How The French Mandate on Lebanon Impacted The Lebanese Political System Causing Violent Consequences

1.0 Introduction

Recent unrest across the Middle East has brought about renewed scrutiny and attention to the region’s politics. In Lebanon, protestors filled the streets aiming for political reform. Consequently, this political unrest can be rooted back in the practice of power, which continues to affect the contemporary Middle East.

Therefore, this paper argues that the Lebanese feeble borders, Nationalism, and the system of government (confessionalism) in Lebanon are grounded since the French mandate on Lebanon (1923-1946), causing domestic and regional violence in the contemporary Middle East. Thus, the Colonial policies and system of government have affected not only Lebanese domestic politics but also regional politics. Hence, Lebanese nationalism, which was created to unite the Lebanese diversified sectarian cultures, “led to intense sectarianism and, ultimately, a violent and protracted civil war.” (Ritli, 2011).

This paper will be divided into two main sections: Section one: will attempt to clarify the terms of Nationalism, Civil war, confessionalism and also exploring the consociational theory. Section two: will be divided into two parts; Part one: will analyze the policy of the Lebanese porous borders that was formed during the French Mandate on Lebanon (1923-1946) and its impact on the domestic (refugees) and regional politics (Shebaa Farms). Part two: will explore Lebanese Nationalism which aimed at unifying the Lebanese nation in the colonial era and the system of confessionalism that sparked the Lebanese civil war and continues to be a source of political conflict.[1]

2.0 Conceptual & Theoretical Framework

2.1 Nationalism

Nationalism is the outcome of a nation’s historical events. It is ones’ bond to the nations’ soil, to immediate traditions and a settled territory. According to the German Historian Peter Alter, Nationalism is “both an ideology and a political movement which holds the nation and sovereign nation-state to be crucial indwelling values, and which manages to mobilize the political will a people or a large section of the population” (Kramer, 1997).

Nationalism is modern according to (Haas, 1986), because “it stresses the individual’s search for identity with strangers in an impersonal world, a world no longer animated by corporate identities.” All nationalisms entail the basis of identity through which it is connected by a series of common symbols ingrained in a specific pattern of communication. Thus, Nationalism is considered to be a cultural phenomenon, because it is “what distinguishes a people from other peoples in their own eyes consists of ways of thinking, feeling and behaving which are, or which they believe to be, peculiar to them” (Kamenka, 1973).

Nonetheless, nationalism is considered to be successful when it “implies a minimum of social harmony, an acceptance of the values that the symbols communicate sufficient to maintain social peace and peaceful social change” (Smith, 1986) and when legitimate authority “under conditions of mass politics is tied up with successful nationalism; when the national identity is in doubt, one prop supporting legitimacy is knocked away.” (Smith, 1986).

2.2 Civil War

A civil war is defined as “any armed conflict that involves (a) military action internal to the metropole, (b) the active participation of the national government, and (c) effective resistance by both sides.” (Sambanis, 2004). Civil wars are generally the most destructive and bloodiest human phenomenon since the end of World War II, causing the deaths of millions of people. These wars, therefore, have devastating and catastrophic consequences on the nation.

Although “Almost every nation has minority groups, religious plurality, and ideological divisions” (New World Encyclopedia, 2017), civil wars that are fought upon different religious beliefs to gain a place in government have broadly increased. Moreover, as religions have become implied and rigidly understood by the people who believe in them, tensions between inter-religious conflicts have increased.

It is the difference in religious beliefs and the will to take place in political authority is what sparks civil wars. For instance, the Lebanese civil war occurred primarily between the Sunni and Shia sects. Gesovitz & Kriger (2013) claim that “civil wars must entail large-scale and sustained internal political violence to distinguish them from intense but limited episodes of political violence that contest the monopoly of force, such as political assassinations, mutinies, or coups.” The violence of civil war thus takes place/happens within the borderline of a country involving mainly the internal ethnic parties. In fact, the violence caused by civil wars includes different groups of different beliefs.

2.3 Confessionalism

Generally, confessionalism is defined as “a system of government that proportionally allocates political power among a country’s communities—whether religious or ethnic—according to their percentage of the population” (Harb, 2006). However, although the model of confessionalism was good for creating peace in a nation, it also created problems. “Having all kinds of religious communities meant an eventual extension of regional politics into domestic affairs” (Harb, 2006). i.e. Muslims generally wanted ties with Arab countries while the west, on the other hand, preferred special  ties with the west even though they are Arabs.

Confessionalism is remarkably determined by a kind of democracy ascribed as consociationalism. “Consociationalism is often seen in Western polyarchies where pluralism and consensus are vital. The system is often used in countries made up by different divided groups, these divisions often religious, ethnic or class contingent.” (Nixon, Peter, Woods, Reventlow & Lykkegaard, 2007).

Therefore, the concept of confessionalism means a system of government where power is equally dispersed among various communities that are either religious or ethnic. The idea thus is relatively associated with the Lebanese case as it is a confessional governmental system.

3.0 Exploring The Consociational Theory

Lijphart’s consociationalism theory applies to “fragmented and multi-confessional societies. This model predicts that political elites from different sects or subcultures – despite not sharing similar values – will agree and compromise under a pragmatic institutional arrangement, which will favour democratic stability and governance.” (Calfat, 2018). Therefore, the general argument for consociationalism is that “it prevents the outbreak of open conflict in socially heterogeneous societies” (Makdisi & Marktanner, 2009).

The foundation/basis of the theory grounds in “national, ethnic and religious communities requires that power be systematically shared, as well as divided and subject to competition” (Verheij, 2014). Nonetheless, this theory has been criticized by scholars.[2]

Moreover, a consociational system only undergoes resistance to some degree, i.e., stability of various sects in society that aims for collaboration. So societies that are extremely divided either by “identities based on religion, language, region/nationality, ethnicity, or race, which are emerging from deep-rooted conflict should consider adopting power-sharing arrangements in democratic constitutional settlements” (Verheij, 2014).

Thus, the aim of this theory “is inclusiveness because exclusion is conducive to inequality, suppression and instability. An abundance of power in the hands of the majority in a deeply divided society is bound to be misused” (Verheij, 2014). And thus it can be inferred that this theory tends to explain the division of the “power sharing arrangements in deeply divided societies.” (Abu Ltaif, 2015).

4.0 Lebanese Soft Borders & Their Impact on Domestic & Regional Politics

The geographic region of the contemporary Middle East is linked back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which it first divided the Ottoman regions and formed boundaries to attain their –Great Britain and France’s – colonial interests which in a way still resonates today. Thus, the supreme council after Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 gave control to France over Mount Lebanon that was all Maronite Christians. So France wanted to increase its control in the Middle East and it took a part of great Lebanon and merged it with great Syria and Mount Lebanon to announce a new state which is Lebanon in 1920.

It can thus be inferred that the drawing of borders in that certain way, i.e. France did not take a big part of the Syrian territory because France wanted the majority to be Christians and this was a preference of France to create a nation with the majority of Christians. “to further strengthen its ties with the Christian Maronites” (Doyle, 2017).

The colonial powers have affected the Middle Eastern domestic and regional politics. Domestically, “conflict spillover from Syria into Lebanon” (Young, Stebbing, Frederick & Al-Shahery, 2014) resulted in mass refugees mainly because of Lebanon’s soft borders. Regionally, the Shebaa Farms disputes have caused wars between neighboring countries.

The Lebanese borders to neighboring Syria for a very long time have persisted in an open door policy towards Syrian nationals. In fact, “in autumn 2014, the Lebanese government significantly restricted entry to Syrian refugees for the first time, followed by visa restrictions in January 2015.” (Schmetter, 2016). Moreover, according to (Mitri 2014 & UNHCR 2014a) “more than 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees, an estimated number of around 300,000 Syrians live in Lebanon without being registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees” as cited by (Schmetter, 2016).

The Lebanese government denied the formation of new camps primarily because of the Palestinian refugee camps experience. “The Palestinian refugee camps were set up in 1948 and 1967; they were supposed to be temporary but they stayed and even developed autonomous military structures.” (Schmetter, 2016). Subsequently, as a reason for the Lebanese no camp policy, Syrians have almost spread nearly everywhere in the Lebanese territory and have set up “more than 1,750 locations, they rent flats, garages, ruins, spaces in half-constructed houses and on fields where makeshift camps are set up. About 15% of the refugee population lives in 600 so-called informal tented settlements (UNHCR 2014b).” (Schmetter, 2016)

4.1 The Issue of the Shebaa Farms

The issue of the Shebaa Farms emerged when the Israelis’ stopped their occupation of Lebanon and pulled their military forces from the Lebanese territory. Nonetheless, when Israel knew that the Shebaa Farms was Syrian, not Lebanese, the Israelis didn’t leave the region. According to the UN, as cited by Ritli (2011), “The United Nations oversaw the withdrawal process and concluded that Israel had done so completely, complying with United Nations Security Council Resolution 425 (UN 2000)”

This issue is contradictory because the region was inhabited by Lebanese farmers and slightly few Syrians lived in the region. As cited by Ritli (2011), “from the French Mandate until 1967 the area could therefore have been said to be de jure Syrian but de facto Lebanese. Israel understood the area to be Syrian and so, along with the Golan Heights, the territory was conquered as part of the 1967 ‘Six Day War’ (BBC 2000; Chelala 2008; Cimino 2010).” Notably, Israel occupation of the territories has furthered since then.

Decidedly, Syria stood with Lebanon and claimed that the Shebaa Farms were a part of Lebanon’s territory. Chelala (2008) & Cimino (2010) assure that “Hezbollah, a militant group formed in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, has since used the occupation of the Shebaa Farms to gain legitimacy and support for their continued violent action against Israel.” As cited by Ritli (2011), the continuous violent conflict which is brought out by the Shebaa Farms contradictions, symbolized by the 2006 July war, highlights the destructive and continuing colonial era legacy in contemporary middle eastern politics.

The main issue that can be extracted from here is that although Israel has been an occupier since the 19th century, but until now in modern Middle East politics Syria and Lebanon however, did not band together in order to solve this devastating issue that causes nothing but conflicts between the two parties.

5.0 The Unification of the Lebanese Nation

Lebanese nationalism was created before the colonial era. The pre-colonial era of Lebanese nationalism, which is “referred to as Phoenicianism, posits that the people of Lebanon are the descendants of the ancient and important Phoenician tribe.” (Ritli, 2011). By contrast, Lebanese nationalist primordial argument view the modern Lebanese as they “are not part of the Arab ethnicity, their contribution to Western culture is priceless, their skills in commerce are incomparable, and their inherent national characteristics are wisdom and tranquility” (Kaufman 2001)

The Lebanese modern nationalism is far from being just an identity. The modern Lebanese nationalism “developed territorial claims and ideological aspirations. It has also expanded its demographic affiliation from the limited Maronite population of Mount Lebanon to the much larger population of modern Lebanon.” (Riltli, 2011)

Noticeably, all these changes have been a result of the colonial period and more specifically the French mandate. As cited by Ritli (2011), Hobsbawm (1990) claims that “nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way around.” Thus, the state of greater Lebanon was not formed as a native homeland but instead its formation led to the establishment of a nation and thus, the new established nation required a nationalism in order to form a stabilized and united nation.

5.1 Confessionalism as a Source Sparking Civil War in Lebanon

Even though Lebanon had various religions, the majority were Maronite Christians whereas the rest were Muslims with different religious sects. Nonetheless, Lebanese nationalism did not spread. The system of government in Lebanon (confessionalism) also assign major political functions by religion “The President must always be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Assembly a Shia Muslim” (Baxter & Akbarzadeh, 2008)

“The power-sharing formula based on the 1943 National Pact has allowed to some extent a divided society composed of various religious subcultures to conciliate its multi-faceted versions of nationalism.” (Muehlbacher, 2008).  Subsequently, this formulation allowed Lebanon to depart from its political pathway of its Arab neighboring countries, and was praised for promoting the awake of democracy in an authoritarian nation. “Whereas authoritarian apparatuses suppressed the problem of confessional minorities in the middle east, Lebanon chose to recognize and institutionalize its pluralism.” (Muehlbacher, 2008)

Lebanese nationalism, which was supported by confessionalism, and was formed in order to unite the new nation of Lebanon, ultimately led to war between sects and thus was the root cause of the Lebanese civil war. “The colonially-constructed nationalism obviously appealed to the Maronite population as it was laden with Maronite values and history and was intentionally designed to keep them in power” (Ritli, 2011).

Linking that to the theory of consociationalism, where its main objective is to explain the power sharing in fragmented societies. In contrast with the case study of Lebanon, because of its diversified sectarian cultures (confessionalism) that assigns major political positions based on religion, it can be inferred that there is no unity. In fact it’s a divided community of religious sects.

In standard terms, “confessional consociationalism robs the Lebanese of the capacity to be represented as citizens in a representative democracy instead of as believers of a certain faith” (Calfat, 2018). Moreover, the continual failure of consociationalism in lebanon provided “a sustainable governing system are attributed to short-term agreements that have neither helped accommodate nor moderated political sectarianism in the country.” (Salamey, 2009).

In theory, in regards with the consociational paradigm, Lebanon was a good model for embracing the consociational model because the three prime religious sects in Lebanon acquired an extreme political power with utterly obvious advantages being granted to the Christians. This asserts that “the political supremacy they enjoyed under the French mandate would not diminish after independence.” (Makdisi & Marktanner, 2009).

Thus, the power sharing system in Lebanon brought about incommensurate political rights between citizens by means of pertinence of different sectarian religious groups. It can thus be inferred that the power sharing system in Lebanon have failed. Consequently, “the sectarian conflict dynamic was heightened, violent conflict followed, and the state repeatedly failed” (Salamey, 2009).

A war among Syria, PLO, Hezbollah, Israel and Lebanon endured up till “the signing and ratification of the Taif Agreement in November 1989. Israel and Syria remained as occupying forces in Lebanon until May 2000 and April 2005 respectively (Baxter & Akbarzadeh 2008; 2006; Krayem 1995; Reynolds 2000).” As cited by Ritli (2011).

Thousands of people have lost their lives due to the civil war “This amounts to around one fifth of the pre-war population.”  (Global Security, n.d.). However, not only this but also the war altered the political atmosphere as many violence were taking place as such in January 1976, “Intense fighting all over the country destroys the most important state institutions and public buildings.” (Salamey, 2014).

Harb (2006) portrays the situation as “a cancer on the country’s body politic” as this paper also mentioned in the introduction; that in the contemporary Lebanese politics protestors fill the streets in order to end this governmental system in Lebanon that has caused nothing but Turmoil, conflicts between sects and violence not only in Lebanon itself but also the neighboring countries.

6.0 Conclusion

Based on this research, it was found that if there was some sort of consensus between the Lebanese sectarian parties based on certain values/terms and ideas which are stated in a document/agreement, this would apparently end confessionalism, which is causing violence. It is certainly not about just signing a treaty, especially one that is not based on consensus. It is noteworthy that the parties must be satisfied with a solution that represents all parties. Moreover, fairness is really important because later on, none of the parties would withdraw claiming not to be present in the agreement. After all, it is not based on fairness and equality in the first place.

About The Author

Salmeen Adel is a contributor at the International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis (IIGSA). She is an Egyptian graduate of Bachelors of Science in Political Science from the British University in Egypt and London South Bank University. Her research mainly focuses on Middle East Studies and Public Policy & Administration sub-fields. Ms. Adel was also trained as a researcher at the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs in Cairo.

Table of Contents


[1] “Political conflicts can be found between citizens, social groups as well as between political representatives and political parties” (Skoog, 2015)

[2] On the one hand, Taylor (2009) as cited by Verheij (2014), states that “consociationalism not only fails to dissolve but even entrenches the various segments of a society and therefore perpetuates ethnic conflict.” On the other hand, O’Leary (2013) as cited by Verheji (2014) “believes that power sharing between different groups represents a positive sum game where power is joint, collaborative or cooperative.”

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