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The Lebanon, over the course of history, provided an inaccessible haven for tribes and religious groups escaping from repression and persecution in other parts of the Middle East. The principal groupings in the country are: the Maronites, Christians who – uniquely among Eastern Christians – maintained links with, and secured support from, their co-religionists in Europe; the Greek Orthodox Christians; the Shia Muslims, who arrived in Lebanon to escape persecution from the Sunni majority elsewhere in the Islamic world; and the Druze, a heretical Muslim sect founded in the 10th century.
The colonial powers that subsequently occupied Lebanon – the Ottoman Turks and the French – were content to leave these sects more or less to themselves.
The Turks took control of the area in the 16th century during the major expansion of the Ottoman Empire and remained there until the end of World War I. With the dissolution of that empire, the French were granted a League of Nations mandate to administer Lebanon until independence in 1941. From that time, the disparate communities cohabited in relative peace with political power divided between Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims. On this basis, Lebanon developed a thriving economy based on providing business services – banking and finance, transport and trade facilities – for other countries in the region. This situation prevailed until the 1970s when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been expelled from Jordan in 1971, established itself in Lebanon with the tacit agreement of the Lebanese.
The influx of a large new community with a powerful armed wing upset the relatively fragile political balance in Lebanon. The PLO’s presence ultimately led to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. By then Lebanon had been engulfed in a six-year civil war between right-wing Christian militias (the Falange and the southern militia led by Saad Haddad, and later the forces led by General Michel Aoun) and various alignments of Muslim and Palestinian forces. Among the latter, the most important were the Amal movement and the more radical, Iranian-inspired Hezbollah organization. Hezbollah, in particular, which grew from the radicalization of the Shia population, bore the brunt of the subsequent fighting against the Christian militias and the Israelis. It is now a significant political force in Lebanon.
After the war began in 1976, the capital Beirut was split across the ‘Green Line’, dividing the city between the Christian-dominated east of the city and the Muslim west. Central Government all but broke down, despite repeated attempts to find some kind of political solution. The Israeli invasion succeeded in driving most of the Palestinian guerrillas out of Lebanon, but failed in its principal political objective of installing a Christian-dominated government in power. The Israeli occupation earned Tel Aviv much international criticism. However, following the election of a coalition government in Tel Aviv, the Israelis withdrew in early 1985 to a self-declared ‘security zone’ in the south controlled by the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) and their locally recruited Christian proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
The ‘security zone’ became the scene of an attritional guerrilla war between the IDF/SLA and fighters from Hezbollah which came to an end in 1999 when the Israeli government decided to pull their troops out of the region (with their departure, the SLA immediately collapsed). In the rest of the country, the Syrian army proved to be the ultimate broker and guarantor of a political settlement of the civil war. This process began in November 1989 with the election of a National Assembly. A new President, Elias Hrawi (who succeeded his assassinated predecessor René Daowad) became one of a troika – Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss and the speaker of the parliament, Hussein Husseini, were the others – which led the official administration in the Muslim areas of Lebanon.
By the end of 1991, the Syrians, with tacit Western acceptance following their participation in the UN anti-Iraqi coalition, were in control of Beirut and most of the north and center of the country. Legislative elections were held in Lebanon in August and September 1992. Christian groups boycotted it – a decision they later appeared to regret as it allowed the Muslim parties, including Hezbollah, to take complete control of the parliament. President Elias Hrawi’s six-year term was due to expire in November 1995 but, after parliament decided to alter the constitution, his term was extended by a further three years. While this angered Christian leaders, it was quite acceptable to ‘Sister Syria’ (as official pronouncements have it) which still maintains a large troop deployment in Lebanon.
The 1996 elections returned Hariri to continue as premier and the ex-Amal guerrilla leader, Nabih Berri, as speaker of the assembly. The original division of responsibilities between president and premier, which saw President Hrawi take charge of foreign policy while Prime Minister Rafik Hariri looked after the reconstruction program, was also confirmed. That division has remained ever since and much of the country, and Beirut in particular, has recovered to something near its pre-war condition. Hariri relinquished his job in 1998 and, at the same time, Hrawi was replaced by Jamil Lahad as president. However, Hariri, now a dominant figure in Lebanese politics, was reinstated in 2000 following the most recent general election which saw 17 parties share the 128 national assembly seats. In April 2003 the government was dissolved after heavy Syrian pressure behind the scenes, and reconstituted with Hariri remaining as Prime Minister but without any significant Christian participation.
Relations with Israel have deteriorated in the last two years. There have been occasional outbreaks of fighting and exchanges of fire between Hezbollah guerrillas based in the south of the country and Israeli forces across the border. Moreover, the two governments have been immersed for the last twelve months in a serious argument about the allocation of water resources: this is one of the most sensitive issues in the region.
In addition, the tricky issue of the Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon continues to simmer, unresolved. In September 2004, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that foreign troops must leave Lebanon, pointedly referring to Syria. Parliament voted to extend President Lahoud's term by three years, but prime minister Rafiq Hariri unexpectedly departed. In February 2005, Hariri was killed in a massive car bomb attack in Beirut. This triggered mass protests about the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon, from those both for and against. The cabinet of Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned after two weeks of anti-Syrian rallies sparked by the assassination. The USA, amongst others, have been steadily mounting pressure on Syria to Syria to withdraw its troops. However, in March 2005, pro-Syrian former Prime Minister Omar Karami was asked by the president to form a new government. Elections in May and June 2005 saw an anti-Syrian alliance led by Saad al-Hariri, son of the assassinated Prime minister Rafik Hariri win control of parliament for the first time in a decade and a half, the assembly was dominated by members opposed to Syrian influence.
The amended 1926 Constitution under which Lebanon is now governed allows for the election of a National Assembly of 128 members every four years. Seats are allocated on a religious basis to ensure that each population is proportionately represented in the Assembly. An executive president who is also head of state is elected for a six-year term.
Beirut’s position as a major financial and commercial center for the Middle East was lost during the 16-year civil war from 1975 to 1991 that destroyed the economy. Since then, both Lebanon and its capital have re-established themselves.
Agriculture now accounts for about 10% of GDP. There are no significant mineral resources, but the manufacturing industry is growing rapidly. Banking and transit trade (both of which were almost wiped out during the civil war) have recovered reasonably well.
The 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel led to a collapse in the tourist industry and severely affected Lebanon’s economy. In 2006, the economy contracted by 5% and the national debt reached a record level of US$40.4 billion. Grants and loans of nearly US$8 billion pledged at the Paris III conference in early 2007 are expected to go some way towards reversing this. Inflation was at 4% in 2006. A fifth of the population was unemployed.
Lebanon Country and Tourist Information - Lebanon Activities - Where to Go in Lebanon
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