head of the state was always a Maronite Christian and the Muslim leaders were from traditionally well-off and important families who were usually supporters of western values and secularism. This presents a disconnect between the voters, who often came from a relatively socially and economically depressed background, and their representatives. These representatives remained disinterested in addressing the community’s socio-economic challenges.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, was not merely a vehicle for radical Shiites that existed primarily on foreign support. It has successfully managed to garner appeal across the lower stratum of Lebanese society. Hezbollah and Amal, another Shiite political organization established in the 1970s, worked extensively in the socially and economically backward areas of Lebanon to provide essential services and facilities that the state had failed to provide (Deeb, 1992; Harik, 1996). At this stage, it becomes important to differentiate between Amal and Hezbollah to understand the latter’s success. Both organizations had fought alongside each other in resistance operations, however, Hezbollah managed to emerge on top due to a systematic approach to the challenges in Lebanon that employed well-funded social and public services (Khalaf, 2002). Amal did not have such a well-organized approach.

Hezbollah’s efforts in identity-making are seen in its open letter of 1985. There has been a conscious effort to construct an Islamic identity by citing important Islamic elements, such as the Quran and Sunnah, as the main sources of culture. Throughout the letter, a common message being conveyed is the feeling of helplessness and isolation, and that Hezbollah has been ‘compelled’ to fight. The letter indicates angst and annoyance at the conditions of the Shias - particularly when compared to the Christians in Lebanon. Importantly, by making the fight against America, not only about Islam but also about the "dignity of the nation," shows an attempt to weave nationalism and make a call to unite. It also symbolizes a strong call to right the perceived wrong.


The Taif Agreement in 1990, which ended the civil war, introduced multiple reforms and enhanced the cultural expression of communal and sectarian identities. Before 1860, when confessionalism was recognized and institutionalized, its societal demonstration and articulation were often relatively subtle. There seemed to be some apprehension to be identified by labels revolving around sectarianism. However, after 1990, sectarian grievances were occasionally expressed from political and sectarian leaders, without any reservations. Educational institutions, civil society organizations, media and popular culture all began to have categorical communal and sectarian identities (Khalaf, 2002). These efforts provided a space for different communities that felt threatened by the chaos of Lebanese society. Humans possess the fundamental motivation of a need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and in the absence of a strong and pervasive national identity, the highly communicated communal and sectarian identities became a sanctuary for the masses.

Foreign Influence

Lebanon’s geographical location has made it an important strategic location for several foreign powers. Its ports become important for economic trade and its location offers a useful position for anyone having interests in the Middle Eastern conflicts. The sectarian politics and democratic divisions have encouraged the foreign power to use these divisions for their personal interests. The power dynamics in Lebanon is aptly described by the realist school of thought where power is given the centre stage. This has historical roots and can be traced to the Ottoman times. It was Bashir II who is to be credited for introducing Mount Lebanon to the vicissitudes of regional politics. The system of capitulations – which underwent immense developments since its inception - helped the Europeans to foster closer relationships with several local Syrian sects. The Maronites, for instance, grew remarkably close to the French, just like the Druzes grew closer to the British. This resulted in a polarization of Lebanese society. One of the impacts of this polarization was that in the 1840s a possibility of harmony between the Druze and Maronite failed. This failure can be attributed to the relationship of the Druze and Maronites being linked with the larger forces of not only the empire but also of the West. The silk trade became more prominent in this part of the Middle East and reflected the dynamics of Europe, where France was dominating the highly profitable silk trade. The region of Syria was now growing in importance due to its economic benefit driven by the European demand for silk. This demand was largely tapped into by Maronites that acted not only as cultivators of silk but as the intermediary between the European wholesaler and the local retailer. This rise of a merchant class challenges the traditionally privileged classes - irrespective of the sect, religion or location in this region. However, the class issue quickly transformed into a sectarian conflict owing to the polarization in society (Fawaz, 1994).

One of the impacts of this polarization was that in the 1840s a possibility of harmony between the Druze and Maronite failed. This failure can be attributed to the relationship of the Druze and Maronites being linked with the larger forces of not only the empire but also of the West. Further, when changes in the silk trade occurred and caused class inequality that threatened the historically privileged elites of all sects, the issue quickly transformed into a sectarian conflict primarily due to the polarization in the society (Fawaz, 1994).

Today, undeniably, Lebanon is heavily dependent upon its neighbouring countries for economic and political stability. The constant engagement of some of the foreign powers, like Shiite Iran and Sunni majority Saudi Arabia, in internal politics creates instability in the country. The presence of Hezbollah has aggravated the internal situation of the country. Backed by Iran, Hezbollah is Israel’s primary opponent considering its role in the Israel-Palestine issue. Lebanon has been reduced to a proxy battleground for the Middle Eastern cold war between Iran and Saudi. While Iran manifests its influence through Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia has had a close relationship with the former PM of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. The danger for Lebanon is not being able to insulate itself from this intricate external power-play (Salil, 2020).

In the current world order, hardly any point on the world map is alienated from the United States, and of course, China. It, for a long time, has tried to gain a foothold in the region and it was equally welcomed by Hezbollah, because of the closeness of the Iran and China ties and with the financial package which China provides, it is hard to not get lured by it. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped both these countries to come closer and China is helping Lebanon to get out of this pandemic and has been militarily engaged in Lebanon through the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), has constructed highways, and signed cooperation agreements. The United States, on the other hand, has disturbed Lebanon. The involvement of the United States for several decades further complicates regional stability. America’s attitude towards Lebanon is not extinct of its history of support of “Israeli policies detrimental to the Lebanese people and interests” (Salil, 2020).

An example of the strength of foreign players in local affairs is Hezbollah, which officially came into being in 1985 with the publication of its first manifesto. Its beginnings can be traced back as far as 1978 as a non-violent Islamic struggle movement of social and political protest. With the help of Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, Hezbollah participated, in 1992, in Lebanon’s first post-war elections. Hezbollah’s idea of revolutionary Islam and its closeness with Iran has been looked at with great suspicion by the other Gulf states. The main source of the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s preeminent role is in the field of foreign politics. Additionally, Israel provides another front for Hezbollah’s foreign relations. The struggle against Israel has built up an ideological ground for Hezbollah since its establishment. Further, the Syrian civil war has helped Hezbollah to increase its ideological base and it has escalated the situation in the Middle East. Hezbollah has two different faces; in domestic politics, it can be called a Shiite led political group, but in the international arena it is operating as a terrorist group. It is gambling between these two fields i.e., inside Lebanon within the government and outside with fights against Israel.

Cementing Sectarianism Through Law

Sectarianism is a deeply entrenched idea in Lebanon, which is manifested at multiple levels, most profoundly in the government. None of the three branches of government is left untouched by the socio-political dynamics of the country. In the legislature, the Taif Agreement of 1990, equally divided the seats among the Muslim and Christian sects. This arrangement replaced the previous arrangement agreed upon in the 1943 National Pact and was followed by all ensuing electoral laws, wherein the agreed ratio was one of six Christians to five Muslims (Calfat, 2018). The executive is also divided by sectarian lines where the President is a Maronite, the Prime Minister is a Sunni and the Cabinet is divided to provide representation to the major religious communities. In fact, Article 95 of the Constitution mandates the equitable confessional representation of in public employment and government (Crow, 1962). Similar trends are seen in the judiciary. The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) is responsible for "ensuring the independence of judges through the management of judicial affairs and careers” (Harb, 2019). Its President, by practice, is a Maronite. Eight of the ten members are appointed by the executive and two are elected by the president and associated judges of the Court of Cassation, which is the equivalent of a supreme court in Lebanon. The sectarian dynamics spill over to the judiciary, threatening the independence of the judiciary. A scholar observed, "interference in the judicial appointments has led to an inept clientelist judiciary" (Al-Habbal, 2019).

These features of governance, rooted in the supreme law of the land, represent an institutionalization of sectarianism in the fabric of Lebanese society.


The Lebanese crisis is primarily a product of artificially created seemingly strong sectarian identities, for advancing vested economic and political interests. This is rooted in history, as is depicted by the assassination of the Druze leader Bashir Janbalat by Bashir II. The Druze community began to strongly perceive Bashir II as a Christian resolved to decimate the Druze population (Khalaf, 2002). Most accounts, notably, do not contain elements of hardened sectarianism (Fawaz, 1994). Ottoman society had great religious tolerance due to mechanisms such as the millet system. This period's social structure revolved around "hierarchical politics of notability that cut across religious lines" (Makdisi 1996). However, in the realm of society, laws are not linear, and the same variables can produce different results. However, the millets “were never truly combined in a homogeneous and unified society" (Khalaf, 2002). Thus, there were potential imbalances as well.

Such imbalances were exploited by Hezbollah, which has managed to stimulate the domestic and deeply rooted anguish that existed in many regions of Lebanon. Fundamentalism emerged as a product of the acts – or rather omissions - of those who perhaps were not in favour of fundamentalism. Having said that, Hezbollah was inspired by Iranian leaders. Lebanon acts as a battleground for the middle eastern cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran backs Hezbollah whereas the Hariri alliance is backed by the Saudi and other Gulf States. The role of Israel and the United States has further strengthened the ideology of Hezbollah, helping it to increase its foothold. The combination of Hezbollah and foreign influence has been lethal for the Lebanese people, encouraging divisions within the society. Hezbollah has also chiselled a religious identity to forge a strong movement.

When the conflicts of 1860 and 1975 imbibed sectarian connotations, violence emerged only when there was an imbalance in Lebanon's impressively diversified social fabric. A combination of social and economic disruptions that were largely biased towards one community, in the backdrop of demographic changes, gave birth to an imbalance. The constitutional arrangement, history and its interplay with culture created an artificial sense of sectarianism that had disastrous economic implications and exacerbated the economic disparity. The National Pact of 1943, for instance, engendered an additional layer of loyalty that often-superseded national loyalty, and was heavily imbibed in the vested interests of the elites. These implications are not only an effect of sectarianism but are also greatly contributing to perceptualizing sectarianism in the country. With each passing day, sectarianism is becoming stronger as an inseparable part of the state machinery. However, popular voices might reflect otherwise.

In contemporary times, the Beirut port blast has only accelerated the growing popular protests to remove the confessional system of democracy. As the nation seeks to rebuild itself from the pandemic, more and more Lebanese citizens are now realizing the vicious cycle of sectarianism and the brutal damage it is causing to their future, and to their country's future.


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