The Tragedies of Lebanon’s Political Maronitism

The Tragedies of Lebanon’s Political Maronitism

Today, Maronites in Lebanon face challenges and threats within and beyond far more dangerous than ever before. The community’s history is worth reviewing.


The term “Political Maronitism” entered Lebanon’s political lexicon on the eve of the country’s civil war (1975–1990). Its introduction was due to the leadership of the Druze Jumblatt family, which criticized Maronite hegemony over Lebanon’s confessional system. In essence, however, Political Maronitism reflected the desire of the political and spiritual leadership of the Maronite Catholic community to influence Lebanon’s domestic and foreign policies with the goal of maintaining Maronite influence within the state. Only such influence, these proponents believed, could guarantee the protection of the privileges and safety of the Christian community in general and the Maronite community in particular.



In this respect, Political Maronitism as a leading political force in Lebanon can be initially traced to the reign of the first Maronite leader, Emir Bashir Shihab II (1789–1840), who ruled Mount Lebanon under Ottoman suzerainty. Regional developments within the Ottoman Empire forced his hand to pursue domestic policies inimical to sectarian coexistence. Dismayed by the Ottoman Porte (central government) for not granting him the province of Syria as compensation for his efforts in crushing the puritanical Wahhabi movement in Arabia, the ruler of Egypt Muhammad Ali invaded the Levant in 1831. Ali asked Emir Bashir for help in subduing the Druze rebellion in Hawran, which extended to Mount Lebanon. Unable to decline Ali’s request, Emir Bashir rallied a Maronite force of 4,000 to subdue the rebels. This marked the first time in the history of Mount Lebanon that a sect sided with a foreign force against another sect, bringing sectarianism to the fore of Mount Lebanon’s politics.

Once British and Ottoman forces forced Egyptian forces from the Levant in 1840, Emir Bashir was forced into exile and died in Istanbul in 1850. As tensions continued to escalate, a sectarian war erupted in which Druze forces massacred thousands of Christians in Mount Lebanon’s mixed towns. In hindsight, the 1860 massacres were instigated no less by sectarian hatred than communal vindictive superiority. Whereas the Maronite clergy described the war as one of religion and the Maronite stronghold of Kesrwan readied 50,000 men to help their brethren, the Druze led a struggle for a lasting ascendency dispensed with a knife at hand. The promised relief never came and the Maronites were butchered. European powers stopped the massacres and in concert with the Porte established a confessional system, Mutasarifiyah, in Mount Lebanon overseen by a Christian Ottoman wali (governor).

Stability in Mount Lebanon was shattered with the advent of World War I (1914–1918). Concerned about Christian collaboration with the French, Ottoman authorities blockaded Mount Lebanon and sought to subdue the Maronites by starving them. One-third of the population of Mount Lebanon and Beirut died from starvation and epidemics. Eventually, the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire, and the French Army landed in Beirut in 1918, whereupon France had the mandate over Lebanon.

The French established a confessional system favoring the Maronite community, whose clergy played a key role in establishing Greater Lebanon. The National Pact actualized Lebanon’s independence in 1943, but it neither fostered nor forged a national identity. It was based on a compromise guided by the false assumptions that Muslims would “Arabize” the Christians while Christians would “Lebanonize” Muslims. The pact provided that Lebanon’s identity would be characterized by an “Arab face” and manifested by the slogan “No East, No West.” Significantly, deep currents within the Maronite community represented a spectrum of various impulses ranging from the belief of organic affiliation with the West, to opposition to Arabism, to espousing the idea of Phoenician origin. On one end of the spectrum, a Maronite political majority and the clergy supported Greater Lebanon; on the other end, a political minority advocated a smaller Lebanon where Christians would constitute a majority.


Ultimately, Maronites wielded power in a confessional system undergirded by a communal balance. But this communal balance has often been disrupted. President Camille Chamoun (1952–1958) felt threatened by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser’s strident pan-Arabism which intensified anti-Maronitism among the Left, pro-Palestinian activists, and Arab nationalists. Led by the man of the Left Kamal Jumblatt, the National Union Front rallied anti-Maronite groups. Considering Nasserism to be a direct threat to Lebanon’s informal dissociation from the Arab-Israeli conflict, to Maronite hegemony over the Lebanese state, and to his growing relationship with the United States, Chamoun endorsed the Eisenhower Doctrine, under which a country could request U.S. military assistance if it was being threatened by another state.

Once Lebanon’s parliament approved the doctrine, the National Union Front called for the government to resign and a general strike. Meanwhile, Egypt and Syria supplied arms to Chamoun’s opposition. In May 1958, the general strike transformed into civil strife. Chamoun invoked the Eisenhower Doctrine and requested military assistance from President Dwight Eisenhower. A heated debate ensued in the U.S. Congress because some members believed that it was not communism but domestic issues that lay at the heart of Lebanon’s civil strife. Ultimately, the American military intervention took place only after a violent Arab nationalist coup d’état overthrew the pro-British Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy.

The U.S. Marines defused the crisis; yet its causes simmered, eventually leading to the eruption of Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war (1975–1990). Jumblatt led the Muslim camp, whose mainstay was the National Movement, a coalition including Leftists, Marxists, Nasserists, and pro-Syrians. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fronted the National Movement. Jumblatt sought to overthrow Maronite hegemony over the state because he perceived them as central players in a U.S. and Zionist conspiracy against Lebanon and the Arabs in general. The Christians rallied around the Lebanese Front, whose mainstay included the Phalange party, National Liberal Party, and the supporters of then-President Suleiman Franjieh.

Maronite entreaty with the Americans to help the Christian camp led to nowhere, at least until the camp was faced with defeat in 1976. Washington saw a win for the pan-Arab-Leftist camp as a win for the Soviet Union, and therefore the Gerald R. Ford administration brokered the unwritten Red Line agreement between Israel and Syria to allow Syrian military intervention in Lebanon to stop the war and prevent the collapse of the Christian camp. Bashir Gemayel, son of the founder of the Phalange party Pierre Gemayel, sought Israel’s help to reinforce the Christian military camp and eventually drive Syrian and PLO forces out of Lebanon. Israel helped him as he became the pivot around which Israel’s policy revolved in Beirut.

Meanwhile, Bashir, under the banner of unifying the “Christian rifle [and cause],” into what became the Lebanese Forces, ordered both the assassination of former President Frangieh’s son Tony and subsequently the crippling of the Phalange’s rival militia, the National Liberal party’s Tigers. The 1978 and 1980 massacres of Ehden and Safra left deep wounds in the Christian community’s collective consciousness, which only deepened by the later assassination in 1990 of former President Chamoun’s son Dany and his family. During this time, Washington’s main concern in the region was stability and preventing an Arab-Israeli war. Washington came to broker a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979, and entertained the idea of a potential Israel-Syria peace agreement. Henry Kissinger’s slogan “No war without Egypt and No peace without Syria,” reflected Washington’s outlook.

Yet Washington remained diligent in keeping an eye on the fast-paced developments in Lebanon and their repercussions for the region. American intelligence, led by Robert Ames, observed closely the chain of events in war-torn Beirut. Ames, among other American officials, had a paradoxical relationship with the Maronites. Although American officials sought to support the Maronites given their pro-American stance, they also had concerns about them. Ames felt there was enough hatred in Lebanon to fill the whole world. He called Bashir “our brutal warlord.” And he often emphasized that the “Christians want their own state, protected by the U.S., just like Israel. We don’t need another Israel in the area.” His words more or less still ring true in America’s corridors of power. Ames died in the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983.

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Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 alarmed Washington, which wanted to resolve the conflict before it spread across the region. Bashir was elected president and the PLO was evicted to Tunisia. Bashir, who had toyed with the idea of creating a Christian state, amplified his resolve to secure Lebanon’s territorial sovereignty. President Ronald Reagan, through his presidential enjoy Philip Habib, underscored to Bashir that he was no longer a sectarian Christian leader but a leader of all Lebanese regardless of sects. Sensing its potential defeat in Lebanon, the Syrian regime then masterminded the murder of the president-elect by a pro-Syrian Lebanese. Bashir’s death was tantamount to the collapse of the house cards upon which Israel had built its policy in Lebanon.

Consequently, as Israel began its withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983–1984, Christian forces were routed in Mount Lebanon’s Shouf area. Christian misfortunes sank to a new low when interim Prime Minister General Michel Aoun declared a “liberation war” against Syria in 1989. At the same time, Aoun opposed the efforts of Lebanese deputies to amend the constitution. He rejected the new version of the constitution, known as the Taif Accords, as a Syrian scheme to whittle away at Maronite power and called on the Lebanese Forces to stand by him in meeting the Syrian challenge. The Lebanese Forces demurred because they considered Aoun’s war against Syria to be political suicide. Consequently, deadly hostilities broke out between Aoun’s forces and the Lebanese Forces, shattering whatever was left of Christian unity. It was against this background that Iraq invaded Kuwait. Washington needed Syria’s help in forming an international and Arab anti-Iraq coalition to extract Iraq from Kuwait.