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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


The Lebanese Conflict
Latif Abul-Husn

(London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998)
171pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 1-55587-665-X. 33.95



This study, by a career civil service officer in the Lebanese Foreign Ministry who has served as ambassador to Australia and New Zealand since 1995, focuses primarily on the role of indigenous factors in the origin, dynamism, and resolution of Lebanon's civil war (1975-1989). Its premise is that the country's deeply segmented social structure and conflictual tendencies are the root of its social and political anomie. Although conflict is inherent in pluralist societies, the Lebanese system failed to develop the associated conflict-management mechanisms necessary to keep social peace and stability. Abul-Husn seeks to show that pluralist societies are not necessarily doomed to constant struggle and upheaval, provided that they adapt to the civil ethos of compromise and flexible responses.

The author argues that the Lebanese civil conflict is spawned by the fault lines within the country's very structure--communal divisions and fratricide--"cradled in domestic social, political, and economic contradictions" (p.1) and exacerbated by external forces. He analyzes the social-structural basis of the Lebanese conflict in light of the corpus of conflict theories, especially those of Karl Marx (economic determinism and social-class interest), Ralf Dahrendorf (authority and position in class relations), and Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century North African Muslim thinker (asabiya, group solidarity and power). The concepts of authority and asabiya are particularly relevant and useful tools in "identifying and understanding the root causes of the Lebanese conflict" (p. 7), which will, in turn, help in the search for a resolution.

Asabiya provides dynamism for a group's quest to gain dominion over other groups. The group with the strongest asabiya gains hegemony which in turn leads to a counterassertive solidarity of the dominated groups, giving rise to conflict. This is somewhat analogous to Dahrendorf's theory of group conflict as between those with positions of authority and those without. Social conflict is seen as a function of the inequitable distribution of power among groups.

In the Lebanese civil war, the conflict groups and their militias were formed around the basic attributes of asabiya: blood relations, religious affiliation, and geographical location. This is true of the Christian Lebanese Forces militias, the Shiite Amal and Hizbullah militias, and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party militia. They were all locked in a struggle to promote their respective causes.

In broad terms, the war was fought over three issues: political reform, national identity, and state sovereignty. The Christians, fearing the loss of their privileged position and Lebanon's exclusive identity (Lebanonism, which they equated with the country's special sovereign status in its relations with the Arab world) sought to preserve the status quo. They opposed all calls for reforms as contrary to the spirit and intent of the 1943 National Pact, which had established the country's confessional system and guaranteed their preeminence. Indeed, it can be said that the Maronite Christians, in particular, have always thought of Lebanon as their special preserve, as envisioned by their French patrons, and have posed as its chief defenders against Arab-Muslim subsumption. The Muslims, on the other hand, wanted to establish a more equitable arrangement and restore Lebanon's natural Arab identity and affinity. What differentiated the two camps was neither "their sectarian nor ideological orientations, . . . [but] their profoundly divergent interests in changing the existing power-sharing formula" (p. 3).

Abul-Husn shows in chapter 3 that communal-sectarian divisions run deep in Lebanon. Since its inception as a modern state in the early 1920s, it has been a mosaic of minority communities, with no single group constituting a majority of the population. The seventeen officially recognized sects are configural forces that have inhibited national coherence and unity. They have interacted primarily through economic and commercial life, with little or no interaction in social life--each with "its own beliefs and values, communal consciousness, specific interests, and stratification system" (p. 6). In particular, the Christians and the Muslims have held sharply contrasting cultural ethos and value systems: a Western-directed Christian orientation versus an Arab-inspired orientation. A separatedness reinforced by geographical separation: the Maronite Christians and Druzes lived in Mount Lebanon; the Shiites in southern Lebanon and the Biqa' Valley; the Sunnis in the coastal cities and towns; and the Orthodox Christians in parts of north Lebanon and in Beirut. Their autonomy was intensified during the civil war.

Abul-Husn is correct in maintaining that religious-communal identities and affiliations are not unique to Lebanon, but Lebanon is the only country in the region where religious-sectarian composition has been grafted onto the political structure by means of a confessional system, as outlined in the 1943 National Pact. This was the basis of a sectarian-proportional power-sharing ratio: six Christians: five Muslims. The institutionalization of religious divisions has led even to further segmentation and "hardening of the communal cleavages" (p.31),which diminished the prospects of national integration.

The National Pact (chapter 5) was essentially an attempt at reducing communal friction in the long term, along lines of a consociational democratic model (Arend Lijphart's consociational theory) of conflict management in a multicommunal society through accommodation and regulation of divisions and divergent interests. It ultimately failed because it did not develop the institutional mechanisms to address the socioeconomic, political, and demographic challenges and problems that arose over time and eventually caught up with the precarious arrangement and proved to be fatal to it.

Even so, we are told that prewar Lebanon represented a "successful consociational experience" (p. 76). Tensions were kept below the boiling point for a while, but Michael Hudson's assessment may be more apropos: the confessional system, rather than providing for conflict-regulating and management mechanisms that would sustain stability, contributed to exacerbating the divisions among the communities and hastened the collapse of the state. Thus, in end, the National Pact brought neither national integration nor state loyalty.

Also, as the author states, the confessional system implanted problematic power sharing, which has influenced Lebanon's political culture and has resulted in intercommunal conflicts. Indeed, the diverse structural base of the polity and the accompanying socioeconomic disparities have been conducive to the generation and perpetuation of conflict among groups--a situation that has been nurtured over the years by asabiya consciousness and the quest for positions of power and authority. In the end, all these elements have rendered the social structure weak and subject to factional exploitation.

The communal-geographical divides coincided with the poverty lines, accentuating divisions. Chapter 4 deals with the prevalent intercommunal inequalities and the attendant asymmetries in economic, social, and educational benefits that have contributed to unleashing the conflict. The Muslims of Lebanon, especially the Shiites in the South, saw themselves as marginalized, in an inferior socioeconomic and political position vis-a-vis the dominant Christian group. Equally, the latter always suspected the Muslims' commitment to "the core value system of the independent state of Lebanon" (p. 55) and its institutions, a threat to the Christians' and the integrity of Lebanon.

Chapter 4 also discusses briefly the influence of outside elements on the Lebanese conflict: the Arab-Israeli struggle; repeated Israeli incursions and invasions; inter-Arab rivalry; the armed Palestinian presence; and Syria's role. External political and military intervention contributed to group imbalances and helped to intensify and prolong the conflict. Surely, foreign interference is not something unprecedented in Lebanon; it is a tradition. Historically, the diverse communal-religious composition of the society and the conflicting aspirations, identities, and structures of its components made the country susceptible to foreign meddling as groups sought support and protection elsewhere. The Christian Maronites have depended upon Western powers and even on Israeli support; the Muslims have called on Arab-Muslim help, especially Syria.

But Abul-Husn fails to emphasize that of all the outside forces that have intervened openly or covertly on one side or the other in the civil war, only Syria--which dispatched 30,000 troops to Lebanon in June 1976--refused to budge on its involvement, giving Damascus a pivotal role in the search for a settlement that is favorable to Syria and its Muslim allies. This culminated in the Taif Accord in October 1989, which officially brought hostilities to an end. Syria's action was driven by its conception of its traditional relations--historical, cultural, and geographical--with Lebanon, which, in Syrian eyes, give Syria an exclusive place in Lebanon. This was compounded by Syria's perceived national security needs, especially in wake of the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In the end, Syria emerged on top with the signing in Damascus of the May 22, 1991, Treaty of Brotherliness, Cooperation, and Coordination. The document codified the special relations between the two countries in areas of foreign policy, security, and defense, among others--something the author does not even mention, despite its significance for Lebanon's future peace and stability of the country because those relations are a major bone of contention between the Christian and Muslim communities.

Throughout the civil war, the many cease-fires and attempts to resolve the conflict all came to naught--tantamount to mere "stopgap measures" or "cooling-off periods" (p. 91). The author correctly maintains that all peace proposals prior to the Taif Accord failed to resolve the underlying issues in the conflict: an equitable adjustment of the power-sharing formula; a settlement of the question of national identity in its relations with the Arab world, especially Syria; and the issue of sovereignty and the status of foreign troops on Lebanese soil. The two sides remained far apart on the fundamental issues, each suspicious of any proposal that did not address its concerns. Finally, the Taif Accord, officially brokered by the Arab League, ended the conflict and somewhat resolved its underlying factors, hence marking the beginning of the Second Republic. The various peace proposals and the Taif peace formula and its implications for the Lebanese sociopolitical order are discussed in chapter 6.

The Taif Accord had come on the heels of increasing factional fratricide and vicious fighting among contending militia groups vying for control over their respective communities. The conflict had deteriorated into a "naked struggle for power" (p. 107) that pitted Muslim against Muslim and Christian against Christian. Factional war-weariness facilitated the compromise and reconciliation at Taif. However, one can also surmise that the splintering of the various groups and the heavy toll of the carnage had weakened them considerably and made them all the more attuned to Damascus for a solution under the auspices of the Arab League.

Essentially, the accord readjusted the confessional power-sharing formula of the National Pact toward the Muslims. It kept the confessional system in the high ranks of government positions and proposed to phase them out for the lower ranks. It affirmed Lebanon's Arab national identity and affiliation. And declared Lebanon's sovereignty over its territory in the face of Israeli occupation and the militias' usurpation of state power and authority. Most important, the accord recognized Syria's distinctive relationship with Lebanon, based on kinship, history, and common interest, and charged it with helping to establish law and order and keeping the peace in Lebanon.

Abul-Husn holds that the Taif Accord was somewhat successful in resolving the conflict because it resurrected consociationalism, based on a confessional foundation strategy, to achieve communal harmony in a divided society. All other attempts during the conflict to reduce or eliminate pluralism in Lebanon--cantonization, loose federalism, secession--had met with failure. They further polarized the communities and even helped to unleash horrific acts of genocide, expulsion, partition, and "ethnic cleansing."

But this does not mean that Lebanon is out of the danger zone. Indeed, one can safely surmise that so long as confessionalism remains the basis of communal relations, setting sectarian loyalties above statewide loyalty, and so long as Syria remains the sole power broker and upholder of the communal balance, Lebanon will remain a house divided yet kept together under a "pax Syrianna." It appears, therefore, that the price of peace in Lebanon is Syrian hegemony--something, I venture to assume, that the author is aware of but unwilling to acknowledge, perhaps because of his official government position.

The concluding chapter is a reflection on future challenges to Lebanon: the social origins of the conflict--the inherent contradictions in the social structure--remain unresolved and could once again erupt in violence. The Taif Accord has changed neither the social configuration nor the political culture of the country. The sectarian basis of the state remains intact; political participation is still delineated by sect; and government benefits are allotted through patronage. For a durable peace, the author proposes a "new Lebanon" that transcends its "tribal-like structure" to build an integrated society where the individual citizen acts and interacts freely and directly with the state and has "direct access to political rewards and resources without the aid of an intermediary" (p.143). It may be that a "divorce between communal identity and political access may be Lebanon's best hope for a lasting peace" (p. 144), but the fact is that communal identities will remain entrenched in the political domain so long as Lebanon's constituent social mosaic does not cohere into a broader national community. Hence, in line with the main assumption of the study that pluralist societies need not be condemned to constant violence, I concur with the conclusion that the best hope for a polycommunal Lebanon is to adopt the ethic of civic culture, based on the principles of trust, compromise, and flexible responses.

The book is well written and thoroughly documented, using original Arabic sources. It constitutes a valuable contribution to the available literature on the civil war in Lebanon, especially in furthering our understanding of its internal causes and dynamics.


Mahmud A. Faksh, University of Southern Maine



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