Balancing Act: Sectarian Leaders in Lebanon

Poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (with Hezbollah logo, right), Beirut, 2009. Photo: By Bertramz, Creative Commons 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

by Irina Papkova

Writing about religion and politics in Lebanon is an incredibly tangled enterprise.  Because of the political sensitivity of maintaining a representational balance between the seventeen religious groups officially recognized by the state, no census has been done on the territory of present-day Lebanon since 1932. Unofficially, 60% or so of Lebanese citizens identify as Muslim, while 39% are Christians, with 1% in the ambiguous “Other” category.  But this is not the end of the story. Lebanon’s “Muslims” include Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Sufis, and Alawites;  the “Christians” for their part encompass the Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholics, Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox Christians, Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Catholic, and members of the Assyrian Church of the East. There is also a tiny and well-masked Jewish community, consisting of perhaps 100 people in Beirut. As a result, any analysis that sees Lebanese society as fundamentally split between Christians and Muslims is deeply flawed, since it overlooks the reality of the multi-sectarian balancing that is at the heart of Lebanese political life.

Since Lebanon’s independence from the French Mandate in 1943, the delicate sectarian-political order has broken down into civil conflict several times. It’s generally been the case that external pressures pulled Lebanon’s sects into opposing political and military camps. In 1958, the country experienced a short civil war brought on by a crisis between Maronite Christians and a Sunni-Druze led opposition, in which the former sought to keep Lebanon aligned with Western powers while the latter attempted to draw the country into the orbit of pan-Arab nationalism espoused by Egypt’s president Nasser. The crisis ended when the United States sent in troops to support the pro-Western Maronite government. For the next seventeen years, Lebanon prospered as peace brought economic prosperity, gaining Beirut a reputation as the “Paris of the Middle East.”

In 1975, though, the balancing act failed once more. As in 1958, external pressures again contributed to the conflict, with the Cold War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict playing central roles. This time, the civil war was disastrous. It would last until 1990 and kill at least 150,000 people.  And it’s impossible to speak of the Lebanese Civil War simply as a war between Christians and Muslims, as the country was torn apart by Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze militias, with the participation of the PLO and the Syrian and Israeli armies. Alliances between these players shifted so rapidly that by the end of the war every side had allied with–and later betrayed–every other side at least once if not more.

Tourist postcard of Beirut (c. late 1960s) prior to the Lebanese Civil War, showing a view of the Rivoli theater.

Last week marked twenty-two years since the signing of the Taif Accords put an end to the last civil war. Lebanon is again reaping the benefits of peace, with Beirut regaining its cosmopolitan reputation and the rest of the country developing quickly, if unevenly. Still, external pressures are at work once more. The Syrian conflict next door threatens to disturb the Lebanese peace, once again pulling at the strings of sectarian divisions. So far, the outcome has been surprising. In theory, based on religious ties, one might expect the Lebanese Alawites and Christians to support the Assad regime, thanks to its history of protecting the Alawite and Christian minorities in Syria; the Shiites, represented by Hezbollah, were also expected to come out in support of Assad, principally because he has been their greatest ally in transferring weapons into Lebanon from Iran. Also in theory, one would expect the Lebanese Sunnis to overwhelmingly support the Syrian opposition, which is composed primarily of Sunni Muslims.  Given such ostensibly obvious alliances, Lebanon should have erupted into a civil conflict, replicating the Syrian scenario.

Yet the peace has held. Recent security incidents in Tripoli and Beirut brought concerted efforts on the part of the government and political parties to prevent an escalation of sectarian passions. In May, for example, Lebanese soldiers shot and killed a prominent Muslim cleric who failed to stop at an army checkpoint, prompting violent demonstrations in Tripoli. The soldiers have been arrested and charged, transparently and with due process. For some time, the Syrian army has been crossing into Lebanon in what has been construed as an attempt at destabilization; the response of the Lebanese side has been, as of this week, to send significant reinforcements to the border.

In addition to the measured response of the Lebanese government itself, the doomsday scenario has so far failed to materialize thanks to the surprising choices of sectarian leaders. Last week, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called upon the Druze and Alawite minorities in both Lebanon and Syria to throw their support behind the Syrian opposition. He accused the Assad regime of trying to fuel sectarian conflict, which would only bring both countries “more death and destruction.” Given Jumblatt’s status as probably the most respected and canniest political leader in Lebanon, his admonition to the Alawites—your citizenship comes before your confessional identity—speaks volumes. The Christians have generally remained neutral, as have the Sunni leaders; my conversations with Christian contacts in Beirut even reveals a sense of frustration at their co-religionists in Syria for “having brought this on themselves because they support Assad.”

Yet the most surprising development has been the positioning of Hezbollah. Understandably, Hezbollah is viewed as the force most likely to destabilize Lebanon, since its ideology calls for maintaining an armed force with the intent of eventually imposing itself as Lebanon’s ruling party. More to the point, Hezbollah’s position of strength within Lebanon is heavily dependent on its alliance with Assad, who has facilitated guns, financial assistance, and the transit of weapons from Iran into Lebanon.  And yet, at precisely the moment when one might expect Hezbollah to unleash a war in Lebanon at the behest of Assad (perhaps regionalizing the conflict, or hardening it along international sectarian lines), they’ve held back. Though he continues to voice support for the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is surely aware of both the uncertainty of the regime’s future and the potential cost of being sucked in to the Syrian civil war, and seems determined to avoid that fate. Nasrallah is forcefully calling for peace in Lebanon, and the party has been following President Michel Sleiman’s call for a national dialogue to maintain the fragile peace. If the Syrian regime intended to use Hezbollah to destabilize Lebanon, it has so far failed spectacularly.


Irina Papkova is Assistant Professor of International Relations and European Studies at Central European University. She received her Ph.D. from the Government Department of Georgetown University and has previously taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities.  Her book, “The Orthodox Church and Russian Politics,” was published by Oxford University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press in 2011. Irina’s current research includes Lebanese politics and the Secular Lebanon movement. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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