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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Sunnis in Lebanon

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Lebanon Facts
Area:    10,400 sq. km.
Capital:    Beirut
Total Population:    3,506,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

As with other Lebanese ethnopolitical groups, the future of Sunnis depends on a variety of factors. The day-to-day operation of Lebanon's fledgling power-sharing system requires constant compromise and negotiations between all rival groups. Reforming Lebanon's once relatively vibrant trade economy will also add to political stability and security. The future of Syria's continued military and political presence in Lebanon will also likely shape the prospects for all of Lebanon's population, with the beginning of Syrian withdrawal in 2005 a hopeful sign. And lastly, although the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon has reduced tensions, a potential peace agreement between Syria and Israel, and the Palestinian Authority's quest for full sovereignty are prerequisites for an entirely stable Lebanese political system which can incorporate Sunnis and all other groups.

Parliamentary elections have been held smoothly for the last decade in Lebanon, which suppresses the likelihood for rebellion and protest from Sunnis in the state. Sunnis are not repressed by the government and have not been significant contributors to protest in the past. However, the push for President Lahoud's term to be extended for another three years (even though extension was hindered by the Lebanese Constitution) sparked an air of protest among some Sunni leaders. The present divide in politics is between those that favor Syria (Hezbollah, Shiites) and those who do not (Sunnis, Maronite Christians). This will play into the political decisions of the country as Syria seeks to continue its political intervention in Lebanese affairs by supporting pro-Syrian president Lahoud as well as by funding Hezbollah.

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Analytic Summary

Lebanon's Sunni community is its third largest ethnopolitical group and comprises one-fifth of the total population. Sunnis are widely dispersed in Lebanon with the majority of Lebanese Sunnis residing in urban centers (more than two-thirds living in Beirut, Sidon and Baalbek), and rural Sunnis living in the Akkar region, the western Bekka Valley, and in the Shuf Mountains. There is no Sunni regional base and they remain dispersed within the country (GROUPCON = 0). They share other Lebanese groups' ethnic Arab background (RACE = 0) and Arabic language (LANG = 0), but they have distinct religious beliefs from Shi'a Muslims and Maronite Christians (BELIEF = 1; RELIGS1 = 5).

With the Lebanese civil war ending in 1990, and with parliamentary elections being held throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, most of the previously warring factions were satisfied with the reforms in the electoral system and took part in the political process. Since resolved, Lebanon's fragile peace is dependent on a sectarian governmental structure, where the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, a Shi'a Muslim. Lebanon's re-emergent sectarian structure allows for little political or economic discrimination against the Sunni population (POLDIS = 0; ECDIS06 = 0). Some Sunnis in particular have embraced the political system, due to not being as militarily powerful as they were in the past (e.g., the Sunni militia "Mouabioun" suffered a number of humiliating defeats in Beirut during the 1980s, and the rise of Shi'a organizations such as Amal and Hezbollah decreased Sunni militancy). As mentioned above, the Prime Minister is to be of Sunni origin, and this post has gained increased influence as part of Maronite-Sunni negotiations. The Prime Minister is specifically in charge of domestic economic reform. After decades of civil war, Lebanon is finally beginning to rebuild its cities and get its economy back in order. If reforms continue to be successful, Sunni leaders will continue to receive support from the population in general.

However, despite decreased Sunni militancy, smaller pockets of Sunni youth continued violence against churches. In December 1999, Sunni extremists killed four LAF soldiers in an ambush in the northern region of Dinniyeh after the soldiers attempted to arrest two Sunni Muslims allegedly involved in a series of church bombings (REB99 = 2). On December 31, 1999, the LAF retaliated by launching a massive military operation against Sunni extremists in the north. Five civilians, 7 LAF soldiers and 15 insurgents were killed in the operation. Amnesty International reported in 2003 that the Dinniyeh detainees have been subject to unfair trial and torture. Beyond the reports of torture and a few arrests of Sunni militants by the Lebanese Army, there have been no other reports of government repression since 2001. Although Sunnis have not been particularly active in protests in the past, between the years of 2004 and 2006, Lebanon has seen some Sunni mobilization. After Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005, more than 300,000 protesters, including Sunnis, lined the streets in response to the pervasive Syrian presence in Lebanon yelling "Syria out." Sunnis and Maronite Christians have aligned, signifying an alliance against Shi'a plurality interests.

After decades of chaos the first signs of hope are now visible in Lebanon.. The most recent parliamentary election was in 2005 which was dominated by the Rafik Hariri Martyr List, an anti-Syrian bloc that captured 72 of the 128 legislative seats. Several militias have disbanded and/or disarmed. However, the relationships between the many diverse religious and ethnic groups remain tense, and there have been some scattered instances of violence between Sunnis and Shi'a. Violence between Sunnis and Maronite Christians has not been apparent since 2001. In 2006, a Shi'a youth was shot and Lebanese armored cars were deployed to Sunni Muslim neighborhoods in an effort to curb retaliation. Nonetheless, for the first time in decades, the sectarian tension does not constitute the greatest threat to Lebanese stability.

The greatest threat to Lebanon's stability is the ongoing Israeli-Syrian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the first case, as long as Israel and Syria remain in an official state of war, Lebanon's strategic value will remain quite high. Israel and Syria have supported one group or another since the civil war in 1976 in an attempt to control Lebanon and with it a territorial corridor to their enemy in case of invasion. As long as the conflict continues, Israel and Syria will both likely continue to play disruptive roles in Lebanese politics. Tension between Shi'a and Sunnis is high due to Shia-backed Hezbollah and its role in fighting with Israel. Sunnis also recognize the connection between Hezbollah and Syria, and view it as intervention from Syria once again. More recently however, beginning in 2006, Sunnis have become increasingly more sympathetic toward Hezbollah's cause as they see Hezbollah making action within the country and as contributing to Lebanese sovereignty by pushing out Israel.

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References

Al-Shawaf, Rayyan. 11/7/2006. "The assassination of Rafik Hariri: Lebanon's Shakesperean tragedy." Christian Science Monitor.

Amnesty International. 5/7/2003. Lebanon: Torture and Unfair Trial of the Dhinniyyah Detainees. http://www.oneworld.net/external/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fweb.amnesty.org%2Flibrary%2FIndex%2FENGMDE180072003%3Fopen%26of%3DENG-LBN, accessed 2/23/2004.

Lexis/Nexis. Various news reports. 1993-2003.

McDowall, David. 4/9/1986. Lebanon: A Conflict of Minorities. MRG Report No. 61. London: Minority Rights Group.

Stinson, Jeffrey. 12/8/2006. "Lebanon feels heat of Sunni-Shiite friction; As Hezbollah pushes for more power, sectarian tensions begin to increase." USA Today.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Lebanon. 2001-2006.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006