The Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990: Its Causes and Actors

by Andrea Becker (Author) Maren Reyelt (Author)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2001 22 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: Near East, Near Orient


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Lebanese Sectarian System: The Failed Balancing Act

3. Socioeconomic Reasons for the Civil War

4. Contributing Forces I: The Palestine Issue

5. Contributing Forces II: External Actors
5.1 The Influence of the United States
5.2 Israel and the PLO in Lebanon
5.3 Syria’s Role as a “Peace-Broker”

6. Concluding Remarks


1. Introduction

“The war in Lebanon was the result of several highly connected internal and external conditions that have been in the making for a long time. … Causal … forces rooted in the existing social and political structures of the country, while [contributing forces] aggravated the internal conflicts and set the process of confrontation into motion, triggered a set of events already in the making that awaited only the proper time and place.”[1]

Regarding this quoted statement, the purpose of our paper is to show the reasons that led to the Civil War in Lebanon from 1975 till 1990. Usually, four causes can be found throughout the literature we used for this paper: the social context within Lebanon itself, namely the unbalanced sectarian or confessional system and socioeconomic problems, the role of the Palestine refugees and the PLO, and several external actors, namely the United States, Israel and Syria. This paper mainly deals with the causes expressed above. We do not want to describe the war itself in all its details or provide a historical chronology, instead discussion of the war will be restricted to the description of landmark events.

However, the named causes worked together in waging the Civil War. One cannot separate them from one another. Mutual interactions took place between them leading to bloodshed and hatred. The Lebanese people needed almost five decades to settle down these causes from which almost all were already present since the independence in 1943. The first attempt to resolve some of the problems with the National Pact of 1943 did not last long, before the second Civil War broke out in 1958. The latest peace agreement, the Taif Accord from 1990, reviewed most of the causes, trying to adopt political measures to prevent another outbreak of violence. Still, the accord did not get rid of the sectarian problem so far.

This paper will not deal with these events in great details. References will be made according to their importance for the topic. In this regard, we try to answer not only the questions of the causes but also how they interrelated and how they contributed to the escalation of the situation in Lebanon. Our paper describes first the social context starting with the unbalanced confessional system, followed by the socioeconomic problems. Afterwards we want to write down how the Palestine issue contributed to the Civil war and how the external actors USA, Syria, and Israel caused more and more troubles, which led to the extent of the conflict.

2. The Lebanese Sectarian System: The Failed Balancing Act

The state of Lebanon is build upon a “mosaic social structure”.[2] Diverse religious and ethnic communities with a hierarchical mode of organization play the key role in social life. Instead of developing a national identity this system produced only vague loyalties towards the government as a whole but strong sectarian identifications. Moreover, the sectarian structures led to inner conflicts among the different groups.[3]

Lebanon’s political system is based upon confessionalism, a term that describes

“a social system that recognizes the principle of religious communities being vested with political authority.”[4] This system evolved with the specific Lebanese set of population. The country consists of many sects of whom neither one can claim to be the majority population. Each community can regulate its own matters and is allowed to have its own courts and laws. The sects function as social organizations, developing more and more into “semiautonomous sociopolitical communities with distinct political and administrative functions.”[5] Within the Muslim-Christian relationship, a struggle over meaning and importance and supremacy of one of these two groups came into existence, produced through the historical events and foreign interventions.

The creation of Greater Lebanon under the French Mandate in 1920 brought a big proportion of Muslims in the new state, and thus, ended the old order of a Maronite majority. A Druze minority centered on Mount Lebanon.[6] Reacting to pressure of the Maronite population, France strengthened the status of its natural allies. As a result, the Maronite’s resentment against the incorporation of the Muslims in their Christian dominated state developed. This happened on the cost of the political status of the Sunnis and Druze, which diminished where they had once been the ruling elite under the predeceasing colonial powers.[7]

Like it is designated for a confessional system, political culture and political institutions should reflect the communal proportions within the state. This was not enforced in Lebanon for several decades. On the contrary, tensions between the ethnic and religious groups evolved. Many Christians (especially the Maronites) feared to be threatened by the overwhelming Islamic majority surrounding them. So they looked for western protection. Moreover they wanted to achieve a westernization or Europeanization of Lebanon, believing in Lebanon as a state and in Lebanese nationalism. The Muslims on the other hand were believers in Arab nationalism and deconfessionalism and therefore in modernization of the existing system.[8]

Due to the “French failure to develop a broad based political system with representatives from the major religious groups [and because of the fact that] the French very pointedly favored the Maronites”[9] the later conflict was installed from the very beginning of the Lebanese republic.

In order to avoid struggles between the respective parties, the Lebanese government solved the problem with the National Pact of 1943, an unwritten oral supplement to the Lebanese Constitution of 1926, which did not state specifically the confessional assignments of the political positions. The agreement between Maronite President Bishara al-Khuri and his Sunni Prime Minister Riad al-Sulh stated that the Christians could not enter an alliance with foreign western nations and the Muslims were not allowed to build Lebanon into an Arab nation.[10]

The Pact itself was regulated according to a census of 1932 conducted by the French. According to this, 16 religious groups or sects were recognized. The fundamental rights and proportions of these communities were represented by a ratio of six Christian parliamentary seats to five Muslim seats at any given governmental level. This was based on the census, which stated a Christian majority of 52 percent of the total population, whereas the Muslims only made out 48 percent. Because of this high percentage, the Christians were entitled to more representation within the political system. Thus, the very powerful President should always be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the Speaker of the Chamber a Shiite Muslim, the Minister of Defense an Orthodox Christian, the Minister of the Interior a Druze, and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces a Maronite Christian. As a result, the Maronites were able to retain control and power over the most significant political, security, and military positions.[11]

The proportional system eroded during the following years. Instead of adopting new measures to model the system according to population shifts, the Maronites were not willing to give up their supremacy. But due to different birthrates, the population balance in 1975 had changed dramatically. Now the Christians were in the minority forming less than 43 percent of the total population. Muslims on the other hand represented a new majority of more than 57 percent. Within the ranking of the different sects, the Shiites were now the largest group in the country.[12]

Taking this into consideration, the “Maronite predominance in the political structure of the country was thus being seriously threatened, and inevitably a few thought of establishing an autonomous rule over part of Lebanon.”[13] Therefore, a big part of the armed struggle was fought because of the Christian will to maintain their powerful political role, while the Muslims sought to get rid of all the inequalities resulting from the unnoticed population shifts. But the system was too rigid to adopt political reform.

In addition, the system established with the National Pact was not able to cope with other destabilizing factors, build within the political structure. First, there was the rigid enforcement of a census of decades ago, not suitable for a country with so many different sects that were constantly in change. Consequently, the intercommunal conflict was not resolved but aggravated. Second,

“an all-powerful executive meant that, in the absence of formal institutions to check power-hungry presidents, the temptation to use dictatorial methods was great. The problem was compounded by the fact that since the office of the President was the monopoly of the Maronite community, government policies became closely identified with the aspirations of that sect.”[14]

Third, the National Pact failed to establish a desperately needed common law and national identity. Instead, it fostered the confessional attributes more and more.

Not before the 1990s, a solution of this problem occurred. Under the auspicious of the Arab league, Lebanon’s politicians met in the Saudi Arabian town of Taif. The top three positions were unchallenged. But as a major change essential executive powers were transferred from the President to the Cabinet, which was more under the presidency of the Prime Minister than of the President himself. Therefore, the Muslim population (which now consists of 70 percent[15] ) was recognized far more. Nevertheless, the seat ratio was just changed to an equal number of seats for Muslims and Christians. The surrender of weapons from all the different groups should be facilitated by the Syrians – with the exclusion of the Hizbollah forces that now even participate in parliament.[16] But “far from eliminating confessionalism, the Taif Accord vigorously affirmed religious identity as the core of Lebanese politics.”[17] Nevertheless, the accord stated the abolishment of confessionalism yet to be accomplished.[18]


[1] Halim Bakarat: The Social Context, in: Edward P. Haley/Lewis W. Snider: Lebanon in crisis. Participants and Issues, Syracuse/New York: Syracuse University Press, p. 3.

[2] Ibid, p. 5.

[3] Latif Abul-Husn: The Lebanese Conflict. Looking Inward, Boulder/London: Lynne Rienner Publishers 1998, pp. 29-30.

[4] Dilip Hiro: Dictionary of the Middle East, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996, p. 71.

[5] Abul-Husn: The Lebanese Conflict, p. 29.

[6] Andrew Rigby: Lebanon: Patterns of Confessional Politics, in: Parliamentary Affairs. A Journal of Comparative Politics (ed. F.F. Ridley), Volume 53, No. 1, Oxford: Oxford University Press, January 2000, p. 170.

[7] Helena Cobban: The Making of Modern Lebanon, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985, pp. 61-75.

[8] Wadi D. Haddad: Lebanon. The Politics of Revolving Doors, The Washington Papers/114, Washington D.C.: Praeger Publishers and Georgetown University, 1985, pp. 14-21; Itamar Rabinovich: The War for Lebanon, 1970-1983, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 29-30; Sergei Stoklitski: The Causes of the Conflict in Lebanon, in: International Affairs. A monthly journal of political analysis, Volume 6, Moscow, June 1987, p. 58.

[9] William Spencer: The Middle East, Global Studies, 8th Edition, Guilford, Connecticut: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 2000, p. 97.

[10] Ibid and A.J. Abraham: The Lebanon War, in: Retrospect and Prospect, in: Journal of Third World Studies. Historical and Contemporary Third World Problems and Issues, Volume XI, No. 2, Association of Third World Studies, Americus Ga., Fall 1994, p. 122.

[11] Rigby: Lebanon: Patterns of Confessional Politics, p. 170.

[12] Riad B. Tabbarah: Background to the Lebanese Conflict, in: International Journal of Comparative Sociology (ed. K. Ishwaran), Volume XX, No. 1-2, Toronto, Canada: E. J. Brill-Publishers-Leiden, March-June 1979, p. 112.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hani A. Faris: Lebanon and the Palestinians: Brotherhood or Fratricide?, in: Arab Studies Quarterly (ed. Fouad Moughrabi, Edward W. Said), Volume 3, No. 4, Belmont, Mass.: Association of Arab-American University Graduates and the Institute of Arab Studies, Fall 1981, pp. 366-367.

[15] http://www.medea.be/en/index138.htm.

[16] Deborah J. Gerner/Philip A. Schrodt: Middle Eastern Politics, in: Deborah J. Gerner (ed.): Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, Boulder/London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000, p. 124.

[17] William L. Cleveland: A History of the Modern Middle East, 2nd Edition, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000, p. 380.

[18] Spencer: The Middle East, p. 101.


ISBN (eBook)
File size
480 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Wyoming – Department of Political Science
very good
Lebanese Civil War Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990 Religion Moslems und Christen Pälestinenser USA Israel PLO Syrien Beiru Konfessionssystem Libanon



Title: The Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990: Its Causes and Actors