This week saw what Al Jazeera described as "the worst street violence" in Beirut in a decade, as a quest to hold lawmakers to account continues to heighten tensions.
We felt it was about time we published a bit of a background piece on this most fascinating, complex, and diverse country. While we haven't been able to touch on everything, we hope this is a helpful start.
Lebanon has a population of about 6.8 million people, with Arabs accounting for about 95% of the population.
Arabic is the country's official language, but French and English are also widely spoken.
A common saying associated with the country is that you can ski in the mountains and swim in the sea on the same day in Lebanon.
HOW ABOUT SOME HISTORY?
Ever heard of Sykes-Picot, the agreement that carved out parts of the Middle East effectively with straight lines on a map?
Well, back in 1916 Britain's chief negotiator Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, Francois George-Picot, divided up the Levant region as the Ottoman Empire drew to a close.
The Levant consisted of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and historic Palestine. The secret agreement divided up the region without taking ethnic and religious communities into consideration.
Under this secret treaty, France had direct control of Lebanon. Although it gained independence in 1943, French is still visible in daily life and culture.
In Lebanon, but specifically Beirut, there are French schools and areas where French is predominantly spoken, and even signs written in French.
Want to know more about this? Here is a really informative and fascinating piece - A century on: Why Arabs resent Sykes-Picot.
RELIGION AND REPRESENTATION
Religion plays a pivotal role in Lebanon's culture and diverse society, and it's hard to overstate just how important representation is.
According to CNN, roughly 61% of the country's current population are Muslim, 34% Christian, while Druze account for approximately 5%. However, these are based on trusted estimates, not an official count.
Speaking to how sensitive a topic it is, the country's last official census was in 1932 - showing a Christian majority.
In 1942, a 6:5 quota was brought in to parliament based on that census result - whereby 30 seats were allocated for Christians, and 25 for Muslims.
This was changed following a 15-year civil war between 1975 and 1990. The Taif Accords paved the way for equal representation in parliament for Christians and Muslims, with 64 seats each. As you can see below, there's a further breakdown between the denominations of each sect.
Back to the 1940s... In 1943 - the same year Lebanon became independent from France - there was a verbal agreement to ensure political leadership among the dominant sects.
To this day, the country's political landscape is drawn down political lines, with a political position and religion deeply intertwined.
Worth noting: Yes, religious divides and sectarianism have undoubtedly played a significant role in the country's history. However, it would be an oversimplification to conclude it is the sole reason for tensions felt in the country, particularly today.
WHY IS HEZBOLLAH OFTEN MENTIONED?
Hezbollah - which means the 'Party of God' - is a group that cannot be ignored when doing a background piece on Lebanon.
While to the US they are officially considered a terrorist organisation, the group has a huge influence in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon.
"Starting as a revolutionary Shiite militia, the Hezbollah of today dominates the political and military landscape of Lebanon, and possesses tens of thousands of trained fighters as well as an array of sophisticated armaments." - Hezbollah's Evolution
Hezbollah is a political and military organisation, made up of predominantly Shi'a Muslims. It has received a lot of financial backing from Iran, and was set up in the 1980s primarily to oppose Israeli occupation.
In August of this year, Al Jazeera described the group as currently having "unprecedented military and political power" in Lebanon.
DID YOU KNOW?
Lebanon "hosts the second-highest per capita number of refugees in the world, and the second-highest total number of Syrian refugees in the world".
There are an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees in the country, and roughly 475,000 "longstanding Palestinian refugees" registered in the country by the UN.
Worth noting: In Lebanon, women are not legally allowed to pass down their passports to their children or husbands for fear that women marrying Palestinians or Syrians would “disrupt Lebanon’s sectarian balance.”
Foreign wives of Lebanese men, however, may obtain citizenship after just one year of marriage.
In 2018, a former foreign minister - and son-in-law of the current president - proposed an amendment to Lebanon’s nationality law that would give Lebanese women the right to transfer their nationality to their children, as long as they were not married to citizens of “neighbouring countries” - Syrians and Palestinians.
This was proposed in order to prevent the “settlement” of Syrians and Palestinians in the country.
A COUNTRY ON THE BRINK?
Back in the spring of this year, The World Bank warned Lebanon's economic and financial crisis "is likely to rank in possibly the top three most severe crises the world has seen since the 1850s".
In September, the UN said "almost three-quarters" of the country's population was living in poverty. How quickly did things spiral? The report suggests that between June 2019 and June 2021, inflation rose by 281%. Severe fuel and power shortages have further complicated the struggles of its people.
In August 2020, a huge explosion at Beirut's port compounded the country's issues, but was widely seen as the last straw, rather than the catalyst for economic collapse.
THE EXPLOSION AND THE GOVERNMENT
The blast was described by CNN as "one of the world's largest ever non-nuclear explosions".
More than 200 people were killed, thousands injured, and an estimated 300,000 were displaced. In terms of the financial cost, the World Bank said it cost somewhere between $3.8-$4.6bn in material damage.
What caused the explosion? A massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely at the port for years.
So, why were people mad at the government? In the days and weeks after the explosion, the government collapsed as anger mounted.
A day before the first anniversary of the blast, Human Rights Watch published a damning report claiming "many of Lebanon's senior leaders" were informed of the risks of the ammonium nitrate at the port, "and failed to take the necessary actions to protect the public".
The report also accused the country's main political parties of benefiting "from the port’s ambiguous status and poor governance and accountability structures".
"Political parties have installed loyalists in prominent positions in the port, often positioning them to accrue wealth, siphon off state revenues, smuggle goods, and evade taxes in ways that benefit them or people connected to them...in 2012, the Minister of Public Works and Transport estimated that the losses resulting from tax evasion at the port amounted to more than $1.5 billion per year.” - Human Rights Watch report
Another damning conclusion from Chatham House described corruption and a "culture of impunity" as being "pervasive" in Lebanon, adding the political elite "treat state institutions as sources of income".
THE VIOLENCE THIS WEEK
On Thursday, street violence reminiscent of the country's devastating civil war, resulted in the deaths of at least six people.
What led to it? There has been an ongoing probe into the port explosion, with the families of many killed seeking justice. The judge at the centre of the probe has tried for months to interview some key figures from across the political spectrum, who are suspected of negligence.
This week, arrest warrants were issued to three former ministers. Hezbollah has called for the judge to be removed from the inquiry, accusing him of political bias.
On Thursday, armed protestors marched towards the Palace of Justice calling for the judge's removal. Shots were fired on protestors from rooftops and inside buildings.
While Hezbollah accused a Christian right-wing party of being behind the shootings, the group has denied responsibility.
Worth noting: The violence on Thursday occurred in the Tayouneh neighbourhood. The location added to people feeling it was reminiscent of the country's devastating past. As CNN noted, that neighbourhood is "close to the birthplace" of the civil war.
Below is a very helpful video explainer of the perilous situation in Lebanon prior to the explosion.
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A special thanks to our Layla Makdisi for all of her help, insight and research for this piece.