Lebanon's rising Shi'ites

The composition of Lebanon's political and sociological landscape becomes more salient than ever.

lebanon syria map 88 (photo credit: )
lebanon syria map 88
(photo credit: )
As the international community puts its heads together to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in the north, the composition of Lebanon's political and sociological landscape becomes more salient than ever. In a country whose last official census was taken in 1932, and whose very constitution is divided along sectarian lines, demographics are more than mere numbers - they are the highly politicized tools used to understand a fractured and complex society. "Lebanon is a country of minorities," said George Asseily, chairman of the UK-based Center for Lebanese Studies. Asseily - who is furious about the damage Israel has inflicted on his homeland - brushed away questions about the lack of an official census with a simple, "We don't need one - we know." He estimated the Shi'ite minority at 35 percent of the population, and Sunnis at 32%. Anthony H. Cordesman, senior fellow and co-director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said, "Everyone has deliberately sought to not know. It is assumed that the birthrate for Shi'ites is larger, but these numbers don't mean anything." Cordesman declined to provide an estimate of the population breakdown. If numbers don't matter, why is the country's last official demographic snapshot 74 years old, and frayed around the edges? According to Eyal Zisser, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, "There is no census because it's a question of who counts - and that's the most sensitive issue today in Lebanon, since everything is based on sectarianism." Cordesman agreed. "The government is based on that premise... and there has been a de facto evolution where neighborhoods have become segregated among ethnic and sectarian lines. It's become harder and harder in Lebanon for Maronite Christians to live with Shi'ites, and for either group to live with Sunnis." There are 17 officially recognized sects in Lebanon, and no single sect constitutes a majority. However, there is a general consensus that Muslims make up a majority of the population. The CIA estimates them at 59.7% - a figure so exact that it is fair to assume that someone, at least, is interested in a more up-to-date demographic picture. The proportion of the Shi'ite population may be the most widely disputed. Estimates place them at anywhere from 30-40% of the population, with their numbers increasing daily. Most rest of the Muslim world is dominated by Sunnis, Lebanon has proven to be fertile ground for Shi'ites. According to Asseiry, "Shi'ites were the poorer section of the population, and - as is common with the poor - they were underdeveloped, not part of the establishment, and they multiplied much more quickly." Asseily noted that Hizbullah "represents a large portion of Shi'ites." One reason for this is that Hizbullah has acted as a social services organization in the same way that Hamas has used to garner Palestinian support, serving - and wielding strict control over - the poor suburbs of Beirut. As Shi'ite numbers increase, the rest of Lebanon's population has actually decreased. Experts cite emigration as one of the main reasons behind this shift. According to Zisser, "The phenomenon of Christians fleeing [to the West] has been the case for the last 100 years - after all, what future do they have in the Arab world with the rise of radical Islam?" Lebanon's sectarian divisions are nowhere more apparent than in its constitution and government. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of Parliament a Shi'ite. This system of government - created in part to reduce sectarianism - continues to cause deep tensions within Lebanese politics - and by extension, its society. The National Pact of 1943 - at a time when Christians were in the majority - set the ratio of Christians to Muslims in government at 6:5. In 1989, the Taif Agreement adjusted the ratio, dividing the Lebanese Parliament 50-50 between Christians and Muslims. One reason Lebanon stays far away from census-taking, said Steven Emerson, director of The Investigative Project, a Middle East think tank, is that the country "might have to re-jiggle the constitution" if demographics have shifted - which they almost certainly have. Zisser believes the Taif Accord "represented a small shift" in Lebanese politics. According to Asseily, however, the agreement has worked in bringing about equality within the Lebanese government. "Before Taif," he said, "Maronite Christians had a power veto, but now the government governs." Asseily looks forward to the day when Taif is no longer necessary, "when there is an end to sectarianism, and there is peace in the region."