Lebanon’s religious landscape is unique in a region largely dominated by Sunni Islam, with the country’s population being composed in almost equal numbers of Sunnis, Shia, and Christians, in addition to a smaller number of Druze and other minorities. This mosaic has produced a political system based on power sharing among Lebanon’s largest communities, which many credit for preventing Lebanon from descending into a failed state despite the many conflicts it has witnessed in its modern history. But Lebanon’s ‘confessional’ political system, based on rigid sectarian representation, has served to contribute to the weakness of the Lebanese state. National identity in Lebanon is dominated by sectarian identity, leaving trust in national institutions weak while sustaining clientelistic relations between sect leaders and their followers. This fragile arrangement has left the country vulnerable when faced with internal challenges and external threats. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, through to the Syrian conflict today, tensions among Lebanon’s sects are rising while the strength of its political institutions is declining.

Lina Khatib
Khatib was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Previously, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
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Lebanon is one of the world’s few examples of an institutionalised sectarian government system. The country, especially considering its size, is extremely diverse, with 18 officially recognised religious groups. Though there has not been a census since 1932 due to concerns about demographic changes potentially spurring a change in each sect’s political standing, however the World Religion Database estimates that the country is 26 percent Sunni and 28 percent Shia, 34 percent Christian of various denominations, with the Maronite Catholic group being the largest, and around 5 percent Druze. This diversity, however, is unique in that it is an officially codified structure of government that ensures representation for each group, in theory on a proportional basis to population and with certain positions reserved for specific sects. While the intention behind this system was to provide a stable form of government which guaranteed minority rights, in practice this has led to decades of constant instability, war and political deadlock. The Lebanese state structure, weak by design to prevent dominance by any single group, has instead created a situation in which all political identity and political dispute is inevitably drawn along sectarian lines. It has also forced Lebanese citizens to look towards their own community for basic needs and identity formation, as opposed to looking towards the state or a national identity.

Lebanon’s Sectarian System: Origins, Characteristics and Challenges

Lebanon’s modern political structure has always been drawn along religious lines. In 1861 the Ottoman Empire, in response to peasant revolts among the Christian and Druze populations of the Mount Lebanon district as well as a great degree of pressure from European powers, separated Mount Lebanon from Syria and created what it called the ‘Mount Lebanon Mutassarifiyya’. This established a system in which the Mount Lebanon region would become semi-autonomous and governed by a central administrative council that was to be divided up proportionally among sectarian lines and would answer to an appointed Christian emir (governor) from outside Lebanon.1

The ‘National Pact’ formally crystalized the confessional nature of Lebanese politics.

Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Lebanon passed to the French under the mandate colonial government. The French separated Mount Lebanon from Syria officially and established the Lebanese Mandate in 1920. A constitution was drafted in 1926, which created a parliamentary rule system. While the new parliament was generally controlled by the French authorities and was dominated by seats allocated to Christians, Muslim participation was ensured. This would reinforce early ideas of confessional representation in a democratic context.2

As a condition of independence from mandatory rule, Lebanese political leaders agreed on the ‘National Pact,’ an unofficial compromise that established the basic post-mandate state structure and national character. The agreement also formally crystallised the confessional nature of Lebanese politics. Under the National Pact, Lebanon was to be a state which had an Arab character (a point of contention among many Lebanese Christians who associated more closely with Europe), Lebanon was to be an independent state (many Sunni Muslim Lebanese wanted to reunify with Syria), and Lebanon would be “outward looking,” remaining unaffiliated with either Western or Arab states.3

In addition to addressing the character of the Lebanese state, the National Pact would ensure each sect’s proportional representation in the parliament based on the census of 1932 (widely regarded as biased toward Christians, a favoured group under the French mandate). Christians were to have a 6:5 ratio in parliament with Muslims; the president was to always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim.

This ‘confessional’ system, while intended to promote inter-sectarian representation, participation, and cooperation, instead institutionalised the concept of religious sect as a formal part of the state structure. It also created a system that made the central state weak and consensus-based by design, so that in theory one sect cannot completely dominate the political sphere. In practice, Maronite Christians, by virtue of the larger powers granted to the presidency, dominated the Lebanese state structure until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

This system has also been dominated by patronage and clientalist networks, which have greatly contributed to the Lebanese state’s weakness. Politicians and political families frequently enlist local patrons to ensure their population’s support; due to the weakness of the Lebanese state system, service provisions such as welfare, healthcare and employment are often taken over by these patrons. This ensures that the patrons will have a group of supporters who are tied to them on the basis of sect and welfare as opposed to ideological grounds. It also ensures that, for many Lebanese politicians and the Lebanese political establishment, the strengthening of the Lebanese state will be politically detrimental to them as it would remove the need for private patronage-based service provision, and thus much of their support base.4

Civil War and Post-War Sectarianism

The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975 over a variety of issues and concerns. Palestinian refugees and Palestinian resistance movements that emerged as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, specifically the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), regularly launched attacks into Israel from southern Lebanon, prompting responses from the Israeli military, which regularly killed Lebanese citizens. Many Lebanese Christians deeply resented the PLO’s involving of Lebanon in the conflict, while the majority of Sunni Muslims supported the Palestinian resistance movements. In addition, resentment toward the 6:5 parliamentary ratio had drastically escalated amongst Muslims, who demanded another census be taken to reallocate the ratio as demographics changed. Finally, many Lebanese, especially Sunni Muslims and those attracted to the ideas of Arab nationalism, still wished to reunite Lebanon with Syria.5

It would be highly simplistic to say that the war was a primarily Muslim-Christian conflict. Over the course of the 15-year war, sides and factions would change numerous times; intra-sectarian violence was as common as inter-sectarian violence, as sectarian leaders attempted to consolidate control over their communities. Sectarian groups also changed allegiances due to foreign interventions, by the Syrians, Israelis and the United States at points. The Shia community, generally unaffiliated and traditionally economically and politically marginalised in comparison to Sunnis and Christians, was energised by the Iranian revolution of 1979 as well as by dynamic local leadership, and would form the organisations which would eventually grow into the Iranian-Syrian sponsored militia/political party Hizbullah.6

The Shia community was energized by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The war ended with the Taif Agreement in 1989, which reset the parliamentary ratio to 5:5, neutered the power of the presidency, and formally recognised the National Pact agreement, making official the confessional system which had until this point been an unofficial one. The Syrian military and intelligence services remained in the country and de-facto controlled the politics of Lebanon in the post-war period.

During this time, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel continued until the withdrawal of the latter in 2000, which was largely credited to the resistance military activities of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon. This transformed Hizbullah into the primary political party for Lebanon’s Shia. Meanwhile, the businessman who had helped broker the Taif Agreement, Rafik Hariri, rose to become Lebanon’s prime minister and led a process of reconstruction in the country as well as creating the first major Sunni political party in Lebanon, the Future Movement. Hariri’s vision for Lebanon as a country that would be sovereign and open to economic engagement with foreign countries on an equal basis led to tension with the Syrian regime, which regarded Hariri’s strategy as a threat to its interests in Lebanon.

Key Players and Groups: The Rise of March 8 and March 14

Syrian political control over Lebanon officially ended following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Hariri had been taking steps to distance Lebanon from Syrian control, and his assassination (believed by many, including the UN, to have been carried out by the Syrian regime) was the primary cause for the “Cedar Revolution” of 2005, in which Lebanese protested en masse both for and against Syrian occupation. This led to the creation of two broad coalitions, the March 8 and the March 14 Alliances, which were pro- and anti-Syrian respectively and took the names from the dates of respective pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian public protests in 2005. The anti-Syrian protests were a success in that Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon, and in theory the political landscape could be remade.7 Following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, these two alliances have come to dominate the politics of the country. But this created a situation of long-term gridlock.

The March 14 coalition is primarily made up of the Rafik Hariri’s Future Movement, the largest (and realistically only) Sunni political party, and two Christian political parties, Kataeb and Lebanese Forces. The March 8 coalition is dominated by the Shia Hizbullah and Amal movements, and well as the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. The Christian parties are divided between March 8 and 14 for a variety of reasons, many of which stem from sectarian infighting and grievances during the civil war, loyalty to the political figures and families heading the respective parties, and existing clientalist relationships. However, the primary impact of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions has been to put Sunni and Shia parties, and thus to a large extent, people, at odds over control of the state. This has also facilitated foreign powers, such as the Sunni Gulf states and Shia Iran, to back their respective coalitions and parties as an expression of their regional sectarian rivalry.

Due to this gridlock and the weakness of the Lebanese state structure, Hizbullah has also been the only political party that has not officially disarmed following the war, citing their self-proclaimed role as a resistance organisation against Israel. While most political parties in Lebanon secretly maintain weaponry and local militias, Hizbullah has in many ways managed to dominate the political sphere by remaining the most well-armed actor in Lebanon (even more so than the Lebanese military). This has led to several major conflicts and crises; the devastating Israeli invasion of 2006 was a failed attempt to crush Hizbullah’s military capacity, and in 2008 Hizbullah-led fighters took control of Beirut after the March 14-led government attempted to dismantle Hizbullah’s communications networks. Hizbullah’s apparent dominance of the country and perceived willingness to plunge Lebanon into chaos has thus led to a great deal of resentment, especially among the Sunni community.

Sunni Radicalization in Lebanon

Non-state actors, often in the form of Islamist groups, are reaching out to Lebanon’s disgruntled Sunnis.

While Hizbullah has tried in recent years to present itself as a Lebanese group rather than a Shia group, the polarisation as a result of the rivalry between pro-March 8 and pro-March 14 supporters has revealed Hizbullah’s primary orientation as an organisation representing Shia interests above all else. Hizbullah has taken several actions that caused the Lebanese government to fall whenever the Cabinet tried to debate the issue of the legitimacy of Hizbullah’s weapons, such as in 2008. This has caused resentment within the Sunni population, which came to see Hizbullah as a destabilising force in Lebanon. However, unlike the Shia, who have in Hizbullah strong sectarian leadership that stems partly from the centralised religious leadership structures in Shia Islam and partly from Hizbullah’s weakening of other Shia parties, Sunnis in Lebanon have, since the assassination of Hariri, lacked a leader who could rally them under a harmonious political umbrella.8 The political patronage culture of Lebanon has meant that Rafik Hariri’s son Saad was chosen as his successor, despite his lacking political know-how, as prior to his father’s assassination, he had focused his activities on business not politics. Meanwhile, the weakness of religious state institutions like Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority in Lebanon, has left the door open for non-state actors, often in the form of Islamist groups, to try to reach out to Lebanon’s disgruntled Sunnis.9

While the majority of Lebanese Sunnis are non-Islamist, Lebanon harbours Sunni Islamist groups with direct links to foreign entities, from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda. These Lebanese groups mainly exist in impoverished areas like the north and the Bekaa Valley bordering Syria, capitalising on the lack of state services in those areas to lure followers with money, power, and a sense of belonging. The rise of al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks bolstered the strength of radical groups in Lebanon, but they remained marginal until the assassination of Hariri in 2005, when they tried to use this incident to incite Sunnis against Shia. Those attempts largely failed because of the lack of wide buy-in by Lebanese Sunnis, but gave the groups a higher platform. Sunni radicals have been clashing with Shia in northern Lebanon, with ongoing confrontations in Tripoli, and have engaged in major battles with the Lebanese Army in 2007 in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the north and in 2013 in the southern city of Sidon.10

Wider Aspects: The Challenge of the Syrian Conflict

The Syrian conflict that began as an uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011 has had a significant impact on relations between Lebanon’s different sectarian groups. In the early days of the uprising, Lebanon’s Sunnis mostly supported the anti-government factions, largely composed of Sunnis themselves, while most Lebanese Shia, especially Hizbullah, backed the Assad government because of the special relationship between Hizbullah and the Syrian regime. This caused tension within Lebanon, especially as it became clear that the conflict was becoming a long-term stalemate between the regime and the opposition. This caused the pro- and anti-Assad camps in Lebanon to become increasingly anxious and confrontational, leading to several political battles between March 8 and March 14 that sometimes translated into armed clashes. As the Syrian uprising transformed into an armed conflict, Sunni jihadi groups emerged in Syria—partly encouraged by the Assad regime in its bid to discredit the uprising and label it as a violent extremist movement—the Assad regime found itself unable to control the whole of Syria. Assad’s key ally Iran summoned the Lebanese Hizbullah to fight alongside the Assad regime against Sunni jihadi groups.

Hizbullah’s involvement on the ground in Syria increased tensions between Lebanese Sunnis and Shia. Even those Sunnis who had supported Hizbullah in the past in its wars with Israel felt that involvement in the Syrian conflict on the side of a regime that was slaughtering primarily Sunni civilians en-masse was a step too far for Hizbullah. Resentment meant that radical Lebanese Sunnis tried to capitalise on existing ties with extremist groups like al-Qaeda to facilitate the work of Syrian jihadi groups within Lebanon, who were determined to seek revenge against Hizbullah by engaging in terrorist attacks in Hizbullah strongholds.11 In late 2013 and early 2014, Lebanon witnessed a series of such attacks in the Bekaa Valley, the south, as well as in the southern suburbs of Beirut—all areas with significant Hizbullah presence.

Despite its losses, Hizbullah found in those attacks a convenient framework to justify its intervention in Syria, presenting it as aiming to defend Lebanon against “Sunni takfiri jihadists.”12 However, many of Lebanon’s Sunnis felt that it was Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria that was the driver behind the vengeful attacks of jihadis within Lebanon. Tensions over Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria led to the collapse of Lebanon’s government following the withdrawal of Shia ministers from the cabinet in 2011, which made it unconstitutional because it no longer represented all of Lebanon’s sects. They also led to the indefinite postponement of Lebanon’s parliamentary and presidential elections because March 8 and March 14 could not agree on which electoral law to use in the elections, as well as failing to reach consensus on the issue of Hizbullah’s weapons, due to be the subject of debate by Lebanon’s new government.13 The power vacuum that ensued became a key cause of concern for Lebanon’s Christians who, without a president in place, lost their highest political representative in Lebanon. But the division of Christians into pro-March 8 and pro-March 14 camps meant that they could not rally as a harmonious group to push for the presidential elections to take place, especially as the leaders of the March 8 Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement, and the leader of the March 14 Lebanese Forces party both nominated themselves for the presidency.

The power vacuum left Lebanon with a parliament that extended its own mandate unconstitutionally twice, and a caretaker cabinet that was doing the bare minimum in terms of administrative services. This ran parallel to the arrival of almost one and a half million Syrian refugees to Lebanon, most of whom are destitute Sunnis. Lebanon suddenly found itself with the majority of its residents being Sunni for the first time in its history, leading to rising concerns among all of Lebanon’s sectarian communities (including its Sunnis) about the long-term impact of this demographic change, especially if the Syrian conflict continues and the refugees are not repatriated. The weakness of Lebanon’s institutions, especially because of the current power vacuum and the lack of consensus among different political actors, has contributed to a lack of adequate delivery of social and economic needs for the Syrian refugees as well as their host communities, who for the most part reside in marginalised areas.14 This carries the risk of making the refugee population as well as their Lebanese Sunni hosts vulnerable to recruitment by jihadi groups. The Bekaa Valley, in particular, the border town of Arsal, which is host to an estimated 40,000 Syrian refugees, has witnessed a series of clashes between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra on one side and the Lebanese Army on the other, leading to concerns that it is becoming a breeding ground for domestic jihadism in Lebanon. A similar concern applies to Tripoli because of the presence of large numbers of disenfranchised Lebanese and Syrian Sunnis in the area, with links to Jabhat al-Nusra.

Although this threat today is in an embryonic stage, the perpetuation of the Syrian conflict and of Sunni-Shia tensions across the Levant does not bode well for stability or sectarian relations in Lebanon. In addition to the Sunni-Shia conflict, Lebanon’s Christians are witnessing the mass departure of their co-religionists from other Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Iraq as a result of conflict, and are worried about their own long-term viability in Lebanon. Unless a resolution is found for the Syrian conflict, and its regional spillover, Lebanon risks losing its multi-sectarian identity and its uniqueness as a place where minorities are not protected communities, but key partners in the political process. However, Lebanon’s confessional political system has also shown that it is not necessarily the best avenue for ensuring that the interests of all its sectarian groups are represented, as it has been a major contributor to sectarian tensions in Lebanon and to the weakness of its state institutions.

This article was originally published by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.


1. Traboulsi, Fawwaz (2007). “A History of Modern Lebanon,” pp. 41-52. London: Pluto Press.

2. Hamzeh, A Nizar (2001). “Clientalism in Lebanon: Roots and trends.” Middle Eastern Studies 37:3, pp. 167-178.

3. Traboulsi, Fawwaz (2007). “A History of Modern Lebanon,” pp. 88-109. London: Pluto Press.

4. For an excellent illustration of how patronage politics and sectarian targeting strategies interplay in the Lebanese political and social realm see: Cammett, Melanie (2014). “Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon.” London: Cornell University Press.

5. Traboulsi, Fawwaz (2007). “A History of Modern Lebanon,” pp. 156-187. London: Pluto Press.

6. Norton, Augustus Richard (2007). “Hezbollah: A Short History,” pp. 18-30. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

7. Blanford, Nicholas (2009). "Killing Mr Lebanon,” pp. 145-173. New York: I.B. Taurus.

8. Rabil, Robert (2014). “Salafism in Lebanon,” pp. 191-213. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

9. Lefevre, Raphael (2015). “Lebanon's Dar al-Fatwa and the Search for Moderation.” Carnegie Middle East Center http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/01/05/lebanon-s-dar-al-fatwa-and-search-for-moderation/hyxb

10. Lefevre, Raphael (2014). “The Roots of Crisis in Northern Lebanon.” Carnegie Middle East Center http://carnegie-mec.org/2014/04/15/roots-of-crisis-in-northern-lebanon/h9yc

11. Rabil, Robert (2014). “Salafism in Lebanon.” pp. 191-213. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

12. Hezbollah Leader: Takfiri Groups in Syria Pose a Grave Danger to Lebanon and to All Lebanese, May 25, 2013. YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNZolXjZX24

13. Naylor, Hugh (2014). “Lebanese lawmakers delay elections, sparking dismay, anger among voters.” Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/lebanese-election-delay-sparks-dismay-anger-among-voters/2014/11/05/8bf1a5e0-8dc5-435e-bc89-ec8024861da4_story.html

14. Dahi, Omar (2014). “The Refugee Crisis in Lebanon and Jordan: The Need for Economic Development Spending.” Carnegie Middle East Center carnegie-mec.org/2014/09/01/refugee-crisis-in-lebanon-and-jordan-need-for-economic-development-spending/hnw3