Lebanon: Civil war illustrates the tragedy of sectarian division

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Lebanon’s descent into 15 years of horrific civil war.

Armed militias backed by neighbouring armies of intervention, defending their own cynical interests, completed a decades-long process and finally tore apart the unity of the Lebanese working class and rural poor – driving them into separate camps headed by sectarian confessional leaders and parties.

These leaders, despite professing to represent their own religious or national communities, ruthlessly threw away the lives of over 150,000 Lebanese and Palestinian workers and youth in the pursuit of power, territory and ultimately enormous wealth. 100,000 were injured and over 250,000 emigrated.

The horror of the Lebanese civil war shows what could happen today in Iraq if reactionary groups in the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities are successful in igniting an internecine conflict. But Lebanon’s history also demonstrates how the working class, under these conditions, attempts to cut across war and bloodshed and place its stamp on historical developments.

Unfortunately, the absence of a genuine socialist, mass workers’ party (and widespread support for its ideas) with a membership and roots amongst all working-class communities whatever their religion or national background, meant that these movements reached certain limits.


The roots of the civil war lie in the imperialist carve up of the Middle East which followed World War One and the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire which covered most of the region.

French and British imperialism promised independence for the Arabs in the Middle East in return for their support against Germany and its allies in the war. Despite this, after the war, in recognition of secret agreements between the imperialist powers, the Middle East was divided up between Britain and France. French imperialism took control of what was then Greater Syria.

Out of this territory, French imperialism created what was known then as Greater Lebanon and Syria under its control in 1920. Lebanon was an artificial creation made up of Mount Lebanon, a province within the Ottoman empire with a majority Christian Maronite and a significant Druze population together with other surrounding districts which doubled the size of the country and added Shia and Sunni communities to it.

The working class and rural poor of these new territories had common problems. But French imperialism created two new entities out of one country, in order to attempt to utilise the different confessional backgrounds of the working class and rural poor to divide any united struggle and specifically contain the growth of radical Arab nationalism which had a particular base in the area that became known as Syria.

In Lebanon, French imperialism initially particularly relied on the Christian Maronite ruling class to protect its interests.

Following mass protests, French imperialism was forced to grant Lebanon independence at the end of 1943. On the basis of the 1932 census that showed that Christians were 54% of the population, it was agreed in the so-called “National Pact” of 1943 that seats in the parliament would be distributed on a ratio of six Christians to five Muslims. On this basis, the president would be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the parliament’s speaker would be a Shia Muslim, while a Druze, officially regarded as a Muslim denomination, usually had the defence minister’s position.

So the divisions were entrenched even further. A further element of instability for the Lebanese capitalist ruling class was the periodic arrival of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees – particularly in 1948 following their expulsion as a result of the creation of the Zionist capitalist Israeli state and also after their expulsion from Jordan in 1970-71. This further changed the confessional and national make-up of the population to the disadvantage of the Christian Maronite ruling class.

As a result Lebanese politics was characterised by confessional community leaders being in control of allocation of jobs, contracts, what limited educational and health facilities that existed, and seats in local councils and parliament. Cosy negotiations behind closed doors between self-appointed leaders of different communities divided up the spoils and distributed patronage. This laid the basis for future division.

In later years most of the trade unions were also divided up between the political allies of the leaders of different communities who manipulated movements of the working class for their own ends.

The conditions for the civil war were laid by the transition from an agricultural economy to one based on finance and services and big capitalist agribusiness. This drove tens of thousands of the rural poor off the land into the impoverished parts of the cities where they joined the swollen ranks of unemployed Lebanese working class. It was from these impoverished layers that the militias attached to the sectarian confessional parties recruited their members.

Economic conditions – particularly galloping inflation – worsened as a result of the 1973 oil crisis. This deepened political instability in Lebanon. Radicalisation of the Sunni Arab population on the question of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians combined with a wider demand across the confessional divide to transform the country into a democratic secular state and ending the control of politics by sectarian political bosses, which was led by the Lebanese National Movement.

The reactionary Christian Phalange (Kata’ib) organised against what it saw as a mortal threat to the interests of the Christian elite. The civil war began after months of tension when one Phalange bodyguard was killed by a passing unidentified gunman. Militias led a spiral of attacks on different communities.

The Syrian regime, with tacit support of the Israeli state, sent its army into Lebanese territory to support the Christian Maronite president and to prevent an outright victory for the PLO and radical LNM which it feared would destabilise the whole region. However, in later years Syria took military action against the Christian Phalange when its interests in the country were threatened.

The Syrian army remained in Lebanon until this year when they withdrew, partially as a result of mass demonstrations demanding their return home.

Sabra and Chatilla

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) invaded in 1978 using the pretext of a PLO attack on a bus in Israel and withdrew from south Lebanon after handing over power to its proxy and reactionary South Lebanon Army. The brutal nature of this army and the actions of the IDF in later years were instrumental in the rise of the Islamic Hezbollah organisation which based on widespread support at the time was able to finally drive the Israeli army out of Lebanon in 2000.

Under the insistence of Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s defence minister, the IDF carried out a far more reaching invasion in 1982. Sharon’s aim was to wipe out the PLO in Lebanon and prior to the invasion he gave orders to his military commanders to go all the way to Beirut.

With the active collaboration of the IDF, over 2,000 Palestinian refugees were butchered by the reactionary Christian Phalange in Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in September 1982. This was only one of many massacres carried out against different communities in the war.

There was a massive protest movement as a result of the invasion in Israel with at its height between 500,000 – one million Israelis (almost a quarter of the population) protesting against the IDF incursion in Tel Aviv.

US and French imperialism sent their armed forces in 1982 to attempt to control the situation ensuring the withdrawal of the main PLO forces from Lebanon. Imperialism withdrew in 1984 following a series of devastating bomb attacks on its forces.

In the late 1980s fighting was concentrated in the Sunni Palestinian refugee camps with attacks on them by the Shia Amal militia. In 1987 fighting spread to Beirut once again and the capital was divided between a Christian and Muslim sector.

With the pressure of the imperialist and regional powers as well as the exhaustion of the different militias, the civil war drew to a close in 1990. The Taif accord brokered by the Arab League expanded the Lebanese parliament and divided the seats equally between Christians and Muslims, increased the powers of the Prime Minister, as well as calling for the withdrawal of the Syrian army and disbanding of all militias.

However, none of the fundamental problems have been solved and the potential for sectarian division still exists.

In fact the Lebanese working class, across the sectarian divide, was forced to pay for the civil war not just with the deaths of thousands of relatives but also through poverty stricken living standards as a result of the massive debts built up in the reconstruction that followed.

Even in the midst of the civil war mass demonstrations took place in late 1988 for example over the question of the collapse in the real value of the minimum wage from $120 to $15 a month and galloping inflation.

Although these were called by trade union leaders which attempted to manipulate them for their own ends they did represent working class anger across the communities. This was partially demonstrated by the holding of a mass demonstration along the Green Line which divided Beirut at the time and the tearing down of barricades between Muslim and Christian areas of the city.

Class unity was also demonstrated in the four-day general strike in 1996 against the economic effects of the civil war which led to the resignation of the prime minister.

Again, general strikes in October 2003 and twice in 2004 have shown workers’ willingness to struggle over living standards, even though the leaders of the CGT union federation have acted as a brake on these movements.

Recent developments in Lebanon show that a new period of instability has opened up, with bombings in Christian populated areas and the return of ex-war crimminals. Once again, sectarian division and fears are being stoked.

The history of Lebanon shows capitalism is unable to bring about peace. However, the civil war also shows that instability in one country in the region has a direct effect on others.

Only a struggle for a socialist confederation of Middle Eastern states with guaranteed democratic rights for all national and religious minorities offers a way out of the blood history which imperialism has bestowed on the region.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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