Why is the Conflict in Lebanon So Intractable?

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Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post,  ISSN: 2628-6998, https://worldmediation.org/conflict-insight 

On October 17th of this year, Lebanese people took to the streets in an exceptional protest against government corruption following the announcement that there would be taxes imposed on the use of the free, internet-based messenger service WhatsApp. Distrusting sentiment towards the sectarian government has been brewing for as long as Lebanon has existed with outbursts resulting in civil wars like those in 1958 and 1975 or the demonstrations -the most notable being March 14 and March 8 alliance demonstrations following Rafik Al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005- all of which have been contained just enough to maintain Lebanon’s existence. What are the roots of Lebanese citizen’s discontent with their government and why has the conflicting environment prevailed?

The impulsive answer given in response to the question of why the conflict in Lebanon has been so intractable tends to either include or entirely revolve around the fact that Lebanon’s many religious, ethnic and political identities clash. Although many perceive the communalism of Lebanon as a phenomenon mainly tied to the civil war which took place from 1975 to 1990, the accentuated religious divides appear to have been evident under Ottoman rule.[1] Once the French mandate had taken over, Lebanon had been formed, tying together cities from Tripoli to Tyre along with all the religious enveloped within the newly defined border with their respective elites.[2] Generally speaking, the elites of the individual religious communities (Lebanon counts 17 recognised) upheld the notion that each ‘nation’ is entitled to a state of its own [3]. Furthermore, this has contributed to tensions, not least due to the geographical distribution of these groups, which this essay will elaborate on in the next paragraph. In addition, when the region was preparing for independence, the old French Mandate rule was not disassembled entirely, but modified and adjusted to a system of sponsorship wherein the military and financial absorption of the old colonial powers were ensured. The British and Arab states now de-facto controlled Lebanon [4]. In more recent times, Arab nationalism has been averted into Islamic fundamentalism [5]. This would be one possible answer as to why the conflict in Lebanon has been so intractable, as their dominant power became an international threat which has been difficult to contain. The Islamic fundamentalism plaguing the region is paralleled with Maronite and Sunni/Shi’a relations deteriorating repeatedly after the demographic shifted from a Christian majority to a Muslim majority population [6], yet the (political and economic) representation remaining with the Christians [7]. This has undoubtedly caused resentment to grow in the Muslim community and as the Christian community felt threatened, it once again seeded lack of trust whereby a conflict can be harvested.       

Whilst the discussion in the preceding paragraph centres around the notion that religious communalism is the root cause of the modern sectarian divide in Lebanese politics that has upheld the conflict in Lebanon, it could be argued that this divide may in fact be on the account of a wealth divide and economic inequalities. In the post-independence/pre-war Lebanese state, there has been a disproportionate amount of wealth in Mount Lebanon and Beirut in contrast to the rest of the country. A table demonstrated by Odeh shows how agriculture accounted for the highest grossing industry for the country’s Net National Income [8], due to the high export rates of harvested goods to other Arab countries. During this time fruit carried most importance among products exported, that were harvested in Mount Lebanon which led to the area and the people residing there, to accumulate a degree of wealth unmatched to the rest of Lebanon. Beirut and Mount Lebanon developed to become industry trade centres and tourism hotspots. It is these regions that were demographically Maronite [9], whereas 94,1% of those employed in agriculture resided in the South and the North, and the Beqaa which were and still are inhabited predominantly by a Sunni and Shi’a populace [10]. This socio-economic divide could be argued as a reason for tensions to have arisen between the religions in the first place, in particular the accelerated growth in popularity of Hizbu’llah in the southern governate of Lebanon. Hizbu’llah maintains the notion that they speak for the oppressed, which they describe as people who are economically, politically and culturally weak, or rather, unrepresented in Lebanon’s affluence. Perpetuating this rhetoric, they have managed to speak to a wide range of demographics under their territorial rule [11]. As they have proceeded to gain momentum, it has opened up an opportunity for Iran to impose its influence both ideologically as well as financially [12]. Hizbu’llah is now not only a result of poor political practice on the government’s behalf, it has resulted in them governing poorly themselves, once more highlighting why Lebanon’s condition remains agonised. Noting the compelling evidence of the beforementioned roots of economic inequalities among the religious groups, it becomes apparent that despite treaties made to “End the civil war and return political normalcy” to Lebanon [13], the class system has prevailed across all religious parties. This is partly evident in the infamous “wasta” arrangements, whereby a person can enjoy a degree of privilege in bureaucratic procedures and hiring/promotion through people one has connections to in lieu of qualification [14]. Connections in the pollical scene often takes precedence over appropriate university degrees when applying for a job in politics. Subsequently, the people in power remain in power by wasta-ing the environment around them to serve their own best interests. 

Taking into account the points made in the previous paragraphs, a further explanation as to what makes Lebanon’s case so unmanageable would be the further growth and elaboration of globalisation. As previously mentioned, Lebanon’s main sector of trade was agricultural produce, 84% of which used to be exported to other Arab states [15]. This figure has been highly challenged, especially in recent years, due to a variety of reasons including but not limited to soil erosion, exhaustion and pollution of water resources, as well as inappropriate use of fertilisers and pesticides [16]. In a world with growing intricacy, Lebanon seems to be struggling to adapt since many possible trade markets are now more difficult to access [17], most probably due to challenges a war-torn region poses; as well as, according to data from 2010, Arab states importing agricultural goods from new markets located in developing countries in Latin America [18] , making the Lebanese market a posteriority. Lebanon grapples to adapt with the changes made around them due to globalisation, making it incompatible with the international community. Furthermore, the levant has been plagued with the unprecedented challenge of Islamic extremism. Noting the abovementioned transition of Arab nationalism into Islamic fundamentalism (the drastic confinement of the PLO during the civil war which some academics argued left an ideological and military void [19], as well as Hizbu’llah’s notion of anger towards the “oppressors” [20]), it becomes clear as to how the globalisation of Islamic extremism has been especially difficult for the levant to handle. Attacks on domestic grounds as well as the hardship faced in containing rapidly spreading violence both with the use of internet and the capitalist approach to arms sales, this catapults Lebanon into international scrutiny while not being provided the means and cooperation to fight what seems the at times a losing battle. Interdependency of the world means that while the international community was relying on Lebanon to hold a stronger position in containing Islamic extremism, Lebanon depended on the international community to provide the means with which it might have been able to achieve said containment (possibly through being provided with military aid, joint intelligence collaboration, awareness). Lebanon’s increasing incapacity to fill the economic void imposed on the country post-globalisation as well as the mistrust between communities in the face of ideological challenges as mentioned above, may explain one of the reasons each religious community feels the need to be financially and militarily backed by their respective proxy powers [21], further complicating attempts at political coexistence. 

More generally, these basic findings are consistent with research showing that Lebanon’s intractable conflict is owed to the persistent prevalence of issues rooted in difficulties related to the religious diversity, socio-economic inequity paired with the untimely and unprepared globalisation of the world from the Lebanese perspective. It is difficult to arrive at any definitive conclusions blaming just one factor alone, as they seem to be intricately connected and, in some cases, conditional on each other, compellingly evident in the fact that some communities suffered from socio-economic depravity related to their geographical distribution. The system that emerged from such inequalities was never sufficiently reformed, allowing the same problems to persist throughout the country’s history. As a result of the waves of political activity and conflict mentioned in the introduction the failure of alleviating and eliminating fundamental problems in the political system is illustrated, leading us to the question: are the recent demonstrations genuine grounds for permanent change or another conflict breeding ground for future sectarian warfare?


[1] Kisirwani (1980) “Foreign Interference and Religious Animosity in Lebanon”. Journal of Contemporary History. 15 (4): 685–700.

[2] From Beirut to Jerusalem, P. xi 

[3] Ziadeh (2006) ‘Sectarianism and Intercommunal Nation-Building in Lebanon’, P. xvi 

[4] Ziadeh (2006) ‘Sectarianism and Intercommunal Nation-Building in Lebanon’, P. 112 

[5] Ziadeh (2006) ‘Sectarianism and Intercommunal Nation-Building in Lebanon’, P. xvii 

[6] Friedman (2012) ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, P. 13

[7] Ziadeh (2006) ‘Sectarianism and Intercommunal Nation-Building in Lebanon’, P. 13

[8] Odeh (1985) ‘Lebanon Dynamics of Conflict’, P. 55

[9] Odeh (1985) ‘Lebanon Dynamics of Conflict’, P. 68-69

[10] Library of Congress/Central Intelligence Agency (1988) Contemporary distribution of Lebanon’s main religious groups (Map)

[11] Saad-Ghorayeb (2002) ‘Hizbu’llah Politics& Religion’, P.19

[12] Ben Hubbard (2017) ‘Iran Out to Remake Mideast With Arab Enforcer: Hezbollah’, The New York Times, 27 August    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/27/world/middleeast/hezbollah-iran-syria-israel-lebanon.html  (Last accessed: 10.12.2019)

[13] Krayem (2012) ‘The Lebanese civil war and the Taif agreement’ American University of Beirut

[14] Barnett, Yandle, Naufal (2011) ‘Regulation, Trust, and Cronyism in Middle Eastern Societies: The Simple Economics of ‘Wasta’ ‘

 [15] Odeh (1985) ‘Lebanon Dynamics of Conflict’, P. 68

[16] Ministry of Environment/LEDO, Lebanon State of the Environment Report, 2005-2018 P. 17 https://web.archive.org/web/20071005081710/http://www.moe.gov.lb/NR/rdonlyres/2A90DB39-4C66-4CC8-9734-19931F82753D/0/Chap2Agriculture.pdf 

[17] Eckart Woertz (2017) Agriculture and Development in the Wake of the Arab Spring,  https://journals.openedition.org/poldev/2274#tocto1n7 

[18] Clemens Breisinger (2010) Food Security and Economic Development in the Middle East and North Africa, P. 9 https://www1.essex.ac.uk/armedcon/themes/human_rights/foodsecmiddleeastandnorthafrica.pdf#%5B%7B%22num%22%3A422%2C%22gen%22%3A0%7D%2C%7B%22name%22%3A%22XYZ%22%7D%2C70%2C467%2C0%5D 

[19] Ziadeh (2006) ‘Sectarianism and Intercommunal Nation-Building in Lebanon’, P. 131

[20] Saad-Ghorayeb (2002) ‘Hizbu’llah Politics& Religion’, P.16/23

[21] Nada Issa (2018) The State of Lebanon, Al Jazeera, 2 August https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2018/08/state-lebanon-180801132206456.html (Last accessed: 10.12.2019) 


Friedman (2012) ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’ 

Maclean (2019) ‘Timeline: Lebanon’s ordeal – Economic and political crises since civil war’, Reuters, November https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-lebanon-protests-crises/timeline-lebanons-ordeal-economic-and-political-crises-since-civil-war-idUKKBN1XS0MT 

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