Saturday, April 26, 2008

Christian Politics in Lebanon

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

Western media outlets have portrayed divisions within Lebanon's Christian community as threatening to tear Lebanon apart,[1] as if Sunnite-Shiite tension is negligible and the divide between Christians and Muslims has disappeared. The split that threatens Lebanon's national unity is less between Christians than between two political camps that cut across sectarian boundaries.

Most Christians are not blindly following their leaders to the brink. Above all, they are divided over one major conundrum - is it better to throw in their lot with Washington and alienate the unchallenged political leadership of Lebanese Shiites (the country's largest, though long disenfranchised, sect) or to reach an accommodation that preserves civil peace at the expense of softening state sovereignty? The fact that there are impassioned believers on both sides of this debate is a mark of political sophistication and diversity, even if the consequences are troublesome.


The rugged terrain of Lebanon has been a sanctuary for Christian and minority Muslim sects fleeing persecution for well over a millennium. Maronite Christian monks arrived in the seventh century and established what is today by far the largest Christian sect in Lebanon. Other denominations that made Lebanon their home include Greek Orthodox, Melkites, and (most recently) Armenian Christians. Although all share what Habib Malik has called an "inherited feeling of existential insecurity,"[2] the largely Francophone Maronite community is less assimilated to the surrounding Arab world than the others and more prone to a fortress mentality in the face of real or perceived threats.

The modern state of Lebanon is run on a sectarian formula of power sharing dating back to the French mandate period. The 1943 National Pact allocated the presidency to Maronites and established a fixed 6:5 Christian-Muslim ratio of parliamentary seats. The office of prime minister was granted to the Sunni Muslim community, while the office of parliament speaker was granted to Shiite Muslims (originally the second and third largest sects, respectively). The pact also entailed a tradeoff - Christians agreed to forgo Western protection and accept Lebanon's "Arab face," while Muslims agreed to shelve calls for integration into Syria or a pan-Arab state.

Although Christians prospered due to their advantages in education and close business contacts with the West, the power sharing system that provided the underlying political stability faltered and then collapsed as Lebanese Muslims grew from a minority to a majority of the population and began demanding increased political power. This coincided with the political awakening of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as an armed movement operating from Lebanese territory.

Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war was sparked primarily by Christian-Muslim sectarian tensions and the alignment of Palestinian groups with the latter, but turned into a regional conflict involving a host of outside forces. Syrian troops entered in 1976, while the Israelis entered in 1982 to combat the PLO, followed by American and European peacekeepers the following year. All came at the invitation of leading Maronite political or militia leaders, and in all three cases the result was not what Christians expected. Amid this turmoil, the dominant Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militia created a state-within-a-state, while advocating a "federal" system of government that would preserve Christian autonomy.

Christians lost militarily, politically, and demographically during the civil war. In the late 1980s, loyalties split between the LF and the Army, led by Gen. Michel Aoun. Both eventually succumbed to the Syrians, leaving the Christian community with little leverage in negotiating a place in the postwar order.

The 1989 Taif Accord reduced Christian parliamentary representation to half and weakened the presidency in favor of the (Sunni) prime minister. However, the Christian community's malaise during the occupation had less to do with Taif than with its own inability to forge a united front, at least on basic questions of sovereignty and democracy. Lebanese Christians have never been uniform in their politics. They are secular and multi-denominational, so there is no uniform religious perspective to bring solidarity. In contrast, the Shiites have today closed ranks behind Hezbollah, while the Sunnis have mostly gravitated behind the Hariri family.

The Christian Leadership

At the time of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, four groupings were evident in the Christian leadership.

Pro-Syrian Christians

Syria's Assad regime has always had a strong minority following among Lebanese Christians. Some identify with Syria's Assad regime for sectarian reasons, believing that Alawites are a natural ally of Christians in the face of Islamification. Others are ideological proponents of Lebanese-Syrian unity. In the 1940s, Antoun Saadeh established the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a movement dedicated to achieving Lebanon's absorption into Greater Syria (along with Palestine and Jordan). Although few Maronites joined the SSNP, the party developed a solid following among the Greek Orthodox, the second largest Christian community in Lebanon (and the largest in Syria). The Lebanese branch of Syria's Baath Party also has a sizable Christian membership. In the media, there are many leftist Christian commentators and journalists who are sympathetic to Syria and write to a fairly wide local and regional audience.

Christian allies of Syria also include traditional political elites bound by longstanding business links to Damascus, such as former Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh (the grandson of a former president) and his extended family and network of retainers. The outgoing president, Emile Lahoud, and others who rose to power purely on the basis of opportunism during the occupation constitute another (now relatively weak) segment of the pro-Syrian Christian leadership.

"Westocratic" Christians

This is a diverse category of traditional politicians, businessmen, and others who advocate a strong relationship with the West for cultural, economic, and political reasons. They tried to make the best of the Syrian occupation (which was what French and American officials counseled) and gained modest representation in parliament, but were largely marginalized during the 1990s. They formed an umbrella opposition group known as the Qornet Shehwan Gathering during the final years of the occupation. The Phalange Party, led by former President Amine Gemayel, and National Liberal Party (NLP), led by Dany Chamoun, are now closely aligned to this camp.

Christian nationalists/Lebanese Forces

The Christian nationalist trend is represented by the LF. Originally an outgrowth of the late Bashir Gemayel's Phalange militia, the LF became more narrowly sectarian in the 1980s under the leadership of Samir Geagea. LF ideologues believe (or, at any rate, once believed) that Christians ultimately cannot subsume their differences with Muslims under a common national identity, and that Lebanon should be a federal state with autonomous sectarian enclaves. They too believe that a strong relationship with the West - particularly Washington - is central to their political aspirations.

Secular nationalists/Free Patriotic Movement

Michel Aoun

The secular nationalist trend is represented by Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The FPM is ideologically opposed to political sectarianism, federalism, and other formulas that privilege narrow primordial ties. In his grand (some say grandiose) ambition of reforming Lebanon's corrupt and feeble government institutions, this popular and controversial leader departs from the narrow pursuit of Christian communal interests and thinks in non-sectarian terms (even if he adopts sectarian language at times for political reasons).

The FPM was by far the most popular Christian political force at the time of Syria's April 2005 withdrawal. Aoun's personal popularity stems largely from his ill-fated (but popular) 1989-1990 revolt against the Syrians and from the role of the FPM in leading opposition to the Syrian occupation after his exile. However, this made him perhaps the most reviled figure among other Christian politicians in Lebanon. This tension was palpable during the occupation. The Aounists led boycotts of elections, while Westocrats campaigned for the few seats Syria was willing to leave up for grabs. Neither side really got what they wanted, succeeding only in taking the wind out of each other's sails. Post-Taif presidents were formally elected by parliament, but in practice installed by Syria, as were leading Christian figures in the security sector.

Perhaps the most telling indication of Christian weakness during the occupation was the fact that only a fraction of over 150,000 Christians displaced during the war were returned to their homes. Aoun's critics charged that the Christians might have been able to reach an understanding with Syria that alleviated this malaise if he had not been so intent on obstructing the process with demonstrations (no credible Christian leader can be seen as negotiating with the Syrians when Lebanese students are being fire hosed in the streets and arrested).

Aoun returned from France to find the Westocrats and the Christian nationalists lined up with Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in a coalition designed in part to thwart his ambitions in the May/June 2005 parliamentary elections. The alliance was quite formidable. Hariri's tragic death generated a strong momentum of compassion for his family among Sunnis and Christians, while Jumblatt could clearly deliver Druze votes. Moreover, March 14 leaders received the endorsement of Hezbollah (in return for unspecified assurances regarding its arms).

In perhaps an equally opportunistic move, Aoun teamed up with pro-Syrian Christians as junior allies and defeated March 14 in majority Christian districts. Notwithstanding the FPM's electoral triumph, it was left out of the coalition government that formed after the elections. In view of Aoun's provocative rhetoric about investigating abuses of power under the Syrians, none of the other power brokers wanted him in government at the time. Some Sunni and Druze leaders did not want to see any strong Christian leader serve in government.

Over the next two years, Hezbollah had a falling out with the coalition and eventually led a Shiite boycott of the government. The FPM formed a united opposition front with the Hezbollah-led Shiite bloc (and with pro-Syrian politicians), jointly calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his cabinet. Although the alignment (like the March 14 coalition's previous pact with Hezbollah) is politically opportunistic, the FPM and Hezbollah have always shared similar domestic reform principles. The former general insists that domestic reform must precede disarmament, and that he could act as an agent trusted by Shiites to bring about integration of Hezbollah's militia into the defense structure of the country.

The Christian Public

Although there is much talk of a Christian community "split in half" between March 14 and the opposition, a great many Christians have opinions that don't conform wholly to the rhetoric of either the ruling coalition or the opposition. While most Christians are critical of the Hariri-Jumblatt axis for its record of rampant corruption, most also have reservations about Hezbollah's militant Islamist ideology and refusal to respect the authority of the state.

However, it is important to bear in mind that many Christians see Sunni fundamentalism in Lebanon as a far more dangerous internal threat than Hezbollah, particularly after the bloody uprising of Fatah al-Islam in the summer of 2007. Indeed, despite their reservations about Hezbollah, 43% of Maronites believe that its weapons "are necessary to face Israel until the liberation of Sheba'a Farms and the detainees," according to an October 2007 poll by Information International.[3]

The main concern of Christians is not so that Hezbollah will directly harm them (there has been surprisingly little Shiite-Christian violence in Lebanon's history) or try to Islamicize Lebanon, but that it will jeopardize the country's prosperity. Peace and political stability are essential to the growth of Lebanon's service economy (particularly the tourism sector) and necessary for much-needed Western and Arab gulf investment in Lebanon. A government that formally accepts Hezbollah's "resistance" indefinitely runs the risk of setting back the country's economic recovery and alienating the outside world.

And yet gambling everything on foreign assurances rather than domestic concord is a road that Christians know can lead to catastrophe. Some Christians who loathe any form of Islamic fundamentalism also see no alternative to a political compromise and reform process that give Shiites (and, at least in the near term, Hezbollah) greater voice in government. Despite the immense economic toll of the July-August 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, Hezbollah remains very popular among its constituents - there is no one else to talk to in the Shiite community.

At the same time, Hezbollah is under growing political and logistical pressures, possibly making it more amenable to historic compromise. In the wake of its devastating war with Israel in the summer of 2006, the movement must find a way to rebuild the south and the Shiite suburbs of Beirut. Worried about a new war with Israel in which Lebanese society may not give it the same warm shelter it received last year, Hezbollah is striving to convince the Lebanese society that it is not sectarian and takes up arms only to defend the country; that it is a Lebanese movement, not an Iranian (or Syrian) stooge.

It is worth mentioning that the uncertain future of Lebanon's nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees greatly concerns both Christians and Shiites - conspiracy theories about Saudi/Sunni/Western naturalization plots abound among both. Of course, there are divergent economic interests. Most Christians support a free market economy, while most Shiites are left of center, though both share a disdain for government corruption.

The same complexity of thinking is evident in Christian views of their leadership. Some Christians who don't particularly care for Aoun are nevertheless convinced that only a leader with his popularity and stature can be an effective interlocutor with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. Some greatly admire Aoun and favor his election as president, but feel that the pursuit of this objective is a lost cause and question his confrontational strategy of obtaining it. There are "Arabist" Christians on both sides - some see the Saudis and conservative Arab regimes as kindred spirits, others see Syria and Hezbollah as Arab brethren.

The most reliable hard data on Christian public opinion comes from the 2005 parliamentary elections and the August 2007 by-election in Metn. The FPM won a large majority of Christian votes running against the March 14 coalition in the 2005 elections, though not a majority of Christian seats (most of which are in Muslim majority districts due to Syrian gerrymandering). Whether the vote tally signified solid support for the FPM or public disgust over the refusal of Hariri and Jumblatt to amend the anti-Christian electoral law has been much debated, but it is the main basis for Aoun's claim to represent majority opinion.

The by-election took place in a district that is predominantly Maronite, politically conservative, and home to Amine Gemayel, who was running to fill a seat previously occupied by his recently assassinated son. Support for the Gemayel family is so strong in Metn that the FPM did not contest one seat in the district in 2005 (allowing voters to vote for the FPM-led slate, while writing in the name of the late Pierre Gemayel). In the by-election, however, the FPM candidate, an obscure physician, narrowly defeated the ex-president. March 14 leaders pointed to the fact that a slight majority of Maronites had voted for Gemayel as evidence that Aoun's much vaunted majority public support had slipped. Some went further, complaining that Aoun had relied on the support of Armenian Christians (and pro-Syrian Greek Orthodox MP Michel Murr) to win the primarily Maronite district (drawing angry Armenian reactions).

However, the Aounists claim that many Christians, whatever their political orientations, would never dream of voting against a respected elder statesman running to fill his martyred son's seat under the current climate. By their reckoning, the fact that a slim majority was willing to "take back" the Gemayel family's seat and give it to a no-name candidate purely on the basis of FPM affiliation signifies impressive growth in public support.

Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir

Whatever the exact balance of Christian public opinion may be, the by-election affirmed a lack of consensus even if majority support for the FPM remains intact. Recognizing that the Christian public is divided, the Council of Maronite Bishops (itself said to be divided) has not taken a firm line in favor of either March 14 or the opposition, in spite of the fact that Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir is sympathetic to the former.

The Presidential Election

The focal point of contention between the government and opposition in recent months has been the choice of a successor to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, whose term as president expired on November 24. The president is elected not by the people, but by parliament. However, the coalition's slim legislative majority was insufficient to unilaterally crown one of its own presidential candidates because of the traditional two-thirds quorum requirement, which enables an opposition controlling over a third of parliament to effectively veto the majority's choice by refusing to attend the vote.

The opposition, pointing to FPM electoral victories, has supported Aoun's bid to become president. Aoun would easily win a direct election for president, as he can count on the overwhelming majority of Shiites, at least half of Christians, and perhaps a fourth of Sunnis and Druze to vote for him over any prospective challenger. Although willing to forgo the election of Aoun, the opposition said that it would attend a parliamentary session to elect a president only if a compromise candidate is agreed upon beforehand.

Months of negotiations over the selection of a compromise candidate (and over side deals concerning cabinet representation and other matters) ensued, but without success. There is a debate about whether this quorum requirement can be legally circumvented, but the ruling coalition ultimately backed away from such an attempt. A "50 plus one" president would have been severely handicapped at a time when the strengthening of government institutions (particularly the presidency) is seen by most Christians as vital.

Gen. Michel Suleiman, the commander of the Lebanese Army, eventually won out over other "neutrals." While maintaining friendly relations with the Syrian regime that originally appointed him to his post, Gen. Suleiman has cultivated a reputation for efficiency and political neutrality since the Syrian withdrawal. He earned considerable respect in Washington and Paris for the army's successful war against Fatah al-Islam this past summer. Although both sides were in agreement that Suleiman was an acceptable compromise candidate as 2007 drew to a close, negotiations have since deadlocked over the formation of a national unity government and other matters.

Amid reports that both pro-March 14 and opposition Christian factions are arming themselves, many Christians are beginning to see the peaceful election of virtually any president as preferable to a prolonged vacancy in the office. An extended power vacuum (or, God forbid, renewed civil war) could open the way for the collapse of the Taif power-sharing system. In light of Christian demographic decline, the alternatives will be less attractive. An extended political crisis (and the resulting economic stagnation) will also cause more Christians to emigrate, further weakening the clout of those who stay behind.

How the crisis is resolved will likely impact the Christian leadership struggle. Aoun's success as self assigned "ambassador" of the state and the international community for negotiating change with Hezbollah would also (by design, perhaps) ensure the political ascendancy of the FPM, while his failure would be a boon to pro-March 14 Christian figures. Because short-term gains can so easily consecrate long-term political advantages to one side or the other, negotiations over a comprehensive political compromise are likely to be drawn out for quite some time as Christian disunity persists.


[1] "Christians Split in Lebanon Raises Specter of Civil War," The New York Times, 6 October 2007.
[2] Habib C. Malik, Between Damascus and Jerusalem: Lebanon and Middle East Peace (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1997), p. 9.
[3]Opinion Poll, Information International, The Monthly, December 2007, No. 65.

* The article was also published in


Post a Comment

<< Home