Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Lebanon's Shiite-Maronite Alliance of Hypocrisy

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Lebanon's Shiite-Maronite Alliance of Hypocrisy

Article excerpt

On February 6, 2006, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Michel Aoun signed a memorandum of understanding, ostensibly to build a consensual Lebanese democracy on the basis of transparency, justice, and equality.1 However, a careful examination of the agreement shows that its real goal was the neutralization of Sunni political power, especially after the 2005 assassination of the powerful Sunni statesman and former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The memorandum's allusion to limiting the influence of money on politics and combating business and bureaucratic corruption hinted at the Sunni leadership's vast financial and entrepreneurial assets. Conversely, its insistence on the right of Lebanese expatriates to participate in the country's elections sought to enlist the support of the mostly Christian immigrants in the Americas. Similarly, its attempt to link Lebanese national security to Hezbollah's arsenal aimed at legitimizing Shiite militarism.

Little of this had to do with Lebanon as a nation-state as much as with the attempt to preserve Shiite and Maronite power against the perceived Sunni threat. The result was a deeply unequal arrangement that has brought Hezbollah further into Lebanese politics while limiting Maronite options.


Neither Lebanon's Shiites nor Maronites felt at home under Ottoman domination, and Sunnis relegated both communities to inferior social status. Both communities found relative freedom in their mountain enclaves although they occasionally suffered from both the excesses of regional governors who burdened them with taxes and their local feudal leaders who impoverished them and denied them education, especially in the case of the Shiites. The strong Maronite church moderated some of the adverse effects of feudal leadership, mainly because it took it upon itself to contribute to the education of the community, building numerous schools as early as the eighteenth century, especially the famous La Sagesse school in 1875.2 The church also played a crucial role in maintaining the cohesion of the community and preparing it for statehood. For example, Patriarch Elias Huwayik was instrumental in promoting the creation of Greater Lebanon, and in 1919 he travelled to the Versailles Peace Conference to pursue his objective.

The Shiites were less fortunate since they did not have their own religious establishment to take care of basic communal needs. The Sunni Ottoman state did not even recognize a separate communal status for the Shiites. Many Shiite clerics had modest education, and they generally had little impact on the affairs of the community. Shiites had to wait until 1926 to have their own religious court, thanks to the efforts of the French High Commissioner in Lebanon, Auguste Henri Ponsot, who wanted to empower them as a countervailing force to the Sunni community's growing pan-Syrian orientation. The Shiites only won their separate clerical institution in 1969 when Imam Musa Sadr established the Shiite Higher Islamic Council,3 despite Sunni protests.


Under the French Mandate, Lebanon's Sunnis opposed the country's creation in 1920 and continued to demand reunion with Syria until after the Coastal Conference of 1936. During this period, the Maronites came to believe that they needed to foster good relations with the Shiites in order to provide "an ideological alternative to the Sunni-pan-Arab conception of Lebanon."4 But the Shiites, who had languished under feudalism and Ottoman governors, remained quiescent.5

The Maronites eventually reached a settlement with the Sunnis in what became known as the National Covenant of 1943.6 Most of the resources of the Lebanese political system were then divided between the Maronites and the Sunnis. The Shiites felt excluded and marginalized, and their sense of dispossession was articulated by Sadr upon his arrival in Lebanon in 1959 with the determination to politicize the Shiite community and to integrate it into the Lebanese political system on a par with the others. …

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