Lebanon's Geography


| Introduction |
| Migration |
| Displacement |
| Palestinians |
| Sectarianism |
| Confessional "Societies" |
| Sectarian and Clan Consciousness |
| Summary |


The lack of official statistics makes a demographic analysis of Lebanese society a difficult task. Because of the precarious and delicate sectarian arrangement in the body politic, the government has deliberately avoided conducting a comprehensive update of the 1932 census. Christian communities, primarily the Maronites, fear that the numerical preponderance of Muslims would eventually strip them of their privileges by changing the foundations of political representation. When the French Mandate government conducted the 1932 census, it enumerated 861,399 Lebanese, including those living abroad, most of whom were identified as Christians. The distribution of parliamentary seats among the confessions was based on the findings of the 1932 census; the ratio of six Christians to five Muslims, including Druzes, has been retained.

The government has published only rough estimates of the population since 1932. The estimate for 1956, for example, showed that in a total population of 1,411,416, Christians accounted for 54 percent and Muslims, 44 percent. The estimate was seriously contested because it was based on figures derived from a government welfare program that tended not to include Muslims in areas distant from Beirut. After the 1950s, the government statistical bureau published only total population estimates that were not subdivided according to sect. Consequently, the census became a highly charged political issue in Lebanon, because it constituted the ostensible basis for communal representation.

Conducting a census during the 1970s and 1980s was clearly impossible because of the war. The United States Department of State 1983 estimate for the population of Lebanon was 2.6 million. The figures included Lebanese nationals living abroad and excluded Palestinian refugees, of whom there were nearly 400,000. A 1986 estimate by the United States Central Intelligence Agency of the confessional distribution of the population showed 27 percent Sunnis, 41 percent Shias, 7 percent Druzes, 16 percent Maronites, 5 percent Greek Orthodox, and 3 percent Greek Catholics. However, these data were, at best, informed estimates subject to revision.

In the absence of a reliable country-wide population census, the most useful data on population was a 1984 survey conducted in the Greater Beirut region by a team of specialists from the American University of Beirut. An examination of the age composition of the resident population of Beirut in the 1983-84 period revealed a relatively young population with 41.5 percent less than twenty years of age. There appeared to be a decline in fertility over the last decade for the resident population of Beirut.

The sex distribution of the 1983-84 Beirut resident population indicated an overall sex ratio of 95.5 males per 100 females. The extreme deficiency observed for males in the age group twenty through forty-nine may be the result of two factors: the large emigration of men in these ages, mostly to Persian Gulf countries, and a high rate of war-related mortality.

A 1983 World Bank study contained some statistics on the demographic characteristics of Lebanon for the period 1960 through 1981, the last year for which figures were available in 1987. Although the reliability of the figures could not be established, the figures revealed some interesting trends. During this period, the crude birth rate declined perceptibly as did the crude death rate. Surprisingly, life expectancy rose despite the war. The fertility rate continued to decline during the war, but there was little change in the age structure of the population. Total population increased, although at a slower rate than in the prewar period, and there was a dramatic increase in urban population because of the continued influx to the cities. The rate of increase of population density slowed, however, as a result of the war and the consequent emigration of large numbers of Lebanese.

Although accurate figures of Beirut's population in the mid1980s were lacking, the city's dominant demographic position was unquestioned. Beirut has featured prominently in Lebanese society as a port city throughout its history and as the major population center of the country since at least the beginning of the Mandate period in 1920. Its role in maritime trade brought prosperity to its inhabitants. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 benefited Beirut, which replaced the port of Haifa as a center for Arab trade with the West. Until the 1950s, Beirut was inhabited primarily by non-Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. In the 1950s a wave of immigrants from all parts of Lebanon and from all sects sought the lure of economic prosperity and the readily available government services of Beirut. The civil strife that began the 1970s has reinforced the sectarian demographic divisions in the city.

Other major cities in Lebanon include Trablous, Saida, Sour, Baalbeck, and Zahle. Trablous, the capital of Ash Shamal Province, has a majority Sunni population and a Christian minority. Saida, in Al Janub Province, also has a Sunni majority, with a sizable Christian community. Sour, in Al Janub Province, has a diverse sectarian composition. Although the majority of its inhabitants are Shias, the city has always included Christians of various sects. Baalbeck, in Al Beqaa Province, has a Shia majority and a Christian minority. Zahle, also in Al Beqaa Province, has a predominantly Christian population.

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An important characteristic of the Lebanese is their migratory spirit, which can be traced back to the Phoenicians who were known for their exploratory expeditions. Substantial emigration occurred between 1860 and 1914. During this period, approximately 330,000 Lebanese emigrated from what is now Syria and Lebanon. Between 1900 and 1914 the annual rate was about 15,000. The rate dropped sharply during World War I and immediately thereafter, but resumed a net annual emigration rate of about 3,000 between 1921 and 1939. Those who had emigrated by 1932 included 123,397 Maronites, 57,031 Greek Orthodox, and 26,627 Melkites, but only 36,865 Muslims and Druzes. Following World War II the rate decreased somewhat until 1975; thereafter the Civil War caused the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese. In much of the pre-Civil War period, the proportion of Christian Lebanese emigrants to Muslims and Druzes was as high as six to one.

Rural to urban migration has also been a strong social force within Lebanon. Villagers have moved to the cities, Beirut in particular, to seek improved living conditions or to escape the horrors of war and poverty. The new city dwellers were known for maintaining ties to their home villages. Because of Lebanon's small size and short travel distances, many could continue to spend vacations and weekends in their villages, especially during harvest time. The newcomer to Beirut usually took up residence near fellow villagers and coreligionists. In the case of many Shias, the massive movement to the so-called "belt of misery," which denoted the southern and, until 1976, the eastern suburbs of Beirut, led to deep social resentment since affluent Maronite districts were adjacent to poor Shia districts. In fact, one of the first fronts of the war in 1975 was that between the Shia neighborhood of Shayah and the Christian neighborhood of Ayn ar Rummanah. The road that separated these neighborhoods became known as the Green Line, which in the 1980s designated the line separating Christian East Beirut from predominantly Muslim West Beirut.

More than twelve years of turmoil have resulted in considerable compulsory and voluntary displacement of ordinary people. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese left their country, some as permanent emigrants, others for what they hoped would be temporary exile. How many left is not known, but Lebanon has the dubious distinction of being the only developing country which the World Bank believes has actually witnessed a negative population growth rate in recent years. Lebanon's inability to hold a proper census, even in time of peace, means there are only estimates for the country's population. Whereas the population was thought by World Bank and International Monetary Fund sources to have grown by around 70 percent to 2.77 million over the 25 years to 1975, by 1984 the population was thought to have declined to 2.64 million.

There has been considerable internal migration as well. Again, it is not possible to quantify this precisely. But the repeated redrawing of militia lines of control, and the repeated fears of members of one community living in enclaves dominated by people of a different religious, national or political persuasion, make it not unreasonable to suppose that as much as a third of the country's inhabitants in mid-1987 had moved to new homes since 1975. It might also be argued that as many as half the people have at some stage moved away from their family homes for a while to escape the persistent violence. Such developments have had profound socioeconomic consequences. A disproportionate number of males have emigrated, while men presumably also account for the majority of those who have died in the years of conflict. Thus there has been a steady increase in the number of women entering the workforce and in female-headed households.

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On the eve of the Civil War in 1975, it was evident that the demographic expansion of Beirut and its suburbs had occurred at the expense of the rest of the country. Between 1960 and 1975 the population of Greater Beirut increased almost threefold, from 450,000 to 1,250,000. In 1959, 27.7 percent of all Lebanese lived in Beirut, but this figure ballooned to more than 50 percent in 1975. Lebanon's service-based economy acted as an agent for Western industries and Arab markets alike, leading to the centralization of firms and resources in Beirut, which served as a transit point.

Two factors changed the demographic composition of Beirut in the 1970s. The first was the dramatic growth, starting in 1973, of labor emigration to the Persian Gulf countries. At one point, the outflow included about half the entire work force of Beirut. The second was the series of battles that engulfed the city in a ferocious war. As for the levels of internal migration of various sectarian and ethnic groups at different times during the Civil War, three patterns can be discerned in terms of scope and duration: heavy migration, fast and temporary (the exodus from Beirut when it was besieged by the Israeli army in 1982); heavy migration, fast and permanent (the eviction of Palestinians and Shias from East Beirut in 1976 and the eviction of Christians from the Shuf Mountains in 1983); and the slow and intermittent migration of individuals and families.

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After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, between 100,000 and 170,000 Palestinian refugees entered Lebanon. They were mostly Muslims and nearly all Arabs, but they also included some Armenians, Greeks, and Circassians. During their first two decades in Lebanon, the Palestinian refugees emerged as politically powerful players. The number of Palestinians in Lebanon swelled as a result of the war between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian Armed Forces and the subsequent expulsion of several thousand Palestinian guerrillas from Jordan in 1970.

In 1987 a large number of Palestinians still lived in or around camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees in the Near East. In 1975 there were sixteen officially designated UNRWA camps in Lebanon, but in 1975-76 the Maronite militias evicted thousands of Palestinians from the suburbs of East Beirut and demolished their camps. By 1986 there were only eleven camps in Lebanon. Many relatively well-off Palestinians lived outside the camps. In 1984 the United States Department of State estimated that 400,000 Palestinians were living in Lebanon, whereas the PLO claimed the figure to be as high as 600,000.

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In 1987 the dominant culture among the various communities was an Arab culture influenced by Western themes. Lebanon's shared language, heritage, history, and religion with its Arab neighbors, however, tended to minimize the distinctiveness of the Lebanese culture. Ethnically, most Lebanese are Arabs, many of whom can trace their lineage to ancient tribes in Arabia. This ethnic majority constitutes more than 90 percent of the population. Muslim and Christian Lebanese speak Arabic, and many of their families have lived in what is now Lebanon for centuries. Moreover, the difference in dialects in Lebanon is a function of geographical location and not of confessional affiliation. Minority non-Arab ethnic groups include Armenians, Kurds, and Jews, although some members of these groups have come to speak the language and identify with the culture of the majority.

Despite the commonalities in Lebanese society, sectarianism (or confessionalism) is the dominant social, economic, and political reality. Divisiveness has come to define that which is Lebanon. Sects should not be viewed as monolithic blocs, however, since strife within confessional groups is as common as conflict with other sects. Even so, the paramount schismatic tendency in modern Lebanon is that between Christian and Muslim.

Sectarianism is not a new issue in Lebanon. The disintegrative factors in society preceded the creation of modern Lebanon in 1920. Before that date, historical Lebanon, or Mount Lebanon, was shared primarily between the Druzes and the Maronites. The two communities, distinguished by discrete religious beliefs and separate cultural outlooks, did not coexist in peace and harmony. Rather, the Druzes and Maronites often engaged in fierce battles over issues ranging from land ownership, distribution of political power, foreign allegiances, and petty family feuds. At least twice in the last century, the conflicts between the two confessional communities developed into full-scale civil wars, which were only ended by the intervention of foreign powers. The Lebanese sectarian problem became more acute in 1920, when the French authorities annexed territories to Mount Lebanon to form Greater Lebanon. Although the new state comprised diverse confessional communities, a political system favoring the majority Christians was established by the French.

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Confessional "Societies"

The Lebanese confessional "societies" reflect the tensions at the heart of Lebanese society. While Muslims and Christians have lived together in Lebanon for over a century, their deep disagreements over the Lebanese political formula and state make it unrealistic to treat all Lebanese as members of one social unit.

Since the creation of the republic, the Lebanese have disagreed over the identity of the new state. Although Muslims, specifically the Sunnis, were inclined toward a close association with Greater Syria and the Arab world, Christians, particularly the Maronites, opted for linking Lebanon culturally and politically to the Western world. Christians were not opposed to economic cooperation with Arab countries, to which Lebanon exported most of its products, but they insisted on distinguishing Lebanon's foreign policy from that of its Arab neighbors. The question was not whether Lebanon should be Arab, since as early as 1943 the National Pact (the governing formula) declared Lebanon as having "an Arab face." Rather, the postindependence debate was really over how Arab Lebanon should be. This debate was exacerbated in the 1950s by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser's pan-Arab activism on the one hand, and former Lebanese President Camille Shamun's (also seen as Chamoun) pro-Western administration on the other.

The controversy over the identity of Lebanon extended beyond the political realm to encompass questions of culture and literature as these were presented in school textbooks. Muslims in general, as well as the Greek Orthodox, insisted that Arab and Islamic culture and literature should be emphasized, whereas Uniate Christians refused to commit Lebanese education to what they considered an inferior culture. The Maronite political movement viewed Lebanon's culture as distinctively Lebanese in its origins and values.

Regardless of sectarian affiliation, Lebanon has no civil code for personal matters. Lebanese citizens therefore live and die according to sectarian stipulations. Each sect has its own set of personal status laws that encompass such matters as engagement, marriage, dowry, annulment of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. These laws are binding on the individual, whether one is a practicing member of the sect or not. The confessional system of personal-status laws strengthens the role of communal religious leaders and impedes the evolution of Lebanese nationalist or universalist secular ideas.

The economic history of Lebanon has been marred by an unequal distribution of national income and misallocation of benefits and funds. The central government tended to regard the regions that were annexed to what was Mount Lebanon in 1920 as marginal parts of Lebanon. Furthermore, the centralization of government in Beirut worsened the conditions of the rural areas, luring many Lebanese to crowded, confessional community, poverty belts around the metropolitan center. The central government's neglect of southern Lebanon, particularly, contributed to a feeling of humiliation by the Shias, who in 1987 constituted the largest sectarian community.

The economic situation in peripheral Lebanon, which geographically comprises the provinces of Al Janub and, Al Beqaa, and the Akkar region in Ash Shamal Province, differed sharply from that around Beirut. Economic exploitation was more evident in these areas, with the dominance of feudalistic production patterns. The land was divided among a small elite, and working conditions on the large estates were harsh. In addition, state services were scarce outside the capital. Beirut and its suburbs became politically and socially explosive when people from the impoverished periphery migrated to the city and came in contact with the affluent city dwellers.

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Sectarian and Clan Consciousness

Lebanon's somewhat peculiar political system has reinforced sectarian identification and consciousness. The tendency of the individual to identify with his sect as the major political unit has characterized the sectarian composition of political parties. That most militias in the 1980s were organized along purely sectarian lines, or that the army's brigades were also divided among the sects, indicates the primacy of sectarian consciousness.

In the mid-1980s there were other associational affiliations in Lebanon. Shia families in the Beqaa were organized into clans (ashair) that have existed for centuries. The politics of the region entailed typical clan feuds, alliances, and themes of revenge, which local politicians exploited. The rise in sectarian consciousness among Lebanese generally did not necessarily conflict with clan solidarity. Another pervasive primordial tie that characterized the Lebanese was their fealty to a group of traditional leaders (zuama; sing., zaim. The system of fealty involves utmost allegiance and loyalty (including support in election times) by a certain family to a certain zaim, in return for services and access to powerbrokers. The relationship between the two parties is maintained by a system of obligations and political commitment. This system, a vestige of feudal Lebanon, fostered a bond of fidelity between peasants and the feudal lord. Zaim clientelism provides the individual zaim with undisputed leadership of a local community, which sometimes encompasses a whole sect (such as the zuama of Al Assad in southern Lebanon in the first half of the twentieth century). In the 1980s the zuama were in many cases the direct descendants of the great feudal families of the past.

A new development in Lebanon after 1975 was the rise of an elite that included a new stratum of emerging street leaders who enjoyed power by virtue of sheer military force, individual charisma, or even direct descent from zuama families. All three characteristics applied to the late Bashir Jumayyil (also seen as Gemayel). This stratum typically included young and dynamic sons of zuama, street thugs, and a rising elite of Muslim religious clerics.

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The population of Lebanon comprises Christians and Muslims. No official census has been taken since 1932, reflecting the political sensitivity in Lebanon over confessional (religious) balance. The U.S. Government estimate is that more than half of the resident population is Muslim (Shi'a, Sunni and Druze), and the rest is Christian (predominantly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Armenian). Shi'a Muslims make up the single largest sect. Claims since the early 1970s by Muslims that they are in the majority contributed to tensions preceding the 1975-76 civil strife and have been the basis of demands for a more powerful Muslim voice in the government.

There are over 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and about 180,000 stateless undocumented persons resident in the country (mostly Kurds and Syrians). Palestinians and stateless persons are not accorded the legal rights enjoyed by the rest of the population.

With no official figures available, it is estimated that 600,000-900,000 persons fled the country during the initial years of civil strife (1975-76). Although some returned, continuing instability until 1990 sparked further waves of emigration, casting even more doubt on population figures.

Many Lebanese still derive their living from agriculture. The urban population, concentrated mainly in Beirut and Tripoli, is noted for its commercial enterprise, but chronic instability until 1990 in much of the country has had a strong negative impact on both agriculture and commerce. Lebanon has a higher proportion of skilled labor than any other Arab country.

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Federal Research Division - Library of Congress (Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)

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