It is no secret that Lebanon is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the Middle East, with eighteen recognized religious sects sharing, and often dividing, the small nation.

Many fear the on-going civil war in Syria threatens to upset the country’s careful sectarian balance, and create divisions between those who support and oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A Brief History

No official census has been taken in Lebanon since 1932. However, the CIA World Fact Book shows that 59.7% of Lebanese are Muslims (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Isma’ilite, Alawite or Nusayri), and 39% are Christians (Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Coptic, Protestant).

In 1943, Lebanon instituted the National Pact, an unwritten agreement that laid the foundation for a multi-confessional state.

According to this arrangement, the president of the Republic would come from the Maronite community, the prime minister from the Sunni community, and the president of the National Assembly from the Shiite community.

The system was intended to prevent sectarian conflicts and fairly reflect the demographic distribution of Lebanon’s various religious sects at the time.

This system did not, however, prevent sectarian tensions from boiling over. From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was embroiled in a brutal civil war that pitted various religious groups against one another.

The conflict ended with the Taif Agreement, which was negotiated in the Saudi city of Taif, and was designed to accommodate demographic shifts to a Muslim majority. The deal was signed on October 22nd, 1989 and ratified by the Lebanese parliament on November 5th, 1989.

For the past two decades, Sunnis and some Christians have expressed great concern over Shiites – mainly in the form of Hezbollah, a  Shia group that was largely formed with the aid of Iran in the early 1980s to spread its Islamic revolution – taking control of the country and imposing a government similar to the Iranian regime.

At the same time, Shiites and some Christians have feared that Sunnis may attempt to change the National Pact and Taif Agreement, convert Lebanon into an Islamic republic, and take control of the presidency and other powerful government positions.

The Syrian civil war appears ready made to intensify these on-going sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

The Impact of the Syrian War on Lebanese Society

Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in March 2011, daily clashes have erupted in Syria between forces loyal to the Syrian Ba’ath party, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, and forces seeking to oust the Syrian president and his government, including the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front.

In recent months, tensions have been running high between the Sunni majority in Tripoli, who back the Syrian rebels, and Alawites, who support the Assad regime, in Jabal Mohsen, a small town that neighbors Tripoli. In 2011, seven people were killed and 59 wounded. The total rose in 2012 to more than 65 dead and around 200 wounded.

During the 6994th Security Council Meeting, the United Nations recognized the problems facing Lebanon and “encouraged all parties to demonstrate renewed unity and determination to resist a slide into conflict, and while commending the efforts of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, it underlined the need for broad political support for State institutions.”

Sectarian clashes, closed roads, and increased tensions are becoming a daily reality in Lebanon. Rawaa Hammoud, a Lebanese lawyer and Muslim, believed that the “the Syrian civil war has increased the divisions between supporters of this revolution and those who oppose it.”

Tension between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites reached new levels when Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, announced his party’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and stated the group has been “helping President al-Assad fight the uprising against his rule – and will stand by him.”

Syrian rebels and their Lebanese allies had previously threatened to attack Hezbollah for its military involvement in Syria. They appear to have kept their promise.

On July 9, 2013, a blast shook al-DaHiya al-Janoubiya, a predominately Shia suburb south of Beirut composed of several towns and municipalities, wounding 53 people and raising the worrying possibility of an emerging Sunni-Shiite struggle in the region.

The Syrian war has also had a substantial economic impact on Lebanon.

In June 2013, Norway’s Fafo[1] Research Foundation stated in a report obtained by AFI (Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs) that “most Lebanese believe that the Syrians are taking away their jobs and causing wages to decline… The job competition has had a negative effect on people’s salaries in the unskilled sector for both the Lebanese and the Syrians and is raising ambiguous feelings amongst the Lebanese citizens towards the Syrian refugees.”

Hammoud reflects on this increasing fear that Syrian refugees in Lebanon will be a burden on the country: “The Lebanese people are overwhelmed and divided between helping the Syrian refugees for humanitarian reasons and denying them refuge for fear they will become permanent residents as is the current situation with the Palestinian refugees[2], particularly in that there does not appear to be an end in sight to the Syrian civil war.”

A Lebanese Christian engineer, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed with Fafo’s report and added that “about six hundred thousand Syrians have immigrated into Lebanon with the majority of them leading normal daily lives.  Many Lebanese citizens have lost their jobs because the Syrian immigrants are earning salaries below the minimum wages. The number of crimes in Lebanon is also on the rise; people are stealing for food and killing for money.”

When asked if this war will have a political impact on Lebanon, the engineer replied, “Of course! Lebanon will maintain the same political status whether or not Bashar Al-Assad remains Syria’s president. However, if the opposition wins the Syrian’s battle, they will in all likelihood convert Lebanon to an Islamic Sunni country.  Obviously, this is not in the Shiites best interest and an ‘ugly’ civil war in Lebanon is probably on the verge. Whoever wins this war will undoubtedly take control of the country, including the presidency.”

A Lebanese Christian lawyer, who also requested to remain anonymous, agrees that the presence of Syrians in Lebanon is causing economic and social problems and noted that “the most dangerous consequence of the Syrian war is the ‘hyper-tension’ that is taking place between Sunnis and Shiites. This is threatening the peace in the region and particularly in our country and the authority and sovereignty of its state and it is also damaging the relationship between its citizens. Many fear the imminent danger of a civil war, along with security issues.”

As to the effect of the war on the distribution of power, the lawyer added that “before the Syrian war, many parties didn’t recognize the Lebanese Political regime and the ‘Taif Agreement’ and tried to change it, especially Hezbollah and General Michel Aoun, a Lebanese Christian leader.”

“Lebanon will maintain its current political status and any plans for a regime change will likely fail. Many have tried before without success and the Hezbollah project to establish an Islamic Republic in Lebanon is a ‘dead end’ and will probably fail as well,” he concluded.

Conclusion

Lebanon’s National Pact currently faces the threat of dissolution. The Syrian civil war and its consequences will most likely have an effect on how political power is distributed in the country, determining whether the status quo in Lebanon continues or shifts to create a new religious and political reality in the country.

 

 


[1] Fafo is an independent and multidisciplinary research foundation focusing on social welfare and trade policy, labor and living conditions, public health, migration and integration, and transnational security and development issues. Fafo works within both a domestic Norwegian and larger international context.

[2] Lebanon has been the home for 300,000 Palestinian as estimated by Human Right Watch in 2011.

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