A State Afraid to Take a Census: Lessons from Lebanon

Ciaran Mulholland

Article initially published in the Against the Stream blog in N. Ireland

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald stated that a united Ireland is “within touching distance” in the days before the restoration of power sharing. Her comment was widely reported, not just in local media, but also outside Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein frequently suggest that there is a momentum towards a united Ireland, with references to their hope to be in government on both sides of the border soon and to the impact of Brexit. What they hint at, but are reluctant to state openly, is where the momentum really comes from: demographic change. The population of the North is very slowly changing, with a higher proportion of Catholics and a lower proportion of Protestants.       

The idea that demographic change provides a solution is entirely wrong. It would be a mistake to assume that the imperfect peace that now reigns in Northern Ireland will continue indefinitely. That the “peace process” could unravel is clear both from an analysis of the situation in the North but also from an analysis of other places.

“Agreement” and Division

The history of Lebanon does not represent an exact analogy for Northern Ireland-analogies are never exact-but there are clear parallels, and clear warnings. In Northern Ireland, as in Lebanon, “agreement” does not erase division in local communities. And in Northern Ireland, as in Lebanon, the root causes of division go unchallenged, poverty and alienation remain, and in the context of the crisis of capitalism, can only deepen. 

Today the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement is touted as a blueprint for other seemingly intractable problems around the world. The Agreement is consciously based on a political theory known as “elite accommodation based on a consociational model”. The model has four pillars: “First, political elites representing all significant segments of society must participate in some form of grand decision-making coalition. Second, a mutual veto must exist, allowing elites of each group to challenge decisions detrimental to their particular groups. Third, proportionality must be the standard principle of political representation, civil service appointments, and the allocation of public funds. Fourth, each segmental group must be allowed to run its own internal affairs”.

By “elites” the model means literally a handful of people, or even single individuals, who represent a community. The elite reach an accommodation-that is they agree to carve up power and resources-whilst the communities they supposedly represent continue to live separately. The model presupposes no coming together of people on the ground and holds out no possibility of such coming together in the future. For some decades the supreme model of this approach was Lebanon.

When Lebanon achieved independence from France in 1943, two Lebanese “elites”, Bishara al-Khuri (the Maronite Christian president) and Riyad al-Sulh (the Sunni prime minister) agreed an unwritten “National Pact”. The Pact stipulated that the Christians would not depend on protection from European powers. The Muslim communities would not seek pan-Arab links. A rigid and permanent system of power-sharing was agreed. All presidents would be Maronite Christians, prime ministers would be Sunni Muslims, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies would be Shi’ite Muslim, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister would be Greek Orthodox Christian. Christians and Muslims would be represented in parliament according to a 6:5 ratio (based on the 1932 census), and civil service appointments and public funding decisions would be made on the same basis.

Civil War Erupts

A brief period of intense civil conflict in 1958 was the first clear indication of the system’s fragility. An insurrection was launched by Lebanese Muslims who wanted to make Lebanon to join a United Arab Republic.  President Camille Chamoun requested assistance from the USA and 5,000 Marines landed in Beirut on 15th July. In other words, both sides broke the Pact with Muslims working for a pan-Arab state and Christians calling in an imperialism power. The crisis was resolved, and a new government was formed, led by former general Fouad Chehab.  The Pact persisted for 32 years before total collapse with the outbreak of civil war in 1975.

Christian Militia

The civil war was precipitated by two key events. In February 1975 fishermen’s unions in Sidon, Tyre, and Tripoli protested against the establishment of a high-technology monopolistic fishing company owned in large part by former President Camille Chamoun. The Lebanese Army fired on protesters in Sidon on February 25th, killing a Sunni Muslim leader. During the following two weeks there were angry demonstrations across the country and intense fighting between troops and gunmen in Sidon.

The second event occurred on 13th April 1975, when Pierre Gemayel, the leader of the Maronite Phalangist movement attended the consecration of a new church in Beirut. Gunmen opened fire and killed three Christians. In retaliation a group of Maronite militiamen shot up a bus containing Palestinian and Lebanese passengers on their way to the Tel al-Za’atar refugee camp. Twenty-seven were killed, and twenty wounded. Three days of heavy fighting erupted and over 300 were killed. Street fighting, punctuated by interludes of relative calm, would continue for fifteen years, exacerbated by the intervention of Syria, the USA, France and Israel, until a renewed Pact in 1989 brought relative peace.

Muslim “Amal” Militia

The Pact collapsed because of a variety of internal and external factors but the key was the demographic shift as the proportion of the population that was Muslim, and especially Shi’ite Muslim grew, and the Christian proportion shrank. This shift was accentuated by a further influx of Palestinian refugees after the 1967 Arab-Israel war (increasing the numbers from 140,000 to over 240,000). The facts on the ground increasingly clashed with the status quo: the relative dominance of Maronites over Muslims in the political system.  At the same time rising prices and declining wages magnified the disparity between the rich and the poor. The Pact, and the model for conflict resolution it represents, lost all credibility in 1975.

An Unstable Peace

In 1990 relative stability returned, with a new power-sharing arrangement, based on the same sectarian divisions. Fifteen years of civil war, with 120,000 deaths, had solved nothing. The state is so lacking in stability that there has not been a census since 1932. On 17 October 2019, a series of mass civil demonstrations erupted, triggered by proposals to increase taxes on petrol, tobacco and on online phone calls such as through WhatsApp. A national movement against the political class which ruled through sectarian division and delivered only economic crisis, unemployment and corruption developed. The government could not even provide basic services such as electricity, water, and sanitation.

Protest against political class which is based on sectarian division, 2021

The 2019 movement demonstrated the power of a united working-class movement. In Lebanon, and in Northern Ireland, only the working-class, uniting in struggle against the sectarian forces which dominate their lives, can provide a solution. Socialist change, not demographic change, is the way to a new society in which the aspirations of all communities are recognised, basic rights are guaranteed, and poverty is consigned to history.

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