In the second piece in our new series, Edwin Tran analyses the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah. From the end of French rule in the fires of 1943, to the emergence of a Palestinian quasi-state in southern Lebanon, we explore the attempted reforms of the Chehab administration and how their ultimate failure helped pack the powder-keg that would eventually explode into civil war.


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On November 1943, the constituents of the Mandate of Lebanon officially declared independence from France. The weight and turmoil of World War II forced the administration of Free France to formally restore the Lebanese constitution and allow the Lebanese citizenry to engage in unimpeded elections. Thousands took to the streets and celebrations erupted in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square; a site that had been the focal point of the Lebanese independence movement for decades. The ensuing elections saw the emergence of the Maronite Bishara al Khoury to the presidency and the Sunni Riyadh al Sulh to the position of Prime Minister.

The Beirut Compromise

These two leaders, in conjunction with principle figures representing Lebanon’s other sects, developed a crucial compromise that would govern the country for the decades to come. In conjunction with the Lebanese Constitution, the National Pact (al-Mithaq al-Watani) was established as an unwritten agreement that stipulated the following: the president would always be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister would always be a Sunni, the Parliamentary Speaker would be Shiʿa, and further posts would be distributed to the other religious denominations accordingly. While this pact ensured some amount of representation for all of Lebanon’s religious groups, it had the effect of furthering sectarian divides. The many powers afforded to the presidency and the prime minister meant that Maronites and Sunnis would continue to dominate politically, to the chagrin of Lebanon’s other groups. It should be noted that the National Pact was based on a French census of Lebanon conducted in 1932 and another census has not occurred since due to fears of political chaos should population changes not reflect the current allocation of political seats.

Lebanon_religious_groups_distribution

Fig 1.0 – Religious group distribution in Lebanon

In the ensuing years, Shi’ites continued to be marginalised both economically and politically despite agreements made in the National Pact. Studies revealed that despite these seemingly egalitarian efforts, Shi’ites maintained an illiteracy rate of 68.9%, while political participation in civil service positions was marked at a mere 3.2% of the entire Shiʿa community. Despite representing 18% of Lebanon’s total population by 1955, political participation of the Shiʿa had only risen to 3.6%. The administrations of presidents Bishar al Khoury (r. 1943-1952) and Camille Chamoun (r. 1952-1958) were marked by a disinterest in socioeconomic development and there was little focus on constructing basic infrastructure. It became evident that much of the policies promoted by the Lebanese state in these post-independence years was “aimed to maintain and strengthen Lebanon’s position as a key financial intermediary between the Arab world and Europe,” and thereby continued the Maronite economic domination of Lebanon.

The Shi’a Migration

As a consequence, the socioeconomic status of many rural inhabitants of Southern Lebanon declined. Due to political disinterest, many farmers became unable to subsist off their own land. Rentierist policies forced many Shi’ites to work as sharecroppers for large landowners. Continued domination by the zu’uma coupled with increasing apathy by political leadership forced many Shiites to look elsewhere for relief. Many turned to foreign work in places like Nigeria and Senegal, where remittances became critical to the livelihoods of many back home. Others moved into urban centers, mainly in Southern Beirut, to find work. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 Shiites left the agrarian south to find work in such urban areas. Despite the promises of reform and revolution that came with independence, Shi’ites in Southern Lebanon continued to be dominated by large landowners, faced harsh socioeconomic conditions, and lacked any practical amount of political representation to set in motion real change.

In 1958, disaster struck Lebanon. Claims of electoral fraud and general Muslim discontent erupted into a conflict that would act as a precursor to the 1975 Civil War. Much of this was derived from pan-Arab anger following political clashes between Lebanese President Chamoun and Egyptian President Gamal abd al Nasser. The 1958 civil conflict would not end until President Chamoun called in American forces to quell the uprising. In the aftermath of the Lebanon Crisis of 1958, Fuad Chehab, Commander of the Lebanese Army, was elected to the presidency of Lebanon. Chehab had immediate support from both Muslims and Christians for his decision in not using the Lebanese military in the conflict. The emergence of President Chehab would be akin to a holistic socioeconomic revolution for the country, and whose influence is still felt to this day.

Chehab’s Reforms

Upon taking office, Fuad Chehab recognised several key issues that had been ignored under the regimes of Bishar al Khoury and Camille Chamoun. President Chehab immediately noted the need in abating tensions that lingered between Muslims and Christians in the aftermath of the 1958 Crisis. In response, President Chehab launched a sweeping program filled with political and economic reforms, much of which targeted Lebanon’s Shi’ite population. More Muslims were admitted to higher positions in the administration, while social welfare systems were greatly expanded. In fact, studies revealed that Shi’ite participation in civil service posts increased from 3% to 22%. A majority of infrastructural reforms were targeted in Southern Lebanon in order to aid downtrodden Shi’ites. Rural hospitals, improved roads, and the establishment of the National Social Security Fund were all aspects of these reforms established under President Chehab. Perhaps most significant was the fact that by centralising control of Lebanon into the hands of the national government, the power and influence of political bosses and the zu’uma were greatly limited. Despite his status as a Maronite Christian, Chehab’s policies were intended to affect Lebanese citizens of all sects on all fronts.

However, President Chehab’s reforms were not met with universal acclaim and there were some issues that plagued the efficiency of their implementation. Some sectors of the population viewed Chehab’s actions as being elitist and there was little grassroots support for them. This was coupled by issues such as “corruption within the government administration,” bureaucratic incompetence, and a lack of knowledge in implementing Chehab’s reforms on a local level. Perhaps most disappointing for commentators was Chehab’s inability in completely curbing sectarian allegiances in Lebanon. While he may have declared that the goal of his reforms was to “ground all Lebanese in a single society on which national unity is based… to make one complete people and to remain loyal to the country,” the result was anything but that outcome. In the midst of these reforms, there was an uptick in “acts of banditry, hooliganism, theft, pillaging, looting,” and other actions. An attempted coup in 1961 by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), an organisation that sought Lebanese reunification with Syria, further highlighted the sectarian underpinnings within Lebanon’s age of reform. As a result of this attempt, President Chehab would grow to rely on military might and the security apparatus to maintain order, an act that only furthered criticism. While sectarian influences may not have dissipated, many of Chehab’s reforms at least highlighted a direct attempt at understanding and solving Lebanon’s divides.

Enter Arafat

However, the socioeconomic fabric of Lebanon radically changed following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. An influx of Palestinian refugees into the country following the war would culminate in the enactment of the 1969 Cairo Agreement between Egyptian President Gamal abd’ al Nasser, PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and Lebanese General Emile Boustany. It was established that the Lebanese government would give the PLO autonomy of Palestinian refugee camps in exchange for Lebanese jurisdiction over PLO raids. At the same time, Yasser Arafat would establish a base of operations in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. In these areas, the PLO was able to establish their own quasi-state and were in charge of social services, local security, and other state-based tasks on top of their armed raids against Israel.

Indeed, Yasser Arafat was able to “build a multi-billion dollar investment portfolio that [sustained]… welfare payments, scholarships… health payments, educational programs… and salaries to bureaucrats and guerillas… making as many as 60,000 Palestinian families directly dependent on Arafat and the PLO for their economic well-being.” Specific examples of such services included the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which gave medical services and health care, and the Palestinian National Fund, which provided loans and monetary assistance. However, despite the fact that Arafat held control over areas of great sectarian diversity, many of the services provided by Arafat and the PLO were predominantly focused on Palestinians, rather than Shi’ites or other groups. Although individuals of all sects and denominations had lost their lives or homes from Israeli retaliatory strikes, the PLO was chiefly concerned with their constituent Palestinians.

This economic focus on the Palestinian populace coincided with the fact that the reforms of President Chehab accomplished little in having long-term alleviation for the socioeconomic plight of the Lebanese Shiʿa community. The regime of President Suleiman Frangieh (r. 1970-1976) signalled an end to the era of reform under President Chehab and a return to the Maronite-dominated system that had characterised Lebanon in the decades prior. Shi’ites continued to reside in poverty and destitution. Southern Beirut, which had been flooded with Shi’ite migrants, was known by many as a poverty belt. At the same time, Southern Lebanon faced major economic issues, as agriculture, the largest portion of Southern Lebanon’s economic output, had declined from representing 19.7% of Lebanon’s economic output to only 9.2% by 1970. In terms of social services, a clear gap existed as well. Despite Chehab’s reforms and PLO interference, the mid-1970s saw only thirty-eight social service associations for the Shi’ites as opposed to sixty-six and seventy for Sunnis and Maronites respectively.

A Splintered Nation

Tension was clearly building up in the state of Lebanon. Maronites had become increasingly concerned with the growing rise of the PLO. Many were suspicious and alarmed by the quasi-state established by Yasser Arafat and were unwilling to lose their foothold on the country. At the same time, Sunnis and Shi’ites were finally reaching a breaking point after nearly fifty years of Maronite domination. Many Sunnis banded around the leftist ideology of the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, though this, as already noted, was not a completely unified front. Indeed, while Sunnis and Shi’ites rallied amongst similar issues, there remained geographical and socioeconomic differences that furthered a degree of alienation between the two sects. As every side began to mount its own paramilitary forces and as tension began to build on all fronts, it became clear that Lebanon would be set forth onto the path toward civil war. By the Spring of 1975, it became evident that every faction within Lebanon was armed and ready for fighting to break out.

In the next part of this series, we will examine the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, the breakdown of the state apparatus, and the further socioeconomic decline of Lebanon’s Shi’ite communities.

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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 – robotpolisher // Demographic map of Lebanon – Sergey Kondrashov

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Written by Edwin Tran

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 region, and specializes in hybrid organizations and their historical contexts. Much his work seeks to understand the popularity and political successes of hybrid organizations within civil society.