Lebanon's Sunnis and the Civil War
This article was written in 1993 as my end paper for Middle Eastern Studies. I decided to resist the temptation to adapt it, though I fleshed out some small parts (the ones where I quote David Gilmour’s Lebanon, the Fractured Country
) which I thought were a bit skimpy. Obviously the Israelis have left unilaterally in 2000 and so have the Syrians 5 years later after the pressure on them became unbearable following the murder of Rafik Hariri (yet another one of those unsolved assassinations of Lebanese political leaders).
Though times have obviously changed and parallels only go so far, I keep thinking about the Lebanese civil war when reading about the Iraqi one. Most of the Lebanese civil war was fought under the very noses of a foreign occupation force disguised as a peace force (the Syrian army), which was sometimes unable to stop it, sometimes unwilling to and sometimes actively fanning the flames. Neither Syria, nor Israel or any of the other forces meddling in the war were ultimately able to dominate Lebanon in the long run. There were some short-term successes for the Israelis, the US and the Syrians, but in the end the force they applied always summoned a reaction that undid most of their painstakingly achieved results. The only thing the Syrian presence did achieve is that it arguably prevented the disintegration of Lebanon into smaller states.
In the end the war petered out because everyone was sick and tired of the fighting and a peace accord was reached that changed surprisingly little. It still took all the military power of the Syrians and the political and financial power of the Saudis combined with the power vacuum left by the removal of Iraq from the Lebanese equation to enforce it. Sadly the Lebanese nightmare is still not over and as we saw in the summer of 2006, Israel still thinks it can force the Lebanese people and its government into submitting to its will by military power, just as the Syrians think they can by assassination.
Many of the players from the civil war (or their descendants) are still powerful figures: Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah is the leader of the pro-Syrian opposition now, with Amal leader Nabih Berri and former anti-Syrian freedom fighter Michel Aoun as his sidekicks. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has changed sides too and is now in the anti-Syrian camp.
This article is an attempt to answer two questions. First of all: why didn’t the Lebanese Sunni community build a strong militia like the Maronite and Shi’ite communities did? Although a lot has been written about Lebanon, this question is largely ignored and has never been answered satisfactorily in my opinion. Augutus Norton, for instance, pooh-poohs the political fragmentation among the Sunnis by stating: “The Sunni militia was the PLO and as the fortunes of the PLO have waned in Lebanon, so have those of the Sunni community.”1
Most authors follow this approach: they tend toward stating that the fate of the Sunni community was tied to that of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This explanation is too simple. I will try to prove with this paper that the Palestinian presence was mainly tied to the military power of the leftist parties and not the power of the Sunnis. I will also look at other causes, such as the patron-client system and the Sunni focus on the Arab World.
The question of why the Sunnis have not been able to build a strong militia poses another question: why were most militias at the end of the civil war sectarian, when at the start of the war most of them were the military branch of political parties based on a secular ideology? To answer this question I will look at the rise of sectarianism.
The second question in this paper is why the lack of a strong militia has not resulted in a loss of power for the Sunnis. To answer this question I will look at the post-war developments, including the new electoral law and the 1992 elections.
In order to answer those questions I will have to give an overview of the foundations of the Lebanese political system, the patron-client system, the Palestinian presence, major Lebanese and Palestinian political groups and a short version of the civil war(s). The Sunni community will largely have to wait.