The Political Anatomy of Lebanon

c.2006 Newhouse News Service

Before the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel erupted on July 12, Lebanon was still trying to reconcile disagreements among the country’s various factions over Syria’s influence, the investigation into the assassination of political leader Rafik Hariri and the disarmament of Hezbollah’s militia. Lebanon’s political leadership now has to find a way to keep the country from sliding into chaos. Here is a look at the leadership and the county’s political dynamics.


Lebanon is 95 percent Arab, but that does not mean everyone shares a vision of the nation. Disagreements among the four main religious sects — three Islamic and one Christian — have led to civil wars and constant maneuvering for political and economic advantage. The sects also tend to be separated by geography and are further divided by clans, or zaims. The sects:

Druze — After the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, Islam split into two branches in an argument over his rightful successor. These groups further divided into smaller sects over theological disputes. The Druze sect, an offshoot of one of the main Shiite Muslim sects, makes up about 7 percent of Lebanon’s population.

Sunni — Sunnis are a minority in Lebanon. However, they historically have had more political and economic power than other Muslim sects in Lebanon because most of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. Saudi Arabia has close ties to Lebanon’s Sunnis and their political leaders.

Shiite — Between 40 percent and 45 percent of Lebanese are Shiite, but until the rise of the Shiite Hezbollah, their numbers did not translate into political power. Shiites represent the majority of the population in southern Lebanon. They also reside in some of the poorest neighborhoods in south Beirut.

Maronite Christian — Maronites split from other Christians in the seventh century over differences in doctrine. They were persecuted for their beliefs and fled to the mountainous regions of Lebanon and Syria. They re-established communion with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, keeping their own rites and canon law. Conflict between Christians and Muslims over political and economic control of the country led to civil wars in 1958 and 1975.


Although Lebanon has well more than a dozen political parties, they are not based on strictly political platforms. They generally represent religious factions or the country’s historic clans. A Druze candidate is supported by Druze voters to advance Druze interests. Alliances frequently shift as different groups seek political power and economic advantage. Here are some of the major figures:

FUAD SANIORA, prime minister since June 2005

Party … Future Movement Block

Sect … Sunni

Viewpoint … A former finance minister in the administration of Rafik Hariri, he holds the most powerful political position in Lebanon. However, he has the post because he is supported by Hariri’s son, Saad, who heads the largest political bloc in parliament. Before the outbreak of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, Saniora called for the disarmament of the Shiite militia. Now, with the death of Lebanese civilians, he has said Hezbollah is acting to defend Lebanon.

SAAD HARIRI, parliamentary majority leader

Party … Current for the Future

Sect … Sunni

Viewpoint … He is now the most influential politician in Lebanon. He entered politics after the assassination of his father, a popular former prime minister who was leading the struggle against the Syrian occupation. Rafik Hariri had resigned in October 2004 to protest an extension of President Emile Lahoud’s six-year term. He was killed by a bomb less than four months later. Most Lebanese suspect he was killed because of his anti-Syrian activities, and the death sparked the nonviolent Cedar Revolution, which forced Syria to pull back its troops. Rafik’s son supports negotiations to disarm Hezbollah. He is against Syrian influence in Lebanon. He has called for Lahoud’s resignation.

EMILE LAHOUD, president since November 1998

Party … Democratic Renewal Movement

Sect … Maronite Christian

Viewpoint … Lebanon was thrown into a political crisis in 2004 when Lahoud’s term was extended three years by parliament under pressure from Syria. Lahoud has consistently sided with Syrian policies and has spoken against the disarmament of Hezbollah’s militia. Political opponents call him a Syrian puppet. A U.N. investigation has questioned associates of Lahoud in connection with Rafik Hariri’s death. Those opposed to Lahoud say the parliament vote that extended his term was unconstitutional, but they can do little about it because of the still-powerful influence of Syria.

NABIH BERRI, speaker of the parliament

Party … Amal Movement

Sect … Shiite

Viewpoint … During the civil war, his Amal militia fought against the Israeli troops who had invaded Lebanon to attack Palestine Liberation Organization fighters. Some members of his militia left Amal to organize Hezbollah, which went on to eclipse Amal as the most prominent Shiite organization. In the last election, he fielded a slate of candidates in cooperation with Hezbollah. He is seen as an advocate of Syrian policies and a strong supporter of Hezbollah.

WALID JUMBLATT, member of the parliament

Party … Democratic Gathering

Sect … Druze

Viewpoint … Although Jumblatt worked with Syria in the past, he is now a prominent foe of Damascus. He blames Hezbollah and its supporters for the current conflict with Israel. His family has been among the leaders of the Druze community for decades. Jumblatt has been accused by political enemies of changing his political positions to maintain his own prominence.

GEN. MICHEL AOUN, parliamentary opposition leader

Party … Free Patriotic Movement

Sect … Maronite Christian

Viewpoint … Aoun led the Lebanese army against the Syrian-controlled Lebanese government and was forced into exile in 1990 when his troops were defeated by Syria. He was able to return only after the Cedar Revolution loosened Syrian control. Although anti-Syrian, he forged an alliance with Hezbollah in the last election in order to regain his political stature.

AMIN GEMAYEL, former president

Party … Kataeb Reform Movement

Sect … Maronite Christian

Viewpoint … The Christian Phalange Party was founded by his father, Pierre Gemayel, in 1936. Amine became president of Lebanon in 1982 after the assassination of his pro-Israel brother Bashir. With his term expiring in 1988, Amine appointed Aoun acting president and then went into self-imposed exile until 2000. Since his return, he has worked to depose Lahoud and build up a new political party.

SHEIK HASSAN NASRALLAH, leader of Hezbollah

Party … Loyalty to the Resistance

Sect … Shiite

Viewpoint … Nasrallah has ignored the United Nations’ demand that Hezbollah disarm. His long-term goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon modeled after Iran. To achieve this he has built up military, political and social power since Hezbollah was formed in 1982. His militia is now at war with Israel.


After declaring independence from France in 1943, Lebanon sought a balance among the country’s religious and political factions. The result was an unofficial power-sharing agreement called the National Pact. Since then, various accords have helped shape the nation:

National Pact — With self-rule, Muslims feared Western influences would still dominate, and Christians feared being overwhelmed by the Muslim majority. The result of negotiations between Sunni and Christian leaders was a “national pact” that divided political posts according to sect. The president would be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, and Shiites would be given the speakership of the parliament as their highest political office. The pact called on Christians to recognize the country’s Arab identity, and Arabs were to reject any attempts by Syria to reabsorb Lebanon.

Taif Accords — The 1989 “National Reconciliation Accord” negotiated under the influence of Saudi Arabia and Syria ended Lebanon’s civil war. Syria was to eventually withdraw from Lebanon, but the accords recognized a special relationship between the two countries. The pact also modified the National Pact to give Muslims more control over the government.

U.N. Resolution 1559 — Despite the Taif Accords, by 2004 Syria still controlled Lebanon. The Security Council resolution called for a free and fair presidential election without foreign (that is, Syrian) influence, the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon and the disarmament of all political militias. Syria finally did withdraw troops after the assassination of Rafik Hariri sparked mass protests — the Cedar Revolution — against Damascus. Hezbollah is the only group that refused to disarm its militia.

Aug. 9, 2006

George Latanzio is a staff writer at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at
Keyword(s): Facts about Lebanon

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