Hezbollah fighters at a ceremony.

A Socioeconomic History of Hezbollah: The Colonial Context

In the first in our new series, Edwin Tran analyses the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah. It will dissect the conditions that plagued Lebanon’s Shiites from the country’s founding through to the outbreak of civil war in 1975, from economic inequality to a lack of political representation, and underscore how these factors helped mobilised a disenfranchised population into organised groups like Hezbollah.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Hezbollah is a term often misunderstood; it is a group linked with notions of Islamism, Jihadism, and violent extremism. Many have viewed the organisation along lines similar to that of the Islamic State and al Qaeda and as a result, much of the nuances key to the movement are lost. Besides scholars and analysts, few realise the differences in Hezbollah’s ambitions, operations, and financial apparatuses, and in fact there is little discussion on Hezbollah’s socioeconomic framework and its seminal importance in the group’s founding and current operations.

Through such social operations, Hezbollah has been able to garner substantial popularity and political authority in Lebanon. This series will analyse the socioeconomic history of Hezbollah, underlying the context of the Lebanese Shi’ite community from the country’s foundations to the Lebanese Civil War. It will dissect the conditions that plagued Lebanon’s Shiites, from economic inequality to a lack of political representation, and underscore how these factors came to play a role in mobilising these disenfranchised peoples into organised groups like Hezbollah.

The French Mandate

The foundations of these socioeconomic conditions can be traced back to the French Mandate; a period of colonial rule that would prove instrumental in setting the Lebanese stage for later sectarian and class conflicts. It is important to recognise that France maintained close relations with several principle groups in the Lebanon area since before World War I; while Lebanon has historically been (and continues to be) a home of many different religious denominations, particular attention must be placed on France’s ties to the Christian Maronites.


Fig 1.0 – Religious group distribution in Lebanon

In the decades before World War I, France had already begun to lay the foundations for its colonial endeavours. According to Professor Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University, “French charity organisations and schools were founded” in 19th century Lebanon and of particular note was the establishment of the University of St. Joseph in 1875 by French Jesuits. The French promoted Maronite commercial endeavours and traded with the group more frequently than the Sunni, Shiʿa, or Druze populations of the region. France was keen on providing assistance in infrastructural development for the Maronites by investing heavily into railways, ports, and other facilities. In this light, France viewed itself as “the self-proclaimed protector of the Christian communities in the Levant – and especially of the Christian Maronites of Mount Lebanon.” France further justified its claim by citing a desire to maintain its charitable activities throughout the region. These actions ultimately highlight the scope of France’s interests in the region and set the stage for sectarian and socioeconomic divides.

A Post-Ottoman Levant

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France quickly stepped onto the scene in order to consolidate their gains and solidify their hold over the Middle East region. On August 31st, 1920, France combined the Ottoman vilayets (provinces) of Damascus and Beirut and officially declared the formation of the Mandate of Greater Lebanon. This was followed by the implementation of an Administrative Commission that would be led by a French governor, thereby placing Lebanon under French rule directly. These changes would have the effect of moving “the coastal cities of Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut… [and] the fertile Biqa Valley [away] from Syrian jurisdiction.”

This act greatly benefited the Maronites, as many saw this as an opportunity to increase their economic standings due to the increased maritime ventures that were now possible. At the same time, however, this move would bring into Lebanon a large Muslim population, many of whom resented the arbitrary shift as an act of colonial overreach and continued to prefer a union with Syria. A result of this provincial restructuring meant that Maronites now only constituted 30% of the Mandate’s population and required greater amounts of French intervention to maintain their strength and relevance. Despite this fact, Lebanon’s French overseers were largely unconcerned with the possible ramifications of this reshuffling and instead were chiefly focused on ensuring that Lebanon would remain distinct from the majority-Muslim Mandate of Syria.

An Unrepresentative Democracy

As time moved on, French control over the Mandate of Lebanon was characterised by the well-entrenched policy of divide-and-conquer that gave preferential treatment to the Christian Maronites. The Administrative Commission was shifted to allocate seats based on religious affiliation; a system that was referred to as confessionalism. Maronite Christians were given ten seats, Sunnis were given four, Shiites received two seats, and the Druze were allocated a single seat. Furthermore, France ensured that regional trade would funnel into Beirut, giving Maronite merchants greater access to goods and a stark competitive advantage in accessing European markets. In 1926, France allowed the Lebanese populace to establish a constitution. The constitution itself was relatively weak and made no reference to independence, and it was officiated that there would be a “single chamber of deputies that was elected on the basis of religious representation.” It is important to recognise that Sunni Muslims were also afforded some privileges at this point; both Christians and Sunnis had greater access to education and social institutions when compared to other religious denominations. Under High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail (r. 1924-1926), Lebanese Sunnis were able to run administrative positions, and many were still well-connected to inner-regional trade via Damascus, Aleppo, and other major cities.

On the other end of the spectrum was the socioeconomic status of the Lebanese Shiʿa population. Lebanese Shi’ites resided in the regions of Southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley and were marked by a heavy rural population that lacked the burgeoning middle class of wider Lebanon. One of the principle elements of the socioeconomic fabric of the Shiʿa was its domination by local landowners known as the zu’ama. The political economy for the Shiʿa in this time was marked by heavy amounts of rentierism, clientelism, and patronage due to this quasi-feudal agrarian economy. In addition to this, Shiʿa education was especially underdeveloped when compared to their Sunni and Christian counterparts, with Shi’ites maintaining eleven schools in comparison to the Maronites’ four hundred schools. This was further reinforced by a relative lack of political representation for the Shiʿa. The disproportionate lack of representation in the Administrative Commission (and later derivatives) was compounded by the fact that Shi’ites did not receive their own courts until 1926. Such factors were minute elements of a wider French policy that led to the holistic socioeconomic disenfranchisement of the Lebanese Shiʿa population.

A Splintered Nation

What emerges from this historical context is a realisation of the splintered state that the Mandate of Lebanon found itself in. Various sects in the region were afforded different privileges and were disparate in their socioeconomic conditions. This system of divide-and-conquer would have the effect of furthering sectarian divides, as Maronites began to grow more alienated and more elitist from their Muslim counterparts, while Shi’ites began to feel marginalised and disenfranchised from the greater Lebanese population. With the wake of World War II, many Lebanese saw an opportunity in ascertaining independence. However, even if independence was secured, it was still questionable as to how effective and how strong the new nation would be. In the next part of this series, we will examine Lebanon in its post-independence position and analyse the politics and socioeconomic principles that would guide the country in its foundational years. From there, we will see just how effective these policies would be in curbing the socioeconomic challenges faced by Lebanon’s non-Maronite populations.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Cover image – Ali Khamenei // Demographic map of Lebanon – Sergey Kondrashov