Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Politics vs. Religion: Untangling Lebanon’s Sectarian System

Lebanon demos
Lebanese anti-government protesters wave the national flag during a demonstration in downtown Beirut on November 17, 2019. Photo: Patrick BAZ / AFP

Political life in Lebanon is marked by sectarianism and ethnicity. There are about 80 licensed parties, despite the relatively small population. This currently stands at around 6 million, although no official census has been held since 1932.

Christianity ranks first in terms of the number of parties – estimated to be 18 – affiliated with it. The most prominent of these are:

Free Patriotic Movement: Also known as the Aounist Movement, after its founder General Michel Aoun, who is currently Lebanon’s president. The party was initially founded in 1994 in Paris, where Aoun was living in exile. It was officially established in 2006 after Aoun returned to Lebanon and successfully ran in the 2005 parliamentary elections. The party is currently the largest parliamentary bloc, with 29 out of 128 seats.

Lebanese Forces: The Lebanese Forces was established in 1976 at the beginning of the civil war as a military arm of the Lebanese Front (a right-wing coalition, mainly composed of the Kataeb Party) to confront the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese National Movement. Its founder, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated in 1982, less than a month after he was elected president of the country. The party is currently headed by Samir Geagea and holds 14 seats in parliament.

Kataeb Party: The Kataeb Party was founded as a nationalist movement by Pierre Gemayel in 1936 before becoming an official political party in 1952. The party is blamed for the Ain al-Rummanah incident during which a group of Palestinians was killed on 13 April 1975, which was considered the first spark of the ensuing 15-year civil war. The party is currently headed by Sami Gemayel, grandson of the party’s founder and one of the party’s three members of parliament.

Al-Marada Movement: This movement was established in 1968 by Tony Frangieh as one of the Christian armed militias during the civil war. It was part of the Lebanese Front until its split in 1978 following clashes with the Kataeb Party. The movement is currently headed by Suleiman Tony Frangieh, son of the founder and one of the party’s three members of parliament.

National Liberal Party: The National Liberal Party was founded by Camille Chamoun after the end of his presidential term in 1958. He was a member of the Lebanese Front until his military arm (the Free Tigers) clashed with the Lebanese Forces in 1980. The party is currently headed by Dore Chamoun, the party’s only member of parliament.

Lebanese National Bloc: The Lebanese National Bloc was founded in 1943 by Emile Edda. He represented a large political bloc in the 1960s, holding almost one third of the parliamentary seats along with the Kataeb Party and the Free Patriotic Movement in 1968. The bloc refused to be part of the civil war or the Taif Accord that helped end the war. It is currently headed by Carlos Edda, the founder’s grandson, but does not currently have any parliamentary seats.

Besides these parties, there are 12 political parties that are mostly Christian, but their political power is weak. These are: the Christian Democratic Party, the Solidarity Party, the Promise Party, the Tanzim Party, the Cedar Guards Party, the Movement for Change, the Freedom Front, Our Lebanon Movement, the Aramaic Democratic Organization, the Christian Free Presence Movement, the Nationalist Christian Party and the al-Mashriq Party.

The Muslim-majority parties are divided as follows:

Shia parties

Amal Movement: ‘Amal’ is an acronym that stands for the ‘Lebanese Resistance Regiments’. The party was initially established in 1974 as a military arm of the ‘deprived’ movement founded by Imam Musa al-Sadr and Hussein al-Husseini. Since al-Sadr’s disappearance in Libya in 1978, the movement has been headed by Nabih Berri, also the parliament speaker since 1992.

The Iranian Revolution in 1978 had a major impact on the movement’s growing popularity, and the movement’s fighters fought against the Israeli occupation in 1982. Armed clashes also took place between the movement’s fighters and the Palestinians in what is known as the War of the Camps, a sub-conflict in the civil war, from 1985 to 1988. The movement has 16 seats in parliament.

Hezbollah: Hezbollah was founded in 1982 by cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, Ragheb Harb, Abbas al-Musawi and Subhi al-Tufayli. The latter assumed the position of first secretary general of Hezbollah between 1989 and 1991. He was succeeded by al-Musawi who was assassinated by Israel in 1992, nine months after assuming the position. Al-Musawi was, in turn, succeeded by Hassan Nasrallah, who is the incumbent secretary general.

Hezbollah is linked to Iran ideologically, politically and militarily, as Nasrallah explicitly stated in 1985 when he said, “Hezbollah is committed to the orders of the wise and just leadership embodied in velayat-e faqih [a Shia Islamist system of governance that justifies the rule of the clergy over the state] and the spirit of God, Ayatollah Khomeini, the initiator of the revolution of Muslims and the promoter of their glorious renaissance.”

Hezbollah played a major role in repelling the Israeli invasion from 1982 until Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization by countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, in addition to some international organizations such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is also classified as the largest non-governmental military force in the world. It has 13 deputies in parliament.

Hezbollah and the Amal Movement together represent the majority of Lebanon’s Shia Muslims although smaller Shiite parties such as the Socialist Democratic Party, the Free Shiite Movement and the Party of Belonging also have a presence.

Sunni parties

Future Movement: The Future Movement has been the largest political force in Lebanon since its establishment in 1995 by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. His son Saad Hariri, the incumbent head of the caretaker government, took over the leadership of the movement. The movement, which holds 21 parliamentary seats, is known for its close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Jemaah Islamiyah: This is the second most powerful political movement in Lebanon, known for its intellectual affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement was founded in 1964 by Fathi Yakan. The current secretary general is Ibrahim al-Masri. The party has one parliamentary seat.

Islamic Action Front: After Fathi Yakan’s separation from Jemaah Islamiyah, he founded the Islamic Action Front in 2006 with the participation of a group of Sunni Islamist leaders and forces, including Bilal Saeed Shaaban, secretary general of the Islamic Tawhid Movement; Hashim Manqarah, chairman of the Leadership Council of the Islamic Tawhid Movement; Abdul Nasser Jabri, head of the Ummah Movement; Zuhair Othman al-Juayd, head of the Resistance Action Front; and Abdullah al-Tiryaqi, secretary general of the Fajr Movement. Al-Juayd is currently the general coordinator of the front, which has one parliamentary seat.

Other notable Sunni political forces include the Salafist Movement, the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, the National Dialogue Party, the Union Party, the Arab Liberation Party, the Najadah Party, the Islamic Tawhid Movement, the Arab Lebanon Movement, the Lebanese People’s Congress, the Hizb al-Tahrir Party and the Lebanese Arab Youth Party.

Druze parties

Lebanon’s Druze community is represented by the following parties:

Progressive Socialist Party: This party was founded by Kamal Jumblatt with the participation of a number of politicians in 1949. Although the party and its founder are secularist and socialist, the majority of its members are Druze and its current president is the leader of the Druze community. The party’s armed militia fought alongside the Palestinians in the civil war against the Maronite Christians and the Kataeb Party. Jumblatt was assassinated on 16 March 1977. The party is represented by nine deputies in parliament.

Lebanese Democratic Party: Founded by Talal Arslan in 2001 and the Progressive Socialist Party’s largest rival within the Druze community. Arslan, who has been the head of the party since its establishment, is one of its two members of parliament.

There are several other Druze-dominated parties with limited power. These are the Independent Republican Party, the Lebanese Arab Struggle Movement and the unity Movement.

Alawite-majority parties

The Alawite sect is considered one of the smallest Muslim communities and has three weak political parties. These are the Arab Democratic Party, the Alawite Youth Movement and the al-Fursan Charitable Society, none of which has parliamentary representation.

As for nationalist and ethnic parties, they are many, the most important of which are:

Nationalist parties

Baath Party: This is an extension and branch of the Baath Party founded in Syria in 1947 by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Bitar. The party does not recognize borders between Arab countries and has a regional leadership that includes all branches of the party in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. The party holds two parliamentary seats.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party: This party advocates the establishment of a ‘Greater Syria’, which includes the Fertile Crescent region. It is an extension of the Syrian party with the same name and orientation, founded by Antoine Saadah in 1932. The party has three parliamentary seats.

There are many other nationalist parties such as the Vanguard Party and the Grouping of Committees and Popular Leagues. This is in addition to other nationalist parties that adhere to the Nasserist ideology, which are: the Mourabitoun, the Union Party, the Union of Working People’s Forces, the Nasserist Popular Organization, the Arab Socialist Union and the Nasserist Democratic Movement.

Armenian-majority parties

Tashnak Party: Also called the Armenian Revolutionary Party, the Tashnak Party was founded in 1890 in Tbilisi, Georgia and many of its members moved to Lebanon after the Armenian massacres committed by the Ottoman Empire. This is the most powerful Armenian party in Lebanon, and it currently holds two parliamentary seats.

Ramgavar Party: This party was founded in the Turkish city of Wan in 1921 before relocating to Lebanon. The party currently has one parliamentary seat.

Hanshak Party: This party was founded in 1887 in Geneva, Switzerland and moved to Lebanon in 1980. It was founded on the Armenian demand for independence from the Ottoman Empire, like other Armenian parties at the time. The party has continued to work politically in Lebanon but currently has no representation in parliament.

There are also some Kurdish-majority parties and forces, namely the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Razkari Party, and Syrian-majority parties, such as the Syriac Union Party and the Assyrian Democratic Organization.

Leftist or secular parties

Among the leftist or secular parties that are not dominated by a certain sect or ethnicity are the People’s Movement, the Lebanese Communist Party, the Constitutional Bloc, the Movement for Democratic Renewal, the Lebanese Secular Movement and the Communist Action Organization.

Lebanon’s main political parties and forces can be divided into two: The 8 March and 14 March coalitions, which were formed following Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005.

The 8 March coalition includes: the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Lebanese Democratic Party, the Tashnak Party, the Syrian Nationalist Party, the Baath Party, the al-Marada Movement, the al-Azm Movement, the al-Karama Movement, the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects and the Nasserist Popular Organization.

The 8 March coalition’s main rival is the 14 March coalition, which includes: the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Movement for Democratic Renewal, the Lebanese National Bloc, the Democratic Left Movement and the National Liberal Party.

Fanack Water Palestine